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Filling the Concert Hall

Anthony Pursell | March 2014

    New directors usually develop a set of clear objectives when they begin working with a music program. A director may seek to improve the quality of the ensemble’s performance, to strengthen morale and discipline, or to develop greater involvement from the parents. For a director who is new to the program, it can take a lot of time to achieve objectives like these. Sometimes a quick fix is necessary, especially if, for example, you are a high school band director with a first performance scheduled soon after the start of school.
    One path toward quick success is to find a way to connect with the culture of the population. If the music program can make a connection with the community, the support that follows will eliminate complications for the director and pave the way to success for the program. It may sometimes be difficult to make meaningful connections with people through the music program, but with the right kind of effort, a connection can be made that will pay huge dividends in the long run.

Learning from the Past
   When I first started in my current position, I talked to the former director of bands who had worked here for 25 years. While everything he told me was helpful, there was one piece of advice he gave to me that eventually became a cornerstone of my plan to build a successful music program. That advice was this: “You have to find a way to get people in the local area to the Fine Arts Center. People are just afraid to come.” The importance of this comment did not strike me until much later, after I had grown to understand the community and the culture.
    Geographically, my institution is situated in a challenging spot. We are an hour and a half from the outskirts of a major metropolitan area, and within thirty minutes in all other directions there is only a town of less than 1,000 people. The community surrounding my school has taken on the self-proclaimed status as the Cowboy Capital of the World. This cowboy community, far removed from the rest of the world, somehow seems distant from the music created by composers such as Grainger, Hindemith, Ticheli, and Persichetti. But the students here deserve the opportunity to learn the music of these composers, and to choose not to perform works by these composers would be a huge disservice to the students in the ensemble, especially those who are music education majors. In choosing literature, it is critical to find a balance so that the great literature remains a key part of the music program.

Knowing the History of the Program
    In preparation for my first concert, I looked at my institution’s history and its past performances. From the very beginning in 1919, there was a very strong ROTC band presence. Further research showed that the band used to perform throughout the state and had a strong following. Most likely its concert programming was similar to that of the traveling band of John Philip Sousa. Although the band program had moved away from its foundation as a military band, I thought that bringing back this element would create some connection to the history of the university and, perhaps also, to the surrounding community.
    Another part of my approach to concert programming was to embrace the area’s view of itself as Cowboy Capital of the World. I have tried to program works that have a western flavor, but that still are part of the acceptable repertoire for wind band. This limited my choices somewhat, but finding suitable pieces was not very difficult. Some of the western-style works that we have performed include Frank Ticheli’s San Antonio Dances and John Mackey’s Sasparilla, among others. For our Carnegie Hall debut in April, I commissioned film composer Charles Fernandez to compose a work in the style of Aaron Copland and Elmer Bernstein but using the theme of the institution’s Alma Mater. Programming music that connects with the local population is not only a good way to attract new concertgoers, but it also is a way to get the ensemble to perform more diverse literature overall.

Finding a Way to Appeal to the Senses
    Now that almost everyone has a multimedia device or smart phone, it seems necessary to find new ways to capture young concertgoers’ interests. In December 2011, I programmed my first multimedia concert in which we integrated video and images to be part of the performance. The setup we used was fairly simple, but it proved highly effective. (See “Planning Multimedia Concerts,The Instrumentalist, volume 66, issue 11). After the concert we had a post-concert reception. Most of the comments were complimentary and encouraging toward having additional multimedia concerts. One parent of a student commented, “I really wish you could do this for every concert.” I do not use multimedia at every concert, but we now incorporate multimedia as an annual event for our late November concert. Audience attendance at this concert is usually higher than at most others.

