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Of Sound and Style, An Interview with Brian Peter

Dan Blaufuss | March 2013

    The band program at Westlake High School in Westlake Village, California has grown rapidly in recent years under director Brian Peter and assistant director Mike Gangemi. Brian Peter has been band director and the chairman of the performing arts department since 2006 and took the school’s Studio Jazz Ensemble I to the Midwest Clinic in 2012. “Directors should have a vision for their program. To find your vision, you first have to see a lot of other successful programs; your vision will then become a mix of what you’ve experienced and what you’ve observed of others. My high school band experience was only marching band in the fall, and the marching band became the concert band in spring. There were 90-100 of us all in one ensemble. We spent the winter and spring semester rehearsing three songs for festival, added a fourth for the spring concert, and wore our marching band uniforms on stage. That’s what I thought band was, and that is all I knew.
    “In 1994 I went to the University of Southern California as an engineering major in hopes of doing something with architecture and acoustics. I marched in the USC Trojan Marching Band and also performed with the Blue Devils in 1997 and 1998, playing snare and bass drum. During this time, I decided that I wanted to be a band director rather than sit in a cubicle all day. To gain experience and see what made band programs successful, I called area directors and asked if they had a position on staff with their marching bands. Once hired, I asked many questions and came in early to watch concert band and jazz rehearsals, as these were my weaker areas. I even collected handbooks, itineraries, and any handout given to students.
    “I noticed several things these programs had in common. Each had strong middle school programs where students understood the basics, could read music, and knew what a good sound was. The districts, administrations, and counseling offices were all supportive. The parents and communities also understood the value of music.”

How do you develop a good band sound and style?

    Listen to recordings and play them for students. Concert band is an ideal time to do so. I play a lot of recordings in class of different styles, composers, and ensembles. Besides providing a good concert band sound model, recordings also offer an opportunity to quiz students on stylistic choices these ensembles and conductors make. For example, I will ask students to listen for development, tension and release within a phrase. Then I have students study their music and consider why a composer chose to write a marking, such as a crescendo or accelerando, in a particular place, as these markings help create the musicality they just heard in the recording. I do not want students just to play notes and rhythms because the music says so; I want them to understand why it was written that way and how their part helps the ensemble make a musical moment.
    The next level is teaching students to make musical decisions, phrasing where markings are not indicated. Written music is extremely angular and mathematical, consisting of nothing but perfectly spaced horizontal and vertical lines, consistent font sizes, evenly spaced notes, and dynamic markings that are all the same angle. It would be easier to play expressively if bar lines were eliminated and not visual road blocks to melodies, p and f were different font sizes, crescendos were parabolic, and eighth-note lines in ballads were bolded so they would be brought out. Students must be instructed how to play what is written on the page and how to deduce what is not. That creates musical expression.
    Once per quarter I require students to attend performances of other ensembles to listen for topics discussed in rehearsal, including tone, articulation, balance, and phrasing choices. A Metallica concert does not count. Students should see a concert band or jazz band of equal or higher level than their ensemble. This exposes them to more composers and the styles of different conductors. It is also a great way to support live music.
    Students write a two-page paper about the concerts they attend. It is quite interesting to see what they notice. Some have written about a conductor’s lack of charisma when speaking about a piece, how the pyramid of sound was unbalanced, or how inspired they were from a performance. Others might comment on poor posture, tone quality, or intonation. From there it is easy to explain to students that if they noticed this from the audience, their own posture or musical imperfections will be obvious in performance as well.
    I also emphasize the difference between active and passive listening. Passive listening is riding in a car and knowing the radio is on. Active listening would include knowing every note, being able to sing every word with inflection, or knowing every flaw in the recording. I often start with a pop song students know well, then transfer the concept to recordings of concert band, jazz, or marching music. Once students learn to listen actively, then they can replicate the concept in rehearsal when they are playing.
    To create a good ensemble sound, directors have to know what a good sound is on every instrument. The first step is always to listen to many great players, decide what you like, and put the best elements of each into your sound. I remember hearing about a drumset professor at USC, Ndugu Chancler, who would assign students to play a tune and sound like Buddy Rich. If he felt a student’s Buddy Rich imitation was subpar, he would tell him to go listen to more Rich recordings and try again. When they got it right, he moved on to a different drummer. Becoming a musical chameleon makes you knowledgeable about the intricacies of each player’s sound and style. It is like cooking; you have to have good ingredients and then know how much of each you want.

