Pastime: a tribute to baseball for concert band

Baseball. America’s pastime. Anyone who knows me knows my love for the Chicago Cubs. Since elementary school, I have watched the boys in blue play in the Friendly Confines. The play of Ryne Sandberg first drew me in. His ability to run down any ball hit his way and throw out a runner was amazing. He would range to his right, reach across his body, spin and throw a bullet to first.

Then, of course, there was Harry Caray. How could you not love listening to him call the play-by-play of the game? Or, comment on the guy wearing a sombrero in the stands.

Anytime I wear my Cubs attire someone will ask “are you from Chicago?” Of course, the answer is no. I can never tell if they are disappointed in my response. While growing up, there were not 250 channels on cable plus subscriptions services. We had about 30 channels in the mid-1980’s when I started watching baseball. There were two options for baseball at the time: WGN or TBS. Cubs or Braves. I think I choose wisely.

This brings me to my piece for this week’s Monday Morning Music. It is Pastime by Jack Stamp, a salute to the game of baseball. In the piece, Stamp borrows ideas from Take Me Out to the Ballgame and sweeps them through polytonal moments and a fugue.

The fun of Pastime lays in the way it tributes the game itself. There is a moment when the flutes and glockenspeil play the notes “B-A-B-E” to salute Babe Ruth (You know, the Great Bambino….using my best Ham Porter voice). Stamp quotes part of Meet Me in St. Louis as tribute to Mark McGwire. Rehearsal number match player numbers or milestones, like the 61 home runs hit by Roger Maris.

I always listen to this piece on baseball’s opening day. While this episode is a couple weeks late, it is still worth the time to listen. Or, you can check out Fanfare to the Hammer by Anthony O’Toole. And, Joel Puckett premiered his opera The Fix depicting the great Black Sox scandal of 1919.

So, sit back and enjoy some music celebrating our National Pastime.

Missed Cues: Two ways we miscommunicate in rehearsals.

As conductors, we are tasked with communicating the written score to an audience through our ensembles. Here are two habits in rehearsals we can break.

It is not the easiest of tasks. Conductors take music in its written form and ask musicians to create and combine sounds in order to breath life into ink. To do this, we study the score and rehearse our ensembles as efficiently as possible. It takes effective communication to make it happen.

However, what we say and what we show in our gestures are not always the same. And, as we all know, some students learn by seeing and other by hearing. For rehearsals to be their best, matching our verbal communication with physical movements helps.

There are two common moments of miscommunication that happen almost simultaneously before the first sound is created. The first of which is our breath during a preparatory gesture. Many of us spend time working on appropriate breathing techniques with our groups. We ask for an open “O” formation in our mouth, like we are saying “woah.” This helps create a full, deep, relaxed breath. Yet, when we give a prep beat, our faces are tense or we breathe through our nose.

Tip 1: Show the breath you want your ensemble to execute.

If we want our musicians to take a full, relaxed breath, we should also take that type of breath. It will help them perform as requested and improve timing.

Along with our breath comes out eyes. At the conclusion of our preparatory gesture sound should be created. Often, this first sound is not exactly together. Our response is often “if you watch, you won’t be late.” Or, “get your eyes out of the stands.” Maybe your ensemble doesn’t watch because you drop your head to the score before the sound starts. You are not watching them. The line of communication is broken.

Tip 2: Keep your eyes up as the sound is initiated.

While these seem easy to fix, old habits are hard to break. There are times in which I still struggle with these. But, fixing this will help rehearsals improve significantly.

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.


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.

Related: Higher elbow, better movement

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.