Leadership Lessons From Wrigley Field




Finally.

Living in the north Chicago suburbs, it's been fairly exciting here of late. As you can well imagine. I've not been a lifelong Cubs fan...truth is, I married into the madness. But having cheered them on for 20 years, and more often than not suffered frustration watching defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, this has been a long time coming for me as well.

What's been most fascinating and rewarding for me has been watching this young team be influenced by the leadership work of their manager, Joe Maddon, who will likely have Michigan Avenue renamed in his honor. Because of my background, I tend to see leadership styles through the lens of music education. And a comparison thought finally struck me the other day that made complete sense.

Joe Maddon is that music teacher who comes along, takes over a small music program that's never amounted to much, and makes it soar to dizzying heights of success.

We've all seen it happen. A music program with a revolving door of leadership that constantly struggles, always at the bottom of the heap at contest, never balanced instrumentation or voices. And all of a sudden--presumably out of nowhere--a new director has kids coming out of the woodwork to participate. Then they're starting to sound good at state festival. The parent booster organization becomes this well-oiled machine of fundraising, uniform-organizing, equipment-moving experts. Then they're sounding great. Then they're the buzz at the state music conference ("Have you heard this group?"). It doesn't happen overnight--and certainly neither did the Cubs--but it happens.

So what's the trick? If we can draw parallels to what we just saw in the season leading up to the World Series, it might be this.

Believe. Sometimes when a music program has been down long enough, they never expect to achieve anything. That had certainly been the case with the Chicago Cubs. But Joe Maddon has said that he doesn't believe in the infamous Cubs' curse. His philosophy was to acknowledge the past, but expect something good to happen and not wait for the worst. And he summed it up best in the press conference after the big win: "If you just want to carry the burden with you all the time, tonight would never happen."

Baby steps. Neither Maddon nor team president Theo Epstein set out to win the World Series the first year. But that was very clearly the eventual goal. They knew where they wanted to go and that it would take time and victories large and small on the way. Step by step methodical approaches and planning...along with some good fortune...all led to that game 7 win in Cleveland. And that is how any good music program will grow.

They do what works for them. One of the different things that tended to make the news here in Chicago were their "themed" road trips. Traveling in pajamas, Wacky suits. Football jerseys. While this probably wasn't something that most professional ball clubs would do because of the silliness factor...this was something that Maddon thought would catch on with this team of very young players. What it did was allow these ballplayers to relax, let their guard down a bit, trust each other, and enjoy the experience more. Which leads to the next point.

If it's not about winning, you've won. One of Maddon's philosophies has been "Never let the pressure exceed the pleasure." The day they needed to leave Chicago for game 6 in Cleveland was October 31. Rather than get to Cleveland early for more practice, he had the players take time to take their kids Halloween trick or treating. In a situation where every game was a "do or die" situation, they instead took time to remember to have fun. They arrived rested and relaxed, and the rest is history.

They take ownership. In that final game of the Series, when what looked like another Chicago Cubs death spiral was beginning to form and the rain delay hit, it was outfielder Jason Heyward who is credited with rallying the team in the locker room during the delay break. Maddon, who famously hates meetings, was in the dugout checking the weather report. It was the ownership that the individual players had taken in achieving the overall goal that motivated them to regroup, refocus, and move forward.

There was a magical quality watching this season unfold, just like there is when you watch an underdog music program finally succeed. You know that great things are happening, and you look forward to what might be coming next.

Here's to next year.




Because of a Band Trip

My whole life started because of a band trip.

OK, wait...that sounds worse than it is. What I mean is that so many of the incredible things that have become my life started because of a band trip. So many other incredible things that have become my life happened because of a band camp just a year earlier--but that's another story for another time. However, that one formative year set the course for pretty much everything that's happened since.

It was the summer before my senior year in high school, and our marching band had been invited to represent the state of Iowa in the National Independence Day Parade in Washington, D.C. I was drum major, and more important than leading the band down Pennsylvania Avenue in one of the most memorable experiences of my life would be the leadership experience the role would bring. That spring not only included a high level of performance preparation...with the pressure of knowing that our band was now on a national stage...but also the added layer of activity that accompanies a large venture like this.

Countless fundraisers. Intense teamwork. Lots of public events to generate support. And being drum major, I was often tapped as a representative face of the band...attending everything from Kiwanis breakfasts and Masonic Temple meetings to a ceremony with the Governor. I was the face of the band in other ways too...

That's me on the right. Note the look of uncontrollable teenage euphoria.

But the side benefit of all this was it helped my introverted self develop the key life skill of confidence in public speaking and presentations in front of an audience of strangers, something that in retrospect has contributed to not only professional success...but some fun opportunities. It is a skill that has served me well.

The trip itself was eye-opening of course. Up to that point, aside from a single family trip to Orlando, the boundaries of my travels had been Mt. Rushmore, Duluth, St. Louis and the Wisconsin Dells. This would be the largest and most diverse place I'd ever been, and I would see more of the country than I'd ever seen before. When we finally reached the Capitol, seeing all these sites that up to that point had been images in history books, movies, and the nightly news would whet an appetite for a bigger world.

