Inside the National Concert Band Festival

Mike Lawson • Travel/Festivals • October 21, 2006

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To be quite honest, the idea of performing at the Bands of America National Concert Band Festival (NCBF) did not appeal to me much at first. I admit that I did not readily associate BOA with anything but marching band competitions, and I thought it might perhaps be in our better interests to do more “local” performances, such as a Southern Division MENC or CBDNA convention. These types of performances would prepare us for our ultimate goal: Performing at the Midwest Band & Orchestra Clinic in Chicago.

Neil (Jenkins, also Director of Bands at J.P. Taravella) and I debated this issue back and forth. He espoused the positive points; I was hung up on some of the negatives. To be fair, I began to do some research on the festival and, after consulting with several directors who had previously attended the NCBF, I capitulated. It did not appear to be anything like a marching band competition – in fact, it wasn’t a competition at all. There would be no scores nor ratings, only the pleasure of performing for some of the most respected music educators in the field, and the privilege of playing in front of like-minded band members and their directors. It sounded like a great time, and I was convinced.

The Application Process

The first step we had to take was the application process, during which we were to list our program’s repertoire and include a CD of recent performances. Now that I had learned more about the festival, I was intrigued and hoped we would be selected, but it sounded like a stringent test of the ensemble’s musicality. I selected the best recordings I could find of our Wind Orchestra, and in the end we included “Terpsichore,” by Bob Margolis, and “Fanfare and Allegro,” by Clifton Williams. We sent the CD and waited with baited breath for the answer.

In the meantime, the routine at Taravella carried on as normal. We prepared for marching season, we had band camps, and we made music. Then we heard back from BOA: We had been accepted to perform – one of 14 bands from across the nation, and the only band from Florida. The time for preparations had begun.

Auditions and Preparations

In truth, we actually started to prepare for this as far back as June of last year, well before we knew whether we would be selected. The process began with the auditioning of the band members. Neil and I had two different conceptions of the ensemble’s makeup for the new year: I wanted a small ensemble, as close to Frederick Fennell’s idea of the wind ensemble as possible. My idea was an ensemble of 42; Neil wanted 50 players. In the end, we compromised with 45 members: five flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, six soprano clarinets, one alto clarinet, one bass clarinet, one contrabass clarinet, a saxophone quartet, five trumpets, four horns, three trombones, two euphoniums, two tubas, and seven percussionists.

Each person that auditioned for placement into the Wind Orchestra was warned about the possibility of a trip to Indianapolis in February and all that it entailed, including the financial and musical obligations (not to mention the possibility of bad weather). The auditions were tough but fair and, in the end, 45 people made the Wind Orchestra. The stage was now set: We had our roster, and we had confirmation of our acceptance. Now all we needed was music.

Repertoire Selection

The BOA guidelines called for no more than 40 minutes of music, but they warned us that only the first 37 minutes of music made it onto the performance CD. We could select as many pieces as we wished, but the time considerations were to be observed.

Asked to submit a list of 20 compositions we would like to “stake claim to,” we began filling our list with a mix of classics and new repertoire that we wanted to perform. If two bands submitted the same work, the band who submitted it earliest would get preference. Grantham’s “Southern Harmony,” Iannaconne’s “Sea Drift,” Schwantner’s “In Evening’s Stillness,” Nelson’s “Passacaglia,” Benson’s “The Leaves are Falling,” the Persichetti, Giannini, and Chance symphonies. All of these made our original list. Eventually we were asked to pare the list down to 10, then finally to our intended program. Instead of performing several short works, as many bands do for the NCBF, we decided to perform three long works to keep ourselves closely aligned to the requirements for our district and state festivals here in Florida. (In Florida, bands are required to perform a march plus two selections from the Florida Bandmasters Music List according to our classification).

Early on in the process we decided on a transcription of Verdi’s “MacBeth,” since Neil was very fond of the piece and had been looking to perform it for quite some time. I had my heart set on Joseph Schwantner’s “In Evening’s Stillness,” which was recommended to me by Bill Wiedrich at the University of South Florida. Now we needed a third work to complete our program, but the one we wanted was already taken by another school! After a round of e-mails, we discovered that this particular school no longer wished to perform this particular work, and would release it to us: Gustav Holst’s “Hammersmith” completed our program.

Early on, there was some discussion regarding the program and a lot of second-guessing. I insisted it was a good mix of music: A traditional band classic, a contemporary new masterpiece, and a transcription of orchestral music. (I felt very relieved when one of our evaluators at BOA used almost those same exact words to describe why he was so pleased with our literature choices.)

A Million Minute Details

At the end of January, we were asked to record a CD of our program to send to the folks at BOA. We never got an explanation of why we needed to do this, but I suspect it is done to keep the bands on their toes and working hard on their programs – not to mention that listening to yourself on a CD has a sobering effect on the ensemble (and its directors).

