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A Conversation with Eugene Migliaro Corporon

Anthony Pursell | December 2014

    Eugene Migliaro Corporon is the conductor of the Wind Symphony and Regents Professor of Music at the University of North Texas. He is a graduate of California State University, Long Beach and Claremont Graduate University. Having recorded over 600 works, including many premieres and commissions, his groups have released 100 recordings on the Toshiba/EMI, Klavier, Mark, CAFUA, Donemus, Soundmark, GIA, Albany, Naxos, and Centaur labels.   

    Twenty years ago The Instrumentalist interviewed Eugene Migliaro Corporon to discuss aspects of creating music and sustaining rehearsal intensity. Today, we revisit with the clarinetist turned educator and conductor to see what has changed since the January 1994 interview and what remains the same.

How has your conducting evolved, and what do you feel are the most noteworthy conclusions about conducting that you have come to?
    Certain things that used to be extremely important to me seem to be less essential now. As important as it is to eliminate error, I work to spend more time helping my students understand the importance and value of making music. I strive to put the focus on the music and its impact rather than the music and its problems.
    In my situation, because of the players I get to work with, I am afforded the luxury of not constantly worrying about what is wrong with the music, but rather what is right with everything else. It is very different from when I first started 45 years ago. Because most of the people I work with are adult musicians and future professionals, my role is to help them figure it out for themselves. Whether they go into teaching or performance (or both), they will need to come up with their own answers as they progress in their careers. My job is to facilitate their independence.
    All of this has influenced my conducting style and my rehearsal approach. Instead of immediately offering a solution to a problem or requesting the musician to change their approach, I am now more collaborative. Some ways I achieve this are by addressing the ensemble with requests such as, “Before I give you my thoughts, how about telling me how you think it should go,” or “I would love to hear your opinion before I weigh in, so play it for me.” I recognize that getting students to think creatively and independently is a challenge, but this approach has proved successful.
    I am still a true believer in clarity, and I insist on being able to hear what I see in the score. I will not give up until we can get things in the right sonic order and everyone can hear what the composer has put on the page. I am lucky to have players who are not only patient with this method but who are also willing to step aside so others can be heard. I do a lot a work on articulations to achieve clarity – wind articulations are as important to us as bowings are to an orchestra. Until everyone has the same concept of which way the bow is going, or how notes are to be started, maintained, and completed, we cannot achieve clarity. Typically there are markings in the score provided by the composer that may need additional clarity by the conductor, and this takes time and patience.
    My rehearsals have also become more centered on ear mapping – what is important for us to bring out in the written music. You cannot play a piece if you don’t know how to listen to the piece. Like everybody else, there are times when I have to slow the tempo down so that we can figure out what is going on. Sometimes my reason for slowing things down is to give us time to hear a complex rapid passage – not necessarily to practice it but just to hear it. I frequently remind my players that there are three components that make up a successful process: practice, rehearsal, and performance. Great ensembles understand the difference and function of each. Nobody wants to be the one who turns a rehearsal into a practice, but if you run a passage over and over in rehearsal to help solve one player’s problem, then you have turned that rehearsal into a practice. It happens to all of us, but we should guard against it. Likewise, no one wants to turn a performance into a rehearsal. Building an understanding of the purpose and function of each of these elements can really help improve the music-making experience.
    As I have gotten older, I have been willing to take more chances by making minor changes to what is on the printed page. If the composer is living, and I can contact them about a clarification or change, I will. There are times that I stick my neck out and make a decision to achieve clarity. I feel the conductor has a responsibility to make certain decisions when they take on a piece because the notation is not always 100% reliable. Consequently, conductors are forced to be as informed as possible and act in the best interest of the composer.
    Finally, I believe connecting with the members of the ensemble is very important. We have players who have never seen a rotary dial telephone. Some students think you are kidding when you say that you saw your first television at the age of 8 and it was only in black and white. Exploring effective ways to communicate is always a challenge. I was recently explaining to a group of conductors that the conductor is actually a wireless router. When we broadcast the thoughts and feelings of the composer out to the musicians, we are using Wi-Fi technology. The ideas and feelings are invisible and traveling through the air. Probably the best Bluetooth tool we have is our baton. The group began to smile as they got the analogy. The baton (or hands for those who do not use a baton) is the instrument we use to connect the listeners and musicians to the composer. Making my concepts more viable to the latest generation of players is an ongoing challenge in our ever-changing society.

