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:
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!