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:

Dancing out of the ivory tower

image031Next year Harrisonburg High School will open a Fine Arts Academy, a school within a school for students who want to delve deeper into choral or instrumental music, art, drama, dance or creative writing. The academy will offer classes that will be interdisciplinary, collaborative and experiential.  Open to freshman and sophomore students, the academy is currently accepting applications for their first year. Those accepted will select one or two arts disciplines and plan their high school curriculum to accommodate classes that will cover history, culture and practice. During the senior year, students will tackle  a collaborative “capstone” project affirming their learning and putting it in a broader context. Classes will be taught by a team of teachers, all artists, and students in each discipline will experience not only their own art but that of their classmates.

If you’re a JMU person, that description should sound rather familiar. It’s a formula for learning that permeates the university from art to zoology, including everything in between like engineering, business and health sciences. As you might guess, the similarities aren’t coincidental; they’re deliberate. They reflect the input of many of the individuals who have helped plan the academy.

One of the great benefits of living in a “college” town, as is Harrisonburg, is the resource of people who are experts in their given fields. That is especially beneficial when their knowledge and experience is shared. Such is the result in Harrisonburg. Planning of the Fine Arts Academy, which is directed by J.R. Snow (’99,’08M), Harrisonburg’s fine arts coordinator and director of bands, has involved the university’s College of Visual and Performing Arts and the College of Education. Among those contributors to the process is Suzanne Miller Corso, professor of dance at JMU. The high school has never had a dance program before, so in planning this component of the academy, such expertise is essential. In a very real way, the venture represents a university dancing out of the ivory tower.

Suzanne is not alone. The team of teachers includes JMU alumni Bethany Houff (’01,’03M), Richard Morrell (’83) and Juann Brooks (’94,’05M). The board of the academy includes: Eric Ruple, professor of piano; George Sparks, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts; Phil Wishon, dean of the College of Education; Jon Gibson, professor of ethnomusicology; Kate Arrechi, professor of musical theater; and Mary Ann Alger, wife of President Jon Alger. And there are many more. But lest you think it’s all JMU, faculty members from Eastern Mennonite University are also involved, as is the Arts Council of the Valley. It is a community effort, centered around giving students the rich and life-changing opportunities that the arts afford.

Such a collaborative process, between a university and local school system, exemplifies the best of what a truly engaged university can and should be. It is change through shared knowledge, collaboration and a vision for what’s possible. We applaud JMU’s efforts and Harrisonburg’s new venture.

You can learn much more about Harrisonburg’s new Fine Arts Academy on YouTube.

And if you’re close to Harrisonburg, you can see a sample of Harrisonburg’s lauded theatre arts program next month when the high school stages their annual — and often sold-out — musical. This year’s performance is Thoroughly Modern Millie.

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

The sound and the music

Soon Hee Newbold and Erin Rettig

Have you ever been standing in an elevator or sitting in an office when a particular song lilts through the air. Suddenly you are transported to another time and place? For me, it’s Gershwin’s Preludes or a Rachmaninoff concerto. Then there’s any Beatle tune. I’m there — back in school with my friends Myra and Beth, dreaming.

Music is a medium that fires us up or soothes us — and leaves us changed. During the Great Depression and throughout the 1930s, it was the voice of a little girl, Shirley Temple, that lifted spirits. More recently, it was the gritty soundtrack of Saving Private Ryan coupled with raw imagery that delivered a message about WWII we should never forget.

Music can make us soar, send us back in time and inspire us. Experts have their reasons as to why, but we all know it by experience. It alters our brains. It touches our senses. Music and sound change us.

Two special JMU alums — and recent additions to our Be the Change website —  use music everyday to enhance lives. Husband and wife, Erin Rettig (’96) and Soon Hee Newbold (’96) capture the impact of sound and spread it far and wide. Soon Hee is an award-winning composer who inspires student musicians all over the world. Erin, a sound-engineer working with some of Hollywood’s heavyweights, brings exciting dimension to films. They have followed their passions and changed lives along the way. One need only read the responses from Soon Hee’s young fans on her Facebook page to understand that connection. Here she generously engages with students whose lives her music has touched.

In a similar way, Erin is having an impact. Through film — a medium that unquestionably has influenced the past few generations in an mammoth way — Erin is fine tuning the experience through engineering the sound to enhance and bolster what one sees on the screen. Imagine Madascar, X-Men or Night at the Museum (a few of Erin’s many credits) without sound. It just wouldn’t be the same.

In a world where savagery, war, hate and conflict assault us all in surround sound, the music and sound that Soon Hee and Erin produce lifts us, makes us all better, and in the end, makes us more civilized.

You can read much more about the life and careers of Soon Hee and Erin in the upcoming issue of Madison magazine. Watch for it in your mailboxes in mid-August.

You can also read Soon Hee and Erin’s profile at:

The soundtrack of life

The Coat of Arms of Kappa Kappa Psi

Kappa Kappa Psi (Image via Wikipedia)

Music, I think, is the soundtrack of life. Only the most curmudgeonly of people would say they have not been changed or moved by music sometime in their lives. JMU musicians — faculty, students and alumni — have adopted that spirit and spread their talents all over the Shenandoah Valley.

One need only look at the impact of people like Be the Changer Marlon Foster (’82, ’95M) and J.R. Snow (’99), both directors of bands for Harrisonburg city schools, and Rob Nash (’96), director of bands for Rockingham County’s Turner Ashby High School, to understand that nothing is cloistered or haughty about music at JMU. Quite the opposite is true. Music is a passion shared widely and generously. Every year local students are inspired by the Marching Royal Dukes. Every year they learn from available private lessons. They benefit from myriad opportunities that teach and enrich. In a very real way, music spills out of JMU, drenching the valley in every genre and with every instrument — classical to  jazz, bands to ensembles, symphonies to soloists. In local schools, the influence of JMU musicians is significant.

Yesterday, we received an update from one of those talents, Be the Changer Avery Daugherty (’07, ’09M). Avery has just accepted a job as town manager of Grottoes, Va., a small town tucked right up against the mountains east of Harrisonburg. While Avery was a student at JMU, he made a commitment to enrich the lives of valley students by initiating a music scholarship.

Avery writes,”It is my goal to reach out in every way that I can to continue to promote musical talent throughout the Valley and am ecstatic to be moving back to the area full time.”

“I moved back to Harrisonburg a few months after graduation to pursue volunteer opportunities with the nearby town of Bridgewater. During this time, I actively served as alumnus to the JMU chapter of Kappa Kappa Psi, a music fraternity. I worked closely with their executive board promoting the Aspiring Musicians Scholarship to professors and students as well as other musical organizations on campus. The JMU chapter of Kappa Kappa Psi unanimously decided to adopt the AMS and oversee fund raising and distribution of funds. The fraternity decided to annually award deserving recipients in the Shenandoah Valley.”

Good news about Avery — and good news for music students in the Shenandoah Valley. If music is wealth, we in the valley are extraordinarily blessed by JMU.

To learn more about Kappa Kappa Psi, check out their website:

To read Avery’s Be the Change profile, visit:

And to learn more about JMU School of Music, visit:

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