When we talked with our reviewers last month, the last question we asked each of them was about their ideal concert program. Their answers were so interesting and informative that we chose to run them as a separate article.
In a class I teach that covers this, I compare programming to the five-paragraph essay approach. When I learned how to write an essay in high school, you had to have an opening paragraph and a concluding paragraph. The opening paragraph had to capture the reader’s interest and say what the paper was going to be about. Then there were three supporting paragraphs followed by a concluding paragraph that summed it all up and left the reader with a good thought on the theme. I keep that idea for a good concert. The first piece should grab everyone’s attention, and then there should be three meaty, good pieces: perhaps something slow, something contemporary, or a multi-movement work. The closer should be fun and rousing closer, it could be a march, a dance, or anything that is going to make everyone stand up, cheer, and feel good about making music.
Another way I think about programming is the idea of one piece for me, one for the group, and one for the audience. The one for me is something that will help me improve as a conductor. One for the students is something the whole group will enjoy, in which every section has an interesting part. One for the audience is something they would want to come back and hear the band play again.
Theme concerts can be good occasionally. With my college students I performed the Ira Hearshen Symphony on Themes of John Philip Sousa which is a four-movement symphony with each movement based on a different Sousa march. On the first half of the program we played the four marches, then after a brief pause we performed the symphony, which is approximately 40 minutes long. It was fun and a good experience for music majors, but I think we were all glad when we were done. There should be moderation in everything for the sake of variety and including something for everyone on a program.
I grew up with Glenn Cliffe Bainum, Dvorak from Wisconsin, Hindsley, and Begian. Their programs were difficult, but they were melodic and they communicated to the audience. I am not saying we should avoid avant garde music, and colleges, which train students to be professional players, program such works because that’s where the art is going, but I have talked to people who have been to concerts at which they didn’t hear anything they could identify with because the entire program was dissonant with unusual rhythms.
I think it is ideal for a program to have at least some melody. I don’t mean simple, boring music, but something well scored that shows off the timbral capabilities of the band and artistry of the players. When I taught high school, my students preferred orchestral transcriptions and would check out the parts to play at home. We went through many transcriptions in rehearsals simply because students wanted to play them. From this experience I discovered that even most of the good high school players can play all the technical passages, but it is difficult for them to go from A to B smoothly and making it sound good. I think we need to stress a little more legato playing in our programming.
When I put together a program I try to make a mix of pieces that the students will enjoy, things the audience will enjoy, and educationally sound music. The program should have a mixture of marches, overtures, and slow and fast pieces. It is important to change the speed, style, genre, and key from one piece to the next. I once attended a concert consisting of two works by Wagner and two by Strauss. The group played well, but it was painful to sit through because it was four of the same style and an extremely dark concert.
The best approach is to have something for everyone. If you want audience members to come to another concert there ought to be at least one thing on the program they knew or liked. It is best to develop your audience, not just be able to brag about the difficulty of the music you play.
I always like to have a traditional march. When I first came to Clemson, I had an interview with the dean of the college. He was a big fan of Sousa marches and made it crystal clear at my interview how disappointed he was when he attended a concert without hearing one. I programmed a march every time, and he always sent me a note thanking me for it. I always include a slower, expressive piece and like to feature a soloist, too.
When I look at music I always try to see it from a student’s perspective. I want my students to feel a sense of accomplishment from a performance. Nobody wants to go into a performance with the feeling that they are in over their heads. Contest lists are dictated to the directors; the classification of a school determines which pieces you have to play, and sometimes there is little control over what is required. Some people would argue that challenging students will help them get better, but the difficult decision is whether it is better to challenge the top players with a piece of music and have half of the section unable to keep up or to have something where everyone can feel a sense of accomplishment. To stretch the better players, I look for selections that have difficult first parts or encourage these students to take on difficult works at solo and ensemble contests.
