Jonathan Poquette held three high school band clinics during his first semester as Elon University's bands director and is planning more. He hopes to strengthen Elon
It’s a blustery November afternoon and Elon’s Director of Bands Jonathan Poquette has arrived at Graham High School with a few tricks up his sleeve.
The concert band under the direction of Graham’s band instructor Kyle Dortch consists mostly of new band members. Most of the 25 or so young musicians are still learning how to read music, developing knowledge of their instruments, and understanding what it means to think as an ensemble.
Poquette deploys one of his tricks early in rehearsal.
“You have to breathe together to play together,” he tells them, challenging them to play a single note simultaneously without direction.
After a few false starts, the musicians inhale together and play a note nearly in unison. (“It blows their minds if they can do that without a director,” Poquette says later.)
In a few more minutes, he tosses out his second trick. He has students sing a note they’re having trouble hitting.
“If you can’t sing it, you can’t play it,” Poquette says. It works again, and the band moves on.
Poquette came to Elon University this summer after earning his doctor of musical arts at the University of Georgia’s Hugh Hodgson School of Music. He learned there, where the marching band has around 450 members, that he didn’t want to lead a legion of musicians. Instead, he eyed colleges where he could interact with individual students and greater impact a music program and the community at large.
That desire to be a part of the musical and educational community surrounding Elon is what led him to area high school band rehearsals throughout this fall semester, visiting Western Alamance, Southern Alamance and Graham high schools with more clinics in the works.
“Pedagogically and philosophically, I want to serve as a resource to high school band directors. I want to help reinforce what they’re doing,” Poquette says. “The whole purpose is to help educate high school students and to give them tools to be successful, which builds a relationship with the directors.”
He also sees it as a valuable recruitment tool for Elon, showing area high school musicians the opportunities in their hometown.
His clinic gave Graham students a different perspective on their playing, and helped finetune some basic techniques, Dortch said.
“Clinics are so important because having an outsider often gives credence to what directors have been harping on, because now there’s a new person pointing out the same things and highlighting those problems,” Dortch said. “It also gives the chance for students to get positive feedback from an outside source, which can be critical considering they usually only get feedback during concerts or performances.”
Poquette is nothing if not enthusiastic.
It didn’t take him long to get Graham students beyond an initial hesitance to play in front of a stranger and put them at ease. He often had them laughing as he whirled around the room, gesturing excitedly to describe the kinds of sounds he wanted to hear from their medley of Christmas carols: from hushed to fortissimo, staccato to fluid.
He brings that same energy to Elon’s ensembles, where he’s intent on recruiting new members — including those who aren’t music majors — to add and grow their talents on campus. The university community has already seen him conducting the Fire of the Carolinas marching band and the Phoenix Winds wind ensemble. He and the Basketball Pep Band were just beginning the season in mid-November.
“It’s been a great semester,” Poquette said of learning Elon traditions and the support of Elon faculty. “Going forward, we must continue making band fun. However, I want to continue to raise the level of musicianship (within Elon’s bands), by growing the bands in quality and quantity.”
Earlier this fall, Poquette conducted Western Alamance High School’s 20-member jazz band. Western’s band director Michael Jefferson — a 2002 alumnus of Elon’s Music Education program — said visits from guest directors reenergize band classrooms. He tries to schedule outside conductors a few times each semester.
“It reinvigorates them, and it reinvigorates me,” Jefferson said. “It’s good motivation for me as a teacher.”
Jefferson appreciates Poquette’s desire to become part of a regional network of music educators. He’s also glad to see his alma mater at work in the community.
“I’m excited to have him here in the community as a fellow musician and colleague,” Jefferson said. “I think he gets the big picture.”