Close this search box.

June 1990 Harry Begian Speaks From Experience, By James Hile

Harry Begian holds degrees from Wayne State University and the University of Michigan. Director Emeritus of the University of Illinois Bands, Begian has appeared as a conductor, adjudicator, and lecturer in the United States, Canada, and Australia. In the March 1990 issue we presented his article, “The Conductor’s Responsibilities,” which focused on programming music.

How did you learn to conduct?
   I learned the most by observing symphony orchestra conductors in rehearsal. As a youngster I slipped into rehearsals of the Detroit Symphony unbeknownst to the stage manager, and sat in the darkened auditorium listening to such high-caliber conductors as Fritz Reiner, Eugene Ormandy, and Leopold Stokowski work with the symphony week after week. This was at a time when the Ford Motor Company hired the Detroit Symphony to perform on a series of N.B.C broadcasts heard all over the country. To me that was the greatest musical experience I could imagine, and at an early age I saw how the big boys did it. They impressed me not only with their conducting technique but with the momentum of their rehearsals and how much they accomplished in a certain amount of time. To professionals, time is money. I latched onto this idea and carried it over into my work in the schools and universities. I always felt that I wasn’t there to preach but to conduct and teach.

What experiences in listening to orchestras made a lasting impression on you?
   The summer I spent at Tanglewood was one of the greatest musical experiences of my life. For six weeks I heard the Boston Symphony in rehearsal with Serge Koussevitzky and at times with Leonard Bernstein. Hearing the fine performances and participating in a chorus conducted by Robert Shaw were important influences on me. The thing I will never forget about Shaw is how he worked the hardest of anyone in the production of a piece of music.
   Five minutes into the rehearsal he was dripping with sweat. You couldn’t sing in the chorus at Tanglewood under Shaw and not get involved; that was an important thing to learn and something my colleagues don’t know about. They are so detached from the music making process that they could rehearse in a white shirt and tie, and after an hour and a half have nary a trickle of sweat on them. Not that sweat makes a good rehearsal, but involvement does.

What made you decide to become a band director instead of a symphony orchestra conductor?

   When I was about 15 years old I decided to take the band route instead of the orchestral because I believed there was no chance with the orchestra for someone with my economic and educational background. I was not able to study privately until I went to college.
   When I heard the sound of a good university band, like Revelli’s University of Michigan band, I thought this kind of group had a future. In it I heard refined musical sounds produced by technically capable students who could play just about anything written.

What are your views on today’s band music?

   Most of today’s band music is educational music written for the junior high or lower high school level. There’s a place and a need for it, but I question why band directors hold it up as good music; it is functional music. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough quality music to keep a fine university band afloat. So much of the music that my colleagues play and propagate in the name of new, contemporary, or original music for band or wind band is not worthy of public performance. If conductors wish to oblige composers by playing this music in rehearsals, that’s one thing, but foisting it on an audience is another. They chase away the audience by performing bad or insincere music. If people can’t relate to the music, they won’t come to the concerts. This doesn’t mean you have to play junk; it just means you should play something audiences can relate to.

How do you respond to the statement that music offers experiences unavailable in any other way?

   This is true. If we can’t show or present expressive qualities of music then we’ve really done nothing with it. This happens in too many cases at all levels of performance where players aren’t confronting music that has any expressive qualities; they never come to grips with the most important thing music has to say.

 You often talk about the joy of music as compared to the fun of music.

   Participating in musical activities just for the fun of it isn’t enough. There’s something more to be gained from music participation than just fun and games, and that is joy. When you play or sing music to the best of your ability and give expressive elements to it, that is the joy of music; you can only approach it through serious music making.

Is your concern that composers are not writing quality music?
   The problem is more serious than that. I don’t think you could name four people on the scene now who can write a first-class work for band. I just don’t think there are composers like that. I came into this field because I believed in the expressive qualities of wind instruments and the future of the symphonic band. Today’s composers are writing little music for the level of ensembles that I have conducted.

How then can we encourage composers of the highest echelon to write for band?

   I thought at one time that just by asking the better composers they would willingly write for band. It’s not like the symphony orchestra, where a composer has to fall on his knees to get his work played. There are hundreds of bands capable of playing anything a composer could write. Still, the top composers do not write for the band. So we will have to pay them and pay them a big price for their work.