What advice would you give to a high school student wanting to major in music? To a new teacher?

    I would say first and foremost that if you don’t like listening to music, don’t be a music major. You must be listening frequently to music of serious artistic merit. Listen a lot and broadly. I find that many aspiring music majors have a substantial amount of talent but may never have heard a Brahms symphony or know who Paul Hindemith or Ingolf Dahl are. When I was a freshman in high school, I bought the NBC Symphony recordings to all nine Beethoven symphonies conducted by Toscanini. I also got the scores. I wore those recordings out, and I learned so much from following the score. I really think the best way to learn about music is to listen to music.
With the computer, the exploration of music and composers has been made very easy. You can go online and find almost anything. If a student likes Frank Ticheli, John Mackey, or Wolfgang Mozart, they can find incredible amounts of information online. It is also enlightening to spend time researching composers who you have never heard of. I would hope that high school students would enter college knowing several band and orchestral pieces, along with being familiar with outstanding ensembles and performers that they follow. It is important to develop opinions without becoming opinionated; stay open to the possibilities.
    For a busy teacher, picking and choosing music becomes essential. In such a time crunch, I suggest investigating at least one new work each month, or simply listening to a new work once a month that is not in students’ folders. Focus on works recommended by people you respect. There may be a good reason you should be aware of it, even if your ensemble is not able to play it just yet. In our busy work world of preparing concerts and contests, it is sometimes too easy to focus only on the music in the folder, but it is extremely important to continue to broaden our understanding of the three major areas of repertoire that we draw upon: traditional works, transcriptions, and new music. Adding to our knowledge base makes us better musicians and teachers.
    In addition to repertoire, high school students considering a career in music will find reading about music history, theory, conducting, and performance practice to be particularly helpful. Observing conductors in rehearsals is another great way to prepare. I believe teaching is a noble profession and a great way to spend your life. However, it is not a job, but rather a calling. Students wanting to pursue a career in music should take time to identify what being a musician and teacher means to them. Most people who pursue this field likely had a mentor or someone they admired, someone who got them interested and inspired their passion. Teaching is about mentoring and helping others to grow.
    I was one of those people who, right up to the moment I was offered a job as a conductor and teacher, thought I was going to go to Juilliard and get my master’s in clarinet performance. In one day my life changed because I was offered a good teaching job. I decided that teaching was really what I wanted to do. Unexpectedly, but willingly, I put my clarinet away, which was difficult because I had been playing 6-10 hours a day. I felt like I betrayed my instrument, especially at the end of my first marching season. I was thinking, “Wow, what have I done?” However, I came to understand that all the time I had invested in my performance ability as a clarinetist was transferable. It could be converted to helpful musical knowledge that I could use on the podium. I learned as much about how to make music from my clarinet teacher, Larry Maxey, as I did from my conducting teachers. I value all of the experiences I had in both areas.

How important is it for music educators to continue performing on their instrument?

    I conduct a professional group called the Lone Star Wind Orchestra in Dallas. It is made up of young professionals teaching their instruments in the public schools and band directors who are working pretty hard as conductors but still playing incredibly well. There are groups like this all around the country. I find that the conductors in my group are really great players, and I am often told that it helps them to keep playing. When they go back into the classroom they feel more connected to the music. It is important to keep in touch with those things you are asking others to do for you.
    There are also opportunities for educators to play duets and quartets with students or to demonstrate a musical line. When you play for a group as their conductor, you earn instant credibility. You become more believable if you can demonstrate what it is you are asking them to do.
    Keeping the instrument active in your life will really benefit you in the long run. Expanding your musical world beyond your daily classroom routine can greatly benefit your teaching and make your life better.