Where did it go from there?

Because of a band trip, I eventually went into music education. I took my own groups on trips and broadened their circle of experiences in the same way. Eventually that led to a career as a performance travel planner, creating experiences for thousands more students.

Because of a band trip, I've been to the Rose Parade and the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade. I've met an Oscar winner and a Disney legend. I've seen landmarks from the Grand Canyon to the Big Apple. I've been on stage in some of the great concert halls of the world. And I've seen miracles happen when communities come together to reach a goal.

Because of a band trip, I can navigate cities far removed from my rural Iowa roots. I've come to understand other cultures rather than fear them. I've learned to accept other lifestyles and respect other beliefs and opinions rather than reject them. And I've met countless people who have touched my life in amazing ways.

Because of a band trip, I went to grad school. I kept learning and growing as a musician, and met incredibly talented people who became dear friends and colleagues. Because I went to grad school, I met my wife...and we have two outstanding, clever, fun and loving boys.

So, here's the thing. What if for me that band trip never happened?

That's the unfortunate reality for many students today. Finances and circumstances too many times don't allow for individuals, and often times entire groups, to have the kind of experiences that can be so formative. How many life trajectories could be changed for good if the resources were there?

This is why the SYTA Youth Foundation exists.

The philanthropic sister organization to the Student and Youth Travel Association (SYTA), the purpose of the SYTA Youth Foundation is to create ongoing awareness and assistance programs for the direct benefit of deserving youth who may not otherwise have these sort of opportunities. Their mantra: "Travel Changes Young Lives For Good."

Their various programs provide scholarships and grants that make it possible for these students to have the same kind of life changing experiences I had. My family and community were able to financially support this endeavor, and I was very fortunate in that regard. Thanks to SYF and their programs such as Silver Lining, Next Generation, the Ripley Hunter "World is a Classroom" Essay Contest and the Road Scholarship, the financial gap has been filled over the years for hundreds of youth who have been able to expand their horizons and have their lives changed for good. And yet, SYF has only been able to award approximately 12% of the requests they receive.

This is where we all come in as a community. At the recent SYTA conference in Orlando, my colleagues and I were honored to present a donation to the SYTA Youth Foundation on behalf of Festivals of Music, our sister organization Music In The Parks, and the Wells Foundation. This is one way we are proud to give back in gratitude of the success we have had within the performance travel industry.

As you can see from my face, this was much more enjoyable to pose with than a trash bag.

But more help is needed. If you can appreciate the difference that travel can make to a young person, the way it can open eyes and minds and futures undreamed of, we urge you to make a donation of any size to this worthwhile cause. Every dollar counts and helps a deserving student get one step further on a thousand mile journey.

I cannot even imagine the course my life would have taken had these experiences not been a part of my youth. How so many things would be different than the life I enjoy today.

Please support the SYTA Youth Foundation. Because a band trip can go much further than the bus will carry you.

First Year Music Teachers: The Adventure is Just Beginning



The 2016-17 school year is now or very soon will be underway. Our teenage sons are continually reminding us of this. And not in an enthusiastic way.

With the new year there will be a new wave of music educators, out of college and leaping into their first teaching job. And to any new teachers reading this we say, congratulations...welcome to one of the greatest and most important professions in the world. We've been where you are. Your adventure is only beginning.

Part of our mission here at Festivals of Music is to do all we can to provide helpful resources to teachers--whether new or experienced--in order to make the job somewhat easier and contribute to reversing the trend of shortened teaching lifespans among the music teacher population. Speaking for myself, burnout on the profession is something I know all too well.

Don't get me wrong--I'm very happy with my lives as a performance travel planner and now festival organizer. I've still considered myself an educator in these roles. But there are things I regret not having achieved or experienced during the time I was in the rehearsal room and concert hall.

Well, so far anyway...who knows what the future could bring. I could still be asked to conduct Lincolnshire Posy on a future Eastman Wind Ensemble concert. Admittedly, the only qualifier I have to that possibility is the fact that I'm still taking in oxygen. But there's always hope. 

Because being a resource for music educators is at the core of our philosophy, we have begun partnering with organizations such as the National Band Association to create online resources for music educators to assist not only musically, but with the day to day administrative tasks and challenges. These are the topics for which there is not as much collegiate training and is by nature "on the job" training. And, sadly, often the factors that lead to short tenures in the music education world.

We're tapping into a network of experienced teachers to bring together best practices on a number of topics, and you'll see more of that on our blog in the weeks and months to come. Stay tuned.

To jump start that process--we wanted to present some of the blog posts from the past year that might be most helpful to young teachers that are just beginning on their journey. Or, for that matter, experienced teachers just needing to see things through new eyes.

