Director of Bands John R. Locke knows exactly why he came to UNC Greensboro.

“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 high school 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.

Simultaneous to teaching and conducting, Locke placed advertisements, hung posters, and did everything he could do to recruit music students into ensembles. 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. Now, there are approximately 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.

kids playing flutes

UNCG Summer Music Camp

kids at music camp

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 Locke’s 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.

Orchestra dressed in Marine Band uniform

UNCG Wind Ensemble dressed to perform “A Tribute to John Philip Sousa.”

“John’s impact on the School of Music, UNC Greensboro, 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.”

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, and the group will perform a short prelude to the Wind Ensemble Retirement Concert in UNCG Auditorium on Sunday, Nov. 18. The concert, which begins at 1:30 p.m., is free and open to to the public.

The Wind Ensemble dress rehearsal is on Saturday, Nov. 17, at 10 a.m. in UNCG Auditorium and is also free and open to the public. View the video below to learn more about Locke’s time in the School of Music at UNCG and how he has made an impact on thousands of college and high school musicians.

Story by Susan Kirby-Smith, University Communications
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications,
 and courtesy of Brad McMillan