With your background in marching, why do you focus on concert band?
    Concert band is the hub of our program. It is a controlled environment without the additional environmental or physical responsibilities that come with marching or the articulation and improvisation concerns of jazz. In concert band, we work on a fundamental sound, articulation, and balance, and dig into those concepts through many different styles, composers, and genres. Once these basics are ingrained in concert band class, they naturally transfer to the field or jazz ensemble.
    Indoors and outdoors, the pyramid of sound is important, with bass voices being strongest and the tenor, alto, and soprano voices fitting within that. It should not stop at balancing these four voices, however; there should be balance within each voice as well. In rehearsal I might ask only soprano voices to play and work on the balance in these instruments. In a forte passage, trumpets might have to play mezzo piano to produce a desirable balance.
    This gets more complicated when trying to balance a major chord. The root should be loudest and the fifth just a little bit softer, but the third should be much softer. This is because in the overtone series, roots occur most frequently, followed by fifths, and finally thirds. Science says the third occurs less often in nature, so we naturally want to hear it less in a chord. Sometimes I look at an orchestration and see that most of an ensemble has the third of a chord. This makes a chord sound strange, so you have to back these students down. At the same time, try to figure out why the composer made that choice in orchestration.
    Marching band is no different. If students learn these sound and style concepts during concert band, they will only need review on the field. This is why I have never have to transition from an outdoor field sound to indoor concert sound. My indoor sound is my outdoor sound.

How do you maintain order in rehearsals?
    I love teaching and hate having to be the disciplinarian. As a new teacher, I would feel bad when I got angry and had to get after students. After four or five years of teaching and a few trips to the Midwest Clinic, I realized that a few students causing trouble were depriving the other 95% of the class of an education, and discipline meant defending the majority’s right to learn. Directors can often avoid problems with consistency, structure, and clearly defined class procedures. If students are engaged in the rehearsal, they will not look for other ways to entertain themselves. When there is a discipline problem, I look to myself first to see why some students might have lost interest. To engage such students more I might get off the podium and teach from the middle of the classroom or give announcements next to chatty students.
    Every now and then there are those students who desire lots of attention. I learned a great discipline trick from Todd Ryan, our visual caption head at Blue Devils. When he first got there in 1994, there were veteran lead sopranos who had been there a long time, did not want to change the marching technique, and gave Todd a hard time. I asked how he got everybody to accept and do what he wanted, and he responded, “I praised the heck out of the third sopranos. After weeks of hearing about how wonderful the thirds were, the lead sopranos wanted to be praised too, so there were only two outcomes: the leads were going to do what I wanted or age out.” Everybody wants a pat on the back. If you have a troublemaker, praise everyone around him. The students getting the praise feel great, and the troublemaker learns a better way to get attention. The first time the troublemaker does what you want, lavish him with praise. Be sure that the praise is genuine, however.

How do you keep students interested during rehearsals?
    One way is to teach students how the band should sound from the front. As a percussionist, I never knew how a band sounded, because I stood in the back. Sometimes I bring the percussionists or other sections to the front to listen to the ensemble, and ask them to compare our band to what they hear on recordings. I also bring them up while working on a balance problem or a difficult wind passage. This is a great way to keep the percussionists engaged. I ask them what they hear, and they all comment that the band sounds completely different from in front than it does in the back.
    When I am working different sections of a piece, I talk to the sections that aren’t playing. If I work with flutes, I will ask, “Trumpets, what did you notice? If you were the director, what would you suggest?” Get students engaged. Many of these ideas came from being bored out of my mind in rehearsals. Often the percussion are doing okay, and directors, including me, can become focused on inconsistencies in the winds. Forcing myself to keep the percussionists involved reminds me to keep all the winds interested as well, even when I am not working with their sections.
    I also encourage students to be street smart about learning. Just because they are not being taught directly does not mean they cannot learn. They can learn a great deal by watching the mistakes of other students and listening to my instructions. If I teach a stylized rhythm to one section, the street smart players had better notice that they have the same rhythm later and make the same adjustment in their parts.

