2009 Band Feature: Morton High School
Filed under: — Dan Balash @ 7:00 am

This is the 4th in a series of 13 band features for the 2009 season.  We hope you are enjoying this new feature.  The next feature of the season is on Morton High School.  Morton, which is known as the Pumpkin Capital of the World, is a town of about 16,000, located approximately 10 miles from Peoria.  Morton High School is  a school of 960, located in the Mid-Illini Conference, which we talked about briefly with Jim Tallman from Washington.
Today, we talk with Jeff Neavor, director of bands at Morton High School.

Illinois Marching Online: You graduated from Morton in 1993. What does it feel like to be the head band director at your alma mater?

Jeff Neavor: It’s extremely rewarding to work with your alma mater. I marched with Bob Hornsby (Battery instructor and writer – Morton graduate 1995). Bob marched with Katrina Fitzpatrick (woodwind instructor/JH director – Morton 1997 graduate). The organization is very special to us, and had a profound impact on us. It’s our experiences in this band program that lead us to careers in music and education. Having the opportunity to return the favor and to share those musical experiences with future generations is priceless.

IMO: What is your prior directing experience?

JN: I went to Millikin University in Decatur, so I did my student experiences with Pete Harris and Steve Schepper in the middle schools, and Jim Culbertson at Decatur MacArthur High School. After graduation I taught in a small town with no marching band, Hartsburg-Emden, four 4 years until a position opened in Morton in 2001.

IMO: Who is on your staff?

JN: Jenny Bendy is the Assistant Director,  Katrina Fitzpatrick works with the woodwinds and Craig Fitzpatrick works with the Brass and is the composer and drill writer.  Bob Hornsby writes and works with the battery and Katy Lampe works with the color guard and Doug Ford with the pit.  We also have former marching members that help out. Andrew Howell helped brass at camp, and Ronni Stalter worked with the guard.  Katie Zdanowski and Beth Rocke also helped the brass before heading back to ISU for the fall. I think the count was 27 alumni that made the drive to DeKalb to watch the students from the sideline for band camp.

IMO: What is your 2009 show entitled?

JN: Our 2009 show is titled: The Butterfly Effect. It has nothing to do with the movie. It’s based on the concept of sensitive dependence in the Chaos Theory. That sounds really deep, but on the simplest level it means that if you have a large and dynamic system, small variations in the state of one minor element can create large variations in the entire system. A ripple effect. Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? In many ways, our entire journey at Morton has been a demonstration of the theory.

IMO: How do you arrive at your show themes and musical selections?

JN: The staff typically begins meeting in November, although the Inaugural threw things off this year a bit. Sometimes we use private web boards to share ideas. We each bring conceptual and musical ideas to the table and we all discuss the possibilities each presents, the obstacles, the costs and feasibility, the ability to showcase our strength, among other things. We then try to determine if we have a complete package and ideas to pull off particular show concepts. If we don’t, some ideas are put away until fully ripened. We each score the top ideas, and then make a decision from there. This year was a little different because this idea was suggested by a former student, and we all liked it right away. He suggested the concept based on titles of musical pieces. We were intrigued by the concept itself , but chose different music. Each staff member has had great ideas in all areas throughout the years. A few of our shows have come out of two different people’s opposing ideas that eventually meld into one through discussion.

IMO: What are some things to look for in your show?

JN: You’ll see many visual illustrations of small activities rippling through the visual and musical design. Five different nachos; trust me on that one.

IMO:What is the instrumentation/guard breakdown for 2009? (pit/winds/brass)

JN: We have 120 this year, so 3 DMs, 10 battery, 20 guard, 45 brass, 32 woodwinds, 10 pit.

IMO: About how big is the preferred size for your band? Why?

JN: It was 60 when we took over, and I think 120 is a great size. I can’t see us growing over 140 in the future without new facilities.  140 would be ideal.  Mostly because we have an orchestra of around 90. We’d have 1 in every 4 students in instrumental music and I don’t think the single feeder JH and HS facilities could support more than that.

IMO: Is your band volunteer or mandatory for students enrolled in concert band programs?

JN: Volunteer.

IMO: What is your rehearsal schedule like from beginning of the season to the end of the season?

JN: We do a sectional and full ensemble rehearsal each week in early July. We have 3 days of pre-camp and then we travel to NIU for band camp the last week of July. After that we have Monday sectionals after school, Tuesdays full ensemble 6:30-9pm, and Thursdays full ensemble 5-7:30pm all season. We rehearse a bit before Friday football games, and we do an 8-5 on our Saturday off in October. Guard and percussion have early mini-camps and slightly different schedules, but this is the typical schedule.

IMO: What does your competition schedule look like?

JN: Sept. 12 – Lake Park, Sept. 19 – Morton, Sept. 26 Chicagoland – Wheeling, Oct. 3 – Prospect, Oct. 17 – BOA St. Louis, Oct 24 – ISU, Oct. 31 All Day rehearsal, Nov. 13-14 BOA Grand Nationals.

IMO: What do you look for when you choose a competition for your band to attend?

JN: I look for history of great panels of adjudicators, and a history of great bands in attendance. You want great feedback to help the students improve, and you want the students to see great bands.

IMO: What are some of your favorite memories from being a director at the bands that you’ve directed?

JN: My first concert ever. Band camp every year, especially this year. The first time we played in ISU Finals. The parade in San Antonio. The first time the band really nailed drill when I was still writing it. The first time we placed at a BOA event.  Standing out on the field with a huge mentor to me, Greg Bimm, for retreat at BOA St. Louis Finals. The final performance and Senior videos at the end of each year.  Falling off the top of scaffolding at camp and living to tell about it. Destroying a brand new mellophone while playing football with the kids.  Drill! Getting a student back for an Icy Hot prank by writing his drill spots back and forth on opposite endzones for 4 moves in row.  Launching Craig (Fitzpatrick) 5 feet in the air with a body check at a rehearsal. Marching past the President. Too many to list….

