Saturday Sounds: ‘Kingfishers Catch Fire’ by John Mackey

A week of snow and cold brings a Saturday of coffee and music. With things warming up it is a great time to listen to John Mackey’s Kingfishers Catch Fire.

What a week it has been! After two separate winter storms trudged through the area, schools were out for six days. Five snow days and Martin Luther King, Jr. day. School out and poor roads meant my kids were home most of the week. And I with them.

I took advantage of the time at home to listen to a wide variety of music. One piece stuck with me all week was a favorite: Kingfishers Catch Fire by John Mackey.

In 2005, I was introduced to Mackey’s music when Redline Tango was part of the repertoire for the Georgia State University Wind Ensemble. Soprano saxophone was the part I was given, and I loved it. The ensemble was able to rehearse with Mackey before the Southeastern CBDNA conference in Nashville in 2006. Afterward, the graduate assistants under Dr. Robert Ambrose ate a meal with Mackey.

Now, Mackey is one of the leading composers of music for wind ensembles. Compositions like Aurora Awakes and his symphony Wine Dark Sea have solidified his place amongst the most important composers of our time. Additionally, he continues to write for younger ensembles.

About Kingfishers

Mackey premiered Kingfishers Catch Fire in 2007, and it was completed as part of a commission from ensembles in Japan. As the program note states, the kingfisher “is a bird with stunning, brilliantly colored feathers that appear in sunlight as if they are on fire.  Kingfishers are extremely shy birds and are rarely seen, but when they are seen, they are undeniably beautiful.”

The composition consists of two movements. Opening the work is “Following falls and falls of rain” calls on the bird’s shy side, using suspended tones and quiet dynamics, giving the listener the impression of the kingfisher emerging from its nest. The second movement is fiery, filled with activity and flourishes from the woodwinds and percussion. Powerful brass shows the kingfisher’s sparkle and beauty.

Two aspects of the work are rather unique. First, the second movement requires an antiphonal trumpet choir to play from the back of the concert hall. These players add to the brilliance of the bird. Secondly, Mackey references Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird” at the end of the piece. The ending of the second movement draws from the end of the “Berceuse and Finale” from Stravinsky’s masterpiece.

Kingfishers Catch Fire is available for rental from Mackey’s website (ostimusic.com). A score and recording are also accessed here. Additionally, records of the work can be found through Naxos.

I was able to work on this piece while attending the University of Southern Mississippi as a doctoral student under Dr. Thomas Fraschillo in 2011.

The Ensemble Director’s Snow Day Survival Guide

They are the most exciting and terrifying words for teachers across the nation: Snow Day. Here is how you can make the most of the missed time.

We are in the midst of a nationwide epidemic. Snow and ice forced thousands of school districts to close their doors in the name of safety for students and teachers. One snow day is okay, but some districts are already calling off school for the rest of the week. After missing Friday last week and two days this week, my kids are ready to go back to school.

I am ready for them to go back as well.

All classes suffer from the missed time, but music classes can argue being hurt the most. The lack of consistent rehearsals can lead to performance concerns in tone, pitch, and musical retention. While we cannot do anything about students leaving instruments at school, we can make sure we are prepared for what comes next.

Snow Day Survival Guide

  1. Pour a cup of coffee, hot tea, or your favorite beverage.
  2. Relax. Breathe. Read something. Stay away from your iPhone, iPad, and all things internet until lunch. And no NetFlix. That stuff is addictive.
  3. After an hour or so, take out your baton and metronome.
  4. Set your metronome to a tempo of 68 with a triplet subdivision. Begin conducting various patterns (four bars of 4, then 3, back to 4, then 5, etc.) with the right hand only.
  5. Repeat #4, adding a little staccato flick (check mark, flicking something off your baton).
  6. With same metronome settings, move left hand only. Start in resting position then move up 4 counts, down 4, right 4, back center 4, left 4, back to center 4. Then do this at 3 counts, 2 counts, and 5 counts. Be sure to breathe.
  7. Take out your scores, baton, metronome, and notebook.
  8. Read through your score from a large view, looking for musical content (dynamics, articulation, tempo changes, etc.) and make notes.
  9. With your metronome going, conduct the piece without stopping.
  10. Repeat steps #7 & 8 for each score.

