The Intangible Benefits of the Awards Ceremony

Much has been said about the place of competitions as related to music ensembles and the perceived benefits or educational approach to such an event. Regardless of philosophical stance, an awards ceremony can be a fun and rewarding culminating event for a performance festival experience.

If you’ve been to a Festivals of Music awards ceremony, you already know that it is an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of all of the participants and to say “thank you” to the directors and student performers for their hard work and dedication to pursuing excellence in music education. It is also our way of thanking the parents, administrators, and travel professionals for supporting the endeavors of these young musicians by providing the opportunity to participate in our programs. Our approach is much more focused on achievement set against a standard of performance quality, rather than “who scored higher than whom” and gets bragging rights.

One of our signature awards in fact has nothing to do with points on a judge’s sheet or even music notes on a page. The Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser Esprit de Corps Award is given to the group that exhibits the best example of camaraderie, support and enthusiasm for other groups, and positive representation of their school and community. It tends to be the award that generates the most excitement at our awards ceremonies, and is always presented last.

Aside from the ceremony itself, in recent years we have upgraded many of our awards ceremony sites to provide additional benefit by holding the event at locations unique to the host city that have historic or educational significance. This is coupled with added value of cost and time, given that the sites are typical “must see” places on most itineraries. For example:

  •  In Boston, our site celebrates a favorite son of the city and the 35th President of the United States. The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum holds a tremendous collection of artifacts and tells the story of his life and presidency.
  •  In Chicago, the Museum of Science and Industry has a wide range of exhibits that touches upon many areas of science, history, and culture. It is a popular location in a city with some of the best museums in the world.
  •  In New Orleans, in a nod to their role in the manufacture of D-Day landing craft and to hometown author Stephen Ambrose, the National World War II Museum both outlines the course of the war and pays touching tribute to the Greatest Generation who lived it.
  •  In New York, history and science combine in the Intrepid Air, Sea, and Space Museum. Housed on a decommissioned aircraft carrier, students can learn both the incredible history of the ship and see the wide ranging aircraft on display…from World War II and Vietnam era fighter craft to a Concorde SST airliner and beyond. There is extra “wow” factor this year as we’ll be holding the ceremony in the Space Shuttle Pavilion…literally handing out awards underneath the space shuttle Enterprise.
  • In Philadelphia, the birth of the United States is featured at the National Constitution Center. A highlight of the visit is a multimedia presentation titled Freedom Rising, telling the story of our Founding Fathers and quest to form “a more perfect union.”
  • Washington, D.C. is a city known for museums, and one of the newest is the Newseum. Dedicated to journalism and preservation of freedom of the press, the museum is a treasure trove of artifacts and stories that show how reporting the news has been key to knowing and understanding our history.

These cross-curricular opportunities can help directors more easily justify approval of their plans, combining their music events with experiences that touch on subjects of science, history, and civics…perhaps helping “keep the peace” with their fellow teachers whose students they are taking out of the classroom for a few days for a music-oriented tour.

This is one of many ways we seek to provide you more value and benefit as part of your Festivals of Music experience. Don’t miss out on these incredible locations!

The Best Laid Plans for your Festival Day

It's no surprise that bringing your ensemble to perform in a quality festival experience can be an educationally rewarding opportunity for musical growth. As a teacher, the ability to have your group perform and receive feedback from experts in the field helps them improve as musicians and helps you improve as a conductor--and usually reinforces the lessons you teach from the podium every day!

Along with the musical preparation necessary for success, an additional important ingredient to remember is to set a pace for the performance day that will allow your group to be at its best. This means not packing every moment of the day full of activities, but rather building a lighter and more flexible schedule into the day. And while it may run antithesis to common thought, you will likely find that it will make for a more optimal experience in the long run.

Your musicians need to be in a condition (physically and mentally) to perform at their best to avoid all your preparation being for nothing. That means they need to have had adequate rest and arrive at the festival with sufficient time to warm up, tune, and otherwise prep for the performance. Just as much as you want to gain the most "value" of your sightseeing time, don't overlook getting the most value out of the cost of your festival experience.

