The afternoon of January 25, 2024, I had the pleasure of sitting down over Diet Dr. Pepper and Chicken Express to visit with Dr. Gary Garner about his memories of TMEA. We shared many tears and laughter, told stories that are not repeatable, and had a great time together. I learned so many things about Dr. Garner that I did not know. My hope is after reading this interview that you will as well. Enjoy!
Julie Collins: How many TMEA’s does this make for you?
Dr. Garner: “Sixteen—ten as the conductor and six as the guest conductor.”
When Dr. Garner came to WT in 1963, it was very rare for college bands to perform at TMEA. For the 1968 convention, dear friend and colleague, J.R. McEntyre, was the TMEA Band Chair and invited WT to perform. Dr. Garner’s friendship with J.R. coupled with the fact that J.R.'s daughter was in the band were factors in securing the performance. Dr. Garner said, “He and the band were scared to death and thought the audience might throw rotten tomatoes!” They worked so hard to ensure a great performance. The University of Texas and Sam Houston State University were also slated to perform at the ’68 convention. WT and the panhandle of Texas were totally unknown in the university band world at that time and were at a great disadvantage. During the first semester of school, the WT Band was out on the marching field preparing for halftime shows while the other invited bands were already in preparation for TMEA—seeing as they had no marching band requirement. Dr. Garner stated that being unknown gave an element of surprise to the performance. The WT performance was received with overwhelming applause which went on for a very long time. Without divulging further details (per Dr. Garner’s request), the WT band came out on top!
In the early years of TMEA conventions, college bands performed by invitation only. The WT Band was performing every three years on a regular basis. For the upcoming 1982 TMEA convention, the Band Division Chair invited WT to perform. However, he later rescinded the invitation due to the fact that other college bands were complaining either that they were not being invited to play at the convention or they had not performed in a long time. Dr. Garner said excitement turned to sadness for the WT Band.
Marielllen Garner, “Mama Garner” was not having any of that. That same rehearsal, shortly after taking roll for the band (as she did every day) she asked the band, “How many of you want to play in Carnegie Hall next year?” Of course, every single hand shot up. Dr. Garner had no previous knowledge of this and was, in his words, furious. It was the one and only time he had ever been mad at her. A few minutes later she returned to the band hall and said, “We’re playing at Carnegie Hall next March 16th!!” They had no funding, but Mrs. Garner-with her fertile imagination-had plans for fundraising and told Dr. Garner not to worry. The WT Band traveled in style to NYC. Four years later Mrs. Garner decreed that the band go back to Carnegie Hall and made it happen again. This time Dr. Garner gave her a very timid, “yes”, knowing that once Mama Garner made up her mind, there was no changing it!
Dr. Garner stated that everything good that ever happened to the WT Band during his time there was due to his beloved wife. “She did everything but wave the stick!” She was the driving force behind most of the ideas for the band and responsible for both the 1983 and 1987 performances at Carnegie Hall. Thank you Mama Garner!
TMEA later made the decision that college bands could only perform at the convention in four-year rotations. However, Band Division Chair and friend, Dick Clardy, invited the band to play in 1999—throwing off the rotation a bit. That was, incidentally, the last time for Dr. Garner to have his WT band perform at TMEA. Dr. Garner noted that college bands now are judged in a recorded, blind audition and basically “win” their spot at TMEA.
JC: Did you ever feel like you were in competition with the other college bands?
DG: A resounding “YES”, however he was quick to note that he was always friends with his competitors and wished them well knowing that they all made each other better. Dr. Garner said his competitive nature made him feel this way. When asked about conducting without scores in 1987 (I was a member of that band), he said he did it just to see if he could! The band members thought he was trying to one-up The University of Houston and their conductor Eddie Green. Dr. Garner stated that was not the case. (Right……) His conducting was on point and, as always, WT came out on top! (LMHO) Later he and Eddie Green gave a clinic at TBA that was a success!
JC: Which was your best band?
DG: The thought had never crossed his mind. “That would be like picking my favorite child—impossible. I can’t do that and wouldn't want to do that!”
JC: For the record, I knew you wouldn’t but thought I would try! And we all know Dr. G’s favorite child is B…… !
JC: How did you select the program for TMEA?
DG: “I always wanted to highlight the strengths of the band and show them off.” He chose pieces featuring soloists, some were students and others professional or college professors. Dr. Garner fondly recalled that Donald Sinta performed with the band at TMEA in 1977 and a young Don Lefevre, a sophomore at the time, was in awe of Mr. Sinta. For an encore, Mr. Sinta performed Czardas. From that moment on, Don spent an enormous amount of time practicing to replicate Sinta’s sound. The next year, Don performed Czardas with the WT Band. Dr. Garner sent Sinta a recording and Sinta mistakenly thought that Don’s performance was his own!
