This is what it looks like

(photo by "The Breeze")

(photo by “The Breeze”)

What IS the secret to their success?

This Thursday, James Madison University’s Marching Royal Dukes will make their third appearance in the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Not only will they participate, this year the MRDs will lead the parade.

But why?  After all, there are hundreds of great bands all over the country.

Year after year after year, the MRDs stand out because they strive for one thing: excellence. Excellence. Pure and simple. It is a standard they have pursued since the first time they stepped onto the field in 1972.

images-1It is the standard that permeates everything the band does  — from their on field choreography to every trumpet peel and every cadence of the drumline.

It isn’t perfection. It is excellence — a standard that takes enormous effort and lots of hard work, but a standard that is attainable.

The MRDs prove that every time they perform.

Often finding excellence takes overcoming obstacles and standing firm when others are willing to settle for less — or when others encourage you to take short cuts, skip attention to detail or insist that good is enough.

But good is not excellent — and that never changes. Excellence is life’s gold standard.

For the Marching Royal Dukes this week, striving for excellence has meant practicing in bitterly cold and windy weather, giving up time with their families, traveling to assemble and perform. It has meant being disciplined, focused and committed. It’s meant hard work and unflagging dedication.  All those things add up to excellence and the MRDs demonstrate it every time they take the field — or line up for a parade.

So if you want to see the MRDs  show the world what they can do, tune into to NBC at 9:00 on Thanksgiving morning as they lead off the parade and again at 10:00 when they play in Herald Square. Here’s a sneak peak….

And as you watch and listen, remember — this is what excellence looks and sounds like.

Learn more about the Marching Royal Dukes here:


a cappella-bration

JMU's a capella group, The Overtones, on stage at the children's museum's 10th Birthday Bash

JMU’s a capella group, The Overtones, on stage at the children’s museum’s 10th Birthday Bash

Sunday afternoon, Harrisonburg’s Explore More Discovery Museum celebrated its 10th year with a Birthday Bash in downtown. Among those showing up to celebrate was JMU’s a cappella group, The Overtones.

They were joined by three other JMU a cappella groups:  Low Key, BluesTones and Into Hymn.

These groups of singing students stepped onto the museum’s kid-sized stage and entertained a house that was packed wall-to-wall with kids, parents and friends — all there to celebrate a children’s museum that the community built.

Music is big at JMU. And there is plenty of styles and genres to go around. I counted seven a cappella groups alone. And that’s only one part of JMU’s amazing music tradition, which reaches from the reknowned 300-plus member Marching Royal Dukes to concert choirs and orchestras.  It’s a pretty music-filled university with something for everyone, it seems. And opportunities are not limited to music majors. Not at all.

Fortunately for Harrisonburg — and yesterday, for the museum — these students love to perform and to share their music. Almost anytime of the year, you can catch a concert, a performance, a recital, a duet, a jam session — and sometimes a CD release party.

JMU's BluesTones

JMU’s BluesTones

LowKey's sings Happy Birthday

LowKeys sing Happy Birthday

These students, who generously donated their time and voices, were some of the hundreds of students who help out at the museum every year. Fraternities, clubs, even classes and individual students make time to enhance the lives of local children through working with and for the museum. They do essential jobs from cleaning windows and sprucing up displays to interacting with visiting children.

Faculty and staff also regularly get in on the fun. You can sometimes find Ph.D.s teaching 6- to 12-year-olds about engineering or chemistry or nanotechnology. They conduct classes, help design programs, and man the museum that sees some 60,000 visitors every year.

It’s one of many ways JMU is engaged in the local community and regularly gives back to Harrisonburg, its home for more than a century.

Into Hymn adds their voices to the celebration

Into Hymn adds their voices to the celebration

Yesterday’s celebration was truly a celebration of community, and JMU has always stepped up to play a big part. Honestly, I’m not sure who was having the better time on Sunday — the gathered kids and parents listening or the JMU students singing. Definitely a toss up!

So congratulations to the museum and all those volunteers, and a special shout-out to the museum’s executive director, Lisa Shull (’85, ’91M), who was also a founder.

And thanks to all of JMU’s a cappella singers!

Take a listen to The Overtones at this link: Check out the other a cappella groups at the embedded links above.

You can also search this blog for more information on Explore More Discovery Museum and the JMU website for more information on JMU’s tradition of musical excellence!

The class of 2012, part 3

Every day this week, we’re showcasing seniors we’ve met through the Be the Change blog.  As a group they represent the more than 4,000 students who will receive their degrees on Saturday. We asked them about their Madison Experience, how it has changed them and the best and worst parts of graduating from JMU.

