Ensemble Director: More focus on fundamentals brings higher performance levels

While the focus for ensemble directors is often a long-term goal, regular focus on the fundamentals of playing bring higher levels of performance.

The struggle is real. As ensemble directors, we get focused on what pieces to perform for our next concert and want to put together a great program. We try to mix some challenging pieces in with something fun. We hope to entertain the audience. And, we pray our students are up to the task.

While going through this process, there are moments that give us pause. Can the clarinet section get this section of 16th notes that cross the break? Will the ensemble learn this 5/8 section? There are always questions crossing our minds as we select literature.

But, the answer to these questions is always the same. Spend time on fundamentals.

Monday Morning QB

Fact: I love sports. Something sports related is often on my television or tablet. Three pre-sets on my car radio are sports-talk stations. I even write articles for two sports pages.

One of my favorite shows in all of sports information is ESPN Radio’s Mike and Mike. The comedic banter combined with the insights on the games I love make this show enjoyable to me. And, now that it is football season, guests from around the game are brought in to provide additional analysis. This includes former Indianapolis Colt (my favorite football team), Jeff Saturday.

This morning, while discussing offensive line play, Saturday said that we have moved to discussing scheme instead of coaching fundamentals and techniques.

The scheme and plays are important, but execution falters when fundamentals suffer.

I wanted to stand and applaud.

The same is true to music performance. Performing at the highest levels means having a solid fundamental and technical foundation. However, most ensemble directors breeze through the exercises that build these areas.

Best time spent

I recall a story told to me from a former jazz ensemble director about famous trumpeter Doc Severinson. The story goes like this: After a concert, one that featured Severinson for at least two hours, the artist returned to his room backstage. When there, he proceeded to play longtones. This lasted for about an hour. When someone finally entered Severinson’s room to ask about what he was doing, the reply was simple. “Somewhere out there, someone else wants my job.”

While I cannot prove the story to be true, the point is clear. The best work on fundamentals.

Long tones are paramount to success. The most important part of music production is the sound we create. Performing long-tone exercises builds consistency is generating the vibrations needed to produce a clear, full tone. It doesn’t matter if it band, orchestra, or choir. Sound matters. This must be done daily.

Technical work should be done daily as well. I don’t mean simply scales in a given pattern. I mean technical etudes. There are books out there for full ensemble technical work. My personal favorite is Foundations for Superior Performance, but you may find another resource that works.

Teach rhythm! Yes, I said it! Teach rhythm to you students. They can’t play in 5/8 if you never work with them on it. And, it must be done consistently as well.

Related Read: Let the Beginner you join the fun

Honestly, I know time is precious to ensemble directors; however, spending 20 minutes in fundamentals daily will lead to better performances abilities. That means more challenging music. Which, to most, leads to more fun playing.

And that is what this is supposed to be. Fun.

Concert Band: Are we in the Golden Age of Concert Bands?

Progress means change. With all the changes and progress around concert bands, are we living in its golden age? Here are my initial thoughts.

When you look through the history of about any thing on the planet, delineations are made based on the period of time. The 1990’s and early 2000’s in baseball are often referred to as the “steroid era.” We label generations based on certain factors. The Baby Boomers. Generation X. The Millennials.

Music history is no different. There are the various eras: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Twentieth Century. And, of course, there are ways to break these down further. Yet, one term is often used to describe the height of any specific genre.

The “golden age.”

We have the Golden Age of Classical Music, often (not always) classified as the time from Bach to Beethoven. Many say that Duke Ellington and Count Basie were part of the Golden Age of Jazz. Then, discussions occur over if the Golden Age of Hip Hop was the 1980’s or 1990’s.

What about concert band music? The music for woodwinds, brass and percussion performed on stage in a concert setting? Could we be in the Golden Age of Concert Band?

Time will tell…

Concert bands are becoming a widely popular medium for performance. Sure, there were days when small towns across America enjoyed the sounds of community bands performing in the park on a Sunday afternoon. Yet today, most concert band programs are contained within educational institutions. Students around the United States are offered the opportunity to learn and perform within a concert band setting.

And, these ensembles come in all shapes and sizes with varying names. Yet, whether it is a Wind Ensemble or Wind Orchestra,  Symphonic Band or Chamber Winds, the consistent idea is the instrument-types that make up the ensemble.

From a historical standpoint, the strongest time period of the concert band may well be the 1950’s. Composers like Paul Hindemith and Vincent Persichetti construct significant works for the wind ensemble. In 1952, conductor Frederick Fennell instituted the Eastman Wind Ensemble as a serious performance medium.

Through the decades, significant works for winds have been composed by important composers. Aaron Copland. Leslie Bassett. Karel Husa. Percy Grainger. Joseph Schwantner. Darius Milhaud. Many of the works by these composers were part of Acton Eric Ostling, Jr.’s dissertation entitled An Evaluation of Compositions for Wind Band According to Specific Criteria of Serious Artistic Merit in 1978.