Dr. Garner also mentioned that the WT Band was able to commission pieces. For the piece “Dilemmae”, by William Latham, the WT Band paid a magnificent $500.00. This composition was not only challenging for the band members but for Dr. Garner as well. A section of the piece is divided into two bands— Band A and Band B. Band A is playing a march at mm.180 while Band B is playing at mm.120. Dr. Garner spoke to Mr. Don Baird, assistant director, telling him he would have to conduct one band while Dr. Garner conducted the other. After realizing that this plan would not work, Dr. Garner taught himself to conduct both bands at the same time. He started first by tapping out the rhythms on a table. He later moved to an armchair so he could hear the rhythm on the side of the chair while conducting. He eventually moved to the edge of a door with Mrs. Garner on one side and their son, Blair, on another to make sure his conducting was clear.
Dr. Garner is most proud that after the first day of rehearsal for “Dilemmae”, the band performed a concert that evening at Canyon High School with William Latham in attendance. Dr. Garner told the audience that this piece was like one band marching 6 to 5 and another band marching 8 to 5 at the same time and then eventually compromise and march 7 to 5. That comment was met with laughter! Dr. Garner noted that this was the high point of his memories of TMEA.
JC: Why is it important for the WT Band to play at TMEA?
1. “For the students in the band themselves!” Dr. Garner was quick to mention that we (directors) are all in this business for the students.
2.“Recruitment.” In 1968 WT was unknown to many and recruiting was very difficult. Many did not even know WT had a band. The 1968 performance opened the door for students from all over the state to consider WT as their university.
3.“It’s great motivation!”
4. “It’s such an honor and validation for the students.” Again, Dr. Garner emphasized the student.
JC: What are your favorite pieces from TMEA?
1. “Symphony in B-flat”-Paul Hindemith. The WT Band was the first band to perform the piece in its entirety at TMEA.
2. “Dilemmae”-William Latham. It was the most fun of all!
3. “Sinfonietta”-Ingolf Dahl. Incidentally Dr. Garner played in the first performance of this piece at USC. Dahl was on the faculty and he and Dr. Garner became good friends. Dr. G stated he has no regrets with any piece the WT band ever played.
JC: How does it feel to be standing backstage ready for the performance at TMEA?
DG: “I was never overcome with nervousness because the band was always prepared to do the best they could, which was pretty darn good! I’m sure my respiration and heart rate were a bit high though!”
JC: What one piece do you wish you and the band would have been able to perform at TMEA?
DG: The Schoenberg—“Theme and Variations, Op. 43A”!
DG: At one point, the Band Division Chair, “He Who Must Not Be Named”, insisted that the college students pay for membership into TMEA to be able to attend the concerts and clinics—even though they were invited performers. Dr. Garner was adamantly against the idea, stating that band members a. had to pay for their own meals, b. were missing classes and c. some were missing work. He rounded up support with other college band directors! That idea was quickly dropped!
JC: Tell me about the piece you are conducting with the band this year.
DG: “I don’t know if I can get through this without getting emotional. Mariellen was born in the little town of Isabella, Tennessee, population 415. The one thing on my bucket list was for my boys and I to go to Isabella. Brad, Bryan and I flew to Chattanooga, rented a car and drove to Isabella. It’s a beautiful little town! I had taken a medicine bottle to get some soil. Later, I was going to open the bottle and smell the soil, I heard a voice tell me, ‘Don't do that! There is Isabella Air in there!’ The piece is immensely powerful. So, I have never opened the bottle and it remains on my desk. The piece is titled “Isabella Air” which was co-commissioned by the WT Band and the Clovis (NM) High School Band.
JC: “That is so beautiful.”
DG: “It’s a beautiful piece written by Dr. B.J. Brooks. That guy is a genius!”
During Dr. Garner’s recollections he mentioned the special chemistry that the WT Band students have. He wondered if the WT band attracts students like this or does being at WT make them this way. He feels it’s a little bit of both. I think we all know that Dr. Garner creates the chemistry.
Not one to flaunt and display his accomplishments and accolades, Dr. Garner did not have any TMEA memorabilia out in his home. He did, however, have a brick from the FAB which is pictured here.
Many thanks to Don Lefevre
and Charles Johnson for the
honor of interviewing Dr. Garner —
a treasure to us all!