concert band · marching band · teaching

Bands of America Grand Nationals Semifinals

I had the chance to attend the semifinals of the Bands of America Grand Nationals this weekend at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. I saw 34 marching bands, excellent to jaw-dropping outstanding. There were only 12 slots for finals and in my judgement there were at least sixteen or seventeen that were definitely finals material. The others were not far behind, either. I’ve seen thousands of bands over the years bay now, from national winners to twenty-member bands just trying to get a start. These were a pleasure to watch.

They were also, from a performance standpoint, really a pleasure to listen to as well, There were rarely balance problems, they were very, very clean, and some played almost unbelievably difficult technical material. But…

You knew there was a “but” in there, right? Here it is.

As a judge, I’ve told hundreds of bands by now that they could do more to improve their musicality by varying the dynamics within the musical line more. True musical artists don’t play every note the same, at least not in most styles of music, and yet in the attempt to make the performance as clean as possible sometimes the bands eliminate, or ignore, those subtleties of phrasing. The music gets cleaned out by the execution.

That is not to say that large ensemble or section dynamics are ignored. Far from it! These groups know how to manage a wide range of dynamics – which many less-accomplished bands do not – and can do things like forte-piano crescendos with amazing ease. Still, I have to say that I only really heard great sensitivity of phrasing of musical lines in perhaps a half-dozen bands.

The ones that did attend to those nuances were also the ones I found that I often held my breath for, listening and watching to see how the show would unfold. I was much more involved in all ways in the performance of those groups. Some of was that they just did everything a little bit better, true: the rest is that musical nuance really is important, and you do notice it, even in a marching band. We were in the club seats about half the distance up in the stands, about twenty feet below the judges. Even at a piano dynamic marking in a woodwind section feature, the flow of the melody was obvious.

I also have always had a personal difficulty with the visual program driving the music. That’s something that I felt was a trend in DCI for a while. Some of these bands had really incredible visual programs, and slightly less demanding musical programs – not easy, but I think not pushing the envelope as much as they could have. The ones who reversed that focus – letting the music drive the visual program – just felt more “right” to me.

In film scoring the music can be used to underscore action or set mood for a visual program. The best musical scores (see Goldsmith, Williams, even back to Korngold) were also outstanding pieces of music themselves. Listen to today’s TV scores. A lot of underscore, not much melody. Many films, even action films, are the same. We are being trained to accept less of our music when it is accompanied by visual material.

Take those same TV viewers and moviegoers and put them in a concert hall. There is very little visual stimulus for them there, with black and white uniformity of dress and a conductor facing away from them. Is this why they think concert music is “boring”? The music could be far superior to what they usually hear, but without the visual component they subconsciously sense there is something missing.

I’m not sure about that, but I think it has some truth. I’d be interested in your comments.

If you go to http://www.musicforall.org and navigate to the scores from the Grand Nationals finals, you will see that sometimes bands are separated by a tenth of a point. That shows just out wonderful these bands really are. I hadn’t seen semis in over a decade, only finals from time to time. It is stunning to see what high school students can accomplish. My metaphorical hat is off to them!

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