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?

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