What ingredients should a significant concert band piece have?

   It should have a solid structural basis, starting somewhere, ending somewhere, while following some sort of logical procedure that we can discern with the ear or through score study. I also think it should have a melodic element that the listener can hang on to, maybe not the same melodic writing as in a 19th-century operatic aria, but perhaps melodies like Hindemith used, based on fourths instead of triads.
   Texturally, there has to be something of interest for the ear. It can’t be all blocks of sound. A piece for band should have light textures to contrast the heavier, darker textures and there should be good harmonic or contrapuntal interest. There has to be developmental interest, and anyone who can’t handle a variation form is not much of a composer. The reason we categorize Beethoven as a great composer is primarily for what he did structurally and developmentally. He could take a germ idea of just three or four notes and expand it into a symphony. His Fifth Symphony is a perfect example of this.
   The way a composer uses rhythms and rhythmic play helps to make a composition effective. Finally, there has to be expressiveness in this music. If it doesn’t have anything of expressive worth to it, then it is a questionable piece. These are the elements that make for a good work.

Does contemporary music fail in any of these areas?
   The approach to melodic procedure is just too far gone in contemporary music. It is as though composers avoid melodic writing at any cost. They give too much play to the rhythmic aspects of the music, as if they believe that the more complicated the piece is rhythmically, the better it is. I don’t believe this; complication does not add to the worth of anything, whether it’s a speech, a piece of writing, or a piece of music. To uncomplicate music is the harder thing to do.
   Most modern music has little emotional content. I don’t hear it or see it in the scores. Too much of today’s music focuses on extremes of range, extremes of articulation, and extremes of rhythmic complexity. The only thing modern composers stick with is structure. In fact, their structures are so premeditated they are almost like a map.
   The last 35 or 40 years represent a new band period from which conductors and educators should distill the things that are good. There should be a contemporary piece on every university band concert, but it should be well chosen.

What about the older band music?

   The band medium has some original music from the past, but not all of it is of high quality. Some of the music written in the 1940s should be played, including the great corpus of march compositions. Audiences love marches, and they also enjoy good transcriptions, as well as a good soloist with band accompaniment. There are some transcribed arias that can be played as sensitively with a band accompanying them as they can with an orchestra. Some transcriptions of solo works with orchestral accompaniment come off beautifully if you play them with the right size ensemble.
   It is a terrible mistake to play the accompaniment of a Weber clarinet concerto with a full-sized concert band. That isn’t the size ensemble that Weber wrote for. It sounds better when played by a scaled-down group of 45 to 50 winds. The same is true for the Haydn Trumpet Concerto. The printed; edition sounds right only after I go back to the orchestral score and rewrite the horn, oboe, trumpet, and timpani parts. Instead of treating it as a band piece, I try to get it more like the original, and a 45-piece wind ensemble is the most effective equivalent. This size group makes an excellent accompanying ensemble for music of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. Playing the Haydn accompaniment with a full-size concert band is similar to an orchestra of the romantic period playing baroque or classical music; it doesn’t work. Orchestra people know this, but band people have taken a long time to catch on.

Should conductors go back to the original score?
   Definitely, because some of the earlier transcribers wrote for the size bands that existed in their time. For instance, many scores transcribed for Carl Fischer were intended for a military band of 30 pieces, which might have had one oboe, one flute, and no bassoon. That picture changed by the 1930s and 1940s when additional flutes gave the band a full-sounding soprano section. Those same bands often played transcriptions written on the premise that they could be performed by groups numbering six or sixty. It took me some time to figure out that this was nonsense. It was only after I went back to the original orchestral score, found what the composer initially intended, then rescored some of the transcribed parts that these pieces made sense to me.

How do you feel about the wind ensemble versus the full symphonic band?

   The wind ensemble is the answer for the small school that cannot field a full band. It is ideal for performing Mozart, or the light works of Richard Strauss, but it should not play music of reputable composers written for larger bands. For example, I don’t care to hear the Hindemith Symphony or the Theme and Variations, Opus 43A of Schoenberg played by a wind ensemble. The performance isn’t comparable to a good concert or symphonic band. Although a wind ensemble can play with an exactitude of rhythm, finer intonation, and all those things obtained from better players, it rarely does. Most wind ensembles never approach the tonal colors, the balances, and the expressive sound of the concert or symphonic band.

