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Seeing Ourselves As Others See Us

James Croft | November 2012

    James Croft died on September 6, 2012, at the age of 82. His distinguished teaching career included 21 years in the public schools of Iowa and Wisconsin, including 18 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. In 1972 he became director of bands at the University of South Florida, where he remained until 1980. From 1981 until his retirement in 2003, Croft was director of bands at Florida State University. His countless honors include the Midwest Clinic Medal of Honor, Florida Collegiate Educator of the Year, honorary lifetime membership in the Iowa Bandmasters Association, and the Florida State University Teaching Award. He was a past president of the National Band Association and the College Band Directors National Association.
    Throughout his long career, Croft’s enthusiasm for teaching and for music never waned. As he advised other directors in a February 1992 interview, “Establish that you care about your students; they have to know that. Bob Reynolds once said the mark of a great teacher is passion for music, and a passion for people. Kids need to perceive that you have an uninhibited passion for music. It is almost impossible for you to dislike someone if they like you. Kids sense when you don’t like them.” It was almost impossible to dislike Jim Croft, and we reprint this classic article from October 1989 as a tribute to his tireless service to music education.

    After 40 years in the music business I’m quite aware of how we directors see ourselves. I’ve wondered lately, though, how others see us, and whether outside of our profession the idea of a concert band has much of an identity. For several years in my travels I’ve been asking people, “What’s a band?” So far, the results are not encouraging. The people I’ve questioned have identified a band as a marching band, a rock band, or a dance band, not as the concert group that requires so much of our energy and affection.
    It appears that the idea of the concert band, our reason for being, the centerpiece program that justifies music’s place in the curriculum, is not in common parlance. In spite of some sixty years, thousands upon thousands of students, and an extensive, varied repertoire, our public does not perceive us as we do.
    An elderly music patron who attended my first wind ensemble concert at the University of South Florida demonstrated this inconsistent perception when, following the concert, he came backstage, looked up at me, and said, “Well, young fella, I really enjoyed that concert, and I hope your little band just grows and grows.”
    At the time I wrote off the comment with a defensive shrug. He obviously had not read the program notes. They clearly described the wind ensemble concept and its literature. Maybe the old geezer forgot his glasses? “Little band just grows and grows” – what was his problem?
    Time, distance, and experience have enabled me to reassess that well-intentioned commentary. At least that band supporter knew what a band was. So far only two respondents to my question, “What’s a band?” have replied that a band was a concert band. In fact both, well into their late 70s or early 80s, identified the band as a park band that they remembered from their youth. Among those under 30 in my research there is very little question but that the word band refers to a rock group or a marching band, and the former is by far the dominant identity.
    Is it possible that in our quest for recognition the public sees us primarily as band coaches preparing for this competition or that parade to pick up yet another trophy confirming this image? If you don’t believe that, ask school administrators their perception of the band.
    Frank Battisti, one of our most perceptive spokesmen, addressed how the music we perform reflects on the profession at a conducting conference held recently. I was late getting to this session and when I walked in, this is what I heard:

    You know, I just love the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Anything about these periods attracts me: the architecture, the sculpture, the painting, the music, I love it all. There is one quintessential model of the Renaissance in Florence. It’s Michelangelo’s David. A fantastic work – huge, muscular, with dominant curvilinearity – so dramatic. You ask what makes this so great? It must be the form, right? Wrong. What makes it great is what it’s made of. It’s made of Carrara marble, a marble that picks up light like perhaps no other in the world. Now, what if, instead of Carrara marble, that statue were created from dried horse manure? You see, what I want to ask you folks is simple. When you go home and look at that band folio you work from, is it filled with Carrara marble or. . .?

    This observation, of course, raises another one of those marks of our trade, an all-too-familiar programming practice. It creates a dilemma for us, doesn’t it? To illustrate the point I would like to share with you an experience I had as a clinician at the British Association of Symphonic Bands and Wind Ensembles in Manchester, England. One of my clinics focused on the nonverbal rehearsal. Selecting two contrasting works, Wagner’s Trauersinfonie and John Cheetham’s concert march Kittyhawk, I explained the clinic procedure to the audience and band. Having heard my clinic group, the Irish National Wind Ensemble, in a wonderful concert the evening before, I didn’t feel a technical rehearsal was necessary. The band responded to the prescribed and improvised gestures on the Trauersin-fonie with remarkable sensitivity for about 25 minutes.
    Considering the time it took to make the introductory instructional comments, there were fewer than 10 minutes left for a summary statement. Sensing that there was little more to be said about the demonstration I thought the audience would enjoy a reading of Kittyhawk to send them on their way to the next session. I explained that we would read it through, for fun, and would not stop to rehearse. The reading was less than complimentary, at best. Getting to the end together was a cliff-hanger.
    The kicker, however, was not that unfortunate decision, but the comment made to me by an English conductor I admire a great deal who has a real commitment to bands and wind music. Quite testily, he admonished me, “You’re just like all the rest of the American band directors, Jim. You can’t let a sublime moment make its own statement; it has to be followed by a march or a novelty. How do you expect serious musicians to ever attend concerts of wind music with the same expectations they would have of an important choral or orchestral concert?”
    He made a telling point. Even today we don’t program serious contemporary music with much more concern than did John Philip Sousa. Furthermore, Sousa at least had the integrity to note that he was not interested in educating his audiences as much as entertaining them. We have to admit, however reluctantly, that much of the band literature performed today is really quite insignificant.
    While addressing this problem we can also bask in the glow of some genuinely redeeming satisfaction, for never before has there been available the amount of interesting and important wind music that exists today. Not enough of it is played, but it is there for those willing to accept the challenge.
    However, a distressingly funny thing happens to those who accept the challenge of preparing and performing this creatively conceived music. All too often while we gain approval from a critical musical community, we lose much of the audience the band has traditionally enjoyed. At many schools of music, even wind and percussion performers ignore other band and wind ensemble concerts. For the most part audiences attend serious band concerts because they feel obligated, not because of the wonderfully exciting or imaginative music they might hear by a thoroughly and thoughtfully prepared ensemble.
    If you want an audience these days, perform a Sousa-style concert or a concert in the park. If you want a sparsely filled house, put a lot of money into postage and advertising, alerting the public to the fact that you are going to give a triple-crown performance of Hindemith’s Symphony in Bb, Holst’s Hammersmith, and the incomparable Dahl Sinfonietta. I’ll guarantee there will be plenty of parking space.
    If we are to see ourselves as others see us, if we are eager to serve audiences that aren’t sure just what today’s concert band is, we have to deal with this dilemma of programming and instruction. If we use Carrara marble exclusively, as the purists suggest, we have no audience. If we use dried horse manure, we send the wrong signals as to what we represent musically and educationally. I’m not so naive that I don’t know that the answer doesn’t reside in some kind of balance between these purist-entertainer polarities. My concern is simply in addressing a few factors that focus on how others see us.
    Those who feel that acquiring a room full of trophies affirms their values will not take alternative perceptions very seriously. They will shake their heads and quite likely offer a hand that will lead us to an enlightenment that many of us have been missing all these years.
Those who have kept the faith and venerated that Carrara marble in spite of peer rejection and dwindling programs and audiences, should reconsider the path you’ve taken.
    Those who have found the magic balance, whose programs prosper, who enhance the musical experiences of their students and audiences through wise and judicious programming practices, who meet the needs of students, parents, colleges, and communities, please help us. Show us the light, keep it burning brightly, and shine by your example. Help others to see us as we want to be seen.