The Bethune-Cookman University band marched in this year’s NFL Pro Bowl, just another of its many accomplishments. Director Donovan V. Wells discusses his band’s high-profile performances and his teaching philosophies that make them possible.
Photo courtesy of Bethune-Cookman University
The Bethune-Cookman University Marching Wildcats, known as “The Pride,” recently played at halftime of the NFL Pro Bowl, adding another accomplishment to the band’s long list of high-profile achievements. But for director Donovan V. Wells, every performance is high profile. Halftime Magazine talked to Wells about his experiences and philosophies.
Halftime: How did you become a band director?
Wells: I came to Bethune-Cookman as a freshman in 1980 and graduated in ’84. I taught public school in Virginia for 14 years and then had a short stint at Hampton University, and after that Bethune called me and wanted me to come back as assistant band director. I came there in 1996. In 1997 I was promoted to director of bands and have been there ever since. I got my graduate degree from Norfolk State University.
Halftime: What’s it like to work at your alma mater?
Wells: It’s a great experience, and it’s a little more than a job or employment to you because you’re coming back to the school and your old professors are there. You have a more personal job, and you go beyond the call of duty a lot of times. It has some drawbacks because you’re working with people who know you, and they ask for favors. There are a few drawbacks, but the pros outweigh the cons.
Halftime: Your band recently played at the NFL Pro Bowl. Would you describe the experience?
Wells: We only have about 3,500 students in the whole school, so for us to get these kinds of engagements is a huge opportunity for us.
To go down to the Pro Bowl was uniquely special. It was the first time [since 1980 that] it was being played in the continental United States and not Hawaii, and the great thing about it was that it had a much more massive crowd; it was just about sold out.
Every time we perform, we want the crowd to enjoy it and feel like they are a part of it. We put AFC on the field and then changed it to NFC and NFL, so that all the fans could show how much they love their team. The crowd responded very well, and to be on that stage was very great.
Halftime: How did that compare to pregame at the Super Bowl last year?
Wells: Super Bowl was really mind-blowing and humbling at the same time.
Growing up every little boy wants to be a star quarterback or running back; I was that little boy, but music took me on a different path. Still, a part of you always wishes you were throwing a winning pass at the Super Bowl—and here I am at 46 years of age; I’m not the quarterback, but I’m the band director. It was an unbelievable experience.
Halftime: How about the Honda Battle of the Bands?
Wells: That’s a great event that Honda has sponsored, and it’s the only one that exists for HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges and Universities]. We were fortunate enough to go five years in a row, and there are many bands that haven’t been selected yet.
To be on that stage was great and exciting because each band is alike in a lot of ways, but each is different in a lot of ways. It gives me a chance to see a lot of bands I hear a lot about but don’t get to play against during football season.
For the students they have a chance to network, meet and socialize with bands from other HBCUs. It’s a competition, but it’s not. It is the street credibility of what the audience says. Everybody still is working hard for the crowd to leave there and say they thought we were the best.
Halftime: What are some of your favorite special performances?
Wells: Doing the movie “Drumline” was a proud moment for me because here you are having the first movie made about black bands, and we were asked to be a part of it. It gave us some validation that what we were doing was heading in the right direction and appreciated.
Another performance I enjoyed was the opening of the Daytona 500 for Fox Sports. Playing at a packed football stadium can be intimidating, but playing at the Daytona with 250,000 fans is really intimidating.
Halftime: How do you prepare your band for these high-profile events?
Wells: We don’t do anything special when it comes to prep for high-profile events because we treat our regular events as high profile. Every event is high profile to us, and we expect a high level of expertise and excellence from our students. So that when you do get called for the Super Bowl, you just do what you normally do. I expect the same level at a pep rally as at the Super Bowl.
Halftime: Your band has a reputation for creative drills. How do you accomplish the specific images?
Wells: At the Pro Bowl, we made a formation of Michael Jackson on the field. We once made a profile formation of Barack Obama. These are some of the unique things that we try, and sometimes the band looks at me like I’m crazy.
I sit down like an architect that draws it out and try to make a good visual picture on the field, not too cluttered.
I charted six or seven Michael Jacksons before I found one that works. It’s trial and error, but if you want to be considered one of the best, you can’t do what everyone is doing.
Halftime: What do you want your students to learn from being in The Pride?
Wells: First of all I want them to enjoy it—but what I want them to take away has nothing to do with music. I want them to take away the sense of being responsible, of doing the job, of getting places on time, being able to compete.
This is a competitive world. When you get out of band, you need to be able to compete for promotions and raises. I hope that they take those kinds of things and apply it to their area of expertise and whatever their career is going to be in.
The music part is the easy part. Our goal is to mold those young men and women into people who can go compete in the workforce, make a difference in the world and give back to the community.
About the Author
Elizabeth Geli is an editorial assistant at Halftime Magazine. She has played flute and marched at Valencia High School in Placentia, Calif., and in the USC Trojan Marching Band, where she is now a graduate teaching assistant. She has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism from USC and is currently working on a Master’s in Specialized Journalism (The Arts).