I admit that working on the same music for more than a month can get very annoying, even if there are a hundred minute details that need to be solidified, as in the Holst and Schwantner works. However, this is what makes great music great – the fact that it can keep revealing itself no matter how many times you work on it, and every once in a while you catch a “second wind” when you discover something new in a composition you thought you knew like the back of your hand.

Departure Time

Finally, the day of reckoning was at hand. We left on a Wednesday evening, requiring all of our students to be in school on that day, despite the fact that we were scheduled to meet at the Fort Lauderdale airport at 6:30 p.m. The students were already going to miss two days of school, and I was sure that a few of them would also find reasons to be absent on the Monday following our return.

Immediately after school, we packed up the large instruments with bubble wrap and duct tape, packed our music folders and double-checked that we had everything we needed. Lists come in handy on trips like this, especially a list that has been cultivated for weeks as you think of things to take. Making a list two days before the trip is going to prove useless: No doubt you will forget something. Start making your lists weeks in advance, that way you have time to add things as they pop up (and they will).

Surprisingly, everyone made it to the airport in time, and we managed to get checked in very quickly. Although we did not know it at the time, one of our clarinetists had left her instrument at home. I couldn’t figure out why she looked so distraught, and she would not tell me what was wrong. About 20 minutes later I noticed her mom stroll up to the terminal with a clarinet case, and I ran over to her. “Ah-ha!” I said. At least she had remembered with enough time to spare for mom to make an emergency drop-off, and we all had a big laugh over it.

We only had one student with us who had never flown before, and he handled the flight perfectly. The students were well behaved on the flight, and we arrived in Indianapolis without incident. After picking up luggage and securing ground transport (we chartered a bus for the weekend, which I recommend doing if you undertake this trip; the other option is to share buses with other NCBF attendees), we made it to the hotel around 1 a.m., and promptly hit our beds. The Marriott was beautiful and well run, a marvel of organization. The day came to an uneventful close…a nice way to end the long day.

The Festival Begins

We awoke on Thursday morning around 6 a.m. to make it to the buffet-style breakfast in the Marriott’s huge facility. By 8 a.m. we were in our rehearsal room. It was a huge ballroom and the sound was deep and boomy. We had a pretty good rehearsal, running through the Schwantner and the Verdi pieces. After rehearsal, we gave the students some free time to roam around downtown Indianapolis in groups of four. Most students chose to head straight to the mall; some chose to visit the historical sites. After an early lunch, we were treated to an inspirational opening session featuring Tim Lautzenheiser. As usual, he made the students laugh and he made them think. They left the session inspired and motivated.

We had an early dinner at Buca di Bepo, an Italian restaurant a block from our hotel. After the dinner, we headed to Clowes Hall to listen to our first group of ensembles. Right away we were amazed by the quality of some of the groups. However, it appeared to me that programming six to eight works (while all shorter and adding up to 40 minutes worth of music) is a dangerous game. Yes, it still adds up to the required time, but there are six to eight “gear changes” that have to happen in the minds of the students (and conductors).

While we only programmed three works, they were long works and added up to 37 minutes. And, more important, our students only had to change gears three times. Granted, with the severe contrast among all three of our works they were extreme changes, but regardless…I admit to being a little apprehensive when we sat down for the concert session. I had no idea what to expect. I knew our Wind Orchestra was very capable, but was I about to listen to ensembles that resembled the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra in miniature? Were we about to “get schooled?”

Bands ‘Just Like Us’

Once the bands started performing, we all relaxed. They were bands just like us. I could tell by looking around at the faces of my kids that they too felt as if they belonged. We were not strangers crashing some party – we were invited guests for a reason. After the concerts, we headed back to the hotel where the students were scheduled to have a social, and where the directors had a reception that included all of the clinicians (including Harry Begian, H. Robert Reynolds, James Keene, John Whitwell, Craig Kirchoff, Anthony Maiello, Arnald Gabriel…a truly awesome – in the true meaning of the word – collection of musicians). It was very nice to be able to meet some of these legends of the band world and realize most of them are just as down to earth as can be.

We woke up early the next morning for breakfast and headed over to Pike Performing Arts Center to listen to a percussion ensemble. We were supposed to stay and listen to a second ensemble, but instead we headed back to Clowes Hall to listen to Science Hill High School. In the past, Taravella has done “home stays” with the Science Hill band when our program traveled to Tennessee, and Science Hill did a home stay with us a few years back, so there is a sort of “sisterly” bond between the two schools. After listening to them, we headed out to lunch at the Butler University cafeteria. Ah, college food…it never really changes, does it?

