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.


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.


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 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 wonder....is 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?