Here they are, at the risk of producing the equivalent of our blog's first "clip show":

  • Upon reflection of 25 years in great professions that can still be stressful, here's some thoughts on self care so that you can make it for the long haul.
  • One of the best things you can do for yourself is recharge at music conferences. For band and orchestra directors, here's some of the great things experienced last year at the Midwest Clinic. Consider attending if you haven't--we would love to see you there.
  • If one of the "to-dos" on your list this year is to take your ensemble on tour, we hope you'll give some thought to why and how this can best benefit your group.
  • If you are going to plan to tour with your group, here's reasons to consider a professional travel provider.
  • If on that tour you are considering a festival performance (and we hope you are!), here are ten reasons it can be the best option for your group. And, here are suggestions on how to get the most out of the experience.

There's more to come, and we look forward to sharing the journey with you. Bon voyage!


Ten Reasons to Perform in a Festival While on Music Tour




We lived in the Boulder, Colorado, area for nearly 15 years. If you've ever been there, you know that it is a bit of an eclectic place. Legally now.

One of our favorite things to do was to go downtown to the Pearl Street Mall, an outdoor open air plaza that was usually filled with street performers demonstrating a wide variety of talents. Poets, singers, and activists. Sometimes musicians with guitars or other instruments, always with a case open for spare change. The one that always drew a crowd was "the ZIP Code Guy." This was a person who could tell you the city and state where you lived if you told him your ZIP Code. Freaky, yet entertaining.

I often felt badly for the truly talented ones--and there were several. Here they were, pouring heart and soul and emotion into their performance art...surrounded by shoppers hustling about, the occasional siren screaming by, small children noisily running past them, and any number of other distractions that merely made them part of the scenery.

As the economy slowed in 2008, one of the natural trends in performance travel was to work to keep costs managed to allow as many students to participate as possible...it was a wise move and likely helped preserve travel traditions in countless music departments. One of the ways this was done was to find locations where groups could perform for low to no cost, thus being able to maintain the premise of a music tour and satisfy administrations and school boards by having musical content...while saving money in the process.

Open air plazas, shopping centers, lobbies or entrance areas of attractions and even observation decks in skyscrapers became places where groups could perform for little or no cost (besides the price of admission). The unfortunate trade-off was in the quality of the performance setting, and the acceptance of "good enough" for the cost. These talented musicians became simply part of the scenery, and this became a new normal for music tours.

As the economy improves, perhaps now is the time to reconsider this approach. And while it will obviously appear self-serving to hear this coming from a festival organization...in the bigger picture should consideration be given to the impression that use of these free locations makes regarding the value placed on music education? Is it truly "good enough" for our young musicians?

Compared to a free performance at an open public venue, a festival offers much more:

  • You are performing in a venue meant for music performance, in a location of acoustic and aesthetic quality where your musicians will be able to sound their best and truly showcase their talents.

  • You are in an indoor venue and not at the mercy of weather conditions. Many free venues are outdoor locations.

  • Nearly all equipment needs—large percussion instruments, piano, choral risers, music stands, chairs and sound systems—are included in your festival cost and readily available for use, rather than being rented and carted to and from the site. A self-contained performance location greatly simplifies your planning and allows you to focus on the performance.

  • You are not subject to repertoire and ensemble restrictions (as you may be in a church), noise levels (as you may be in a museum) or extraneous sound interruptions (as you may experience in an open plaza).

  • Audiences in a public venue are generally passive and transitory. At a festival, those in the audience are people who are engaged in and appreciate your work—whether they are adjudicators, other student performers or music booster parents (your own and perhaps those of other groups). They understand the hard work you put in to achieve what you do.

There is deeper educational and musical value added to your tour:

  • The commentary and clinics from the adjudication panel provide a variety of ideas, opinions and feedback from several experienced educators with differing viewpoints and expertise. This provides a wider range of ways to improve musicianship, all from a single performance.

  • The opportunity to hear other ensembles provides insight on what you may be doing well musically, what areas you can improve upon, and may introduce you to interesting unfamiliar works in the repertoire and other new ideas.

  • Listening to and supporting other ensembles develops community in the music education world, providing the opportunity to hear and interact with student musicians from many different areas and backgrounds. It makes our musical world more connected.

  • An accomplishment quality rating at a national level festival can provide a benchmark that can be a point of pride and program advocacy within your home community.

  • Even if not all of your ensemble members are able to attend, quality adjudication panels at an educationally focused festival understand these tour realities and are able to provide constructive observations in a confidence building manner.

Quality over Quantity. A meaningful music tour should include setting and achieving goals that lead to growth for the individual musician and the program as a whole, rather than a “checklist” of activities. If a performance is to be a part of your music tour plans, you want it to be a worthwhile opportunity that enhances the education and growth of your students and your program.

Ultimately a successful music tour is about balance--putting equal weight on the musical aspects and the fun activities. Making certain that the music portion is worthwhile and rewarding makes it easier to justify the truly long-term value of the experience.


How Band Geeks Vacation

Yes, the blog has been on a bit of a vacation. More like a hiatus. Perhaps sabbatical would be a better word.

In short, the busy festival season started, and unfortunately this fell by the wayside. Which I hate, because I love writing. But I wanted to give my full attention to the season, which was full of great successes, wonderful performances by our participating ensembles and a few lessons learned and ideas sprung that we are already implementing for the next season to continue improving what we do. More on that later.