Performing for All Audiences
    Concerts that celebrate special events typically draw highly appreciative audiences. In November 2012 our town elected a new mayor who is a retired Air Force officer. Knowing before the election that he had a good chance of winning, and with our concert scheduled for November 11, Veteran’s Day, I decided to invite our potential new mayor to attend and to guest-conduct at the concert, which was programmed to be a tribute to the armed forces. This concert was also our annual multimedia concert. As the director, I found that programming this concert was not only enjoyable, but also easy to do. 
    For the first part of this Veteran’s Day concert, I selected two serious works that would appeal to the performers on stage and move my ensemble forward by raising my expectations for them. We performed John Williams’s Liberty Fanfare (arr. Curnow) and Karel Husa’s Music for Prague, 1968. Both of these works were set to images and video. For the second part of the concert, I programmed music to replicate what audiences may experience during a municipal band concert. We performed classics such as “America, the Beautiful,” “Strategic Air Command,” “Amazing Grace,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” all of which were likely to be familiar to many in the community.
    In addition to these program choices, I decided to send personal invitations to our campus ROTC unit and to all Veterans of Foreign Wars and Knights of Columbus within a 100-mile radius of my institution. We offered this invitation so that we could recognize members from these organizations, since many of them would connect to the festivities presented at the concert. Knowing that a concert is open to the public may not be enough to encourage some people to attend. A special invitation can make a difference in making someone feel welcome to attend. The effort to send out personal invitations paid off very well at this concert, which was one of the best-attended events of my entire teaching career. It was such a success that the very next year I received a call from the mayor asking if we would host the event once again.
    Several days after this same concert, my dean called me to discuss an email she had received from a woman who attended the concert with her granddaughter. At first I was concerned about the content of the email, since it had bypassed my department chair and me, but I was soon relieved to learn that the message was one of thanks and praise. The grandmother who attended our concert wrote:

    “The images presented during the Music for Prague piece scared my granddaughter enough that she wanted to talk about them on our way home from the concert. We had a very good conversation about war and why people go to war. I remember many of those images running through my head as I listened to these events unfold on the radio and the news when it was happening. I am so thankful that you all presented such a difficult topic in the tasteful and educational manner that you did. Thank you.”

    When choosing pictures to go with a performance, I always try to keep in mind that the audience is likely to include young children. I have children who are ages seven and eight, and although I can explain scary pictures to them, I don’t want to force that conversation on someone else who may not be ready to have it with their young children. In some cases, especially when playing music about a war, a more graphic picture might enhance the performance, but I don’t want to cause an administrator to get angry emails. There is usually a way to get the idea across without resorting to graphic pictures. For concert programs where the images might cause concern, I usually include a statement like the following: “While the images are selected carefully, parental guidance is suggested.”

Creating Collaborative Concerts
    Many high school ensemble directors have found that there is great recruiting value to be gained from inviting their local middle school bands to participate in a joint effort. Whether this is done during marching or concert season, the positive publicity generated from involving the lower school bands can be a great way to win community support.
    Another great way to win support is to reach out to other parts of the academic community by programming a concert that highlights a particular school discipline, such as American history, biology, or visual art. This inter-disciplinary approach worked well for our concert this past November, which consisted of two parts. The first part featured the artwork of local elementary school students, and the second part was designed to honor the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s death.
    For the first part of the concert, I worked collaboratively with the elementary school art teacher. We decided to use Music from Abroad as our theme, so I presented the art teacher with the three works that my ensemble would play: Africa: Ceremony, Song, and Ritual (Smith), Variations on a Korean Folk Song (Chance), and Armenian Dances (Reed). The art teacher researched each of these areas with her students in order to identify themes and icons that would help support the music through drawn images. To support Chance’s Variations on a Korean Folk Song, for example, the art teacher and her students created art to portray birds, street festivals, and dancing. I scanned in each student’s art to convert it to a digital image.  This took quite a bit of time, since there were over 300 students in art class and each student created multiple images depicting different themes. Once a digital image was created for each piece of art, all that was left to do was to put a credit at the bottom of each slide with each student’s name. With so much art created by so many students, the enthusiasm generated for this project was tremendous, and it created a very positive feeling both within and outside of our music program.
    Programming concerts that connect with your audience can be a challenge, and trying to become a part of the local culture is never easy when you are new to it. Meaningful connections with the community can be made when you understand the people, speak the language, and give recognition to others. I have found that identifying the right literature is critical. You may want to perform a concert of familiar works that inspires your audience to sing or hum afterwards, or you may want to find literature that encapsulates the sense of the community at large. When the community feels engaged by the concerts you program and when you as a director become an accepted member of the community, the support that is given to the school, the music program, and the students can be tremendous.