Plus think of the ancillary advantages:

  • Having one or two fewer attractions added to the festival day might save you some overall cost.
  • One of the things that we know is always good for young musicians is to listen to other ensembles. Taking the time to sit in the audience to listen to other groups in the festival is a great and usually no-cost way to make this happen. (And, it teaches the importance of concert etiquette and being an appreciative supporter of fellow musicians.
  • It's always possible that one of the other ensembles will perform a work your group is doing later in the year, or that you're planning to introduce next season. Who might even hear a new or unfamiliar work that will be perfect for your ensemble.
  • This will help you avoid having to deal with possible schedule conflicts. The reality of most festival situations is that for many and varied reasons performance schedules often can't be finalized until closer to the date, or may change at the last minute. We all know there are times when events unexpectedly run behind schedule. Setting up an admission activity for that day could lead to losing funds that were spent on tickets that will go unused....and the associated unnecessary stress. 

Instead, plan flexible activities for the festival day that are not dependent on a particular time--exploring parts of the city in chaperone groups, seeing unique neighborhoods or parks or doing some souvenir shopping, for example. Or simply take the time to hear some of your fellow performing ensembles--they'll likely be grateful for having you in the audience, and maybe will return the favor and stay for your performance. What a tremendous way to build community.

Certainly you always want your musicians to have a fun and memorable experience. However, you also want them to take full advantage of these opportunities to have a performance that reflects the hours of preparation you've dedicated (and the true quality of your program) or to completely absorb the wisdom of a renowned clinician. A "less is more" approach will usually lead to a quality over quantity result...and allow you to keep the musical and educational focus that is critical to the success of your program always at the heart of what you do.

Leadership Lessons From Wrigley Field


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.

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!

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.

More Than You Can Chew...and Even Harder to Swallow

It was one of those moments where stubbornness and inexperience collided head on.

It was my first job, and reality was setting in. I had impatient dreams of soaring to the top of the band world pyramid....and here I was in what I felt was the most isolated antechamber possible. It was a small northwest Iowa school where I was responsible for all things band and at least one lunch duty per week, in a position that had been a revolving door for much of the past decade.

This was not what I signed on for. But, being the optimist....I was going to make the most of it and bring a high quality music experience to these high school musicians.

All 23 of them. 8 clarinets, 6 flutes, 3 saxes, 2 trumpets, 2 baritones and 2 percussionists.

I was determined to help this ensemble stretch and grow as musicians, and expose them to the finest repertoire that we could cover with the limited instrumentation we had. One afternoon, after scouring our ancient library top to bottom, and quite possibly in a moment of desperate exhaustion, I had found my solution. Fantastic literature. Limited voicing, not extreme ranges or tremendously difficult technique required. Here it was: Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring by Johann Sebastian Bach. Transcribed by Eric Leidzen.

Most of you reading this now can likely imagine the musical train wreck that followed.

Somewhere, I just KNEW this guy was laughing at me.

In my heart, and in the rational parts of my brain, I realized this was not working. Instinct was screaming find something else. But that little voice, the one you usually think is your friend, kept saying don't give in.....if you do you'll regret it. They'll know you're a pushover when things get tough. If you quit on this they'll OWN you. And in a moment of weakness I listened and bought in, and pressed on all the way to the concert. To this day, quite possibly the worst moments I've had on the podium. Ever.

Sadly, we see this happen sometimes on the festival stage. The groups that program over their capabilities. And it's a terribly uncomfortable moment for all involved--the adjudicators, the audience, the person on the podium and most of all the performers. There can be any number of reasons why this happens, but the results end up the same regardless.

The great news is this--compared to when I led my group down the path to implosion, there are now a wealth of works out there at multiple levels being written by established composers with artistic merit. This makes it possible for you to provide works of quality to your musicians without having to constantly push the envelope of their abilities.

This isn't a suggestion to take the "easy road"--certainly a degree of challenge promotes growth in your ensemble, and that's important as well. But finding the balance point of challenge and accessibility has tremendous benefits in the festival setting:

  • This ensures that your clinicians or adjudicators will have something to share with you that can genuinely make a difference. If you're still chasing notes and rhythms on a complex work, they can't get to the musical aspects....the factors where their expertise leads to the most growth.