When selecting literature, what criteria do you consider?
    I have spent my life pondering this issue. A quick piece of advice is to pay attention to the Acton Ostling, Jay Gilbert, and Clifford Towner studies. I put every work I play through the ten points of evaluation mentioned in the three studies.
    I get stressed about what I want to play. Recently, I pulled two works for a concert that was approaching and moved them to the third concert where we have fewer rehearsals because I could tell when we read them that they were going to come together way too quickly. I am never sure exactly how a program will come together until I have seen the group react to the pieces and participate in that interaction. Intellectual stimulation must be part of the process. Some people believe that if there is a good story, then that is all that you need, but does the work line up with the story? How well has the composer attached the elements of the story to the piece? I think the form, the use of compositional techniques, and the other things Acton Ostling talks about are truly important. Few pieces will hold up to 100% of all ten criteria, but you want to be in the 80th percentile if you can. There is plenty of good music available these days. Be sure to invest the time it takes to make credible decisions. Nothing works if the music isn’t substantive.
    I recently recorded 100 middle school band pieces, grades 1 through 2. The music was selected by teachers who are knowledgeable and really care about high-quality literature. They invested a great deal of time and did an excellent job. There are a good number of these pieces that I would not hesitate to perform. These works had fewer technical demands but much integrity. No one can tell a teacher what is best for them. They have to decide what is best for their situation as well as what works with their group.
    I encourage people to think not only about quality but also to consider practicality and try to balance those two things. You do not want the piece to be so easy that everybody gets bored or so difficult that everybody gets frustrated. You have to balance both elements. It is not only the pieces you pick, but also how you put them together on the program or into the curriculum based on how many rehearsals you are going to have. It is always a good idea to balance difficult pieces with some that are more approachable. Repertoire is a way of measuring progress. Teachers should definitely have a three- to five-year plan in mind; what you are playing now should lead to what you want to be playing three years from now.

You said 20 years ago that rehearsals were your favorite part of making music. Is this still true? What has changed about the way you rehearse?
    The process is still more important to me than the product. It is all about discovery. It is always difficult for me to let go of the music I have focused so intently on. I always feel like there is more to do. Luckily, after 45 years I have had the opportunity to come back to pieces and get another chance to reconnect. I love the process of exploration, and my rehearsals tend to focus on figuring out what the music is about and what’s going on rather than solely stopping to fix problems. At times I isolate things in a rehearsal not because there is a problem but because I want players to be aware of and value the choices the composer has made.
    Although rehearsals are still my favorite part of making music, that desire also extends to recordings. To me, a recording session is a rehearsal that gives you the ability to prove you got something done. If something goes wrong, we stop and go back and do it again. Recording provides the opportunity to perfect something or at least make it as good as possible given the available time frame.
    I enjoy performances as well. In fact I told my ensemble right before a concert recently that I was looking forward to others hearing what they can do because I am the only one who gets to hear what they accomplish on a daily basis. I can’t wait to share that experience. I like it when the audience can be involved in the presentation and have them understand the music and appreciate the work of the composer.
    Thanks to the internet, we can now have composers witness our concerts as they happen. In fact we just performed a piece by Kenneth Hesketh and he was able watch from London where the local time was 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. The next morning when I woke up, I had an email from him. Even when the composer cannot be with us, they can still experience their work. We have had many composers take advantage of that. It is always exciting to get a letter or an email from the creator that thanks you for doing their work. You never get tired of hearing those comments.
    I certainly enjoy rehearsing, but the performance makes me stop stopping. It makes me go all the way through the work. You want to have a feeling of completion at some point. Otherwise you would never stop because there is always something to do. When you have done your work, it is nice to be able to present it to somebody and have an audience that appreciates it.