How should competition be handled?
    Competition can be good, but I do not think winning or beating other bands is a good carrot of motivation. In marching band, I tell students that I know the show extremely well from having written the drill and worked closely with the design team. With that level of knowledge, I know where the problems are likely to come up. My students’ job is to compete against me and the staff to shut us up. I tell the Blue Devils the same thing when I work with them. I demand a lot but then tell them to think of how good they will be when they can march and perform at the level where I have nothing to fix.
    I also encourage students to compete with each other. I ask one section to march and play a portion of drill, then ask the rest of the band what they observed. Then the next section is up. The goal is for students to see and hear what I see and hear. On Wednesday nights, our one full-ensemble night rehearsal, we have the section of the night, an idea I got from a great friend Roger Brooks. During the last 15 minutes of rehearsal, the staff texts me their vote for section of the night. We look for such factors as rehearsal etiquette, enthusiasm, and overall improvement, rather than which section has the best performers. The reward is that section is announced, and they get to call everybody to attention for dismissal at the end of rehearsal. There is no trophy, just recognition for a great job. The competitiveness between the sections is all in fun, but it makes the rehearsal just incredible.
    At marching competitions, the bar we set is to perform the show as well as they did at their best run-through so far. The next week the bar will be higher because there has been another week to practice. In competition, students know when they did not do their best. A first place trophy is nice, but if we win a competition without performing as well as we can, then it means less. Conversely, if we have the best run we have had all year but finish seventh, the placement isn’t anything to be ashamed of; it simply means that was where the judge ranked the performance compared to the other bands. Performing our best and rasing the bar at each outing is our goal and worth much more. Playing the best you ever have is worth much more. If the scores do come out our way, that is just a bonus.

How much sightreading do you do?
    We sightread as much as possible. The jazz band reads 100-125 tunes a year, and the concert bands read 20-40 pieces each. I occasionally sightread the score right along with them, hoping I won’t fall on my head. When I do make a mistake, we simply stop, collect ourselves, and keep going. Students see this and then feel comfortable about making mistakes and learn to move on as I did. Sometimes we don’t even talk about the music ahead of time; I pass something out, we read it, and then I collect it. This forces me to make sure I communicate my intent through conducting.
    I teach students to look at the title and composer for descriptive hints about the piece when they get new music. With some composers, such as Grainger or Sousa, students should have a good idea of what to expect ahead of time. If not, play more recordings. Students should check the obvious things, such as style, tempo, dynamics, and key changes. They should be able to guess whether they have the melody. For example, if a part has tied-together whole notes, it probably isn’t the melody; if the part looks interesting, it might be the melody or at least a prominent line and should be brought out. They should also look at where composers write in articulation and phrasing, because that is where they really want it. Where there is nothing written in, students must decide what to do with the phrase, and doing nothing is an incorrect choice. I encourage them to notice the high and low points of the piece and to watch me if there is an unfamiliar word on the page because I will do something different with my conducting to indicate what that word means.
    All ensembles should sightread as much as possible. If you only have 30 charts in your jazz library, read them all. It does not matter what grade they are, just read. Then call a school in the area to borrow some charts to sightread some more.