I have very strong opinions about this. A concert should have an opener, either an overture or a fanfare. This first piece should be a call to attention that is inviting to the audience. I like to have a centerpiece of a concert; this is almost always a multiple-movement work and should be considered the meat and potatoes of the concert. With older players that could be a symphony, while intermediate players might play a suite, such as one of the Holst suites or Vaughan Williams’s Folk Song Suite. Every concert should have a change-of-pace moment, a work that is slow and cantabile. This will help young players learn to play legato and cantabile and also give the audience a chance to hear something different.
I like to challenge both students and audience. If a band is essentially a grade 3 ensemble, I will include a grade 4 piece on the program. I challenge the audience with a work that is less tonal or stretches people’s understanding of what music is. It seems that too few band concerts have solo features for either guest artists or advanced players within the ensemble. Grade 2 and 3 works for solo instruments with band accompaniments are a rarity. The band tradition does not demand that every concert have a march, but I think most band concerts should have a march. Although they work well as closers, I sometimes like to start the second half of a concert with one. A closer is essential. Every concert ought to end in a way that is satisfying.
Every high school concert band program should include a Sousa march. I also favor compositions with mixed meters and would like to see more Latin American rhythms. On the high school programs I also like to see something that the students will enjoy. For example, on a recent community band concert I conducted a medley of music from Glee. A concert should end with something semi-patriotic.
I always had three orchestras that played on the same program and they all followed the same format. I usually started with a piece that was on the easy side for the group. Something at a moderate tempo will ease students into the program, and the ideal choice was a Baroque or early Classical piece. I programmed in historical order because I thought it was easier for the audience to follow. The middle piece would be the most difficult, usually a standard piece or an arrangement of a standard piece from either the Classical or early Romantic era. The last piece was usually a shorter piece that was fast and flashy; I used these pieces to teach finger or bow articulation and how to play quickly and cleanly. Frequently I would use a fiddle tune or something similar so concerts ended with an American composer. Even the very youngest students could handle easy fiddle tunes, and some students could improvise the harmony. I followed that format for each group and tried to find pieces that fit each ensemble.
An opener should grab not only the students’ attention but also the audience’s, and a final work should leave people wanting more. Everything in between should be a good variety not only in the style of the pieces but in the instrumental colors, in the tempi, and in the keys. Nothing is worse than a band concert full of E flat, B flat, and F.
On most concerts it is important to include a project piece that will stretch both the musical ability of the players and the listening capability of the audience members. I think we have an obligation to present the audience with a work or two that they may have to stop and think about – something that they might not immediately understand or like. Of course, such works should be blended with more enjoyable pieces that will draw the audience back for more. A suitable variety is always essential for audience interest, as well as for the education of the performers.
For concert band we try to include a march on every concert, as well as something we consider a standard from the band world, such as works by Holst or Vaughan Williams, or maybe a good orchestra transcription. I like to find works written with wind ensemble in mind, or orchestral works transcribed for wind ensemble. I try to include a piece from another culture on each concert; in fact, our first concert of the year is music from around the world. I try to find a well-written soundtrack arrangement or medley. This is usually the most difficult spot to fill, because I only program these if they have a lot of substance to them. This year we worked on a grade 5 medley of Harry Potter tunes. It was extremely difficult, but it had a lot of substance to it and most of the students knew the music. I like to have five songs per concert, so I will fill in the final place with something cool that I’ve heard recently.
At a wind ensemble concert this year we performed Sousa’s Liberty Bell; Irish Rhapsody by Clare Grundman; Seis Manuel, a Puerto Rican piece that revolves around some solos that get passed through the band; a Harry Potter medley; and the wild card, Bayou Breakdown, a cake walk with New Orleans-style music in preparation for a spring break trip to New Orleans.
For jazz band, I focus mainly on swing; Count Basie and Duke Ellington reign supreme in our ensemble. I put a premium on encouraging my woodwinds to double, so I search for music that has that opportunity. Every part in each section is very important. I also like to see independent parts, such as the third trombone having a different rhythm from the second, and solos for any part. If a solo is written for the third trumpet that student is going to play the solo; I don’t have the same trumpet player take all the solos. I also try to include Latin and rock pieces at every concert.
Do you have any unusual programming ideas, dissenting thoughts on marches, or interesting concert traditions? Share them with us: editor@the instrumentalist.com.