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October 1989 Seeing Ourselves As Others See Us by James Croft

“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.”

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.