Monday Morning Music: Blow It Up, Start Again

When classical music gets mixed with the popular genre, you get some fun music. When mixed with dub-step, you get Blow It Up, Start Again. It is this week’s “Monday Morning Music.”

Each composer has their own style of writing, even when they study with the same teachers. The composition studio of John Corigliano is one of the best in recent memory. the Pulitizer Prize Winning composer lists some of the best writers of music currently working. Many of us are familiar with John Mackey, Steven Bryant, and Eric Whitacre. But there is one other composer from the Corigliano tree worth knowing.

That is Jonathan Newman.

Newman was part of the BCM International composer-consortium along with Bryant and Whitacre, and Jim Bonney. Currently, Newman serves as Director of Composition & Coordinator of New Music at Shenandoah Conservatory.

Musically, Newman is known for creating works that are sophisticated, rhythmically driven, and incorporating characteristics of popular music. For example, his major work Symphony No. 1: My Hands are a City is a multiple movement composition featuring various American styles of music. The opening movement is filled with 1950’s bebop jazz flavor with pentatonic scales being pushed through in syncopated rhythms. The second movement is reminiscent of Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland. And Lester Young’s solo to Lester Leaps In is the foundation of the final movement.

For this week’s Monday Morning Music, I present to you a unique mix from the pen of Jonathan Newman. It is the combination of orchestra and dub-step, the electronic dance music made popular in the 1990s. With its sparse rhythms and wobbly bass line, Newman’s Blow It Up, Start Again is a head-bopping groove of orchestral awesomeness. Originally, the work was composed for orchestra and was transcribed for winds. It is the fun we all need.

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The video below is a recording of the work performed by the Florida State University Wind Orchestra and includes portions of the score. You can see the intricacy of the rhythms and watch how the trombones set the grove. It is worth a few viewings just for the score.

Rehearsal Techniques: Expressive words will create expressive playing

Rehearsal is always an interesting time. The goal is often the same: improve the musical performance of the ensemble. In order to accomplish this, conductors will sit and study their scores trying to analyze every aspect possible. Form. The rhythms. Chord progression. Melody, harmony, and balance concerns. All of these items come under scrutiny when studying scores.

Musicality is another important part of the rehearsal, yet we often spend less time on these concepts than notes and rhythms. Sure, we will mention dynamic changes and articulations, but precision is often primary. And, there is nothing wrong with that.

Part of the problem with expressive playing is the difficulty we have in communicating. It is hard to convince musicians to play a passage full of joy when our faces show no emotion. Most of us have “analytical director face,” which is caused by our constant critical listening.

Another part of the problem is our vocabulary. Our language during rehearsals is often limited to words associated with articulations or dynamics. “Get a bit louder,” or “lighter articulation, please, at measure 77.” While these do accurately state what we are looking for the ensemble to do, we could be more descriptive.

There are as many ways to study a score as there are conductors. Each person has their own ways which work for them. Whether we use colored pencils to highlight ideas or just scribe notes in the margins, our way works for us. But, there is one simple addition we can use to help us express the more emotional side of the music. That is adding adjectives to phrases.

When I am working on a score, I will often bracket where sections begin and end. This will include the length in measures and how that is divided. Next to this, I add two or three adjectives to describe the emotions I believe are expressed.

This is rather easy to do in a piece such a Gustav Holst’s First Suite in E-flat. In the first movement, the opening phrase is repeated and changed several times throughout. Each time, the emotional energy is different. Writing adjectives to notate this energy helps me conduct the ensemble in a manner that shows these ideas. Because of this, their performance is improved without me saying a word. I know what energy to pull out of the music and I can show it to the musicians in the ensemble. When the music is more joyful, I may smile more and my ictus will be lighter. Or, if the music is distant or depressive, my movements are more weighed.

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There is no right or wrong. What the music expresses to you is what you write. Having those words in mind as you conduct will help you communicate the music in a more efficient manner.

And, I believe, your student enjoy their time more.

Monday Morning Music: Octet by Igor Stravinsky

There are many wonderful pieces of music throughout the ages. For me, no single piece is better than Octet for Winds by Igor Stravinsky.

Fact: Classical music is filled with amazing pieces. The symphonies of Mahler. The operas of Wagner. Beethoven, Mozart, Strauss, Schoenberg. There are too many works of significant quality by outstanding composers to mention. Leonard Bernstein, Antonin Dvorak, Michael Colgrass. The list goes on and on.

Many will agree that Igor Stravinsky ranks among the best composers in the history of music. His works stretch from solo piano works to massive ballets and symphonies with full choir. While most known for Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), Stravinsky is noted for the diversity of his works. None displays such diversity more than Octet for Winds.

