New band director ushers in a new era for Tuskegee’s Marching Crimson Pipers
J. William Nicholas has stabilized program, won over members in months following protest
Tuskegee University band director J. William Nicholas doesn’t really remember what he told the Marching Crimson Pipers on the first day of band camp in August.
It was the first meeting between Nicholas, who had started in the role in June 2022, and the band, including several members who had staged a monthlong protest in October 2021 over program conditions. Nicholas recalled standing in front of the band that day, feeling like a parent after an argument with a young adult. He didn’t want to come across as stern as noted New Jersey educator Joe Clark but needed to establish his high standard of achievement.
He addressed the band members’ protest but reassured them it was done; by then, his focus was on the pursuit of excellence – and it has remained such since that day, to the gratification of current and former members.
“What has really helped us be successful is our transparency, or at least mine. I lead by example,” Nicholas said. “[It’s] just telling people what you’re doing. They need to know what they’re supporting [and] where their money is going.
“Parents need to feel safe about the place where they’re sending their kids. They need to know that we take care of our students with all of their individual needs. They need to know that they’re gonna learn something — that their time is not being wasted.”
That presumably wasn’t the case in October 2021 when Tuskegee’s marching band quit performing at school events in protest against the condition of the program. Members wanted more funding to perform on the road, staff who were more qualified and better communication on band practices and performances. Students who were vegan or on gluten-free diets had to buy their own food on trips, and students led most practices since there was no paid staff.
The historic program had reached a low point. It didn’t have qualified assistant directors or scholarships to retain and attract members. The Marching Crimson Pipers performed in uniforms that were decades old or occasionally T-shirts, a stark contrast to others in their conference.
The protest stretched through the homecoming game against Lane College before the university reached an agreement with the band. The band returned in November 2021 for the Turkey Day Classic, bringing storied director Warren Duncan out of retirement as interim band director and taking the field with bright new crimson and yellow uniforms.
“It was past time for us to express the need for some equipment and uniform [updates], as well as some other needs of the band, for us to be able to represent the university, the Marching Crimson Pipers in a [good] light,” said band alum Steven Cephus. “I’m pretty sure the timing was bad for the university, [but] we had kicked that can down the road long enough.
“I was actually kind of proud of the students — not necessarily the method — but that they had that fight in them. It kind of carried on the tradition of speaking up and standing up for what you believe in.”
Cephus, who is a longtime supporter of the band, said it’s time to move forward with Nicholas’ regime, which he said he has been pleased with so far.
“The resources being allocated to the band are a step in the right direction,” said Cephus, who played alto saxophone in the band from 1989-1993. “The leadership we have in place is going to represent the university and the band very well. He has been very transparent with his vision of where he wants to take, not just the band but the entire instrumental and musical program at the university.”
Senior drum major Aaron Bowen said the outcome has brought some needed changes in the band.
“There’s been a drastic shift and turnaround as a whole. Actions are being taken to meet the needs that we complained about,” Bowen said. “The communication is totally different. We’ll get itineraries. I know that sounds like something small, but an itinerary for a weekend, that’s something that was kind of rare.
“Most of the things that we addressed in that initial letter that led to that protest, those things have been addressed for the most part.”
To say Nicholas is busy is an understatement. His first year has been filled with a lot of networking with alumni, high school directors and other community partners to make the connections to recruit properly and build the program.
That includes creating a pipeline of musicians that begins in elementary school, which entails performing at events such as standardized testing days. It also means Nicholas serves as a guest clinician and judges bands at competitions.
There’s also checking in with Tuskegee’s administration on the program’s progress, both in sound and making sure headway is being made on issues such as new hires and scholarships.
But he said it’s a part of what he does: Nicholas served as director of bands at Jones High School in Orlando, Florida, from 2014 to 2019, where he grew the band program from 60 to 110 students.
“I’m kind of all over the place. … I’ve got a list of dates on my wall,” Nicholas said, pointing to his calendar. “Part of the work that I’m doing is about exposure, and that’s being in as many places as possible, shaking as many hands and [being] transparent about the fact that there is new leadership.”
However, none of that matters if the band doesn’t sound good, and that’s his first priority. Nicholas is committed to teaching fundamentals. That means making sure the student musicians are breathing correctly and that they are aware of their scales, modes and all the other factors necessary to be successful. It’s a major but necessary shift from what they were accustomed to before, Nicholas said.
“My commitment to quality sound and balance, blend and all the performance fundamentals [is] sort of what guides our day-to-day rehearsal,” Nicholas said. “I would say that we met all of our marks the first season. I’m gonna put a period there. I don’t wanna be reductive about it. It was good on its own merit. Then you put the additional condition of our situation prior on top of it, I could not have asked for anything else.”
For freshman Edwin Hill III, the transformation meant switching from playing high school football to performing in Tuskegee’s tenor drum section. It took some time and patience. Since Hill had only played on a drum kit, leaders let him feel his way around.
“It felt weird at first to just have one drum,” Hill said. “It was definitely a different style of playing. When I first came in, everyone else had been in a band in the past, so they knew what they were doing. So in the beginning, I felt like I was behind on what I was supposed to know.”
Now he can’t wait to see what’s next.
“I feel a little bit honored because you can’t take away the first time,” he said. “I know the band’s going to get bigger and better. I like the effort [Nicholas] puts in to try to make the band better.”
That means band members such as Hill will be spending a lot of time around Nicholas, who makes it “a very good practice to invest in your students outside of the activity that you’re doing.”
“That meant extending myself to ask about what else is going on in students’ lives. That’s good teaching. Everybody should do that,” Nicholas said.
For junior Divinity Hoskins, who will be a saxophone co-section leader in the fall, spending time with Nicholas helped her get out of her comfort zone. He started making her play alone, which she was initially hesitant to do, and then allowed her to lead by example.
“He used me as an example in a lot of instances, including the dancing, marching and then, whenever anyone needed help with rhythms or needed an example of what it was supposed to sound like, he would call to me,” Hoskins said. “[Nicholas] allowed me to be more confident in the player that I am.”
That’s part of what makes Bowen excited about the future. With the work Nicholas is doing and the resources the administration has started adding, Bowen hopes the Marching Crimson Pipers not only turn into a more robust band but into a strong music program overall.
“I’m excited to see what the future looks like,” Bowen said. “I really think next year alone, we’ll actually see a difference only because he’s actually been out recruiting. That’s not something that was done on such a large level [before]. As a whole, I’m excited for the marching band, but to see the bigger picture, making sure everything is getting checked off that list from a year ago.”