Texts, such as The Winds of Change by Frank Battisti, use Ostling’s survey as a foundation for finding works for serious merit. But, since that book’s publishing in 2002, things have changed, and a second volume was added in 2012.

Now more than ever…

The standards set by the Eastman Wind Ensemble – variety of music, commissioning composers, interaction with significant artists – has expanded exponentially due to technology. Now more than ever, the collaboration of composer and performer is available.

And encouraged.

What use to be communication through mail, shipping a taped recording of a rehearsal to a composer is now an instant interaction via email or file-sharing services. Composer websites allow for review of their works, a view of their schedule, and recordings.

Classes are able to Skype of FaceTime with artist for master classes or to discuss their practice routines. YouTube allows the sharing of new music through live-streaming of concerts.

Yet, it is more than technology. Collaboration is everywhere.

Conducting workshops bring life-long students together to work with the top teachers in the field. Music festivals are focusing more on education than simple scoring of performance. Composers are often brought into honor band festivals to discuss the music being performed.

And, there is the music.

Symphony No. 4 by David Maslanka. Jonathan Newman’s Symphony No. 1: My Hands are a City. Ecstatic Waters and Concerto for Wind Ensemble by Steven Bryant.

John Mackey has several works that may well stand-up to Ostling’s standards. Wine-Dark Seas. The Frozen Cathedral. Maybe even Aurora Awakes. 

Frank Tichelli. Scott McAllister. Julie Giroux. Alex Shapiro. The list can go one for a while. All with significant works for wind ensembles.

Fantastic conductors, both male and female, cover the educational systems in the United States.

So, in just reflecting and spewing out my thoughts, we could very well be in the Golden Era of Concert Bands

Marching Band: Electronics can hurt your performance

The use of electronics in marching band is nothing new, but can do more harm than good. Here are some things to consider when using this resource.

Drum Corps International wrapped up its season last night with World Class Finals. As fans watched around the world, one thing became clear: electronics in marching band are here to stay.

Okay. Maybe that is nothing new, but the use of electronics with an ensemble is always risky. The potential for problems is immense. The power could go out. A channel on the board could blow, or a speak could malfunction. Someone may not have replaced the batteries, or put them in backwards. Wind or rain may keep electronics from working properly.

Just ask Carolina Crown, who’s vocalist’s microphone kept going out on them in finals.

Now, I am not one of those grumpy fans that believes electronics should not be used. It is a great tool, given that it is used appropriately. Just like playing an instrument or tossing a rifle, electronics can add to your performance. As a matter of fact, it was Bluecoats program “Tilt” that sold me on the resource. The incorporations of pitch bends between powerful chords was stunning.

However, I do have some issues that should be addressed.

The List

It is unfortunate that the following statement must be uttered. Before you incorporate electronics, ask yourself if it is necessary. Then, ask someone else in the know. Be sure to discuss how you are going to use the resources you have available. Sometimes, just saying no can change the entire show. And make it better.

As an adjudicator, there were shows in which I had to mention speaker placement causing the ensemble’s sound to be overpowered. The speakers were pointed right at the center of the pressbox. Directors and ensemble staff must understand the range and spread each speaker provides and place them in a more appropriate manner. Personally, spacing them further way from the center of the field is better. But that is just my experience with the equipment available.

Yes. Feel free to use microphones to amplify soloist or to add sound effects. However, if you are going to amplify your best players in each section to bulk-up the entire ensemble’s sound, please don’t. What message is that sending to your ensemble?

Of course, then you require someone to sit in the stands with an iPad to manipulate the soundboard. How is that allowed? We can’t go on the field and tell that super-hero baritone to back off, so why can you control the volume on a sound board?

We can get into the argument of availability to all ensembles and the like, but each ensemble makes choices based on what they have on hand or can get. If you have electronics, use them wisely. Sure, there are great reasons for them. Adding microphones to the front ensemble has expanded the instruments performed exponentially. That is a good thing! Voices overs can be great, but also distract from the performance of the ensemble. Maybe not talking during a color guard feature will draw more attention to them?

Again, I am not saying do not use electronics in marching band. Rather, use them wisely. And verify everything is in full working order prior to performance.  Make sure it is a necessary part of your program, not simply to cover up the weak in the name of a trophy.

Marching Band: Visually speaking, simple is better

It is DCI Finals Week, which means marching band season for high schools is upon us. While DCI is thrilling to watch, simple is better for most high schools.

My fandom for Drum Corp International is long-established through years of viewership. That and the numerous CDs and t-shirts that litter my collections. Sure, it is not a full as others fans, but I still love watching groups perform.

And, through my years of teaching, opportunities to watch ensembles such as the Cavaliers, Santa Clara Vanguard and Madison Scouts rehearse provided some great insight on how they operate. We sit back in awe as we watch and listen to them perform. Often, we take mental notes on what is witnessed.