Why do young jazz players struggle with improvisation?
    They do not listen to enough jazz improvisation. Just as with developing tone, the best thing you can do for jazz students is to play jazz for them. Students have to listen to it. If I put French words in front of students who had never heard the French language before, they would have no idea whether they were pronouncing them correctly or even with the correct dialect. Listening is essential to playing jazz authentically.
    Young improvisers fall into the trap of thinking a solo is creating something from scratch. Frequently students start a good idea in the first few bars, but instead of slowly developing that idea over a chorus, they start a completely new idea every few measures. A solo should be one story that lasts throughout the improvised section. It should have an intro, development, tension, climax and resolution. I explain this idea with a short story: “I was late for a rehearsal and foolishly going a bit fast. I passed a police car hiding in the bushes, who quickly pulled out and chased me down. I slowed way down, and he followed me. I changed lanes, and he still followed me After trailing me for miles he pulled alongside me. I anxiously looked over, and he glared and shook his head before slowly driving past. Relieved, I exhaled and sank back down in my seat and did the speed limit all the way to rehearsal.” As I tell the story, I start with a calm, low voice. As I continue, I speak faster and faster, changing my tone and raising my pitch as I approach the climax of the story. I become most animated at the climax, and on the resolution, I become relaxed, my tone lowers, my pitch drops and I speak slower. I ask the students what the climactic part was, what the development was, and what the resolution was; all of which are easy questions to answer and essential elements to a good solo. Then I show students how to tell that story with one note. I start singing something simple, then get more active, change volume, change tone, and change velocity, just like I did when telling the story. Then it is their turn, using only Bb.

How do you select and use student leaders?
    There are approximately 30 student leadership positions between our Instrumental Music Council and Regiment Student Leadership (marching band), and I have high expectations for each. The application is lengthy and some students look at the packet and decide not going to apply. This weeds out many, but someone who is unwilling to do the work to apply is probably unwilling to do the work of the job as well.
    Students write a resume that explains why they are qualified for the position and provide two letters of recommendation, one from a peer and one from an adult. There is an essay that changes topics every year; this year, one choice was “Who is the most influential person in your life and why?” I do this to see how they write and to get to know them better. The application also has 16 questions to be answered in 50 words or less. Some of these are “What are your academic goals?” “What is your most significant contribution to the program?” and “What elements of this position interest you the most and least?” and 
“What elements of this position are you most and least prepared for?”
    Students also fill out a self evaluation given to me by a former booster president who works in human resources. The categories are position knowledge, communication, accountability, interpersonal skills, problem solving, and innovation, and there are three or four questions under each category, for which students have to rank themselves on a scale of one to five.
    The final phase is an interview with a panel of up to ten people, including me, our assistant conductor Mike Gangemi, the booster president, the current student IMC president, the drum major, several members of the high school faculty, and a community member who has never met these students before – usually someone from the corporate world. Each member of the panel has a copy of the application materials. Students come in one by one, and the first question is “Please introduce yourself and tell us why you are the most qualified person for this position.”
    From there, the panelists go through their notes and ask questions. Sometimes students write something in their applications contradictory to what one of the student leaders has heard them say. We are not there to make anyone upset, but the questions can become direct if dishonesty is detected.
    I have had freshmen go through the interview not quite aware of what they are getting into, but they apply again at the end of their sophomore year and nail it because they have already had the experience and are now more prepared. Students who have gone through this process and then gone to college interviews report back that their college interviews were easier because they had already had the experience of talking about themselves and felt comfortable. College graduates say our system was similar to their job interviews, and looking back, they valued the experience tremendously.
    When I first arrived at Westlake, we had parent boosters, with a president and a vice president. As the program grew, more tasks developed. We split up the booster vice presidency, and then created the same positions at a student level, so each booster had a student shadow. At the Midwest Clinic I attended a seminar in which the clinician said he tried not to do anything that didn’t require
a music degree. Someone else can make copies, fold programs, alphabetize forms, and clean out a storage area, but the director is the only one who can study a score, work with someone on their clarinet embouchure, and program a concert. Getting students and parents involved in the program allows me to focus on more director-specific tasks.
    Student leaders in charge of recruiting go with me to visit middle schools. They talk to eighth graders about what high school band is like. I also bring these students to eighth grade parent meetings. Last year one of my students accidentally took over the meeting. She spent 15 minutes answering questions from parents before I stopped her and commented, “A 14-year-old is running this meeting and fielding your questions rather well. These are the opportunities your students will have, and the mentors who will surround your children next year.”   

    Brian Peter has been teaching for 11 years in public schools in Southern California. He earned a bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Southern California and a master of music in conducting from the American Band College. His has been on visual staff with the Blue Devils for 14, and earning six DCI World Championships – three seasons undefeated. Westlake Band consists of four concert bands, three jazz bands, four jazz combos, marching band, winter guard, and winter drumline.