Back to the Hall for more listening, and then on to the hotel for master class sessions. Every section had its own clinician, and most kids thoroughly enjoyed the sessions. An hour after the master classes, we met for our final rehearsal. As is tradition with us, the final run-through before a big performance was pretty darn bad. Suddenly, fear crept into my heart. Were we really ready for this? We had chosen some of the most difficult music in the realm of wind literature…but were we ready to do it justice.

After another Marriott dinner, we headed out to Clowes Hall to see the Canadian Brass. As usual, they were enjoyable, entertaining, virtuosic – a real treat for the kids, none of whom had ever seen the Canadian Brass before. The audience was packed, and even though I was in the third balcony, the sound was incredible. Back to the hotel and lights out.

The Performance

The big day had arrived. We woke up around 5 a.m. to get to the buffet by 6:15 a.m. I noticed very few people eating. Perhaps they were a little nervous about their performance? I know I was, but that didn’t stop me from having a cup of coffee and some toast. We boarded the bus and headed toward Clowes. After Neil addressed the troops, I told them what I thought they were about to experience, and how all the hard work we had been putting in was about to pay off. I was proud of them before they even played one note, and I knew they would not disappoint me. I was excited. We had worked incredibly hard to get to this level, and I could feel the anticipation and determination coming off of them in waves.

Warm-up was intense, and I could tell we were preparing to do something pretty special. I felt a calm wash over me, the same calm I usually feel in the minutes leading up to a big performance. Finally, the time had come. I went out and conducted the Schwantner. What a wonderful hall! The acoustics were simply incredible, the stage crew fast and experienced, the experience beyond words. I had a lot of fun on the podium, and couldn’t help but smile through the sea of multi-meter that is “In Evening’s Stillness.” (Even Colonel Arnald Gabriel, who evaluated the conductors, mentioned that I seemed to be enjoying myself tremendously, and that the ensemble was reacting positively to it.) In a blur, the 12 minutes of “Stillness” were history. They had nailed it. I bowed and smiled, and gave way to Neil, who conducted the last two numbers. The ensemble was equally magnificent.

It was almost more nerve-wracking to be sitting on the side of the stage listening to my kids performing and not being a part of the action. I am sure Neil felt the same way when I was conducting. The three standing ovations at the conclusion of each work told the story: The Wind Orchestra had delivered. The comments from the evaluators were, for lack of a better term, flabbergasting. John Whitwell said we were stunning. James Keene asked, “How does it get better than this?” H. Robert Reynolds said we were sensational. How could any conductor not be floored listening to adulation heaped upon his students by the “heavyweights” of the band world? John Whitwell came with us after the performance to serve as our clinician, and had nothing but positive things to say. Both he and Richard Crain suggested that we should apply for the Midwest Clinic. Neil and I were at a loss for words. Simply incredible.

The Trip Back

After our performance, the kids took some time to settle down and come down from their high. We headed back to the hotel, had a brief lunch, and gave them several hours of free time. At 5 p.m. we had an awards banquet, which really consisted of simply recognizing each band and percussion ensemble, then the parents, and finally the directors. Following the banquet we headed back to Clowes Hall for the final time to catch the performance of the Honor Band of America, in which one of our students performed on oboe. The band itself was exquisite.

We found our illustrious oboe player following the concert, and after many hearty congratulations, we headed back to the hotel; our “official” BOA adventure come to an end.

Awaking much too early for anyone’s liking (4 a.m.), we assembled downstairs with our luggage at 5 a.m. We were on the plane by 8 a.m., and back home by 11 a.m. that Sunday morning. Everyone talked about the incredible experience we all shared together. It was an amazing trip, and well worth every little hassle.

In summary, I am still recovering from the experience. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Sure, it was nerve-wracking at times, but it has pushed this ensemble to new levels of achievement, a step from which there is no going back. The preparation has helped make our program more complete, and it has given us a glimpse not many groups get: We got to see how our program stacks up with the best of the best.

Would I recommend it to any other director? Absolutely – as long as you are willing to put in long hours and can handle the stress involved. There will be a lot of paperwork, and a lot of tiny little details to work out. I am not saying that it is impossible for one band director to handle it alone, but I do believe that the work and preparations are much more difficult when there is only one director doing the planning.

The musical rewards are great. Not only do you gain much from the intense preparation you must undertake, but you will take greater risks with the music, knowing there are no ratings or scores involved. Your kids will be blown away by the other ensembles they hear, and will be surrounded by like-minded students, all of whom have the experience of band in common. Simply put, it was a wonderful experience, one that I will carry with me all the days of my life, and I would gladly recommend it to anyone.

Nikk Pilato is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in music education and conducting at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla., where he also received the BME and the MME. He is the Director of Bands and Orchestras at J.P. Taravella High School in Coral Springs, Fla. Pilato marched with the PhantomRegiment drum and bugle corps from 1991 to 1994, serving as Conductor in 1994.

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