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Colonel’s Book Club – Edition 8 – The Seven Dead Sins of Music Making

Thomas Palmatier • InServiceNovember 2021 • November 12, 2021

Another homerun!  In the April 2021 issue of SBO magazine I reviewed Richard Floyd’s first book, The Artistry of Teaching and Making Music, sbomagazine.com/colonels-book-club-edition-6/.  

His latest book is The Seven Deadly Sins of Music Making, and it is equally fantastic.  More than a few authors when writing their second book end up recycling material from their first.  While this second book is certainly philosophically consistent with the first, it contains many additional insights and it approaches the reader from an entirely different direction.  The two books are wonderful complements to each other and should be “must reads” for any music educator.

The author continues the central thesis of his first book, that is, our obsession with performing music correctly can cause us to miss out on “a world of artistic, expressive music making that goes beyond the printed page.”  Indeed, some of the seven deadly sins are those aspects of the music we focus on getting “right” and indeed, are the captions we find on many judging sheets!

Sin #1:  Generic Articulation.  He urges us “to think of articulation as a primary element that gives each note meaning, personality, and context.”  Through widely known musical examples (he includes score excerpts), Floyd demonstrates the many ways a note’s beginning, middle, and end can be shaped and how by examining the musical context, one can determine how to ensure the articulation breathes life into each and every note.

Sin #2:  Unconvincing Dynamics.  He restates one of my favorite concepts, that dynamic contrast is meaningless unless it is perceived by the listener.  Many times, musicians sincerely believe they are “playing the dynamics” but those contrasts and shaping are only apparent to the player.  However, Floyd also explains the impact of distance on volume and intensity.  “Simply put, sound decreases six decibels every time the distance is doubled.”  In other words, any dynamic contrast is compressed the farther it travels from the musician.  Dynamics may sound compelling to the conductor but then turn into a boring tyranny of the mezzos by the time it reaches the audience.  He again provides numerous examples to show how convincing dynamic shading can transform music from gray to vividly colored.

Sin #3:  Perceiving all Rhythms Literally.  Again, Floyd explores how a quest for rhythmic precision can result in sterile and uninspiring music.  Note placement and length must be informed by the context and flow of the music.

Sin #4:  Being Obsessed with Tempo Markings.  The author explores the history of tempo markings and gives examples of the composers who while providing markings, often disregard them when they are the conductor and urge others to view the markings only as a guide.  He also explains some conductors truly want them to be strictly observed and it is the conductor’s job to do some research.  Many years ago, I commissioned a piece by the wonderful composer William Himes.  Upon receipt, it just didn’t feel quite right when performing the marked tempos.  Himes wrote nearly all of his compositions for the wonderful Salvation Army band he conducted and when the music was put to paper, it was in fact, a first draft to be finished by Himes the conductor.  I’ve observed the same thing with James Barnes whose conductor interpretations often reflect many things not notated by Barnes the composer.

These first four sins are examples where important aspects of the music are somewhat objective and the “sin” lies in emphasizing “correctness” over artistry.  The last three sins are much more subtle and subjective, but no less important to making great music.

Sin #5:  Absence of Line.  He demonstrates the importance of line vividly by use of spoken phrases where pacing and emphasis can result in very different meanings.  He states, “When appropriate, allow room for an element of rhythmic inexactness to be present in the creation of musical line.”  “Music making must be more than problem solving.”

Sin #6:  Ignoring the Function of Silence in Music.  He explores the importance and function of silence that precedes the music, accompanies the music, and follows the music.

Sin #7:  Failure to Consider the Role of Proportion.  This refers to the overall architecture of a piece and the relationships (tempo, dynamics, harmony) between the sections.  He explores the Golden Ratio and the Fibonacci Sequence showing how proportion is present throughout nature and art and architecture.  In other words, proper proportion just “feels right.”  As an adjudicator and clinician, I see this sin committed very frequently.  Many compositions are in ABA form with a basic Fast-Slow-Fast structure.  Frequently the composer will ask for a slightly faster tempo in the final A section, something like MM. 120 – MM. 72 – MM. 132.  However, sometimes the ensemble cannot play the final section at MM. 132.  If they can only play it at MM. 120, the first A section should probably be adjusted to be something like MM. 112 in order to preserve the proportion of the sections.

Not only does this terrific book reflect Floyd’s decades of great music-making, it also is the work of someone who has read widely and reflected deeply on artistry, teaching, and how we relate to each other and to the arts.  He not only “talks the talk” eloquently, but “walks the walk” as a master educator and musical leader.  Read this book!

Next month, I will offer another installment of my annual December article reflecting on the most wonderful time of the year.  I deeply appreciate those who have contacted me through www.ThomasPalmatier.com with comments and suggestions for future articles.

Colonel (Retired) Thomas H. Palmatier is the former leader and commander of The U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own” and commander and conductor of The United States Army Field Band. He holds degrees in music education from the Crane School of Music (State University of New York at Potsdam) and Truman State University as well as a Master of Strategic Studies degree from the U.S. Army War College. 

 He is an active clinician, adjudicator, and guest conductor of concert bands, orchestras, jazz ensembles, and marching bands. He is a Conn-Selmer Clinician, a member of the American Bandmasters Association, and serves on the board of directors of the John Philip Sousa Foundation.

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