by Gary W. Hill
Recently, Margo Jefferson wrote in the New York Times that, “Art begins when people become tired of habit and convention.” She went on to warn that, “Once a new movement is codified though, atrophy sets in. Style and ego rule.”
Being one who spends much time observing and thinking about our wind band field, I find Ms. Jefferson’s thoughts chillingly relevant.
Gary Trudeau, creator of the Doonesbury cartoon strip, once stated that those who have courageously challenged conventional wisdom — Copernicus, Darwin, Martin Luther, the Wright brothers and others — have moved civilization forward. If the wind band field is to advance, it is imperative that we constantly ask one another and ourselves meaningful questions! In that spirit, I’ll pose a question that some may find impertinent: why do so many of us use novel ideas in our marching band shows, but present dreadfully common concerts? Paradoxically, marching band shows are limited in many ways (e.g., by time, defined space, etc.), while concert performances, when imaginatively framed, have few limits.
To be sure, the remarkable evolution that has taken place in the marching band paradigm during the past several decades has inspired many band directors to become more inventive in their thinking where field shows are concerned. Further, in this time of accountability and standardized tests, extrinsic pressure — especially the demand for demonstrated achievement that can be measured — is a daily fact of life for all teachers. Marching bands inherently carry the potential to satisfy such demands in a highly visible and visceral way — adulation by large audiences, credibility with many school administrators, participation in band by a wide range of students and quantifiable achievement, measured by outside experts at festivals, often combine to satiate demands.
Unfortunately, the staid formats and formulas used by many band conductors to assemble concerts often pale in comparison to their sophisticated outdoor spectacles and, more critically, generally do little to engage either their bands’ students or their communities in potentially transforming musical experiences. This is not to say that a “traditional” concert, comprising artistically meritorious works, superbly played on the stage of an excellent auditorium, has little value! Indeed, the intrinsic rewards of such experiences for performers and listeners alike can be life changing. Nonetheless, it has been my experience that when one applies the creative thinking and resources to the concert scene that are usually reserved for the more “visible” components of the band program, the resulting project yields not only deeply satisfying intrinsic dividends, but exhilarating extrinsic rewards, as well.
Further evidence for the need to think more creatively where concert-giving is concerned can be found in research concerning the society we live in. In his seminal book, The Creative Class, Richard Florida points out that a substantial percentage of people working in today’s knowledge-based economy “favor active, participatory recreation.” Where the arts are concerned, the tens-of-millions of Americans who constitute Florida’s “creative class” — a group that encompasses not only artists, but those who use creative problem-solving to do their jobs, e.g., architects, software engineers, etc. — are interested in “entering a cultural community, not just attending an event.” His findings conclude that these people are far less likely to sit in a concert hall than were members of previous generations; instead, they want to make music themselves or at least “rub elbows” with those who do. This phenomenon presents unparalleled opportunities of many kinds for creative music educators, not the least of which is making available avenues for lifelong musical performance!
Clearly, this “new normal” also invites us to invent fresh ways of presenting concert music. To that end, I’ll propose one method for addressing this challenge that I hope serves to fuel your own creative engines with regard to your concerts.
Beforehand, though, a caveat: I am incapable of telling you how best to be “creative” within your own concert program, because I am not walking in your shoes. As many educators wisely argue, context should dictate content, and form should serve both. With regard to your band program, this implies that only you can decide what works best in your community (context), determine what literature will satisfy the specific educational needs of your students (content), and identify what teaching methods resonate with you (form). Indeed, coming to grips with the context you work in, establishing the content of your students’ education, and identifying forms of teaching that are both genuine to you and will most effectively present the content to your students, constitutes your cardinal responsibility as a purveyor of music education!
That important disclaimer stated, let’s “Travel the Seven C’s”!
The creative process is variously described as comprising multiple steps: contemplation, a period devoted to first identifying and then pondering a problem; illumination, that “aha” moment, when the problem’s solution first becomes apparent; verification and evaluation, when one elaborates, tests, and revises; and implementation. In our case, we might state the problem like this: how can I create a concert that will advance the musicianship of my students while engaging listeners in interesting and potentially interactive ways? It is crucial that at this stage of the game, our mantra is “no bad ideas.” What may initially strike you as a weird idea (e.g., why don’t we organize and perform a concert on a Saturday afternoon at the local petting zoo; let’s commission a piece for DJ and wind band) may end up being a perfect response to your current situation.
At the very least, your “off-beat” ideas will likely spin-off more viable solutions. So, brainstorm away with reckless abandon!
Also, bear in mind that the most creative ideas often come to us while doing something else — contemplate concerts while getting that exercise you’ve been talking about, rather than while sitting in your office!
