Choosing Quality Band Literature
Here are a few things I have learned about selecting music for wind band…
Ability Level of the Ensemble You Direct:
A piece of music may be the greatest creation ever made, but if it is too difficult for the students to play, they will become discouraged. I often made the mistake of selecting literature that was too difficult in the early years of my career. Does this mean that there should never be a piece in the folder that is beyond students’ reach? No, there should always be something that we are looking at that would be a stretch for our group. Musicians have never “arrived.” We are always working and striving for better things.
My students still say things like “This is too easy.” I have learned to explain to them that – yes, their individual part is easy, and each person may feel that way about their part, but when we put it all together it isn’t musical yet. It’s hard to make music when one is struggling with the technique. There is good quality music available at all levels. At some levels it will take more digging to find the quality stuff, but it’s there. You might use a resource like the Teaching Music Through Performance series.
This is a difficult one. If you don’t have an oboe/English horn player, it will be difficult to do a piece like Russian Christmas Music. It can be done – and as a professional sax player I have played the oboe and English horn cues in that song – but it just isn’t the same. Likewise if you have no trumpet players or few low brass players, there are simply some things you cannot perform.
I want to thank one of my mentors, Joe Brice, for helping me in my teaching in this area. He came to clinic my band and said “You need another tuba.” Of course I agreed but stated that I couldn’t do anything. Joe answered with a detailed, thoughtful answer that represented his 50+ years of experience. He said, “Did you ask anybody?” At that point I wanted to slap my head in a big “Duh; why didn’t I think of that” moment. I asked and convinced three students to switch over.
My point is that – although instrumentation (or lack of it) can be difficult, we really need to take a long term approach to it. Ask your students if anyone wants to switch, especially if – like me – you have a ton of flute players and less of others. Some of those who switch will become awesome; some of them will go back to their original instrument. That’s ok! Explain to the students why it is important that some of them switch for the good of the band.
We are involved in the field of music education. Sometimes I think we forget that…I know I have…especially as we rush to prepare for a concert, festival or competition. A director of a professional symphony may be able to prepare difficult pieces with just 2-3 rehearsals. However, our job is not only directing, but educating. As I have gained more experience, I have realized that the educating part of the job is much more important and has more lasting effects.
I think it is better to do one or two high quality pieces and play them extremely well than to perform 4-5 pieces and not have really learned anything in the process. It is important to dig deep into the music, the history and even some analysis of the songs being performed. So often we are so busy with the need to get through the music that we forget to instruct students about the music.
Select Quality Literature:
Now we arrive at probably the greatest challenge in selecting music. How do we define quality? For me, the definition has changed a lot over the course of my teaching. There are many pieces I regret having wasted money on in my early years of teaching. I know quality when I hear it, but I don’t always recognize lack of quality (if that even makes sense). There is quality literature at every level. There is junk at every level.
Here is my definition of quality music…
Quality music moves me emotionally. Sometimes it makes me uncomfortable, not a cover your ears and run out of the room uncomfortable, but uncomfortable in the sense that my thinking is challenged. It is expressive. It is melodic. Although it may contain repeating motifs, it is not the same two measure repeating motif for 120 measures.
Now do you feel qualified to determine whether music is of quality or not? Me neither. We need something more. Frank Battisti in his book The Winds of Change says that many directors have stopped attending concerts and listening and studying great music. We must expose ourselves to great music so we can know when we hear it. Battisti likens it to a wine connoisseur whose tastes improve as he becomes exposed to more wine. I liken it to a little kid who thinks a fast food burger is the greatest thing on earth, until she matures and realizes that there are burgers ten times better than the fast food variety.
I encourage you to listen to great music, attend your state conference and listen to the groups selected to perform, and when you go to contest, schedule some time to listen and observe other groups. As Battisti states, your taste level will be elevated. You will become better equipped to know when you hear poor quality music.
I will end with a quote from Battisti, “We are what we consume! If one wants to become an artist conductor/teacher – one must consume great Art.”
***James has been a performer and educator for over 30 years, teaching band and orchestra at every level from 4th-12th grade. He also hosts the music ed podcast, delivers keynote speeches using music, and has written several books on music and life in general. His latest work is an online course, 40 Ways to Make Money as a Musician, which is available at https://www.udemy.com/40makemoney/.