Peter Epley and Matt Burton

“When I came here I was slightly insecure…..” 

Matt Burton of Chesapeake, Va., is a physics major with a math minor and one of the three co-creators of the Lisanby iPad application. He writes: “In my time at JMU I have grown in maturity tremendously. When I came here I was slightly insecure and over the years I have transitioned into leading research projects for the physics department, making the art iPad app, and becoming a leader in my Christian organization on campus.”

As vice president of ministry for the Baptist Collegiate Ministry (BCM), formerly Christian student union (CSU), Matt oversees all small groups and leads the men’s group, social events and intramurals for the organization.

 After graduation, Matt will enter a Ph.D. program in nuclear physics at the College of William and Mary. “The best part of graduating,” he writes, “is beginning my life out in the real world and starting to make my mark in my field, while the worst part is leaving all that has become a home to me and leaving my friends here who have become like a family to me.”

The robotics team (l to r) Joey Lang, McHarg, Peter Epley, Jed Caldwell

“More or less, sleep is what I don’t get …”

Peter Epley, an engineering major from Springfield, Va.,  helped develop the Lisanby iPad app with Matt Burton and Josh Smead.

Peter has also been one of my go-to guys this year as JMU communications has covered JMU’s first graduating class of student engineers. All year, I’ve relied on Peter and many of his fellow engineers to answer questions, pose for photos and answer engineering questions. For two years, Peter and his team have worked to develop and build a firefighting robot. Given that he’s an engineering student and he worked on the iPad app, I was amazed to learn that Peter has also been a member of the Marching Royal Dukes. How does he fit all this into 24 hours?

“I was a member of the MRDs and the JMU Pep Band for all four years here at JMU,” Peter writes. “I am an alto saxophone player and served as a drill instructor my junior and senior years. More or less, sleep is what I don’t get, but honestly, it’s what I do for fun to get away from classes and homework.”

Not surprisingly, the best part of graduating, says Peter, is “I feel like I can finally sleep more than eight hours and not regret it. I can finally take everything that I have learned and use it to make a lasting difference.” The worst part is “leaving a family of some of the most caring and innovative students, friends and faculty I have ever had,” he writes.

“JMU has helped me really see how I can make a difference and what I am capable of doing, even if it is simply on a small scale. Working through the  engineering program has been challenging, especially since we are the first class, but I think it is exciting that my class will serve a crucial role in defining what JMU engineers can do. Beyond engineering, JMU has allowed me to explore different opportunities (such as the iPad app) that I never could have thought up and executed alone. Music has also been an important aspect in my life and JMU was one of the few schools that really gave me the opportunity to still pursue a technical major without having to sacrifice my love of saxophone. For that I am truly thankful, as I have truly met some of the best people I have ever met and am glad to call many of them my friends for the rest of my life.”

During Saturday’s graduation, Peter  will receive a bachelor’s of science in engineering with minors in math and computer information systems. He will join KPMG as an IT attestation associate doing information systems consulting for federal government clients.

Coming tomorrow: Dave Stevens and Jessie Taylor….

(photo of Matt and Peter by Mike Miriello)

Change like jazz

Omar Thomas ('06)

Think jazz. Do you instantly imagine a sultry saxophone, a winsome trumpet and brushes on skins accompanying a silky voice? Or do you think of an intimate, smoke-filled club with a pianist and the thump of an upright bass? Yep, that’s jazz.

But ask Omar Thomas (’06) about jazz, and you’ll find he has a different take. He thinks big.

Drawn to enroll at JMU after hearing the Marching Royal Dukes, Omar studied music education, thinking initially that he would become a high school band director. Instead, he realized he had a passion for composition. Now the award-winning composer is on the faculty of the department of harmony at the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston where he shares his passion for music in a big way. He also is an adjunct faculty member at Harvard. Omar  founded and now leads his own 18-piece jazz orchestra in Boston, the Omar Thomas Large Ensemble. Big jazz. Beyond his scheduled classes, Omar has worked with Composers and Schools in Concert, a nonprofit organization that “supports music education and the creation and performance of contemporary jazz and classical music,” according to the CSIC website. In this capacity, Omar delivers his passion for music to high school musicians. For these young musicians, it has to be cool jazz.
Berklee College of Music logo, circa October 2010

Image via Wikipedia

This week, Omar will be on JMU’s campus to deliver his big brand of jazz to JMU. He will conduct the premiere performance of his arrangement of Radiohead’s Sail to the Moon with the JMU Jazz Ensemble. The performance is Thurs., Feb. 16th, at 8. p.m. in the Concert Hall of the Forbes Center. Omar will also present a master class about “how to have a life in music after JMU.” The class will begin at 1:25 p.m. on Wed., Feb. 15. He will discuss grad school auditions (New England Conservatory), making a living in Boston as a freelance composer, using social media as a marketing tool, working with music publishers and teaching music at the university level.