In that 10-12 minute span, we see the amazing visuals these students exhibit. Many of us want to bring those aspects to our programs. Our eyes glaze over and grow to twice the size of our “marching stomachs.” We “know” our students can pull off similar visuals, and we want to add them into our shows.

Not so fast my friend…

Yes, those visuals are amazing. But there is some truth we must realize: DCI participates are rehearsing and/or performing daily over the summer. The repetitions on each visual is astronomic compared to the few times per week most high school programs rehearse.

Instead of trying to mimic the awesome moves you see this week, try to do something else. Sure, the visual concepts you see can be applied, but maybe not replicated.

One aspect you can focus on with your ensemble is simple marching fundamentals. Posture. Equipment angle. Uniformity of technique. You know. That part of the judges sheet most of us ignore because we need to get the show on the field. However, fixing the simple techniques will cure many issues.

As I observed rehearsals from various corps, one thing stuck out. Staff regularly commented on the simple visual corrections than any other aspect. Sure, there were discussions on complex movements, but they reminded the performers about the basics constantly. It was reinforcement.

This goes for all parts of the ensemble. Color guard, drum line and front ensembles. Mastering the simple techniques improves overall performance.

Spend significant time daily on the fundamentals. Provide positive feedback when does well, and encouraging criticism as needed.

Keep it simple. Do the simple better. That will change how your student do everything.

Marching Band: Is DCI leading the way or leaving bands behind?

Over the last decade or so, ensembles in Drum Corp International developed into a more theatrical production. How has that impacted marching band?

I love marching band. There. I said it. It was the first activity that combined my love of music and the sports atmosphere. Marching band provided a social outlet as well as chances to visit New York City of the 1994 Macy’s Parade, and Washington D.C. for President Clinton’s inauguration in 1997. Many of the friends I have now are through marching band.

With that love came an enthusiasm for Drum Corp International. I remember sitting in the stands in Evansville, IN, in 1994, attending my very first show. The Blue Devils blew my mind. Then, in 1997, the Cadets wowed me. And again in 2000, it was the Cadets. The Cavaliers in 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2006. Now, it is the Bluecoats. What they are doing is amazing.

DCI has progressed over the years into a very artistic and theatrical medium. (And, I can hear some friends now arguing those terms, but in truth, there is an art to what they do.) Props on the field are necessary. Electronics have expanded the sound palette of the ensembles. New uniforms, often very extravagant ones, are created for each group every year. Especially for the color guard.

The Problem

Winter Guard International – indoor guard, indoor drumline, and indoor winds – have led the changes in DCI. Their use of staging, more thematic programs, and story-based uniforms significantly impacted the designs of DCI shows. And that, in turn, has flowed down to marching bands at the high school level.

Before I go any further, let me establish that I am in no way saying that WGI, DCI, or BOA are bad for music and music education. Like everything else, they have positive and negative aspects.

The problem is simple to see, but difficult to fix. There are several things that help these programs flourish: money, time, and talent. It takes a great deal of funds to pay for everything. The instructors, designers, choreographers. The equipment, uniforms, a tarp for staging. Travel and hotels. And, it takes time. Hours of practicing on techniques, fundamentals, routines. And talent, or just ensemble members. These things are not equally available. Still, that is not the true point of this post.

The point? Directors of high school bands cannot just follow the lead of DCI and WGI. I cannot count how many times directors and staff members have asked me to write or teach moves they found in a DCI show. It got to the point that I simple ask them if they plan on working on their show for 12+ hours a day, five days a week.

Again, some programs have the ability to do these things. But, that is a minority of all the programs that participate in high school band activities.

The Solution

What ever you decide to do, do it well. Do what works for your students.

I offer a simple solution to the problem, and similar to a post last year about color guard. Instead of copying from them, learn from them. Many of these ensemble cherish and follow their traditions. The Blue Devils are the Blue Devils, because they do things the Blue Devil way. You can hear it in their music and see it in their visuals. It has been done that way for decades. Sure, the designs have changed over the years, but they are who they are.

Not every community can support – or will support – a BOA caliber show. To some, it is just weird and not entertaining. However, you can watch Avon High School warm-up and learn ways to teach air flow and tone quality. It is okay to do that standard three-songs-and-gone shows, but adding a few appropriate visuals or using musical selections from a wider mix of genres should be encouraged. If you are going to play the music of Queen, find a different version of Bohemian Rhapsody that works for your students. One that the audience may not have heard before.

Why leave it all to the marching band? How about finding ways to be innovative in concert band? Add a light show to a piece, like Mike Markowski’s Shine. Or, find pieces that incorporate electronics. Maybe something like This World Alive by Steven Danyew, which is set with a film. Add in student compositions, or small ensembles performing around the concert hall.

What ever you decide to do, do it well. Do what works for your students. And for you community. Just remember, the Bluecoats are awesome, but they are not your ensemble. Be innovative. Try something new. And enjoy the show.