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Band Lessons, An Interview with Kevin Sedatole

Onsby C. Rose | May 2016

    In the summer of 2015 I had the opportunity to spend a week learning from Kevin Sedatole at the Ithaca Conducting symposium. It was here that I discovered why he is one of the most sought after teachers of conducting and music education. Sedatole has learned through many years of experience from teaching middle school through college, what is truly important. He states, “Be the band director with the score in your hand, not the fundraising brochure. You should do the things that only you can do . . . teach music. Allow others to do the rest.” It is with this philosophy that Sedatole has managed to become one of the giants of not only the band profession, but the entire conducting and music education business.
    Sedatole is currently the director of bands and chairman of the conducting area at the Michigan State University College of Music. At MSU he conducts the wind symphony, oversees the graduate conducting programs, and manages the overall operation of the total band program at Michigan State. Prior to his appointment at MSU he taught at Baylor University, Stephen F. Austin University, and the University of Texas at Austin. He earned a Doctorate of Musical Arts from UT-Austin. In March Sedatole invited me to spend two days with him in Lansing, where I was given the opportunity to watch him in action as well as devote a few hours each day to a one-on-one discussion about music, education, teaching, his hobbies, and everything in between.

What advice do you give to high school students who are considering majoring in music education?
    I always say that teaching music takes a huge amount of passion and is not an easy career. I tell them that if they can think of another career they want to pursue, they should do it. That gets their attention. It takes so much effort to learn and teach music the right way. Currently most schools of music want their performance and education majors to perform at a high level, which requires diligent practice on your instrument every day. While a performance major focuses mostly on one instrument, music education majors have to gain proficiency on many instruments. When you receive a music education degree, people look at you as an expert after four or five years of school. We all know you really don’t know anything. You have gained so much information in school but have no idea how to apply it. The first five years of teaching help you figure that out.
    It is essential to develop musicianship on your instrument and on piano. I wish everyone had great piano skills, but not everybody does. The musical development a person achieves on their main instrument as well as piano will hopefully transfer to the podium. So many students want to get right to the podium and do not understand that they are not ready. The advent of summer conducting symposiums across the country has really lit the conducting fire for undergraduate students. This is great as long as the student has an understanding that musical knowledge and know-how must back up great conducting. The musical understanding is so much more important than giving the right conducting gesture.

What are the biggest lessons that you learned from your early days in teaching?
    I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. As a band director’s kid, I gained a certain amount of knowledge from being around it all the time. I had a very good toolbox of skills but did not know how to use it. I realized that I should not have missed some of the instrument classes that are hard to get up for at eight o’clock in the morning. Now, I am all over our students about working hard in those methods classes, because you never know when they are going to say the thing that you need to hear the most. I had very good methods classes in college, taught by the studio teachers with experience in the public schools. I used those college notes every day when I was a public school teacher. My teachers taught the instruments well, but they also taught us how to teach beginners well, which is a completely different task than sitting in a one-on-one lesson.
    I also had great mentors when I first started teaching. I watched them like a hawk. I can admit now that my first year was really unsuccessful. The band that I inherited had many problems, and I did not understand how to teach the right concepts in an effective way. I spent a year observing a really strong mentor teacher, taking all of it in, and then my teaching started to go. If you are the only music teacher in your school, you have to find people who can help you. You have to pick up the phone and find people in the area who will work with you and let you observe them in action. The good thing about band directors is that everybody likes to help each other.

What lessons can the rest of the country take from music education in Texas?
    There is huge public support for band, orchestra, choir, and music in general. The most important thing that has saved music in Texas is the strong association of music educators. The TMEA umbrella encompasses everyone so legislators hear from public school music teachers with one strong voice. In other states the voice is not as strong because several organizations fight with each other for influence. TMEA has had consistently strong leadership that works together. They have lobbied vigorously to make sure that music is a curricular class and that the increase in testing does not hurt music programs.
    Another strong force in Texas is University Interscholastic League, the body that governs all music and athletic competitions. That has provided a standard for the entire state. There is heavy training for judging in the state so it is consistent. The All-State system is well organized and logical.

How important is it for directors to keep performing on their instrument?
    It is huge, whether you were a great performer or not. If you are teaching middle school band, you ought to play on some instrument every day. I know I was. In my first few years of teaching, I also played in groups like the Austin Symphonic Band, because I just loved playing and did not want to give it up. Additionally, if you have the opportunity to watch someone like Richard Floyd rehearse on a weekly basis you have to take it.

How do you choose literature when you are directing clinic bands?
    I treat it like any other concert and develop a program with a shape and architecture. I usually start with a fanfare and then shift to something slow. Next, I program a multi-movement work, often is the big piece on the concert. Recently, I conducted an honor band, and we played Let Freedom Ring! by Ryan Nowlin, which is a terrific fanfare based on My Country ‘Tis of Thee. Then I did a nice elegy piece and ten movements from Carmina Burana. We finished with the Press Wedding Dance. It all worked fine.
    I am conducting an All-State next year and am assembling the program. For this type of concert, I want to program some pieces from the classic repertoire. You cannot play only the newest and loudest and fastest. I am planning on a big transcription, La forza del destino, some Bach organ transcriptions, and then Wine Dark Sea by John Mackey. You have to get the band students as excited as the orchestra will feel about playing a piece like Mahler 1. Wine Dark Sea is one of the hottest pieces out now.