For now, it's been summer and that means time for a well-earned breather.

We decided to take a week-long road trip to Washington, D.C. from Chicago. Our sons are in their early teens, so we thought they had reached that age where hiking around museums and monuments all day would be tolerable, and they might find some lasting meaning in the history immersion.

What we didn't take into account was immersion into heat and humidity both in the mid-90's all week. But we reminded them that hiking at Boy Scout camp was worse (OK...a lie...) and pressed onward. In the end, it proved to be a memorable and even educational week for them.

As I was looking over the photos I had taken, however, I did begin to see a trend. First, at the Smithsonian American History Museum where we found:




President Bill Clinton's tenor saxophone...




Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet, Herbie Hancock's keyboard, and a painting of Ella Fitzgerald by Tony Bennett




....and a display of Marine Band memorabilia.

Then there was Tuesday night, which we spent outdoors...after being in the heat all day...on the west steps of the Capitol Building in the sun...for a concert by the United States Air Force Band.




Beautiful setting though. And a program of repertoire that made the continued profuse sweating totally worth it.

The next evening we were wrapping up a long day of monument visits, and happened by the Capitol where the United States Marine Band was setting up for a concert. My wife and I looked at each other...paused...looked at our teenage sons, whose eyes and body language clearly screamed, "we need pizza and a shower...NOW", and thought better of it.

And on our final day on the way home at the Gettysburg Battlefield, where in that museum we found a display of Civil War era instruments:




And, not to be outdone, a group in Civil War era uniforms playing them outside:




That's when it hit me. This is how band geeks vacation.

Not that it's a bad thing. In fact, what it did was serve as a great reminder to just how much music has permeated our history and our culture. How important it has been in good times and bad. You realize that when you see these lovingly preserved instruments displayed next to the muskets and cannonballs that were also a part of those three tumultuous days at Gettysburg, and when you hear one of the reenacting musicians describe to the audience that this is how the soldiers would regain and retain calm on the battlefield. 

It makes you want to fight to preserve it more, whether it be threatened by a budget cutting school board or congressperson. You realize how meaningful it is in your life.

One more photo...this one being the end of a 23-year quest, that ironically was completed by a 10-minute morning walk from our hotel.


In 1993, when I took the high school band I was teaching in Iowa to Washington, D.C. one of the things I asked the bus drivers to do on the way to the Friday Night Parade at Marine Barracks was to swing by this small, unassuming row house located about two blocks away from the parade grounds. This was an important location to American music and band history, and I wanted these kids from small town Iowa to see what great things can come from humble beginnings. One of our buses made it down this small street; mine got lost and I never got to see it. Until last week.

It was in this small house in 1854 that a military bandsman, a trombonist named Antonio Sousa stationed just two blocks away at Marine Barracks, and his wife welcomed into their family a son...John Philip.

And the rest, as they say, is history.


In Memoriam: Jean-Baptiste Lully (Or, Don't Let the Job Kill You)


Last week was the anniversary of the death of Jean-Baptiste Lully, who died in 1687. A French composer of the Baroque Period, he was also one of the world's first conductors. And the job killed him.

No, seriously. Here's how it happened, and immediately qualified him for music history's first and, still probably best, Darwin Award.

He was conducting a performance of his Te Deum at a celebration of Louis XIV's recovery from surgery (irony alert). In those days, a conductor's baton was actually a long staff--somewhat similar to a mace like you would see a ceremonial drum major carry today in a military band. They kept time by banging the pointed end of the staff on the stage floor, which ultimately led to the creation of Dr. Beat...but that's another tragic story.

In his excitement, at one point Lully missed the stage and instead struck his toe. The wound developed gangrene, but Lully refused to have his leg amputated because he still wanted to be able to enjoy dancing. He died of blood poisoning in two months.



Fortunately, thanks to new advancements in modern baton technology, this is less of a problem.

We're about to dive into a time of year that, in all seriousness, can be hazardous to our health as music educators, festival organizers and travel planners. It is perhaps our busiest and most stressful time of year, and I have experienced it in all three of those vocations.

For music educators, we are simultaneously managing such things as solo and small ensemble contest, production of spring musicals, preparing for spring large ensemble festival and final concerts, submitting ever-shrinking budgets for the following school year, fighting over the calendar for the same coming school year, coordination of music for numerous end of year celebrations, possibly embarking on a spring tour, researching summer music camp options for our most dedicated students, hiring summer band camp staff, and finalizing and promoting multiple fundraising efforts to even be able to afford it all.

For travel planners, this is the point where everything you have been working on for the past 12 months or more comes to fruition in the span of three months of long days and short, sometimes worry-filled nights. Will a bus break down in the middle of Nebraska? Will that blizzard hit Denver and shut down the airport at the same time six groups are trying to fly to both coasts? Will that hotel forget about the 200-member group arriving tomorrow?

