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.

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.

Concert Band Repertoire Programming

While many directors have a handle on the current trends for marching band, many still program their concert band selections in an “old school” way. A simple concept can improve programming for your ensemble.

Summertime and the living is easy. Well, maybe for some but not for most band directors. They are busy preparing for marching band camp, recruiting new members, hosting summer sectionals, washing cars to help raise funds for the program, meeting with staff to go over ideas for the season, arranging music, writing drill, and then drinking a few more cups of coffee to stay awake for the next Game of Thrones episode. And, after that episode is over, they will go back to work starting to consider music to program for their concert bands. Yes, folks, music education is a 24-7-365 job.

While many directors have a handle on the current trends for marching band, many still program their concert band selections in an “old school” way. They get the promotional CDs from Hal Leonard or other publishers, select a few pieces, add a Sousa march, and BAM! that’s the program. Or, they view a list of “approved” works by some organization in their state that says “these are the works that are acceptable for your ensembles to play at a festival.” Then, they select a few in the grade level they think is best for their program (or that they know and are comfortable with) and program those.

Now, I am not here to cast doubt on the quality of the music on those promotional CDs or within the state-approved lists. What I would like to say is this: changing the way you program music for concert ensembles will improve your program. Here are my thoughts on a simple way to program music for your next concert band:

Photo Credit Sandy King
Photo Credit Sandy King

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue: Ah, yes. The old saying that people use when planning a wedding. In order to have good luck, the bride is to wear something from each of these categories. This idea works for concert band programming as well.

Something old

Select a piece of merit from the original works for concert band before 1990. A piece by Grainger, Holst, Persichetti, Hindemith, Dello Joio, or Ives (just to name a very small handful). Pieces by substantial composers from the early days of concert band literature are important to the foundation of our art, much like Beethoven, Mozart, Mahler, and Stravinsky are to orchestral writing. Our students and audiences should be familiar with these composers.

Something New

There are so many great new works by fantastic LIVING composers. And, with technology, directors have a chance to speak to composers on a regular basis about their works. Composers such as Jonathan NewmanRoseanne EtezadySteven Danyew, Michael Markowski, John Mackey, Joni GreeneJess Turner, or Steven Bryant. All of these composers – and many more – have compositions for ensembles of all abilities and in various styles. Plus, they have internet sites with their music and ways to connect with them. While they may be busy at times, they are willing to answer questions or provide feedback to recordings. This interaction will help students grow in music and feel as part of the art.

Something Borrowed

It is okay to play arrangements of works from other genres. I repeat, it is okay to play arrangements. Part of the brief history of wind ensemble music is performing arrangements of works from opera, orchestral, choral,  or chamber music settings. As a matter of fact, that use to be all there was for concert bands to perform. So, do not be afraid to go back to our roots and perform an arrangement of Brahms Blessed Are They, or Four Scottish Dances by Malcolm Arnold. There are works by Mozart as well. Embrace our history.

Something Blue

In the world of white weddings, brides are encouraged to wear something blue. Something of a different color. For winds bands, this means finding something different for us. It could be playing a piece influenced by jazz. Or maybe incorporating chamber music, a percussion ensemble, or a student composition. You can even perform something that requires lighting effects, or singing, or features a soloist. Better yet, get in contact with a composer and see if they have any active commission projects you can join, or if they have space for a new one. It is up to you, but be different!