According to music faculty member Chuck Dotas, one of Omar’s mentors, Omar “was awarded the ASCAP Young Jazz Composers Award and received an Honorable Mention at the Ithaca College Jazz Composition Competition. Dancing, his first big band piece, composed for the JMU Jazz Ensemble, garnered international acclaim at the Jazz Composers Symposium hosted in Tampa, Fl.  Omar was also a member of the exclusive BMI Composer’s  Workshop in New York City, under the direction of Grammy-winning composer, bandleader, and pianist Jim McNeely. Omar is a two-time Boston Music Award’s “Jazz Artist of the Year” nominee.

Not surprisingly, Dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts George Sparks thinks Omar would  be a great candidate for Be the Change.

It is a great nomination … notable jazz….  Change like jazz.

Read Tyler McAvoy’s (’12) story about Omar at

Great sax

Baritone saxophonist and 2011 Outstanding Collegiate Jazz Soloist Matt Stuver

Saxophonist and JMU music graduate Matt Stuver (’03) has been named by Downbeat magazine as the 2011 Outstanding Collegiate Jazz Soloist. It is an exceptional honor tantamount to the Heisman Trophy in football, acccording to JMU music professor David Pope, one of Matt’s mentors during his years at JMU. Matt also worked closely with Chuck Dotas, professor of music and director of JMU’s Jazz Ensemble.

“When I started working with Matt,” David says, “it was evident to me that he had tremendous potential.  He wasn’t even really aware of the depth of his talent, but I recognized it right away.  In our work together, Matt discovered that the harder he worked, the more he could tap into that potential.  He spent more time in the practice room than any of his peers, and he rapidly went from being in the middle of our saxophone studio to the very top.  It was inspiring to watch him explode into a gifted saxophone soloist.  Matt continued his studies at the Eastman School of Music, where he would earn two masters degrees and has nearly finished a doctorate.  I literally don’t know anyone who has masters degrees in classical AND jazz saxophone performance — I can’t overemphasize the sustained amount of effort that this requires. Matt’s success is a direct result of the kind of person that he is, and his successes speak to the integrity of his work.”

Here is the press release announcing Matt’s award:

Matt Stuver of the Eastman School of Music was named the best Graduate College Jazz Soloist in DownBeat magazine’s 34th Annual Student Music Awards. A doctoral student in saxophone, Stuver was recognized for his performance in the U.S. premiere of “Suite for Soprano Saxophone and 16 Instruments,” a work by legendary composer-arranger and jazz artist Bob Brookmeyer.

“Suite for Soprano Saxophone” is a work in four movements with both written material and extensive improvisation for the soloist. The work was presented in the United States for the first time during a concert by the Eastman Jazz Ensemble on Oct. 20, 2010.

At Eastman, where he received his master’s degree in 2006, Stuver was a member of the Eastman Wind Ensemble and performed with the ensemble on its 2004 Asian tour and 2005 concert in Carnegie Hall. In 2006, he was selected to participate in the Henry Mancini Institute. Stuver played with the Rochester Philharmonic Pops Orchestra and appeared in the Rochester International Jazz Festival with both the Dave Rivello Ensemble and the Eastman Jazz Ensemble. He directed the Saxology ensemble at the Eastman School of Music and the University of Rochester’s Jazz Ensemble. Stuver’s primary teacher at Eastman was Ramon Ricker; he also studied privately with Walt Weiskopf, Bill Dobbins, and Clay Jenkins.

Stuver has won a saxophone position with the United States Naval Academy Band, and will be playing in its Concert Band, Jazz Ensemble, and Ceremonial Band while completing his comprehensive exams for his Doctor of Musical Arts degree.

“Matt is certainly musically talented, but there are lots of talented people in the world,” said Ricker, who is Professor of Saxophone and Senior Associate Dean for Professional Studies at Eastman. “In order to rise above the pack it also takes hard work and dedication to get the most out of what you have been given. Matt has put it all together and done just that. What a bright future he has ahead of him!”

Before coming to the Eastman School as a graduate student, Stuver studied music education at James Madison University, where his saxophone instructor was David Pope, who received his Master of Music degree at Eastman in 1997.

The Student Music Awards were announced the DownBeat’s June issue.

To read more about JMU’s Saxophone Studio, click here:

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