The festival organizer has similar worries. Will an adjudicator get the flu the night before the contest? Will the trophies arrive at the right place? I'm finding this is where the internal conversation of "festival organizer OCD" kicks into high gear. ("Did you order those four timpani to be delivered? Better check. Are you sure? Better check again.")

Behind all of this is one simple truth--we are this way because we want these experiences to be the best possible. We're all artists and we're wired for nothing less than excellence. If there is anything I've finally learned after 25 years experiencing the spring rush in these vocations, it comes down to two things.

First--be kind to yourself.

  • Take breaks--mental and physical--when you can. Preferably away from a computer screen.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for help.
  • Eat well, even (and especially) when you're on the road. I force myself to order salad more when I'm away from home.
  • Sleep well, or at least as best as you can. I've started using a sleep mask, and besides feeding my inner super hero it works wonders.
  • Exercise. This in my opinion is the world's best stress buster. We have a treadmill here that just recently broke down after 12 years of almost daily use. (Yeah, bad timing on that.) It has probably saved me more than I know.
  • Find a fun stress buster. One year during a particularly rough spring I got really good at Tiger Woods Golf on our Nintendo Wii. (Sadly the skill does not transfer into reality.)
  • Finally, when you mess up (and you will), simply this--take responsibility and own the problem. People will respect you infinitely more, and hiding it and being found out makes you feel infinitely worse. Then whenever possible fix the problem, because nothing feels better than that. Then move on.

Second--be kind to those around you.

  • Remember you're working together toward the same goals.
  • Remember to take care of each other.
  • Say "please" and "thank you". A lot.
  • A fun little surprise will make you both feel better.
  • Find the humor in the everyday. Laugh about the ridiculous things that happen. Because they do.
  • Finally, when someone else messes up (and they will), simply this--don't waste time playing the blame game. Focus on solving the problem. Give kindness and service, because nothing feels better than that. Figure out how to make it better the next time.Then move on. 
And, hopefully unlike Lully, you'll live to dance another day.


Live from West Chester University

One of the things we do here at Festivals of Music, besides planning and carrying out our spring festival season, is supporting educational opportunities and organizations that share our philosophy of promoting and enhancing music education in the schools. Last weekend, I had the pleasure of working with two of our partners in music education...all while listening to several great wind bands and watching remarkable conductors work their teaching magic.

And it was in a place where I'd never been before, but in many ways was like coming home.

The National Band Association held its Wind Symposium on the campus of West Chester University in Pennsylvania. We are just beginning a partnership with NBA where we'll be helping develop resources for both young and more experienced band directors, bringing together the expertise of years from their members and our network of participating directors to find out what kinds of materials and information will best serve their students and help them learn and grow in the profession.

Six high school bands from the area over the course of two days had the opportunity to work with three incredible wind conductors on a rotation basis. On hand were Kevin Sedatole of Michigan State University, M. Gregory Martin from West Chester University, and John Casagrande, current Executive Administrator of NBA and a long-time very successful director in the Fairfax County Schools of Virginia.

Each group had three 90-minute rehearsal segments...one with each of the guest conductors. They also had an opportunity to experience master classes with West Chester applied faculty, and a special morning warm up session with Sam Pilafian...tuba player extraordinaire, founding member of the Empire Brass and currently with the Boston Brass, and co-author of the "Breathing Gym" pedagogy text. For the band conductors, there was a fantastic round table discussion with the guest clinicians each day dealing with topics such as rehearsal planning and repertoire.

To top it all off, each day was capped with a "show and tell" by the three bands followed by a stunning performance by the West Chester University Wind Ensemble, led by their conductor Andrew Yozviak. Their portion of the concert included the brand new work by David Maslanka, Hosannas, written to honor conductor Gary Green of the University of Miami upon his retirement last spring. It is a phenomenally beautiful work.

The best part? This was all captured on video.

The entire event was being webcast by banddirector.com, and is the first of three concert band events that we are helping sponsor this spring. If you've not visited their website, it is a treasure trove of helpful videos, articles and performances by some of the most outstanding school bands in the nation. And the material from the weekend will be edited and archived onto the site in the coming days, so that directors can access it to watch the clinicians at work with the students on some terrific staples of the wind band repertoire.

But here was the simultaneously fun and terrifying part...they let me be on camera too.


My role was to offer the "play by play" of the weekend, alongside Sam Pilafian. I had never done anything like this before, and the good people at banddirector.com were taking an enormous leap of faith on me. Most people had always told me I had a face made for radio.

Improvising in performance has never been a strong suit for me. I'm a clarinetist for crying out loud. But Sam and Dave Knox of banddirector.com provided fantastic guidance and encouragement to me all weekend. Sam is a tremendous teacher, as you can see in this video where he gives someone you may know a tuba lesson.


It was one of the most fun things I've done recently. Part of the commentary was pulling the conductor out of the rehearsal about halfway through to interview him about what had happened so far and what they were going to work on next. Sort of like the way football coaches are interviewed on their way into the locker room at halftime, but without the impending explosive tension. It gave the viewers valuable insight into what had just been experienced and a preview of the thought processes for the rest of the rehearsal.