After contemplation has led to one or more “aha” moments, a long period of consideration — the part of innovation Edison famously referred to as “99% perspiration” — is necessary to evaluate the possibilities. For this time to be beneficial, it is vital that our thinking resemble that of a two-year old! Like toddlers who are given to insatiable curiosity and know few limits, every conclusion should generate a question: “what if…?” “why…?” “why not…?” and so on. Eventually, “the parent in us” will come up with the ultimate answer; hopefully, though, not before exploring countless possibilities.
What if our concert at the petting zoo included Grainger’s Children’s March? Why do a piece in that setting with so many percussion instruments AND piano? Why not place the piano on a flatbed truck? What about the players’ chairs? Do we really need to sit down? If not, can we play each composition from a different location in the zoo? Won’t the children in attendance want to touch all those percussion instruments?
Why not set up an instrument petting zoo?! Could that help spawn or renew interest in playing an instrument? What other substantive literature could we play that might engage performers and young listeners alike? How about Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze”? Should we use chamber ensembles?
What if we commissioned a work for DJ and band? How could the study of music outside the western “art-music canon” enrich my program? Could we perform this piece in a club or build a club-like atmosphere in our bandroom or cafeteria? If space is limited, how can we reach a larger audience? Why not stream this event on the band’s website?! How should we dress? What other repertoire could we play? Is a concert based on “popular styles through the ages” feasible?
In any given scenario, the number of possibilities is limited only by our imaginations and by our willingness to take risks!
Can you imagine the first reaction to Robert Boudreau’s proposal to form a wind orchestra that would perform on waterfronts or to Frederick Fennell’s notion to play wind band classics “one-per-part”?
We must now begin to assemble our many exciting ideas into a cohesive program. By connecting ideas, we can create a compelling musical event, specifically designed to attract and engage both our students and a particular audience. Obviously, we are now forced to disregard many of our ideas; the best will undoubtedly reappear in a future project. Think about developing connections by using musical or extra-musical themes (e.g., pieces that explore the theme and variations form; works that refer to animals), through associations (e.g., develop a cross-disciplinary arts event with a local dance studio; perform pieces based on visual art), or via historical/current events. This does not mean, however, that all music on a given concert should be similar in sound or style; indeed, highlighting the tension found between the different and the familiar can foster artistic comprehension and interest in both players and listeners. Since music is practiced in all cultures, music is defined by a wide spectrum of styles, and music has been a part of all historical periods, the potential for connections is virtually infinite!
After we’ve thoroughly fleshed out our ideas, we’ll need collaborators.Teaching colleagues from diverse disciplines, both musicians and non-practitioners, can give us feedback and offer ideas and expertise to help implement our plans. If our proposed concert is off-campus, we will need to partner with one or more people at the site of our event. The business community may need to be involved (e.g., who has a flatbed truck?) and parent assistance may be needed. It is time for our students to become our artistic partners, as well.
By this point, your creative thinking, musical curiosity and passion for the project carry the potential to infect your students — an enthusiastic, entrepreneurial spirit is highly contagious! Needless to say, we also must be completely prepared from a musical standpoint; even the world’s best concert ideas will fall flat if embedded in poor musicianship or conferred through ill-prepared teaching. Assuming you’ve done your homework, cultivation of your students can now begin in earnest. First, share your vision, explaining why giving a non-traditional concert is important to you and what you hope they will gain from the experience. Make sure they realize that there is risk involved in doing anything original — at the end, some people may not like their performance! Persuade them, through your teaching and musicianship, to invest in the project, realizing that ultimately, their investment is what will captivate listeners! Finally, continue to evaluate and refine your concept. Everything, from the setup of the ensemble to the costumes that will be worn at the performance, should be open to change as the process unfolds.
In addition to communicating to your students, prepare written and/or verbal notes about the concert for your listeners. Be sure the communication is specific to the intended audience! Never hesitate to promote the event to local media; uncommon ideas often garner positive coverage in print and electronic media.
The concert you conceived, developed and gradually nurtured with your own hard work and through conscientious collaboration with many others, now comes to fruition. Take time to enjoy the performance of your students and relish the feedback from listeners.Celebrate in the knowledge that you have created a singular event, a hybrid concert that has enriched both the cultural fabric of your community and the music education of your students.
Scientist and Pulitzer-winning author Jared Diamond suggests that the failure to anticipate, perceive, attempt to solve or resolve problems viably is at the heart of disastrous decisions. As a field, we failed to anticipate the impact that many recent and profound changes within our society and educational establishment would have on wind bands. Many of us lack clear perception with regard to the underlying perils that we now face or the will to tackle present-day dilemmas. The good news is that challenges breed opportunities!
By asking salient questions and thinking creatively about all that we do, we can begin to move toward a vibrant future. As Richard Hansen enjoins in The American Wind Band, “It is only in making music meaningful to the lives of people, societies and communities that the wind band heritage can be sustained and advanced.”