IMO: You have previously referenced a plan that you and your staff created after the 2002 St. Louis Regional, where you finished in 31st place, and only missed 32nd because of a penalty to the band that finished behind you.  Could you talk a little more about this plan?

JN: Well, there isn’t a short answer to this one, so I’ll try to “cliff note” it for you.  When we took over the program, the band was around 60 members and had done primarily percussion-heavy jazz or rock-style shows for marching band.  After our performance in St. Louis in 2002, we tried to map out what needed to happen in order to perform at that level of the BOA finalist bands.

Show design was a huge area to address, but it wouldn’t matter much until many other issues were solved. We were marching pre-Nixon horns and wearing 1980’s uniforms. The feeder program was sending us 15 students each year, and they were barely able to play their horns.  Band camp didn’t have the attendance we needed, and daily rehearsals were a nightmare at 7AM on a cold, damp field. Students went straight from the marching field into concert band each day. A jump to music that was too cerebral, let alone not jazz or rock, wasn’t going to fly overnight with the football crowd. Playing Elliot Goldenthal or Stravinsky the very next year wouldn’t help us win the town support necessary for a transformation…and when we took over the program, there had been a debacle between band parents and athletics the previous year that had people booing and throwing things at the band our first year. We needed the community, and we needed to support and be supported by athletics and administration. Color guard and visual elements of marching were an important area that needed to be addressed. With the general college prep approach for the Morton curriculum, students weren’t able to enroll in marching band without PE exemption for the semester. Pit couldn’t be doubled flute lines on bells, and with a real front ensemble, we wouldn’t be able to travel with our current equipment. The yearly budget we were working under from the school (and still work under 9 years later) was a whole 3% of Carmel High School’s budget, so we were going to need to structure a booster organization and fundraising events that could support the program we thought the students deserved. We needed to watch great programs, talk to great directors, and network so that we could provide the students with the best opportunities. So with these being just some of the issues that we faced we went at it.

Katrina Fitzpatrick took over the junior high band in 2002, and that was one of the biggest factors to date. I started working with her 8th graders in sectionals a few days a week, and eventually we had both myself and the assistant director at 7th and 8th grade rehearsals 4-5 days a week. Katrina started a student-mentor program that brought high school students into the JH each day to work with the junior high musicians. The bridge between the buildings has been incredible, and has more than doubled the program enrollment at the high school. Craig Fitzpatrick started a lesson studio at the high school that has grown the brass section not only in size, but in caliber. This has had a profound effect on the concert band and jazz bands as well. We continued to go to the BOA Summer Symposium each year to learn from Greg Bimm, Alfred Watkins (Lassiter High School), and other great directors. We traveled to watch drum corps rehearse and perform. We traveled to watch other bands rehearse and we tried to take a little from each program and come up with something that worked for us.

We got approval from the district to move marching band to 5th hour, and to have marching students PE-exempt for the semester. We later received approval to go off campus for band camp, which lead to 100% attendance and incredible bonding and work ethics among the students. We slowly began purchasing new marching brass, little by little, a few horns each year. Our friends at Carmel generously let us borrow tubas each year, and this year we are finally marching all of our own horns. We got board approval for new uniforms and designed new uniforms that would allow us visual contrast when moving from front field to backfield, and we also changed the colors by losing the grey and white and adding black. Again, we bought a few uniforms each year as the band program grew from 60 to 120. We also went to concert black instead of tuxedos for concert band in order to convince the district to fund marching uniforms because of the savings in cutting the tuxedos. We quadrupled the pep band size and quadrupled the performances at basketball games in order to gain public support for the band program. We started with a little film music and a little classical to ease the home crowd into enjoying our shows and eventually entertained by whatever we play. Now we can play anything because the crowd actually watches the band and enjoys the shows. We have great relationships with the coaches and administrators. We started traveling north to get great judging panels and to see great bands. We added visual elements to our daily warm-ups and added a winter guard. We got a new trailer and Craig continued to expand the use of the front ensemble through great writing. We started hosting the Morton Marching Invitational as our sole fundraising source for the program. The boosters have become an incredible resource. They are a well oiled-machine that sweats and bleeds for those kids. Hauling equipment, providing water and first aid, sewing, painting…they’re incredible. And then there was show design. Craig has been arranging and composing our music each year, and took over the drill in 2007. We’ve learned so much from our visual staff over the years, and the blending of Craig’s work with Bob’s battery and the auxiliary work has become so much more cohesive and organic. It’s been a fun ride. We learn as much from the students each year as they learn from us, and looking back at early rehearsal videos is pretty entertaining. The biggest factor is that the team is still together. We’re so lucky to have this strange mix of talents and personalities that somehow through small choices and incidents here and there landed together to become a staff. We’re a family, and we love what we do. The perfect parental unit for the ultimate dysfunctional family; a marching band. So, the show this year illustrates how we landed together as a staff, and how this program has made its journey. Seemingly small decisions and events that have had profound consequences: The Butterfly Effect.

Illinois Marching Online would like to thank Jeff for his candor answering the questions, and wish Morton the best of luck the rest of the season, especially at ISU, the St. Louis Super Regional, and Grand Nationals.

Well there isn’t a short answer to this one, so I’ll try to cliff note it for you. When we took over the program, the band was around 60 members and had done primarily percussion heavy jazz or rock-style shows for marching band. After our performance at St. Louis in 2002 we tried to map out what needed to happen in order to perform at that level of the BOA finalist bands.

(full article)