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!



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