Incorporating music and technology during performances

Music composition has taken a turn in the last several years by incorporating technology into pieces. And it is a great thing.

There is no doubting the facts: we are in an age of technology. Everywhere we go we witness the use of technology in everyday life. Most of you viewing this article are likely using your iPhone or other mobile devices. Statics for Predlines.com, a site I manage covering the Nashville Predators, shows that over 70% of views are through cellphones.

Technology changes almost as quickly as the seasons. We are constantly updating our phones and devices because something newer and better is available. Many band directors access their tuner or metronome on a tablet or phone. Yet, when it comes to concert performances, ensemble directors are reluctant to try new things…

…even if they spent thousands of dollars on speaker systems, microphones, and all the accessories for their marching ensembles.

Maybe there is fear of fixing an issue in case something goes screwy in performance or just the lack of understanding of how the technology works. But opportunities abound for programs to incorporate electronics into a concert program.

Give these a try.

Ecstatic Waters by Steven Bryant was the first pieces I was introduced to mixing wind band with electronics. It is a brilliant work which feels like a battle between man and machine ending in a compromise between the two sides. The 20+ minute composition is challenging, making it difficult for many high school programs.

Which brings us to another piece by Bryant entitled The Machine AwakesThis composition is accessible to most upper middle school groups and serves as a great introduction for conductors into the blending of acoustic and electronic sounds. Plus, it can be operated from an iPhone. Another option from Bryant is CoilWritten in 2014, Coil derives inspiration from Nikola Tesla’s famous Tesla Coils. The composition lasts about 5 minutes and can be performed by most high school groups.

Another composer known for using technology in their works is Alex Shapiro. Her compositions stretch across all genres but include seven works for winds and audio tracks. Of those, five works are 6-minutes or less in length, making them manageable for high school and college groups. Personally, I recommend trying Paper Cut or Tight Squeeze.

Speaking of Alex, she is part of a great consortium opportunity with Daniel Montoya, Jr. and Benjamin Taylor. The  New Band Electro-Acoustic Music (N-BEAM) project, led by James Mobley, looks to create three new works at the Grade 2 – 2.5 level for band and technology. The cost to join the project is $450, but includes copies of all three pieces, Skype rehearsals with the composers, rights to video-record performances, and much more.

Other options

Maybe adding audio technology is not a great option, but film could be. While I worked with Alpharetta HS (GA), we performed Frank Ticheli’s American Elegy and had students create a slideshow to be performed along with the music. Steve Danyew’s This World Alive combines the work of Ansel Adams and a beautiful score.

There are more options as well. Ensembles have added light shows to Michael Markowski’s Shine. Lights Out by Alex Shapiro calls for lighting effects during the performance.

The opportunities to add technology into your concert programs abound. And it may not be as challenging as one may think. Give it a chance. Your students will love it.

Rehearsal with your ensemble with a plan in mind

Each rehearsal provides an opportunity for your ensemble to improve. To make rehearsal more effect, each activity must have a purpose.

Rehearsal. They can be the highlight of our day or leave us dreading the next day. It is the time which we get to do what we love the most: teach music. However, with all the distractions – paperwork needing to be done, meetings with the administration about budgets, planning for a trip – we can often find ourselves “winging it” when it comes time to rehearse. We throw things together and pray it works.

Sometimes, we get lucky and the rehearsal goes well. Other times, not so much.

There is a problem with rehearsals. It often lacks a “why.” We all have the ultimate goal of improving whatever piece of music that happens to be in the folder. The music becomes the focus. A worthy goal, but is it enough?

Certainly, we all have a plan – a routine – in which we incorporate every rehearsal. It may include scales, long tones, chorales and the like. What is the purpose of these activities?

Understand the “why”

Everything we do in a rehearsal must have a purpose, and the students need to understand why it is worth doing. The “warm-up” needs to be part of the overall plan for the day and the year. Each piece performed should lead to meeting the plans you have for your students over the years you will teach them.

When planning a rehearsal, I often think about my work during individual practice. You know, all those hours we were told to work in a practice room in college.