There you have it. It is simple, but it prepares your mind and body for the next rehearsal. Avoid listening to the pieces. And do this list without focusing on rehearsal planning. Yes, take time to plan for the next rehearsal (whenever it may be), but preparing your mind and body for full runs of works is needed.

How often do you really run the full piece? I know when it comes to marching band, directors will end rehearsal with a full run of everything. Concert groups not so much. Doing full mental runs of a piece will help you build continuity as your ensemble rehearses. We get caught up in the minutia that we fail to build and teach larger musical concepts.

Take the time during your snow day to mentally and physically prepare for your performance. It will lead to more efficient rehearsals moving forward.

The challenges of selecting literature for your ensemble

Few things are as maddening as selecting literature appropriate for your ensemble. Everyone has opinions on what to play. Who is right?

As many of you return to school from the holiday break – likely with a snow day or two thrown in there for good measure – the task of selecting literature for your ensemble stares you in the face. Concert festivals are a minefield, filled with opinions from adjudicators whose score will be all that matters to your administration. It’s an all-too-common situation.

“You can’t play Holst’s First Suite! Everyone knows it and has an etched-in-stone opinion!”

“Not more John Mackey! He is played too much!”

“No! You should play (insert person’s favorite all-time piece. Your kids will love it!”

Sure. These statements are not (completely) true. But similar things to these have been, and will continue to be, said. Selecting literature is not an easy task. Partly because of the range of material available, and partly because we care about our students’ opinions.

Sharing some thoughts

I recently purchased a copy of Rehearsing the Band, Vol. 2 by Donald Miller. This series of text provides concepts on working with wind bands from some of the best conductors and educators from the collegiate realm. Topics such as balance, rehearsal planning, and literature are discussed. While reading through the sections on literature, one thing became apparent: everyone had their own valid opinions.

No two sections were the same. Most suggested playing music from a wide range of time periods and styles. There were thoughts on new music, chamber works, and transcriptions. A few conductors mentioned works standing the test of time which is really not in our hands to decide.

All in all, their thoughts and opinions do bring helpful information. But still, there is a level of personal taste involved. With that in mind, here are some things I consider when selecting literature.

  • Is there artistic and/or emotional value to the composition? Does it cause me to think? Does it move or excite me? (If I am not going to enjoy the piece, it will show and reflect by my ensemble’s performance)
  • Is the piece going to challenge my students musically?
  • Does the piece have historical significance?
  • Does the piece fit into our educational goals?

The most important aspect for me is the emotional and/or artistic value. Some compositions are like a new diet. You may not like the way it tastes or feels at first, but when all is finished you realize how much better off you are. I was lucky to conduct Steven Bryant’s Ecstatic Waters while attending Southern Miss. To this day, it was one of the most frustrating but rewarding experiences. The concepts presented we so new at the time the ensemble struggled at time to make the pieces fit. When they did, it was amazing.

The point of all this? Simple. Select repertoire that fits you and your ensemble. Your group may not be ready for Lincolnsire Posy or Hindemith’s Symphony in B-flat. There are other works that are artistically sound and emotionally moving. It doesn’t have to be about teaching your clarinets to cross the break, though there is nothing wrong with that. Finding balance in artistry and significance is just as important.

Saturday Sounds: ‘One Life Beautiful’ by Julie Giroux

A snowy Saturday is ripe for a cup of coffee and some good music. On the listening list today is Julie Giroux One Life Beautiful.

