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August 1959 Considering Contemporary Music – How Difficult is Difficult?, By Morton Gould

The repertoire available to school symphonic bands has grown considerably, both in variety and quality, but I think the degree of acceptance and usage is not always commensurate with this growth. I address my thoughts, not so much to the adventurous band directors who seek out and encourage new musical experiences, but rather to those who are reluctant to explore beyond what are in many cases self-imposed limitations. There is a natural tendency to think of the familiar as easy and readily accessible, and of the unfamiliar as problematical and difficult.

What Are Limitations?
   At what point, and to what extent, is a contemporary work of serious purpose impractical for performing consideration? I use the qualification serious purpose, not in terms of specific expressive content, but of craftsmanship and style that produces a work of individualistic character and distinction. These attributes often result in relatively unconventional patterns and textures, and ensuing problems for conductors and players. Are these problems real or fancied?
   A striking effect, listener-wise, is not always a comfortable and familiar “fingering” playing-wise, but is the unfamiliar in itself difficult or merely unexpected? There are passages or concepts that require a highly developed conducting technique, without imposing any undue burdens on the individual player. An example would be a sequence of readily playable notes dispersed over a changing and complicated rhythmic pattern. The reverse is also possible – a symmetric rhythm for the conductor, but awkwardly spaced intervals for the instruments. I think this distinction pertinent, because in evaluating possible difficulties, especially in new works, it is important to know for whom this is difficult and to what degree.
   We must assume, of course, that the compositions in question are well-made products of an imaginative creative musician, and of inventive significance for the medium involved. We also assume a performing body and conductor who share a musical experience with earnestness and sincerity to the fullest extent of their particular ability.

Develop Ability of Croup
   It is my feeling that very often the “fullest extent” of a band’s ability is not realized, and here is where we meet head on the resistance to new works because of supposed impracticalities. The fundamental responsibility, as in all other facets of group music making, lies with the conductor. I am aware of many of the real limitations band directors face in terms of age groups, available personnel, pressure of school schedules, etc., but what I am concerned with is the encouragement of challenging new materials in relation to these restrictions and classifications. These often arbitrary boundaries should not be rigid but expandable.
   I would like to extend aggressively the possibilities of all grades of band repertoire, rather than passively assume limitations – some of which are valid and others imagined. Band directors, understandably enough, are predisposed to the “tried and true” staples, mostly from the classic and romantic repertoire, often in transcription or adaptation. This is all to the good, as generally this area contains so much of our established musical heritage. However, there is irony in the fact that many of these “chestnuts” are truly difficult to perform adequately, and often more beyond the ability and comprehension of a young player than a “complicated” contemporary work.

Traditional Works Easier?
   Knowing a work thru a long established and traditional familiarity tricks us into compensating in our inner ear for what we don’t actually hear – or play – objectively. This, obviously, can’t be done with a work we don’t know. A “classic,” only partly realized in actual performance is still recognizable – giving the illusion that it has been played and, therefore, playable and practical. But is it truly less demanding than many contemporary-works?
   The standard traditional music is played with and in spite of obstacles and hurdles, whereas a new work is subject to resistance and rejection because of them. Obviously, the same yardstick does not always apply, but it should.  In other words, many directors fear complexities in new works – yet accept them, or ignore them in the older ones.

Purpose of School Music

   To my thinking, school music should not be concerned with note-perfect performances as such, but rather with a wide musical experience and exposure. The rich and varied totality of music is what is important, not individual notes nor any one particular style. School music should be educational in the fullest meaning of the term and must not be confused with music as a professional entertainment.
   Selection of repertoire should be primarily based on responsibility to the student players and the development and enrichment of their musical capacities and sensitivities, and not to a general audience. I am not denying the validity of public performance as part of the musical experience, but I do question undue stress on this factor. This stress obscures the objective and leads to choice of material on the basis of its mechanical simplicity and easy performance. It is geared to the least developed capacities. Educationally, this procedure lacks the challenging ingredients that stimulate growth, therefore restricts potential accomplishment and achievement.
   I do not propose the impractical and I realize that certain works do have complications that are beyond the capacities of any but a few select bands; but I do propose a more flexible approach to what is practical and possible. I grant my prejudice as a composer, but my observations are also 
predicated on my experience as a performer. From both points of view consider music making in our schools 
to be of the most vital significance and 
importance and am therefore deeply 
concerned with its possibilities and 
growth. On this premise I suggest that 
difficulty does not preclude feasibility  
and that complexity does not rule 
out accessibility. When sympathetically
 and diligently examined, the problematic is often solvable – the   complicated becomes simple – and that modern piece possible and playable.

Editor’s Note: Mr. Gould will conduct the All-American Bandmasters Band at the Mid-West National Band Clinic in Chicago, Hotel Sherman, December 9-12, 1959.