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.

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.

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.

Small change in setup can improve rehearsal

Rehearsal time is precious, especially when preparing for performance evaluations. One small change can turn a poor rehearsal into a successful one.

We have all been there. Large Group Performance Evaluations are drawing nigh and rehearsal time is waning. Much of the time spent working on the music is (at least somewhat) successful. However, there are always a few rehearsals which are just terrible. Those can be extremely frustrating.

There is nothing wrong with having a bad rehearsal. Not every meeting can be amazing. But, each rehearsal can have productive moments. The trick is to find those successes and celebrate them.

So, how do you turn poor rehearsals around? While words of encouragement can help, the mental atmosphere must change. The mind is the most powerful element of all rehearsals. Clearer minds lead to improved focus from musicians. Of course, each and every person sitting in a chair or standing on a riser has outside concerns and issues they face. While we can’t keep them from thinking about what is for lunch or a relationship issue, we can change the focus in the room. And the solution is rather simple.

Michael Colgrass is a Pulitzer Prize Winning composer, who also graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in performance. His first professional experiences were as a jazz drummer, performing in the original West Side Story production on Broadway. In terms of music for winds, his Winds of Nagual: A Musical Fable on the Writings of Carlos Castaneda (1985) is considered one of the top works in our repertoire.

In addition to his composition, Colgrass is an author and clinician on performance techniques and psychology. His book “My Lessons With Kumi,” provides exercises and prose to help musicians develop into better performers. It also has provided foundation for him to present clinics on the matter.

I met Mr. Colgrass in 2006 while studying at Georgia State University. He visited as Composer-in-Residence with the school and presented one of his workshops with the conducting studio and wind ensemble. It changed my thoughts on rehearsals since.

One of the exercises he led was called “Walk-Ons.” In this exercise, participant walked across the front of the class, head held high and eyes up, take a breath and confidently say their name. They also were asked to change one thing about the setup at the podium in order to take ownership of the space.

While this entire exercise is not 100% plausible in a concert band rehearsal, there are aspects that will help change the mental focus of an ensemble. Try these simple steps to improve your rehearsal:

  1. Have each musician adjust their physical space: move the stand, different angle of their chair, slide their case or pencil over. It does not need to be anything big.
  2. All musicians lower their heads and close their eyes. This includes the conductor.
  3. With heads lowered and eyes closed, each musician completely exhales.
  4. On the subsequent inhale, everyone raises their head high.
  5. Exhale, eyes open and lifted.

It is not a cure-all, but it has helped ensembles I have worked with change the trajectory of their rehearsal. This exercise does not take much time. The benefits can be enormous.

Monday Morning Music: J’ai ete au bal by Donald Grantham

I don’t know about you, but when I started playing music I did it because I thought it would be fun. Most of the time, it still is fun but the work can be enormous. We strive hour after hour in the practice room or studying a score, listen to recordings, and find out everything we can about a piece before we perform it. There are an infinite amount of days or weeks between the first rehearsal and the final curtain. It is work, but rewarding…

…well, most of the time.

Life doesn’t always provide time for us to enjoy just listening to music much. Well, at least my life doesn’t. Chauffeuring my daughters to school, dance, or gymnastics. Work, fixing dinner, daily tasks. Don’t get me wrong, I love all these things. But, it takes a toll on me mentally and emotionally. Which brings us to this post.

This is the first in a series – hopefully, weekly – where I will share with you some of my favorite music. The pieces that get my toe tapping, head nodding, or just soothes my soul. Music is powerful. There are many pieces across all genres that gives me “goosebumps.” I want to share that with you, to talk to you about my favorite music. Not because it is the best composition every written, nor because the composer is among the best. Monday Morning Music will be filled with pieces I enjoy for one reason or another.

Because that is how I started to love music. Not because I knew anything about it, but because I listened to it.

To start, here is J’ai ete au bal by Donald Grantham. We performed this with the Murray State University Wind Ensemble under the baton of Dennis Johnson. I can remember my friend and fellow Monty Python fan, Morgan Kinslow, performing the tuba solo. It was a fun piece for me.