Watching from home, my wife told me I was much more relaxed on the second day. A good thing, because I'll be doing this twice more this spring for the Lawrence R. Sutherland Wind Festival at California State University-Fresno in March and the Illinois SuperState Festival in May.

The other wonderful thing about the weekend was finally visiting West Chester University. It was a full circle moment for me. I had never been there, but much of my life was influenced by this place...mostly without me knowing it until recently. Our Festivals of Music founder, Dr. James Wells, was the longtime Director of Bands at the school. Dr. Wells created an atmosphere of collaborative leadership at West Chester, and the leadership programs he created and developed here touched the lives of thousands of music students and future music educators. One of them being his drum major, a young man out of Delaware named George N. Parks.

I was a member of "George's Army" as we called it, back in 1982 in Whitewater, Wisconsin. That week was the initial step on my path to a career in music education, and so many of the incredible things I've had the opportunity to experience in my life trace back to that week. Including what I'm doing today.

As I stood in the lobby of the beautiful Madeline Adler Wing Theatre this weekend talking with John Villella, himself the former Director of Bands at West Chester and also an active part of Festivals of Music over the years, he told me that where I was standing used to be a big open field where the George N. Parks Drum Major Academy used to hold its summer sessions all those years ago. Hundreds of drum majors could be seen on this spot, learning their first conducting patterns, perfecting their marching technique, and developing their leadership skills...for some, likely their first steps into music education as well.

Yes, it was just like coming home.

A Conversation with Composer Michael Markowski: Part 2

In this continuation of an earlier post, we continue with Michael Markowski where we left off. He had just experienced his work joyRIDE being performed by his high school band in Carnegie Hall while a high school senior. That same spring he also had a work premiered by the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, a piece written for one of their family concerts where they would showcase music of many eras including the present...with his work being featured as that of an up and coming young composer. So with these musical successes he was about to begin at Arizona State University to study...film?

"I kind of thought that I would apply to college for music school and get my bachelors and masters and my doctorate and then I'd be a composer. But, that doesn't happen...I didn't do my homework basically. I was given an academic scholarship to Arizona State so I didn't even look at any other schools. I thought, 'Great, I don't have to pay for college. This is fantastic!', so I didn't even really look into the audition requirements.

"I didn't realize that Arizona State--at the time--didn't have a separate composition studio. They're a very fine performing school. And so in order to do composition you had to be admitted on an instrument, and had to pass an instrumental audition. And, I did not."

Yet, this turn of events may have ultimately contributed to his success as a composer rather than become a detriment. When I listen to his works, I told him the word "cinematic" keeps coming back to me...quite simply, to me it just contains that quality and feel. I asked him how the study of film contributed to his compositional style.

"I think the way that film background has influenced my writing has been that film making is a storytelling medium. I think we forget that music is also capable of telling some kind of story, not in the sense that music has to be programmatic...but there has to be in my opinion some kind of dramatic arc. Something has to change from the beginning to the end to make it worth the journey. It has to feel like a complete thing, in my opinion.

"Music can have its moments, it can be whatever it wants to be. But if I'm going to spend more than five minutes listening to something I need to go somewhere with it. I definitely think that storytelling structure that I learned from screenwriting is applicable to the music that I write. So I think 'cinematic' is a beautiful word for it."

His works seem to contain some deep meaning to them, rather than sounding formulaic and "churned out" simply to have something to send to a publisher. I asked him about the emotional energy that must require. While he said that not every piece needs to be serious, the storytelling aspect of the compositional process can be emotionally exhausting.

"It's often about what you're not saying. That's what's important--the subtext of it all. And that's really hard to do with instrumental music. You can do it when you have words, you can do it when you have a script...but to try to find that metaphor is very difficult. I spend a lot of time thinking about what does this piece mean for me on a personal level, and what is this piece going to potentially mean for a listener who's never heard it before, and what is this going to mean for the performer and director who has to spend eight weeks playing it."

He said it gets more challenging not to repeat yourself after awhile, but he works very hard to keep surprising himself. He likened it to giving himself a new assignment each time...to try something new, perhaps something as simple as writing a piece spotlighting an instrument he hasn't featured previously.

Last spring Markowski and I first had the opportunity to meet. The La Quinta High School Wind Symphony was in New York City to perform at Carnegie Hall, part of a concert series by Manhattan Concert Productions...just like with his own Dobson High School ten years earlier. The band was performing his City Trees, and had invited him to the clinic where they would be working on the piece with guest clinician Dr. Gary Green of the University of Miami. I asked him if that was a nice "full circle" moment for him.

"It was amazing, of course, and easy to reflect on the last ten years. I don't think 18-year-old me would have thought that 28-year-old me would be in the same place...sort of in the (John) Mackey role at that point. I've been really lucky to have not only that....I got to meet a couple of groups, one or two that actually did joyRIDE so it was sort of like a homecoming. It's funny when life throws you those opportunities a bit, sort of winks at you like that."

And what advice does he have for young composers just starting out on this path?