What exercises and techniques have you employed with younger groups that have yielded great tone and intonation?
    I am a big believer in the importance of moving air and the velocity of air through the instrument. I will have breathing exercises available to use only if the tone seems to be funny or if pitch seems to be problematic. I rarely do this the first moment I get to the podium because students want to play, and I want to hear the group. I might stop and have everyone put their instruments down for a minute and then do some breathing exercises focusing on the idea of taking in air and directing the air stream towards the hand while feeling its speed. Imagining moving the air further and further away from the performer is always a good exercise. I don’t talk much about where the muscles are and everything, but I watch to see if someone is breathing with their shoulders instead of breathing naturally, and then I will comment on that or use an exercise to eliminate a problem.
    I believe in the importance of fundamentals, which include hand position, embouchure, and all the other things we are taught to watch for. I also spend time with young players on developing a sense of pulse. I advocate keeping time with the fingers and not with the feet. The idea is to make time where they are touching the instrument and creating time between the fingers and the instrument rather than between the foot and the floor.
    There are four basic principles that have guided me for the past 45 years. I call them the In Principles.

    In Tone: One must have a characteristic beautiful sound. Does the clarinet sound like a clarinet? How many recordings of the clarinet do you own? Who is your favorite classical and jazz player? You cannot make a beautiful sound without having a sound image in your mind.

    In Time: This means not only having a good sense of time, but also being able to play with others at the same time.

    In Tune: You cannot be in tune if you do not have a good sound and you are not in time with the other players.

    In Touch: This may be another way of saying technique. Technically, intellectually, and spiritually, being in touch in all three ways. Do you understand the piece, do you know how to move your fingers, and do you have a sense of the message or the spirit of the piece?

    This is what I listen for when I audition players. In fact I give this lecture every fall after auditions when students ask for improvement, and it is really just these four things that can make the difference.
    For me sound is always first. If the sound is not characteristic of the instrument, it does not matter how fast your fingers can move or how high you can play, because nobody is going to want to listen. This is a daily concern and can be improved with long tones, interval studies, and exercises to match registers. It is what we are taught when we are young, and it is the same stuff you hear members of a symphony doing when they are preparing to play. They are listening to intervals, they are matching, and they are thinking about sound and air. Arnold Jacobs did it with brass players, but it is just as important for woodwind players.
    It is also important to warm up. After all, we are using muscles. I believe in having a routine and individually teaching students the routine, which includes how to warm up individually and collectively with the band. If you have a 50-minute class, you cannot spend 40 minutes warming up. You should find something that allows students to make chords, something to play in the comfortable middle of the range where they can find their best sounds and then work their way out from that. This is why the Remington exercises work so well. You are working away from an easy good sound into other registers that will need some work. It also allows you to compare the next sound to the one you were just on.

If it exists, what is a typical lazy summer day in the life of Eugene Corporon? What do you do for recreation?

    I have a fantastic wife and three dogs and love spending time with the entire pack. Additionally, one of my true passions has to be automobiles. What can I say, I grew up in California. If I get some time off, I go to high-end car dealerships and drive my favorite machines, especially the ones that I cannot afford to own. I really appreciate going to car shows where I can see a lot of different automobiles. A Cars and Coffee event is a great way to spend a Saturday morning in Dallas. I may not know anything about how they run, but I appreciate the technology and see them as art. I very much enjoy spending time with my wife, who is a busy corporate executive. We have an interest in art and regularly visit galleries and shows. There are also occasions when we find time to be together that we are perfectly happy to do absolutely nothing.
    My summers are so full of teaching that I sometimes go six weeks without a break and then suddenly have a couple of weeks off. In that case, I will usually take time simply to decompress. The idea of doing nothing really appeals to me after an intense couple of months with no down days.
    There is always something around the house to do, and often when there are people here working on the house, I like to just watch what they are doing. I am an HGTV fanatic, and observing someone work on a project in the house intrigues me. I want to be able to understand the process, so I can further appreciate the job they are doing.