  • If your musicians are less worried about getting notes and rhythms right, you can focus more on pitch, blend and tone quality. This INSTANTLY can lead to a better performance.

  • It is more intrinsically rewarding to perform something of artistic quality well rather than a formulaic work written to make ensembles sound good. And your choice of substance will likely be viewed better with the adjudicators who will see the educational value of your choice.

  • It shows your group at its best abilities, which is optimal for everyone involved....the students, the staff, and of course...YOU! (And the adjudicators don't mind either.)

Hindsight is always 20/20. Had I to do it over again, I would have realized that finding a different work that would challenge my group but still have the potential for success was a much more positive and less stressful and embarrassing outcome. I learned then that the voice (call it ego, call it fear, call it what you will) had no business dictating the direction of my ensemble. I learned to find that balance, and it led to better performance and education as a result through my conducting career 

What do you feel are the "gems" out there that are achievable yet can challenge an ensemble and have artistic value? Where do you go to find them? Share your thoughts and titles!

The Top 3 Things from the 2015 Midwest Clinic

Happy New Year 2016!

Right before the holidays we were in the midst of the 2015 Midwest Clinic in Chicago, an annual gathering of band and orchestra music educators and the music industry professionals who support the work they do with their student musicians. An earlier post described my first experience at Midwest and this year for me hearkened back to the energizing quality of that initial visit, as my time at the conference was spent in a much different way than before.

What did I feel were the top three things about the Midwest Clinic this year?

1. The Crowds

I'm generally not a fan of crowds. Times Square at Midnight, Wal-Mart on Black Friday, midnight showings of Star Wars...not places you're going to find me. But I love being in the crowd at Midwest and similar conferences. It creates an atmosphere that just feels electric, full of a synergy that can spark incredible opportunities and collaborations.

We kept hearing there were record numbers of attendees, and it showed. What this tells me...especially seeing so many young directors and college students that the heart of music education is strong. However, we need to remember to stay vigilant and support these young professionals in order to combat burnout and keep their vitality present in the field.

2. The App

Yes...there's an app for that. And it's fantastic.

If you're going to Midwest next year and didn't get this for your smartphone, get it. If you are the coordinator of a state music conference, you need to talk to these developers.

I had this app last year, but either I wasn't paying attention in 2014 or they ramped this up by leaps and bounds for 2015. Not only does it list the exhibitors, clinics, concerts, etc.--it allows you to create lists of sessions and exhibitors to visit (and keep notes right in the app), check off who you've visited, manage your schedule, send messages, get alerts, find your way around the hall, connect on social media, etc. There was even a scavenger hunt for the exhibit hall that was managed via the app.

This is a brilliant, convenient tool that I found tremendously helpful. Kudos to the Midwest team for developing this.

3. The Value of Connection

As I said earlier, I spent my days much differently this time around and it was like experiencing the clinic from a new vantage point. This time, rather than confining myself to the booth I spent the vast majority of the days visiting with other exhibitors.

Much of my time was spent talking with the many travel companies with which we collaborate to bring our festival experience to performing ensembles nationwide. We talked about the needs of their clients and what will create the optimal performance and educational opportunities for them. There were also numerous meetings with various organizations in the music education field where we are developing collaborations that we hope will provide helpful resources and new opportunities for music educators and their ensembles. These conversations will lead to some very positive outcomes that you will begin to see us implement in the months and years ahead. It's a very exciting time!

And what was reinforced to me through all those conversations, what I've learned in 15 years being in the industry area of the music education world, is the true nature and passion of most of these businesses and organizations and the people behind them. These are individuals who want to help you make music with your students more effectively, more efficiently, with greater benefits and cherished memories created in the process. They are not just trying to sell you something.

They are often the unsung heroes of music education.

This is why I think the people who avoid the exhibit hall at conferences, the ones who claim they don't want to get bombarded by salespeople, are truly missing out. And so are their programs. When you go to your state conference--and we are poised on the beginning of that season--please take the time to visit these dedicated individuals. The truly great ones are here to serve you, to act as adjunct faculty if you will, and to further your cause. Because we're all in this together.

