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A Tribute: Mark Williams

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Mark Williams President Clinton once said, “You gotta sound bad before you can sound good” to a class of beginning instrumental students in Milwaukee. Mark Williams undoubtedly would have disagreed. Mark Williams, one of Alfred Publishing’s most successful composers and arrangers, a self proclaimed “band geek” at heart who had a passion for empowering teachers to give beginning music students the best chance for success, passed away tragically on January 3, 2008. He was 52 years old.

Since March is #149;Music in our Schools’ month, it is only fitting to pay tribute to the life of someone who actually was responsible for bringing music into our schools.

Mark was one of the premier composers for school bands and orchestras. Co-author of the Accent on Achievement Band Method, he had over 200 published works to his credit. As a clinician and guest conductor, he traveled to 34 states, five Canadian provinces, and Australia.

Mark was born in Chicago and grew up in Spokane, Washington. He held Bachelor of Arts in Education and Master of Education degrees from Eastern Washington University. He taught music in the state of Washington for many years, specializing in elementary band. Renowned for his compositions for band and orchestra, Mr. Williams earned numerous awards including the Western International Band Clinic’s Gralia Competition and several ASCAP Special Awards. In addition to his writing and travel schedule, Mark performed regularly on all woodwinds and served as Conductor and Artistic Director for the Spokane British Brass Band.

I do not profess to have known Mark personally. He and I met a few times over the years at conferences. I do, however, know of his work and impact on beginning instrumental music because of my wife, Nora, who teaches beginning instrumental music at an elementary school in Watchung, N.J.

When Nora and I would head off to a music education conference, Nora would make a beeline to the Alfred booth to learn about the latest Mark Williams compositions. Rarely a concert would occur where there wasn’t a Mark Williams orchestration on the program. She raved about his work. She was one voice in a chorus of thousands!

Mark Williams has had an immeasurable impact on beginning music programs across the nation. I suspect there isn’t an instrumental music educator who hasn’t performed one of his works. Millions of students have learned how to finger a scale, play a crescendo, or understand a rhythm through the renowned method book he co-authored with John O’Reilly for Alfred Publishing: Accent on Achievement.

Knowing the influence Mark has had in our own community and across the nation I decided to call John O’Reilly, his editor and writing partner of more than 20 years to help me understand the man behind the masthead.

What comes next is from John O’Reilly:

You have to understand that Mark was first and foremost#149; a band director. He spent 15 years as an Elementary Band director in Spokane, Washington.

Both he and his wife, Connie, were clarinet players#149; they met in band#149; they got married#149; both became directors.

Because of his background in the trenches – Mark understood and was passionate about starting beginners and he married this passion with his ability to play all of the instruments. As a member of the Air Force reserve band he played bassoon, oboe, sax, flute, and clarinet. He was a very good doubler (and needed to be) because the band was small.

He was also fascinated by, and wanted to learn, brass. So he joined a local brass band where he started out on Eb Horn and worked his way up to solo cornet. When the founder of the band left, Mark became the conductor.

His knowledge of teaching beginners combined with his ability to play all of the instruments gave him a unique perspective which he used in his compositions. In Mark’s mind though#149; he was never really sure if his pieces were good enough to be published.

In 1986 he completed a new composition titled “Greenwillow Portrait.” Feeling that it wasn’t good enough, Mark threw the handwritten manuscript into the trash. Connie pulled the manuscript out of the trash and insisted that he send it to a publisher.

In 1986 I was the concert band editor for Alfred. Each year I received hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts from composers all over the world. Very few of these pieces were actually accepted for publication. At the time we were primarily publishing John Kinyon, Frank Erickson, Sandy Feldstein, and my own music. One day I received a manuscript from Mark. It was hand written and he also included a very mediocre recording made by a local junior high band.

I listened to the composition several times before deciding that it was a really good piece that deserved to be published. I had the great pleasure of calling Mark on the phone to tell him we wanted to publish his music. Connie just recently told me that Mark almost hyperventilated when he received the call and at first thought it was a friend playing a practical joke on him. “Greenwillow Portrait” went on to be the most successful piece we published that year and it was the beginning of Mark’s fabulous career.

The next year he wrote a few more pieces for Alfred including “Jackson Lake Overture,” which won the Western International Band Clinic’s Gralia Competition for new compositions for school band.

He soon made the decision to stop teaching so he could focus on his composing full time. Mark became a stay-at-home dad while Connie went back to work. This opened the door for Mark’s great success as composer.

Ten years later when Alfred decided to develop a new band method, I asked Mark to join me as co-author. Mark was by then one of the top composers of young band music in the world and I was thrilled when he accepted my invitation. The book we wrote was Accent on Achievement and Mark brought all his creative gifts to the project. He believed that one of the weaknesses with other methods was their failure to properly reinforce musical concepts. Mark created elaborate flow charts to track what had been taught and then track where it was reinforced throughout the book. This careful review cycle was built into the method and it is one of the concepts that helped make Accent on Achievement so successful.

One of the special gifts Mark had was his ability to make even the most immature bands sound great. He would play through each of the student’s parts to make sure everything was playable and interesting. At some point in every Mark Williams piece everyone gets to play the melody. His reputation in the field had grown to the point where a teacher who bought a grade 1 Mark Williams composition knew it would play well and sound great.

Mark was an editors dream. He needed very little editing and was a very humble guy#149; always hoping that his compositions and arrangements would be okay.

Clearly#149; they were.

So if I may take exception to our former president#149; you do not need to sound bad before you sound good#149; you just need to have your students playing Mark Williams music!

Mark never forgot where he came from. He was always that elementary band director and “band geek” at heart. This was clear in his work.

It is Mark’s passion and commitment to strengthening the foundation from which all music education is build, our beginning programs, that serves as an inspiration to us all. I hear about it from my wife. I hear about it from others like her who are responsible for the heaviest lifting for our field. Because it is in those small classrooms in schools across the nation that the joy, wonderment, mystery and excitement that is embodied in this gift we call music where the seeds are planted for a love of music that will last a lifetime.

Mark knew this better than most. And we are all the better because of him.

In honor of Mark’s lasting contributions as a teacher and composer, Alfred Publishing has set up the Mark Williams Memorial Fund for Educators in collaboration with Music for All. The fund will award annual scholarships to music educators to attend the Music for All Summer Symposium for professional development held at the Illinois State University each summer. Donations to the Mark Williams Memorial Scholarship Fund for Educators will be placed in an endowment. Only the income generated by the endowment will be expendable.

Please visit musicforall.org for more information on how you can make a contribution.

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