“I know I’ve had a few moments when I’ve stood on the podium at UNCG Auditorium, and I’ve thought, ‘This is what I was put on Earth to do. I was put on earth to conduct a college band.”
Thousands of undergraduates, hundreds of graduate students, and more than 63,000 former and current students who have worked with him would agree. The number of skilled musicians who have been influenced at UNCG by Locke is tremendous. He will retire this December, but during the 36 and a half years he’s served the campus, the School of Music has undergone an incredible transformation.
When Locke came to Greensboro in 1982, the music school was strong and distinguished, but enrollment was somewhat small. There were only three trumpet players among the 240 music majors, which meant they were spread thin among UNCG’s four ensembles. But gradually, that changed.
Locke placed advertisements, hung posters and did everything he could do to recruit music students into the band. A few years later, when there were six talented freshmen trumpet majors in the entering class, Locke felt the school’s enrollment had turned a corner. There are now around 600 music majors. He credits the other enthusiastic faculty for their work in strengthening and expanding the School of Music.
“While I was the cruise director, figuratively speaking, I can’t claim all the credit.” he says. “I had plenty of help from a very talented faculty.”
But over the next 30-some years, there was something special that played an undeniable role in increasing enrollment in the music school: the UNCG Summer Music Camp, which began in 1983 with a humble mailing created by none other than Dr. John Locke.
In the first year, 350 students from across North Carolina attended the UNCG Summer Music Camp, and in 1984, that number rose to 710 students. By 1986, the camp had grown to 1,170 students and a staff of 90. Now, 2,000 students attend from more than 35 states and more than 20 countries. It’s now the largest and most popular music camp on a college campus in the nation. Many of the campers return to UNCG as music students, and then go on to become either performing musicians or music teachers who encourage their own students to give it a try.
“The camp really helped put us on the map,” says Locke.
Alongside that accomplishment, there are many highlights in his career at UNCG, from serving as president of the American Bandmasters Association, to taking the Wind Ensemble to play at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center, to producing 16 albums ‒ one of which was a Grammy Award semifinalist ‒ to having a world premiere recording of an original work top the classical charts for a full three days. (“The Frozen Cathedral” by internationally-renowned composer John Mackey.)
Locke has guest conducted the U.S. Air Force Band, U.S. Army Field Band, U.S. Navy Band, “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band and the Dallas Wind Symphony, as well as numerous university bands and all-state honor bands.
And then there’s the famous Sousa concerts, for which Locke and his musicians appear in complete John Philip Sousa Marine Band costumes, a tradition that began in 1989.
“John’s impact on the School of Music, UNCG, and music in the state of North Carolina will probably never be effectively measured,” says School of Music Director Dennis Askew. “The development of our Summer Music Camp into the largest in the nation is one of the most recognized, but the fact that no other person has led more concerts in the UNCG Auditorium is of great importance to his legacy. He has led so many historic and important performances at UNCG, and brought so much recognition to our program. His absence from our hallways will be felt for some time to come.”
From a young age, John Locke knew he wanted to make music the central part of his life.
Of the music education he has brought students throughout his career – all the UNCG music students and campers and others – he says, “I wanted the people I came into contact with to have something that resembled the fantastic experiences I had in music, which meant the world and then some to me.”
The School of Music invites friends and former students join them on Nov. 17 and 18 in a celebration of Locke and his accomplishments.
All UNCG wind and percussion alumni are invited to participate in an Alumni Band conducted by Locke. Rehearsal will take place on Saturday, Nov. 17 and the group will perform a short prelude to the Wind Ensemble Retirement Concert on Sunday, Nov. 18.
View a short video in Campus Weekly’s See/Hear section to learn more about Locke’s time at the UNCG School of Music and how he has made an impact on thousands of college and high school musicians.
By Susan Kirby-Smith
Photograph courtesy of Brad McMillan. See more visuals at UNCG Now