"This is terrible advice, but just to write as much as he or she can. No young composer wants to hear that, because that's a lot of work (laughs). But write a lot and don't be afraid to show it to people for feedback."

Laughing again, he said, "I hate all my pieces to a certain degree, but we're always our own worst critic. If the goal is for your music to be heard by others and played by others you have to be able to put on a different hat and step away from your baby. It ultimately comes down to the piece of music that you've written. If it's not a good piece of music, no amount of marketing is going to help it. But if it's a good piece of music it will market itself. It's really remarkable."

You can learn more about the music of Michael Markowski--including works for wind band, orchestra, chamber music, theater and film scores--by visiting his website at http://www.michaelmarkowski.com/.

A Conversation with Composer Michael Markowski: Part 1

Perhaps one of the greatest things about the Midwest Clinic in December is the opportunity to spend time talking with the incredible people on all sides of the music education world. What can be especially rewarding is to talk to the composers who create the outstanding music that conductors and performers enjoy, and to get the know the real people behind the name printed in the upper right hand corner of the page.

One of the best young composers whose catalogue and successes are rapidly growing in the wind band area is Michael Markowski, and I had the opportunity to talk with him early one morning as the exhibit hall was just beginning to come alive for the day. In the first part of this blog series, we discussed how he got his start at a very young age.

Like so many of us Markowski got his start in music in the public schools, beginning to play saxophone in fifth grade in his hometown of Mesa, Arizona. His compositional career began about two years later in the late 1990's, courtesy of a Christmas gift from his father--whom he described as "sort of like a software engineer, technology geek" but who also played a little piano on the side.

"He bought a little keyboard and some MIDI cables and hooked it up to my computer and showed me how to sequence using some software....And I was just hooked. For the next couple of years in middle school that's all I would do. I'd come home, do my homework and then write all night. I didn't know what I was doing, but just being able to have that music shown visually on the screen on staves you start to make connections with harmony--and you can start to visually see counterpoint."

When he got to high school, with his experience writing music for computer he began to seek a composition mentor at the nearby Arizona State University in Tempe. Someone referred him to Karl Schindler, at the time a doctoral student at ASU, who took on the tenth grader as a student.

"He's just an amazing teacher, in a lot of ways. I don't know that we ever talked about 'Here's how you write music, here's how you orchestrate'...every week I'd bring him what I'm working on, and he'd give me feedback on things to think about and work on. And we'd listen to other music that might somehow relate to what I was working on at the time. He was just a great teacher. In retrospect, he was really remarkable at encouraging and teaching by stepping out of the way."

As is the case with so many great teachers. Another great teacher in his life was his high school band director, Jon Gomez, the leader of the renowned Dobson High School band program. At about the same as he was beginning his work with Schindler, he started summer conducting lessons with Gomez. As it turns out, he discovered rather quickly that wasn't an area of interest for him.

"But we started talking about composition. He started showing me band scores. We started doing some really basic score study." He brought him an SATB choir piece that he had been working on, seeking some feedback. Gomez' reaction was that the piece would transcribe beautifully for wind band. Two months later, Markowski had a completed transcription of his first large ensemble work in the conductor's hands. As he recalls, Gomez was kind enough to spend part of a rehearsal reading the piece down, and he recounts the experience:

"I have a recording of that first reading session. And....the piece is so bad, it train-wrecked. It's a very slow piece, and it train-wrecks. I don't know how you train-wreck when you're going 5 miles per hour, but it happened. There's a random, Charlie Parker-like transcribed solo...it didn't make sense at all. And the band, they're giggling and trying not to hurt my feelings but it's pretty obvious that it was a pretty bad piece of music.

"But I learned more that day than I have the past 15 years, that was a huge moment."

He took the feedback from the experience, and set to work rewriting the piece. They read it again, and he went back and changed it again. Yet another reading session, yet another set of rewrites. Four revisions later, the piece was programmed on the wind ensemble's concert. With that year of considerable writing growth behind him, and going into his senior year, his next success was not far behind.

The entire Dobson High School Music Department had been invited to perform in what some would consider the ultimate venue, Carnegie Hall in New York City, as part of a program created by Manhattan Concert Productions. To mark the occasion, conductor Gomez proposed an idea.

"Jon Gomez approached me and said, 'You know, you should write something to commemorate this. Just a short concert opener, traditional but also fresh.' He basically gave me the assignment verbatim. 'You know, something joyful, like Ode to Joy, in some kind of contemporary minimalist style like Short Ride (in a Fast Machine).' I think we had read Short Ride and it was just too tough...but the band loves the piece, or at least the style. And I remember the first draft took ten days to write, and then we did one set of revisions and read it." That work would become joyRIDE.

One of the interesting things that happened, and perhaps a bit of career foreshadowing, he recounts in the program notes:


It was the afternoon dress rehearsal and we had just played through joyRiDE for the first time in that historic hall when a young John Mackey bolted down the aisles and onto the stage, in classic Mackey fashion. We were headlining our portion of the concert with John's early piece, Redline Tango, but he hadn't run on stage for that. To my surprise, he grabbed my arm and said, "you have to hear it out there!" He gestured out towards the twenty-eight hundred empty red velvet seats for no more than a second before dragging me offstage and into the house to listen to another run-through, this time as an audience member.

