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The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

World Beat

As UTSA’s director of bands, Ron Ellis has experience that is helping to elevate the profile of the marching band on a global scale

“Half of me was a bundle of nerves; half of me was very excited,” says director of bands Ron Ellis, with a laugh, recalling his and the UTSA marching band’s trip to Normandy, France, earlier this year to perform during ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day. “It was a great honor to be chosen and a privilege having students who were so committed.”

Making music in a large venue in front of thousands of people is no stretch for the band, called the Spirit of San Antonio. At 250 strong this year, its fourth, SOSA regularly works Roadrunner football games in the Alamodome, a massive space that’s been the performance home for the Rolling Stones, Carlos Santana, Paul McCartney, and KISS as well as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Ellis is no stranger himself to working on a grand scale, either. Now in his fifth year as UTSA’s director of bands, he has led music-making aggregations from Florida to France. In addition to his UTSA role, he has been a music director at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., since 1996, and has also plied his trade at Disneyland Paris.

But when SOSA was tapped to perform in June to mark the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Allied invasion of Germany-occupied France and the start of the liberation of Europe from the Nazis, he knew it was one of the band’s most important gigs. “We were honored,” he says, “to represent the United States, the university, the state of Texas and San Antonio on the world stage.”

How did the appointment come about? “There’s a committee of America-based military veterans who was to choose bands to perform for ceremonies at Pearl Harbor and Normandy,” Ellis says. “They usually have military bands augmented by high school bands. Because of the sequester [with the federal budget, though], this year they were denied military bands.”

So the selection committee turned to college bands, and after viewing performance tapes, it singled out UTSA. Ellis’ Disney experience, which includes directing the Toy Soldiers during the annual ABC-TV Christmas specials, certainly worked in favor of the UTSA troupe. “Some of the members of the committee are former musicians,” he says. “Some knew me when I was at [the University of Central Florida] from 1996 to 2009, and some of them were musicians at Disney World. So they knew my work.”

After SOSA was chosen to participate in the D-Day commemoration, Ellis and about 50 of the student musicians who were to make the trip had to go into overdrive, learning the music to be performed -- including the national anthems of multiple countries played the exact way they’re played by military bands and raising money to fund the trip.

For SOSA head drum major and baritone saxophonist John Wynkoop IV, a 21-year-old senior kinesiology major, the opportunity to perform during the D-Day ceremonies was special. “It was a shock to be chosen,” he says. “We’re such a young program, and we were the only university band chosen.” But there were more personal revelations also: “My paternal grandmother is French. My grandfather was in the Air Force. He and my grandmother met in Paris. My father was born in France. So I have French blood in me. And we were performing for D-Day veterans and their families -- and they know all the songs. When we played on Omaha Beach, you could feel the emotion.”

Although some of the students admit to being a bit nervous, they knew they couldn’t let their emotions hamper their performances. “It was definitely overwhelming,” says Esmeralda Valdez, a 21-year-old senior biology major who plays piccolo in the band. “We were face-to-face with the audiences the whole time, including a lot of veterans and their family members, so we got to see [the impact of] what we were doing. It was emotional, and it was touching. We got so many compliments from so many veterans.”

Wynkoop adds, “We had a 50-man band, and we sounded like 300! The band sounded amazing. We practiced for three or four days straight, 12 hours a day. We represented the USA in a very professional manner.”

Although Ellis has his Disneyland Paris experience, he didn’t take this trip to France lightly. “I have never been more proud of a group of students,” he says. “This is an exciting time for us. Everybody wants the band to perform. The band is a rock star. The demand is outpacing supply out here with academics and athletics.”

Ellis sees the burgeoning reputations of UTSA and SOSA, coupled with his experience, as a big plus. “People talk about six degrees of separation,” he says. “In the music business, there’s one degree of separation. You have to have a good reputation. There’s always work for good people. The students out here are really open to doing good work. There’s a high level of desire, work ethic and talent at UTSA. A high percentage of the members of the marching band play in other UTSA music ensembles. There’s a place for all of them to thrive. Our goal is to lead the students to the next level.”

–Jim Beal Jr.


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