  1. Breathing/Stretching: preparing the body and calming the mind to focus. Give the students a chance to clear their mind of the math test they just finished.
  2. Long tones: This is not just to warm-up the instrument, but a chance to build the best tone quality possible. Simply playing through a few notes without assess the sounds being produced does nothing to help you play the compositions in the folder.
  3. Technical exercises: This does not have to scale, but there should be something to help get the fingers moving. If you have to perform a piece with 16th note passages for any of your players, find a way to work on and teach how to achieve success. START SLOW and WORK WITH A METRONOME! But, teach your students how to practice.
  4. Sight-reading: How often do we practice sight reading? For some groups, it can feel like every day if your students don’t practice at home. But there is extreme value in sight reading: it provides fresh chances for your student to process unknown music, which leads to quicker reading and understanding on concert repertoire.
  5. Now, the music. Be focused, and assess based on the things introduced in previous activities. If students are not playing with the tone quality standard set, (kindly) remind and encourage them to meet that standard. Treat the technical passages in the music like practiced previously. Make the connection from “warm-up” to music.

It sounds simple and maybe you do this every day. I encourage you to keep asking “why” you are doing each activity. And make sure your students know it as well.

Indoor activity is changing marching band show design

Change can be a good thing. The creativity used in designing indoor guard and percussion shows has made its way onto the marching field.

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” Thus states Albert Einstein. Our thinking changes through experience, reading, and observation. Sometimes, changes are forced upon us due to circumstances. Or, change can just be a natural procession.

Over the last decade, marching band has witnessed significant changes in terms of design. While many directors will never fully embrace these new concepts, adopting a few would be wise. I certainly fall into the group which does not like all the new concepts.

What is causing all the changes? It is rather simple: indoor guard and percussion. Ensembles involved in Winter Guard International and other circuits are finding new ways to create drama and use all the design elements to generate effect. With their limited space on a basketball court, it becomes important to think outside the box in order to communicate your show to the audience.

The indoor activity has become theatrical. I do not use the term as an insult, though some people do. The ensembles are pulling ideas from the stage to build interesting and emotional performances. Props, costuming, blocking and staging, casting for characters. These ideas and more are being used inside.

And now, they are coming outdoors.

Marching bands are starting to draw more design concepts from the indoor activity. Sure, Bands of America has been around since 1975, but the progression of the activity is largely due to what happens indoors. The question is which of these changes should be incorporated into your program. Not all of the concepts are adaptable to every program. Nor are they cost effective.

Here are a few concepts I recommend incorporating.

  1. Tell a story: Music music and visual, tell a story. All parts need to work toward the drama production, from the music to the flags to the drill. Make your marching band a bit more theatrical.
  2. Useful props: Many groups incorporate props into their shows, but finding a way to make them integral into parts of your program is needed. Use them as platforms for a soloist, or an interactive piece that changes with your show.
  3. Levels of the body: By changing the height of body positions can add visual tension or impact to the music. This can be accomplished by laying down, squatting, or leaning.
  4. Staging: How you place your ensemble on the performance field is crucial. If the trumpet section is performing the most important content, they must be highlighted on the field. This could be by placing them in the center of the field in full view of the audience, or by grouping them together in a tight form off to the side while others move around them.Gone are the days of isolating the on-field percussion and guard/auxiliaries.  All parts of the ensemble can and should be mixed in the formations on the field.
  5. Casting of Characters: This one can be a challenge, but it just as necessary. Too many times I have witnessed ensembles trying to portray a character but the actors or actresses fall very short through their actions. If you are going to perform a show about James Bond, the actions on the field must fully evoke that image. Posture should be tall and elegant, and motions should be quick and exaggerated. Simply wearing a costume and moving around the field is not enough.

What about other ideas?

Good question. For me, they are optional or not needed.

Electronics are great for adding effects and percussion colors to your program, but amplifying top-performers in your ensemble to help your overall ensemble sound is over the top.

Getting new uniforms and costumes every single year is expensive. Not every marching band can afford such things.

Tarps can add great impact to your show, but can also be an obstacle in which performers lose footing and trip over. Or, it can be blown by the winds of Central Illinois on a brisk October afternoon.

The most important part of all this is doing what works for your marching band. If you can afford new uniforms, get them. Maybe start with the staging and story-telling concepts. Add as you move along. But the days of three tunes and one are in the review mirror.

 

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.