Warning: some of what I discuss here may upset you. I can only say that it is my own viewpoint, based on my years of experience and observation. I’ve not seen every band and I know there are many factors involved in getting a performing group onto a stage and ready to play for an audience. I bring these points up for your consideration if you wish.
I’ve told kids for years we should do what we could to make performances interesting. That word encompasses a lot of different things. I can’t possibly list every way you can help to do this, but I’ll mention a couple. Later I’ll try to discuss more in another post.
First, many directors are stuck in a rut in programming. They program the pieces they do for the wrong reasons. Some of them, particularly younger directors, don’t even take into account the ability level of the ensemble! For years and years I told student teachers that the most important job they had was to choose appropriate literature. When I was a department chair I saw how other departments chose textbooks, and it often was a long and arduous process. We create our textbooks anew every year! That takes time and effort!
So here are a few thoughts about programming. First, pacing: many concerts are built without regard for giving the audience’s ears a rest. Concert bands play some pretty heavy stuff today and that demands intense concentration from the audience. Even those with little musical experience will find listening to some of the more complex and sophisticated pieces in the wind repertoire to be demanding. (And so does the band, remember!) This is why Sousa is still revered – he was a master of programming. No, you don’t need to follow up every “big” piece with a march! That was useful to Sousa in his cultural context. Marches are useful but not in the same way today. Still, it’s worth considering what follows the big, heavy piece in the program. Professional orchestras often don’t get this, either, and some program really heavily, beating their audience’s mental abilities to focus into submission.
What would be good to follow a heavy piece? Sometimes it just means shorter, and contrasting. A longer, darker, piece that is not in major or minor mode takes a lot out of the audience. Follow it with something short, brighter, and major. If it’s one of those pieces that’s really complex and roars to a conclusion, you can follow it with a short, aria-like piece, maybe in a minor key. Someone once told me all music is either songs or dances – so follow a song with a dance, or a dance with a song, for contrast. (You get it, right? Lyrical or rhythmic?) It’s like cleansing the palate before the next course of the meal.
Where does the “big” piece go in the program? I tend to put it about two-thirds of the way back. That gives the group some material to settle in on, perhaps of less difficulty, so the pitch levels out and the performers get used to the acoustics of the room. Then after the big one, follow up with something light and something that can bring the concert to a triumphant conclusion. Rarely can you end on the “big” piece with the music that is being written today by many composers.
In short, think of the concert as a multi-movement work, or as a multi-act play. Any play or musical worth its salt has a shorter second act than the first, and (usually) ties up all the loose ends. Study how films are paced. Study how TV shows are paced. Those media are what are programming your audiences to expect certain things. A jumbled collection of pieces of music are hard for them to understand, believe it or not. It may be an unconscious thing, but I’ve found that audiences liked my concerts better when I tried to pay attention to these things.
One other though having to do with difficulty of the pieces you play. I have heard so very many groups that could just barely play the notes of the pieces they program, and they feel they are doing the music justice. Personally I would rather hear a group perform a piece a half to a grade level below that and play the crap out of it, squeezing every bit of phrasing and interpretation out of every line. So many groups just don’t shape lines at all, it’s sad. They feel that’s how music should sound, technically correct but stiff and lifeless. W. Francis McBeth wrote a truly excellent book, “The Effective Performance of Band Music,” (I think Southern published it; I don’t know if it’s still in print) in which he discusses which composers were primarily classicists and which were primarily romanticists. I hear a lot of bands that play as if every piece was written by a classicist composer. I ask you: do you know? Have you studied the composer enough to find out? Research today is far easier than it has ever been. Composers go out of their way to be accessible. Searching for multiple performances of a piece is relatively easy for all but the most obscure or newest compositions. Pay attention to what the composer has to say. There are several great books on interpretation in which contemporary composers are interviewed.
I say it again: I would rather hear a group really nail a piece a little less technically difficult than hope and pray they can hold together to get to the end of a harder work. And I’ll mention the elephant in the room: conductor ego. “My band is working on _________.” Great. But if most of the kids can’t play it, or you have to pull back and only work on three pieces for three months to do it, it is really worth it? (That brings up a topic for another essay.) Rule of thumb: if you think you are still going to be fighting notes and rhythms two weeks before the performance, you shouldn’t do it. Do something that allows you to spend those last two weeks refining the interpretation, learning to be sensitive musicians. Maybe your band director friends will sneer. But your kids will be musicians, not just trained animals – and that’s what it’s all about, right?