Jon Mark Beilue: A Longtime July Tradition

June 27, 2019

A Longtime July Tradition

WTAMU Band Camp Impacts Musicians, University

By JON MARK BEILUE

WTAMU Band CampEntering his senior year in high school, Eric Perez had never been to the Texas Panhandle. No reason to really. He lived in Brenham, 75 miles northwest of Houston.

There were no relatives, no friends 550 miles away. Vacation didn’t lead him that direction. But one thing did.

The West Texas A&M University band camp.

“I was aware of it since the sixth grade,” he said. “Many of the directors in Brenham were former WT students or they had been sending kids there.”

So, in 1999, the summer before his senior year, Perez went with some high school friends that July to the WT band camp. He went the next year too, which made sense since WT was now where he decided to go to college.

“To be honest, it was what I needed to figure out what I wanted for a career,” Perez said. “I knew it would be fun, but I didn’t realize it would be the deciding factor of where I went to college and what I wanted to do for a career as a band director. Needless to say, it left a lasting impression.”

There are a string of stories similar to that of Perez’s over the decades. Like the Masters golf tournament, with its “tradition like no other” slogan, so, too is it with WT and its band camp.

No one knows exactly how long WT has hosted high school and middle school musicians each July because records are sketchy and no one is that old. And if former director of bands, Dr. Gary Garner, 89, isn’t old enough to know for sure, then no one is.

Garner worked his first one in 1966, and hasn’t missed one in the next 53 years. But even he can’t pinpoint the start. Don Lefevre, WT’s director of bands, said, “We know it’s at least 67 years.”

What nearly all who’ve been involved with the band camp know for certain in the impact is immense.

“I don’t know if there is an adjective sufficient to describe how great it is,” Garner said. “It has been tremendous in terms of attracting students and funding the music department.”

The WT band camp is not some three-day play-a-little-here-and-there camp. The 2019 camp began on July 7, and won’t end until July 19. It’s 12 days of rehearsals and individual attention culminated with concerts on the Saturday to end the first week and one on the last day, July 19.

“They are becoming much better musicians,” Lefevre said. “They are playing their instruments and working up to a series of concerts. They are playing at a much more intense level than they normally would. If you attend band camp, it’s the same as about six months of practice in your environment back home. I always felt that as a student and teacher.”

In the morning are full band rehearsals and then section rehearsals taught by those who are experts in a particular instrument. Then there’s another rehearsal that will include the brass or winds together.

In the afternoon are elective classes that include marching, jazz band, ensemble, and every class from percussion to flute.

“So, it’s all types of music and all types of instruments,” Lefevre said, “and it’s really a fantastic experience to be part of that.”

‘It’s hyper-focused instruction’

Students hovered around 1,000 in previous years, but organizers have found the sweet spot now to be approximately 700, of which about half stay in the dorms. And they come from all over. By all over, this year 15 students and teachers are in Canyon from Australia. They’ve come from California and New York.

But the bulk of students arrive from Texas and New Mexico, and the camp draws heavily from the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Houston, El Paso and San Antonio.

It takes a small army of about 170 to staff the camp, of which about 100 are instructors. Many are WT graduates, current band directors and former campers – like Perez.

He graduated in 2007, finished graduate work in 2011, and has taught music in Laredo, Amarillo and Canyon. His new position this fall is assistant band director with the Canyon ISD, working with bands from high school to elementary.

Perez has been instructing at the camp on and off – but mostly on – for nearly 20 years. He played the euphonium – “a baby tuba,” he said – in high school. He’s in charge this year of middle school euphoniums and tubas.

“There are so many directors at camp, and the kids are getting so much more individualized work,” he said. “It’s not full band all the time. It’s two weeks of very specific instrument work, but they have a fun time doing it.

“It’s hyper-focused instruction. Kids are getting more individualized instruction than they could possibly get in the school year, and they get two weeks of doing that. With my former students, once they finish camp, they go into the next school year and they’ve jumped to the top of their sections.”

Lefevre, associate professor of music in addition to director of bands, is also camp director. He spends at least an hour or two a week from the end of July through May 1 preparing for camp. Once May arrives, he said, it becomes a full-time job until the camp is done.

But the value to WT can not overstated. Yes, the camp is to make students into better musicians, but it serves as a harvest for future WT musicians in any numbers of bands whose first experience with the University was band camp.

“It is invaluable,” said Garner, director of bands at WT for 39 years until his retirement in 2002. “It is the backbone of our recruiting effort by a huge margin.”

Lefevre is a highlighted example. As a high school saxophonist in Fort Stockton, 80 miles south of Odessa, he first attended the camp in 1972. He had no long-term goals. He wanted to have fun and play his saxophone.

“Then a band director suggested I come to WT and be a music major. I fell in love with the school,” said Lefevre, who has been instructing in the School of Music since 1987.

Perez has a nephew, Leo de la Garza, a sophomore from Porter, Texas, 25 miles north of Houston, staying with him and wife Hope and attending camp.  He will leave a much better trombonist than when he arrived, but he also may eventually be a Buff. Who knows?

Do you know of a student, faculty member, project, an alumnus or any other story idea for “WT: The Heart and Soul of the Texas Panhandle?” If so, email Jon Mark Beilue at jbeilue@wtamu.edu.


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