What then is the place of the wind ensemble in our educational system?

   The only kind of wind ensemble I want to hear for my listening pleasure is one that exhibits the highest quality, with players who perform accurately and cleanly on a high level of musical expression. Few wind ensembles can meet these standards. The Netherlands Wind Ensemble is one such group. I enjoy their recordings tremendously, but to expect this level of playing from a high school group is unrealistic. For me the finest kind of ensemble playing is the string quartet with four equal partners. Each is responsible for delivering a part without error or scratches. The smaller the group the more skilled the players have to be, and most high schools do not have such players. In my 40 years of hearing and directing wind ensembles, I’ve felt them to be superior only when playing works for small groups, such as the Strauss serenades, divertimentos and cassations, and the Richard Strauss and Dvorak pieces for a particular size group.

If you could establish the ideal band program, would the wind ensemble be part of it?
   Yes, because there is a body of music written for it. The University of Illinois didn’t allow me to have a wind ensemble when I was there; I wanted it to be part of the band program but my predecessor refused to have one and it was something I could not touch. Had it been part of the band program, then I would have conducted it.

Should the wind ensemble function as a smaller segment of the larger band?

   Yes, in the large band you have all the ingredients of the wind ensemble. When you aim for the contrast in textures and colors and want to narrow the sound to four players, the four players are there just as they are in the wind ensemble. You have one on a part when necessary for contrast or when the composer asks for
   On the other hand the wind ensemble can never approximate the sound of the symphonic band. People like A.A. Harding, one of my predecessors at the University of Illinois, promoted an instrumentation for the large band as an offshoot of the symphony orchestra of his time, the 102-piece orchestra of Strauss and Mahler. Attempting to find different voices for contrasting elements in that instrumentation, Harding tried all kinds of instruments. Some he kept, like the contrabass clarinet; some he discarded. The alto clarinet didn’t do anything for the sound of the band, but the contrabass and bass clarinets had value.
   Such directors as Harding, Revelli, Bainum, and Hindsley, the people of the generation before me, evolved the instrumentation of the concert band. I believed in that sound; I was convinced by those instruments. I still am, although I had grave doubts about it for a long time during the 1970s. I’ve come back to this notion: if it is a band, I know what instruments it should contain and how it should sound. I don’t have the same sense about the wind ensemble. You often speak of the pendulum swinging back and forth; this is an example.
   The wind ensemble represents a reversion in size and color. We’ve performed with wind ensembles now for over 40 years, and they are the ideal medium for playing a certain type of music, but the concept has not sold to either public high school band directors around this country or to audiences. I believe there are two reasons why: the wind ensemble lacks tonal colors; and philosophically, it doesn’t work in the public high school. I don’t think it’s right to tell players, “No, I’m keeping one player on a part no matter what.” We are there to teach music through bands; but to exclude some students is not the way to do it. The M.E.N.C. and other music organizations should have objected to this kind of exclusivity immediately. It has created a self-pronounced elite in the band world. What used to be a strong fraternity among musicians has now splintered.
   Today band directors can go in any one of four directions: the traditionalists, such as concert or symphonic band; the wind ensemble; the marching band; the jazz band. Band directors have become specialists in one of these areas, and they won’t look to the left or to the right. At conventions it is rare to see a director of one classification having any discourse with one from another. Marching band directors stick to themselves, as do concert band and jazz band directors. Wind ensemble conductors are unapproachable. This is one of the unfortunate by-products of the last 30 or 40 years of development.

At this point in your career, what do you regard as the purpose of the band in the public schools?

    The purpose is to bring quality music that can be played on any level to students. If a conductor chooses wisely, he can present selections that introduce students and players to the expressive qualities in music. As Charles Leonard would say, if music education can’t show players the expressive qualities of good music, then it has no place in the public schools.

Many people think the marching band has become the dominant force in public school education. How do you feel about this?
   Marching band is an adjunct function that has grown to be overly important in band programs around the country. It has gone hand-in-hand with the development of the athletic consciousness in the professional and school level. This is unfortunate because it has been detrimental to the musical qualities of bands and also to the retention of quality players.

Can you talk about some of the detrimental things?