Just then, it dawned on me that I'd only ever heard my music as a performer in the performing ensemble, or on a recording, or while awkwardly sitting at the edge of the stage, or from the last fleeting echo from a final chord as it washed out into the hall, decaying into nothingness. I guess I hadn't ever really heard my music before from this point-of-view. This was the very first time I'd ever been invited to simply sit back and enjoy what I had created.

Sitting next to John in the back of Carnegie Hall, listening to some of my best friends onstage bring such amazing energy and passion to my music, I felt like one-of-the-guys—I remember thinking, "Hey! This music thing might just be crazy enough to work out!" It felt surreal, refreshing, inspiring, and, of course, like it was over too soon. Over the years, I've been lucky to share a growing friendship and remarkable collegiality with John, but I've never quite gotten over how powerful that moment was.


When I asked Markowski what that felt like, being a high school senior and having a piece you had written being performed in that historic location, his response put it in a wonderful context.

"The thing I remember most about that night was just after we played the piece and looking up into those box seats and seeing all my friends in the orchestra and just cheering...for not only me, but all of us. To be there with your friends and to have such an appreciative audience means the world. The history's cool too--I don't think it mattered to me then."

So where do you go after Carnegie Hall? The answer, which we'll discuss next week, might surprise you.


Prevent a Blizzard of Worries: Have a Travel Planner

As I write this, Winter Storm Jonas is bearing down on the east coast, bringing with it advisories ranging anywhere from "blowing and drifting" to "repent your sins." And as I sit here and contemplate, two things consistently go through my mind:

  • We're really naming these after boy bands now?
  • Thank goodness this isn't tour season.

Even though I don't plan group travel anymore, I have a lot of longtime friends and colleagues who do...and I feel their pain. When the weather wreaks havoc like it is this weekend, it can be an extremely stressful time for even the most seasoned travel experts. I remember many times in December or March or April, being glued to The Weather Channel, watching radar reports and looking at my list of what groups were where and when. It didn't even have to be bad where they were going, or where they were leaving. A shut down of a major hub like Denver or Chicago-O'Hare could put a full stop to plans simply by the ripple effect it creates.

Travel planning is not for the faint of heart.

I was extremely fortunate...meaning, I was extremely lucky. I only had a handful of groups that were adversely affected by travel weather conditions over a twelve year period. One of those was a group that couldn't return to Colorado because of a blizzard there, and were forced to spend another day at their destination.


Yeah, probably shouldn't include them on the "adversely affected" list.

I was also fortunate in that, even though I was the travel planner, I had a support team of people in my organization who were true experts when it came to working with the airlines and navigating the waters when weather created challenges. It is not a job that I would have wanted to take on.

Unfortunately, in a lot of ways dealing with weather situations while traveling has become even more difficult in recent years.

  • Global warming arguments aside, weather events appear to be more extreme and at stranger times of the year.
  • The trend I have seen with airlines is that they are downsizing more aircraft, which means fewer seats. For large groups this means you are on more flights, creating more exposure to delay potentials due to weather.
  • The other trend I have seen is a tendency for airlines to preemptively cancel flights before weather sets in. This happened today with at least one airline cancelling most of their flights in the northeast.

Consider those last two points in particular. You have lots of cancelled flights, with far fewer available seats. And everybody wants them. While the circumstances may not change--your group is going to be stuck on the C Concourse for awhile--you have to ask yourself this question:

"Do I want to be the one trying to fix this?"

There are many groups that for varied reasons will make their own travel arrangements. They want full control of the plans, they're familiar with the destination, or--most likely based on what I've seen--they want to save cost by doing the work in house. And that might seem OK when things are going great.

Here's the thing: if you're in line at the ticket counter and Jim Cantore and the Weather Channel crew are walking past with microphones and cameras...things are not going great.

A travel professional working on your behalf is vital in conditions like this.

  • Because their relationship with the airlines involves not just your group, but spans multiple groups over several years of experience, they know how to best advocate for you. They can help you make the best of a bad situation.
  • Once you have the flight crisis solved, what's next? Do you need hotel rooms for an additional night? Do you need a bus to get there? Something to do the next day with a hundred bored teenagers who just wanted to go home? Or worse--thought they would be spending the day at Disney World and instead are devising ways to turn the baggage carousel into a thrill ride? They can solve multiple concerns for you.
  • Perhaps most important, and often overlooked. With them focusing on the travel issues, you can focus on the kids and make sure they're in good shape--keeping morale up against the disappointment of delay. They need reassurance from you that work is being done to get their adventure back on track as soon as possible. 

If you already work with a trusted travel planner, you know that these are the moments where they truly shine and their value is pure gold. If you don't--you have to ask yourself if whatever you saved was worth it at a time like this.

My advice? These people are professionals. Don't try this at home.