Best wishes and prosperity in the New Year!

The Game Changer

It was an early fall evening, and I'm cruising down I-94 on my way to church choir rehearsal. I'm listening to my go-to radio station, WFMT---classical, 98.7 FM on the dial. Yes, I still listen to radio. When people ask me what I love about living in Chicago, that's high on the list. They play more and more wind band music, but I'd always like to hear more. I like to think it's Carl Grapentine's influence. (For that reason alone, I consider him the "Best Radio Personality on the Face of the Planet", hands down. He's band people.....he gets us.)

They're playing the final movement of Bedrich Smetana's Ma vlast, the six symphonic poems that includes the one everyone knows....The Moldau. Tonight they're playing Blanik, one that I've never heard before. Powerful stuff--big, bold....great highway driving with the windows down music.

When suddenly, unexpectedly, there it is. An eight note motif that instantaneously transports me back nearly 30 years.

Ba Ba Baaa Baaaaaah.......BA ba baaa BAAAAAH.

An old Hussite war hymn, "Ye Warriors of God and His Law." Not that I'm Hussite, or know any of the words. I wouldn't know a Hussite if he walked up to me on the street. Unless he's wearing a button that said "Kiss Me, I'm Hussite" or something like that. I live in Chicago, it could happen.

That single work. Music For Prague 1968 by Karel Husa. That changed how I viewed and heard wind band music from that point on.

It was 1985, and I was essentially a second year freshman at South Dakota State University. I had dumped my engineering major and was embarking on a music education degree. Jim McKinney was the new Director of Bands and had made a bold programming choice for the upcoming SDMEA Conference, hosted on campus and at which the Symphonic Band would be one of the featured ensembles. No pressure.

For most of us, we had experienced a pretty standard band upbringing. Some of us had the British standards under our belts--Holst, Grainger, Vaughan Williams. Others had been raised on a diet of Claude Smith and James Swearingen. But the Husa was something entirely different. Strange tonalities. Extreme registers on our instruments. Repeating improvised patterns ad lib. (Wait, wasn't that for jazz people? Sorry, I play clarinet...that doesn't work for me. Where are my notes?) And there was one commonality we all agreed upon.

We hated the piece. Desperately.

Rehearsals were stressful, draining affairs. Every time we walked in and saw Prague written on the chalkboard we steeled ourselves for what the next 90 minutes would bring. It was the talk of the practice rooms and the weekend parties. (Yes, this is what band people talk about at parties. Now you know.) And all the while the looming undercurrent of the February concert, with all those music teachers in the audience, and wondering if this was going to be a colossal flop.

But slowly....gradually....things started to click. The music and the imagery started coming together and taking shape. The lone bird call of peace. The bell towers of the city. The tanks rolling in. We were beginning to "get it"--now we would get three steps forward before taking one step back. But progress continued, and by the time the concert arrived we had immersed ourselves into the spirit of the work. It is still one of the most memorable performances of which I have been a part. Like so many great leaps of faith, Mr. McKinney's gamble had paid off--and in the process we had all grown to a new level of musicianship and appreciation of our art.

As the years continued, there were more pieces that changed the landscape for me. The Solitary Dancer by Benson. From a Dark Millennium by Schwantner. Holsinger's Liturgical Dances. These were works of substance and quality that had grabbed and challenged my artistic soul and wouldn't let go. And they would later influence the kind of works that I would put in front of my own bands as a conductor.

Yet I it the work, or the times in which we are preparing it? Would Prague have meant as much without the pressure of the conference performance, and of stretching our abilities beyond our comfort zones? (I wonder the same about my grad school experience years later, preparing David Maslanka's Symphony #4 while it was still in manuscript, for a week long residency by the composer.)

Perhaps it is some of both.


I've sadly not played the Husa since. I'd love to revisit it now, but with the maturity that the years bring. When I look at the score now, comparative to some of the new repertoire for wind band it almost seems "conventional"--not to suggest it also seems easier. I keep dropping the hopeful hint with the conductor of the adult wind ensemble I play in now. I think it would be like visiting your childhood home as an adult.....familiar, yet vastly different.