   Because marching bands don’t require clarinets, flutes, French horns, and double reeds in large quantities as concert bands do, we’ve found fewer people on these instruments in the last 10 or 12 years because they are not participants in the marching band. We see that, and we also see a lowering of the playing level on certain instruments because of marching bands. The arrangements played in the marching band for the most part are simple and can be learned in a brief amount of time. They make no great technical or musical demands on the players. The emphasis is more on marching and the drill aspects and not the music. Therefore, a person can go through high school as a flutist and come out a much less proficient flutist than he would have 20 years ago. So we are getting fewer players of lesser quality on certain instruments than in the past. This is noticeable particularly on flute and clarinet; at one time there were hundreds and hundreds of flute players around the country in various types of bands. The playing level on the flute has dropped in the last 10-15 years, and the same has happened on the clarinet and the double reeds. I think this is principally because of the marching band movement as it is now as well as the type of music played.

Most marching band people say that they are raising the standards of excellence for the marching band through competitions. How do you react to that?

   As a young band director, I believed that competitions and festival’s were good for public school bands and orchestras. As time went by I changed my opinion about the competitive idea completely. The only kind of competition for musicians is the competition that one has with himself and his abilities to recreate music with his players.

Is there anything in the course of your career that changed your way of thinking like that, or was that just evolved over time?
   My opinion has changed because of adjudicating at contests. As the years went by I saw the same bands and the same conductors learning nothing from their experiences. They did not improve intonation, rhythm, balance, or the things you look for over and over again on those rating sheets. 1 figured these competitions weren’t doing what they’re supposed to or that the conductor and his students weren’t listening to the other bands. Instead they worked on three or four pieces for half a year. The notion that we’ve got to be number one, and we’ve got to be the winners in a competitive situation is stupid. The competitions sound more and more like offshoots of athletic departments, not educational institutions.

Often directors talk about the dropout rate connected with the marching or concert band. How do you feel about that?
   Students everywhere want to be a part of anything that’s great, whether it’s a concert band or a marching band. If they play in a marching band, and it’s a great marching band, there won’t be much of a dropout problem. The same holds true in the concert area. You can’t keep better players in a concert band if it’s not a great group. If the group does not meet the needs or demands of the students, then you have a dropout problem. I’m not boasting, but I never had a dropout problem in any school I’ve taught in. In high school, my problem was one of inclusion, not exclusion. I had to create one band after another because the students respected what they were hearing and they wanted to participate in band activities. If they had any preparation before they came to high school they wanted to play in one of the bands. So I had four bands at one time.
   It was the same thing when I went to Wayne State, where I inherited a university band that had dwindled down to 45 players. By the time I left Wayne State after three years to go to Michigan State I had two bands with about 80 pieces each. When I got to Michigan State I had to create still another band in addition to what was already there. Three years later when I took the Illinois job I inherited two large bands; after a few years the students flocked to those bands and we had two symphonic bands, three concert bands, and the marching band grew to be over 300, and finally we added a brass band. I think my success was due to the fact that I was able to work with fine young people who wanted to make music. As their teacher I worked to produce a good-sounding and good-performing band, which attracted other students. The other reason was that we didn’t play any trash; we played the best music that we could play. The ultimate success hinged on the fact that I never complained, particularly to high school students, that this was a hard piece of music. I just said here is a piece of music I think you will enjoy, we’re going to play it.

Do you think we could help solve the dropout problem by providing quality music?
   Give students an experience performing good literature and there won’t be a dropout problem. That experience doesn’t come from an undisciplined atmosphere at rehearsals. It comes from a disciplined, sincere, honest approach to music.

I read an article the other day that said the future of the concert band is dead. How do you react to that?
   I don’t believe that. I referred earlier to the 
pendulum effect in American life where some
times we go to one extreme and then go back
 the other way years later. I now see a swing 
back from 30 or 40 years of concentration on
 wind ensembles. As I go around the country I
 see more and more people returning to the
 concert band. I don’t think the concert band is
 dying, but some directors have become concert 
band specialists. We need directors who embrace
 the concert band, wind ensemble, marching, and
 jazz band. United, the band movement will 
continue to grow arid develop.

   James Hile, director of bands at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, earned a master’s degree at the University of Illinois and is currently completing the doctoral program there.