In memoriam: James R. Sochinski, former director for the Marching Virginians
On Nov. 4, the Marching Virginians hosted a concert and reception to celebrate the work of the late James Sochinski, professor emeritus and former director and music arranger for the band, who died Jan. 10. Sochinski’s arrangements for the band, including “The Hokie Pokie,” have been heard by millions.
Sochinski joined the Virginia Tech community in 1977 and made significant contributions in the field of music as an educator, director, composer, and performance musician.
As a composer, Sochinski’s works, notably the “Legend of Alcobalca” and “Sweet Land of Liberty,” have entered the standard repertoire and have been performed across the United States and around the world.
While Sochinski was a great arranger of music, the scope of his talent was far wider, according to former classmate, friend, and colleague Vernon Burnsed.
“Jim discovered the secrets of music,” said Burnsed, professor emeritus of music who retired from Virginia Tech in 2015. “He knew how to make magic happen. He understood the effects of motion, tension, and release. And he never stopped learning or wanting to learn. He was one of the most intellectual people I’ve known, the epitome of a great musician and a lifelong learner.”
Sochinski’s arrangements for the Marching Virginians were heard live and on national television and radio broadcasts. These arrangements have provided the soundtrack for many generations of Hokies. According to longtime Virginia Tech band Director Dave McKee, for many years, the Marching Virginians (MVs) played only Sochinski’s compositions.
“Jim created the sound that was the MVs,” said McKee. “He could arrange any music and make the band sound great. He was a true musical craftsman. Some pieces were involved, and others were more simple. It was always about showcasing the students, never about him.”
McKee credits Sochinski for giving him the opportunity of a lifetime. “Jim opened the door for me to step as band director in 1986. His support early in my career was invaluable. Jim was relentless in his pursuit of music. He brought out the best in me and in many others. He wanted you to be the best you could be, and in return, you worked hard so you wouldn’t let him down.”
Jay Crone, professor of music, echoed McKee’s sentiments.
“Jim understood the students in the Marching Virginians, and he created arrangements that brought forth those strengths,” Crone said. “He also understood the facets of game days and how music affects people. He used his talents to create a unique sound for the band that has become a long-standing Virginia Tech musical tradition. His arrangements for ‘Tech Triumph,’ ‘VPI Victory March,’ and yes, even ‘The Hokie Pokie,’ continue to resonate with alumni and fans.”
In 2016, the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors recognized the contributions of both Sochinski and McKee, renaming the band’s practice facility to the Sochinski-McKee Marching Virginians Center.
In 2022, the Marching Virginians moved to the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design as part of a reorganization of the college. The transition offers greater visibility for arts, design, and architecture programs by grouping them together and locating studio and performance-based instruction in one college.
Considered a leading authority on the use of technology in the music classroom, Sochinski presented his scholarship at the College Band Directors National Association National Conference, the Music Educators National Conference, the National Symposium on Music Instruction Technology, the Virginia Department of Education, and the Appalachia Educational Laboratory.
“Jim was a leader in the use of computers to arrange music and to teach,” said Burnsed. “He seemingly instinctively knew how to integrate technology and music into his lectures in a way that kept students engaged and interested.”
Sochinski developed and taught a variety of innovative undergraduate courses, including History and Analysis of Musical Styles and Orchestration, placing strong emphasis on innovative applications of technology, for which he was recognized with the Teaching Excellence Award and the XCaliber Lifetime Achievement Award from the Virginia Tech Center for Innovation in Learning in 2008.
“Students who pursue graduate education in music are required to demonstrate a strong background in the field through a qualifying diagnostic test prior to admission,” said McKee. “Jim’s instruction provided Virginia Tech music students with the right combination of skills to achieve successful results.”
David Ball, a former student of Sochinski, who now serves as director of bands for Concord University in West Virginia agreed.
History and Analysis of Musical Styles “set students up for success in graduate programs, and many students reported back that the content was better than any coursework they encountered during their music studies,” he said. “In the classroom, Jim broke down difficult material rationally and then pieced it back together so that it was easier to understand. His use of technology — with visual and aural aids was cutting edge at the time.”
But friends and colleagues agree that teaching, arranging, and directing were just a few of many facets of Sochinski’s passion for music, especially classical music.
“I have never known anyone as committed to classical music,” said Crone. “Jim loved and understood music in a way that very few people do. He studied music, pursued opportunities to listen to music around the world, and shared his knowledge freely. He created opportunities so that his students not only learned about music but experienced performances by renowned artists in world-class venues. He cared about how music worked. Even in retirement, he studied scores, and even through his declining health, he remained passionate about his field.”
Sochinski performed as the bass trombonist with the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra for 33 years. Friends fondly remember Sochinski’s interests in food, gardening, and baseball. He was an avid Orioles fan, and as his health allowed, he enjoyed playing tennis.
Before coming to Virginia Tech, Sochinski was arranger for the United States Army Field Band of Washington, D.C., and served as band director at South Carolina State University.
Sochinski received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri, a master’s degree from the Peabody School, and a Ph.D. from the University of Miami.