According to a repertoire note from Boosey and Hawkes, Stravinsky suggests the “Octet began with a dream, in which I saw myself in a small room surrounded by a small group of instrumentalists playing some attractive music .” As a whole, the composition is beautifully constructed of virtuosic play from all instruments, with all collaborating to create delightful and intense music. The piece is at times delicate, then arrogant. Bold, yet mysterious.

It is my personal favorite piece of music, period. The new twist on Classical forms shows Stravinsky’s elite knowledge of composition. His treatment of each instrument is supreme. The Octet by Igor Stravinsky is a piece I can listen to any day.

So, for today’s episode of Monday Morning Music, I present to you my thoughts in the Octet for Winds by Igor Stravinsky. I was first introduced to this piece in 2004 while studying with Robert Ambrose at Georgia State University. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra featured the composition on a program in 2006. And, I was able to conduct the work at the University of Southern Mississippi in 2011.

Small change in setup can improve rehearsal

Rehearsal time is precious, especially when preparing for performance evaluations. One small change can turn a poor rehearsal into a successful one.

We have all been there. Large Group Performance Evaluations are drawing nigh and rehearsal time is waning. Much of the time spent working on the music is (at least somewhat) successful. However, there are always a few rehearsals which are just terrible. Those can be extremely frustrating.

There is nothing wrong with having a bad rehearsal. Not every meeting can be amazing. But, each rehearsal can have productive moments. The trick is to find those successes and celebrate them.

So, how do you turn poor rehearsals around? While words of encouragement can help, the mental atmosphere must change. The mind is the most powerful element of all rehearsals. Clearer minds lead to improved focus from musicians. Of course, each and every person sitting in a chair or standing on a riser has outside concerns and issues they face. While we can’t keep them from thinking about what is for lunch or a relationship issue, we can change the focus in the room. And the solution is rather simple.

Michael Colgrass is a Pulitzer Prize Winning composer, who also graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in performance. His first professional experiences were as a jazz drummer, performing in the original West Side Story production on Broadway. In terms of music for winds, his Winds of Nagual: A Musical Fable on the Writings of Carlos Castaneda (1985) is considered one of the top works in our repertoire.

In addition to his composition, Colgrass is an author and clinician on performance techniques and psychology. His book “My Lessons With Kumi,” provides exercises and prose to help musicians develop into better performers. It also has provided foundation for him to present clinics on the matter.

I met Mr. Colgrass in 2006 while studying at Georgia State University. He visited as Composer-in-Residence with the school and presented one of his workshops with the conducting studio and wind ensemble. It changed my thoughts on rehearsals since.

One of the exercises he led was called “Walk-Ons.” In this exercise, participant walked across the front of the class, head held high and eyes up, take a breath and confidently say their name. They also were asked to change one thing about the setup at the podium in order to take ownership of the space.

While this entire exercise is not 100% plausible in a concert band rehearsal, there are aspects that will help change the mental focus of an ensemble. Try these simple steps to improve your rehearsal:

  1. Have each musician adjust their physical space: move the stand, different angle of their chair, slide their case or pencil over. It does not need to be anything big.
  2. All musicians lower their heads and close their eyes. This includes the conductor.
  3. With heads lowered and eyes closed, each musician completely exhales.
  4. On the subsequent inhale, everyone raises their head high.
  5. Exhale, eyes open and lifted.

It is not a cure-all, but it has helped ensembles I have worked with change the trajectory of their rehearsal. This exercise does not take much time. The benefits can be enormous.

Monday Morning Music: J’ai ete au bal by Donald Grantham

I don’t know about you, but when I started playing music I did it because I thought it would be fun. Most of the time, it still is fun but the work can be enormous. We strive hour after hour in the practice room or studying a score, listen to recordings, and find out everything we can about a piece before we perform it. There are an infinite amount of days or weeks between the first rehearsal and the final curtain. It is work, but rewarding…

…well, most of the time.

Life doesn’t always provide time for us to enjoy just listening to music much. Well, at least my life doesn’t. Chauffeuring my daughters to school, dance, or gymnastics. Work, fixing dinner, daily tasks. Don’t get me wrong, I love all these things. But, it takes a toll on me mentally and emotionally. Which brings us to this post.

This is the first in a series – hopefully, weekly – where I will share with you some of my favorite music. The pieces that get my toe tapping, head nodding, or just soothes my soul. Music is powerful. There are many pieces across all genres that gives me “goosebumps.” I want to share that with you, to talk to you about my favorite music. Not because it is the best composition every written, nor because the composer is among the best. Monday Morning Music will be filled with pieces I enjoy for one reason or another.

Because that is how I started to love music. Not because I knew anything about it, but because I listened to it.

To start, here is J’ai ete au bal by Donald Grantham. We performed this with the Murray State University Wind Ensemble under the baton of Dennis Johnson. I can remember my friend and fellow Monty Python fan, Morgan Kinslow, performing the tuba solo. It was a fun piece for me.