Jazz Ensemble director Bill Warfield prepares students for real world

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Department of Music professor Bill Warfield has been teaching at Lehigh for the past 22 years. He said he is able to build strong relationships with his students through rehearsing together. (Isabela Madrigal/B&W Staff)

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled woodwind specialist Dave Riekenberg’s name. 

Bill Warfield, described by graduate student Eli Jacobson as more of a band leader than a professor, treats his students like they’re his colleagues — with respect and professionalism.

Warfield, the director of the three groups that comprise the Jazz Ensembles program, acknowledges he has a unique way of teaching. He expects and helps students build the motivation to improve by treating them professionally and preparing them for the professional world, after college jazz groups.

”I’m good at what I teach, I treat (my students) with respect and I treat them like professionals,” Warfield said. “I treat them like I treat my professional band in New York City. I think they understand that that’s my expectation.”

The Jazz Ensembles program includes the Jazz Ensemble, the Lehigh University Jazz Repertory Orchestra and the Lehigh Funk Band. In addition to directing these groups, Warfield is an active composer in New York and teaches a jazz history course.

Warfield took the job at Lehigh 22 years ago, after teaching at University of North Florida for a year. At the time of the move, he said his schedule was packed with balancing his band in New York and the program he was organizing at Lehigh. 

A former high school wrestler and fan of Lehigh’s wrestling team, Warfield decided to come to Lehigh to teach after years of passing by on his way to and from gigs in New York City and Baltimore.

“Every time I would pass on (Route) 78, I’d see the sign for Lehigh University and I’d say, ‘Well, that would be a really great place to teach,’” he said.

As for his teaching style, he places a lot of responsibility on his students.

Warfield said he strives to create a classroom dynamic that stresses the importance of students finding the answer for themselves.

Jacobson said he’s gotten to know the other students through rehearsing with them outside of practices and rehearsals. He said becoming more familiar with each other allows them to play better together, help each other work through various challenges and form relationships with one another.

Matthew McClain, ’21, said he planned to join a jazz group since the day he came to Lehigh, and he became a part of the Jazz Ensemble for the opportunity to play and participate in a band.

McClain agreed with Jacobson that practices and rehearsals are not easy, and each student is responsible for becoming a better player.

“(Warfield’s) definitely pretty tough on us,” McClain said. “It’s not like you walk in and have a fun music session. It’s like, ‘We’re gonna sit down and we’re gonna play,’ which is good because I like there being some kind of pressure to play well because that’s how I improve.”

McClain plays in the trumpet section of the ensemble, while Jacobson is the drummer.

Warfield occasionally brings in professional jazz musicians, such as woodwind specialist Dave Riekenberg and bassist Mark Wade, whom he played with in New York, as a session player. Warfield said he does this to give students the opportunity to work with the best people in the business — the guys working on Broadway.

Warfield said he learned the most about jazz by starting his own band, and he encourages his students to do the same. 

“If you don’t like the way you sound during rehearsal, it’s on you, as a musician, to make that up and get that together with your section on your own time,” Jacobson said.

McClain said his favorite experience in the Jazz Ensembles program was when he performed two important solos, both partially improvised, on pieces the band performed last semester.

“It was great to be able to play two really important solo parts,” McClain said. “That inspired a lot of personal instrument skill growth.”

The Jazz Ensembles’ next performance, during which the group plans to perform an original show, is on April 14. Their spring concert is April 20. Warfield said most of their performances take place in Zoellner Arts Center’s Baker Hall, and once a year the group gets to play in the Pennsylvania Jazz Society in Hellertown.

Jacobson said the difference between Warfield and other professors lies in the respect and professionalism he extends to his students, and how that is easily reciprocated by the students.

“It’s not a conventional classroom, where you have a professor and he comes in every week and there’s a lesson,” Jacobson said. “Bill (Warfield) sets up the Jazz Ensembles so that students are treated more like musicians who are preparing for a gig. That kind of respect that he gives to us is a new way of learning in a Jazz Ensemble than I’m used to.”

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