Saturdays in winter require only a few things: kids that sleep in a bit, a cup of coffee and good music. Of course, my kids don’t know the meaning of sleeping in, making the coffee and music necessary. It warms the soul and prepares my mind for the day ahead.

Some days, you hear a piece which takes your soul and wraps it in a warm blanket. The sounds simultaneously provide hope and calm, soothing the anxious mind.  One Life Beautiful is one composition that does such things for me.

I was formally introduced to Julie Giroux music in 2010 while preparing for All-South Honor Band at the University of Southern Mississippi. It was the following year’s event when I heard One Life Beautiful. It has stuck with me ever since.

About the composition

Ms. Giroux was commissioned by Emeritus Professor Ray Cramer (Indiana University) and his family to write a work dedicated to his late daughter, Heather Cramer Rue. As stated in the program noteOne Life Beautiful refers to the beautifully lived “one life” of Heather, but is also “a direct observation concluding that having only one life is what makes life so sacred, tragic, and so very precious.

To me, the work is filled with hope, love, sadness, and joy. It reflects on life and how precious it is while producing a sense of passionate resolution. The ebb and flow of tempo and range of expressive markings allow for freedom in artistic and emotional performance. It is certainly a piece that becomes personal to those who perform it.

The work is deceptively difficult but worth the effort. Focus on long, overlapping phases and balancing of voices is crucial to unlocking the emotional power of the composition. Individual control of tone and pitch are imperative. (Of course, when are they not?) Furthermore, solos are abundant, including for flute, clarinet, both oboe parts, alto and tenor saxophones, French horn, and trumpet.

This live recording by the Musashino Wind Ensemble with Ray Cramer conducting is available for download on Ms. Giroux’s website.

One Life Beautiful is available for purchase through J.W. Pepper and cost $95. While listed as a “Medium Easy” on their site, it is considered a Grade 6 on the Georgia Music Education Association’s Band LGPE List.

One change leads to more expressive conducting

Old habits die hard, but one slight change in conducting position can make a huge difference.

I will be honest: there are several things I could adjust in my conducting technique. Before I spent time working on the ways I moved my arms while in front of an ensemble, I thought my performance was adequate. It worked for me, and that is what mattered.

However, I had some bad habits that were hurt my body, not just my ensemble.

We ask our students to watch us when leading them through a composition. Our words say for them to play staccato or tenuto, to stretch time or to decrease dynamics. What do our arms say? If you are anything like me, it is something completely different.

Heavy. Strict. Every note performed the same way. Our movements often do not match the instructions of the score.

Part of the problem is our default conducting position. More times than not we hold our elbows close to our body, as if we are sitting in an armchair.  This can create an overpronation of the forearm and wrist, and a hunkering of the shoulders. All movement is then generated from the elbow, generating tension in the shoulders and back.

Tension leads to harsh movements. Hard movements lead to heavy playing. And heavy playing leads to the dark side……or just directors stopping the ensemble and saying the same things we already said.

What can be done to change all of this? One simple move…

Bring the elbows up.

When you move the elbows away from the body, a few things change. First, it activates the shoulder. The ball-and-socket join in the shoulder, in addition to the movement of the clavicle and shoulder blade, allows for a freer, smoother motion of the total arm. Broader movements from left to right help depict legato playing and more dynamic contrast.

Second, raising the elbow eliminates the constant rotation of the forearm and wrist. In our default positioning, the pronation of the forearm and wrist restricts the movement of the hand and baton. Freeing the arm from this rotation allows the wrist to lead motion, again promoting smoother playing.

Additionally, the freedom of the wrist leads to more control over the tip of the baton. This is where we can show articulations with greater precision. Small flicks of the wrist show a staccato style. When used in combination with the full arm, you can show marcato style more clearly. And, as always state, broader movements and smoother motions help with legato playing.

It takes time, but rotating about 35 degrees from the shoulder – thus, raising the elbow – can show more expression movements. When motion matches your words, your ensemble will respond.