What was your "game changer" piece of music literature?

Getting the Most out of Your Festival Experience

NOTE: This story appeared in the November 2015 Choral Director Magazine and December 2015 School Band and Orchestra Director Magazine.

As soon as I saw my French horn section taking a nap outside the auditorium, I knew we were in trouble.

It had been three long days in the theme parks, including a parade performance that consumed much of an afternoon. Late nights taking in every last ride and fireworks finale was beginning to take its toll. And now on the day of our adjudicated performance that we had worked so hard to prepare musically, the energies were starting to fade.

Well, I thought. So Childrens March and Nimrod are going to go really well today.

Fortunately, the troops rallied. We somehow, somewhere, got a second wind, went onto stage and performed wonderfully….ending up receiving first place in our division. Deep down I knew we had dodged a bullet that could have shot down weeks of preparation and deflated the confidence of the students in the wind symphony. I had learned my lesson.

It's no surprise that bringing your ensemble to perform in a quality festival experience can be an educationally rewarding opportunity for musical growth. As a teacher, the ability to have your group perform and receive feedback from experts in the field helps them improve as musicians and helps you improve as a conductor--and usually reinforces the lessons you teach from the podium every day!

Along with the musical preparation necessary for success, an additional important ingredient to remember is to set a pace for the performance day that will allow your group to be at its best. This means not packing every moment of the day full of activities, but rather building a lighter and more flexible schedule into the day. And while it may run antithesis to common thought, you will likely find that it will make for a more optimal experience in the long run.

Conventional wisdom usually falls into one or more of the following camps:

  • A full schedule means less idle time for problems to arise

  • We've come all this way to "x" destination so we need to make the most of every minute to get our money's worth

  • I don't want the students complaining that they're bored

  • This may be the only time some of these students get to travel to "x" location, so we need to see everything and can't spare any down time

All valid reasoning, but consider the following as well: your musicians need to be in a condition (physically and mentally) to perform at their best to avoid all your preparation being for nothing. That means they need to have had adequate rest and arrive at the festival with sufficient time to warm up, tune, and otherwise prep for the performance.


I can't tell you how many times I've seen groups arrive at a festival (or clinic, or workshop, or rehearsal with a guest conductor) where the students are in a "fog" or even beginning to nod off because they have been running at such a breakneck pace since they arrived in the city and are exhausted from getting little sleep combined with being "on the go". This becomes magnified if your group is performing as part of a mass ensemble (such as a bowl game performance or collaborative choir) and affects the performance quality of fellow musicians who have also worked hard--and often paid a substantial amount--for this opportunity. Now your sluggish and seemingly unprepared or uncaring musicians are branded as "that ensemble" for the duration of the event. Not a fun place to be.


Add to that the effect of "sensory overload" present in some locations. Believe me, I love Times Square and theme parks as much as the next person....but the constant lights, sounds and crowds are cumulatively overwhelming. Throw into the mix doing this all while probably on a diet of more fast food, snacks and caffeinated sodas than usual....even for teens. This is where exhaustion can very quickly transform to sickness and take performers out of commission.


Then there are the cases of the groups who arrive for their event late due to unexpected traffic issues because they were squeezing in another attraction. Or had "that one student" who got stuck in the museum gift shop, or lost track of time, etc. The students leap off of the bus, hurriedly grab (or toss) instruments and concert wear out of the bus bays and go dashing to a warm up room while slapping a reed on a mouthpiece or organizing their music....all while harried chaperones and directors are prodding them to move quickly. Not exactly conducive to creating a memorable rendition of a lush, serene Grainger work.


Being a parent gives me a new perspective on this. You know those parents that you see at “X” theme park? The ones who look like they’re on their last nerve, about to fall over, with two kids under 10 in tow having the “meltdown to end all meltdowns” due to missed naptime because they didn’t want to sacrifice having a magical experience?

Yeah, this is you now. Except its performance time and you have to hit the stage, not take everyone for Dole Whips.