How do you find great literature?
    The first general rule is don’t pick up the first thing you see on the table at the convention. Go back a few rows, because the first scores you see are the hot sellers, which may not be the best music. I tell directors that it is important to find some type of development in a piece. That development could be harmonic, rhythmic, melodic, or in the orchestration, but that is usually the marker of good literature. The development is the real creative area. It is not the sole criterion, but it is an important one.

When we have so many great contemporary composers, why is it important to program transcriptions?
    It is part of our repertoire and always will be. If not for transcriptions we might not have any original band pieces. Many composers decided to write for band because of those transcriptions. They knew what a band could sound like and treated it seriously as an ensemble. Not all transcriptions work, and some pieces should not be touched. You have to find pieces that are highly wind oriented. Those are the pieces that really work.
    Some of our most iconic American composers have turned to the band world because they are tired of getting limited rehearsal time with orchestras. John Corigliano has written extensively about this and was pointed about the outstanding performances you get when you write a band piece now. Corigliano’s Circus Maximus was an important work that had a wider influence many other composers, both old and young.

What are the five most important pieces from the standard repertoire for high school bands?
The Holst Eb Suite is probably the most well-crafted band piece ever written. If a high school band is good enough, Lincolnshire Posy. The Persichetti Symphony or Divertimento are well worth playing. If a high school band can play the Hindemith Symphony, that is a great work. Some people thought a high school band could not play Music for Prague, but in short order, they were. I also like Schwantner’s ... and the mountains rising nowhere, Winds of Nagual by Michael Colgrass, and a zillion others.

How have you used technology to enhance your rehearsals?
    My students use apps like forScore pretty extensively to help with score study. We use iPads to project the score while we are rehearsing. Students in the ensemble like to be able to see the full score. Someone is assigned to turn pages, so the score is always up there. We have also started using the Variations Audio Timeliner, a score analysis app that came from Indiana University. This app illustrates form by creating a timeline. You download a piece into this program, and it creates a timeline that can be annotated to show harmonic analysis. It has helped students to learn the score faster because they have a visual representation of the analysis. Anything that gets the piece in students’ heads faster is worth doing.
    We use Facebook quite a bit to communicate and promote our program. We have started posting video teasers of our concerts online, something many other programs are doing. We livestream our concerts extensively. I have heard many positive responses from directors across the country as well as parents of our out-of-state students. My only reservation about using livestream is that I’m afraid our live audience has diminished because people can sit home and watch. I wish we could black out our local area so more people would come to concerts.

What do you recommend for middle school teachers with a mixed ensemble?
    I would recommend creating 30- or 45-minute sectionals outside class once a week for each instrument. I would somehow hire some auxiliary people, like a percussion specialist and figure out a way to pay them.
    I never switched people to horn in mid-year. We figured out who should be on horn from the beginning based on academics, scores, and ear training, and started them immediately. You can always change some kids at the semester for balance, but start with the sharp students and get them going.
    We required prospective percussion players to play the piano and know how to read music. Those skills transferred well to mallet instruments. The pace is much slower with heterogeneous classes. You have to have good discipline and avoid teaching from the podium with beginners. As a young teacher you have to beg, borrow, and steal from everyone you can. Find someone you really respect who has a set plan and copy it; you will learn how to make it your own over time. Find a mentor who will let you observe them for a week. You want to see how they start the year, not how they finish.

The concert band has advanced quite a bit over the last 50 years. Where do you see us in the next 20 years?
    If the band advances over the next 20 years like it has in the last 50 years it could look quite different.  The wind ensemble or band is becoming more like a new music ensemble.  Because of the flexibility of instrumentation and personnel there really is no limit.  On a given concert one might see the ensemble change from 55 to 6 players by piece or composer.  There are often string players in the personnel as well.  Composers have discovered that the huge pool of tonal color and orchestration to explore is pretty vast.
    An orchestra could do this but there seems to be more willingness in the collegiate band world. We do not have a canon that we have to perform. We have traditional pieces that undergrads will play over four or five years. In a group of mostly graduate students, I do not worry about that as much. I hit some big traditional pieces as needed, but we have the ability to be on the cutting edge all the time. We get to interact with some high-powered composers who are also on the cutting edge. The orchestra does not get that as much because they have to play this canon, even at the collegiate level. Students expect that as preparation for their futures.

What has been the musical highlight of your career?
    It has to be playing at Carnegie Hall. We had a packed house and were working with John Corigliano in the hall where his dad was principal of the New York Philharmonic, the hall where he grew up. We played Circus Maximum and Mr. Tambourine Man. I remember going to the podium and spending an inordinate amount of time looking at the audience before I turned around. The whole trip was special.