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Commentary: Selecting Repertoire

Mike Lawson • Commentary • November 23, 2014

Skimming the Top: – How to Find the New Masterworks – It was the summer before my second year of teaching and I had been looking forward to this day for months. Eager to fill my students’ folders with new music in the fall, I had been saving all of the promotional recordings I had received from publishing companies and today was Listening Day Number 1. My enthusiasm didn’t last long, though, as after three hours, I had found only one piece that I thought was interesting and well written. “Hmm,” I thought, “I must have just accidently picked the wrong companies – tomorrow will be better.” 

With renewed optimism, I jumped back in for Day 2. Three more hours of listening; one more high quality piece. On Day 3, I finished reviewing music from the remaining companies and, after almost four hours of listening, there wasn’t a single piece that I wanted to put in front of my group. I sat in my living room on that last afternoon, surrounded by CD booklets, soaking it all in. Three days, 10 hours of listening, and all of that time and effort yielded exactly two pieces that I would be proud to share with my students. Now don’t get me wrong, the great majority of the music that I listened to wasn’t really bad – it was just kind of, well, average. 

What scared me more was that because so much of the music was the same, I found myself getting lulled into lowering my standards when I heard something that was even remotely different. It was because of this subtle dilution of my expectations that I decided that the best way to ensure that my standards would always remain high would be to establish some very clear, objective criteria by which I could measure new band music. And, as I started putting together this checklist, I made sure to hold this new band music to the same exacting standards used in evaluating new orchestral and chamber music. For me, anything less would be a disservice to our students and to our medium.

When the list was done, I determined that there are six criteria that should be employed in the assessment of new music. While all six may not be applicable to every work, these criteria still provide a consistent framework by which to evaluate new music at any level of difficulty. These six criteria are: instrumental independence, melodic shape, harmonic language, creative orchestration, compositional structure, and compositional craft.

Instrumental Independence 
Instrumental independence, the idea that all parts have the ability to play independent lines, is a compositional fundamental that is often in short supply in much of the new music that we encounter. If we truly believe in that trusted maxim that nothing makes our students grow and mature more quickly than playing chamber music, then these same principles should also apply to an ensemble setting. While there’s no doubt that block scoring may be easier to teach, reducing student exposure to error and diminishing their independent responsibility to the ensemble impedes the progress of those who need it the most – the players at the bottom of our sections. 

Melodic Shape
Melodic shape is perhaps the most subjective of the criteria to be discussed. And while there is no doubt that there are myriad ways a composer can create a memorable melody, so often the melodic content of newer music seems to rely on the generic and formulaic. Our students deserve better and are certainly smart enough to enjoy a melody that might take them more than one reading to appreciate. I urge you to look for new works in which the melody isn’t shackled into an eight-measure phrase. Look for melodies that explore chromaticism, that aren’t afraid to be angular, or that have a natural arch with an arrival point. If our job is to broaden our students’ music world outside of their own personal tastes, then we need to present them with melodies that don’t underestimate their intellectual and emotional capacities.

Harmonic Language
Much like melodic shape, evaluating a composer’s harmonic language is largely subjective. But again, as with melodic shape, just as there are many different approaches to creating effective and interesting harmonic language, there are very distinct trends that seem to be consistent throughout so much new music for band. 

The first is the use of predictable, overly simple harmonies and harmonic progressions. I readily admit that our students, especially the less advanced ones, need to have a foundation of traditional major and minor harmonies to develop their aural skills in the harmonic tradition of Western music. However, much of today’s music never strays past chords and progressions found in the opening chapters of an elementary theory text. If audiences’ tastes evolved past these same harmonies three hundred years ago, there’s little hope that our students will be interested in them now. 

The second trend tends to target music written for less advanced students. Taking a cue from popular music, music at these easier grade levels often employs the same elemental chord progressions found regularly in Top 40 music. There seems to be an unfair assumption that, because these students are younger, they need to be fed a diet of diluted harmonic language. The truth is that students at any level can play and appreciate chords with dissonance, with added tones, or with unexpected harmonic progressions. Just as with melodic shape, I urge you to seek out music that challenges and expands our students’ 21st-century ears.

Creative Orchestration 
In thinking back to those three extraordinarily frustrating days of listening, in hindsight, the reason that so much of the music sounded similar was because of so many bland, uninspired orchestrational choices. The band has the potential to be a remarkably colorful and vibrant ensemble, but so often, orchestration feels like an afterthought. What should be a pivotal step in the compositional process is often dictated by function instead of inspiration. This expands well past an overreliance on alto saxophone/horn doublings or unison lines for every low woodwind and brass instrument. It has now crept into the percussion section – probably the section that offers the greatest variety of colors in the ensemble. So often, our percussionists are relegated to parts that seem to exist as an addendum to the wind parts instead of being skillfully and seamlessly woven into the fabric of the overall ensemble texture. 
Function also seems to trump inspiration when it comes to a solo instrument writing. While I fully understand that most bands have at least one strong player on flute, clarinet, alto saxophone, and trumpet, continue to seek out music that features other solo instruments as well. Our best horn players, oboists, and euphonium players deserve that same kind of exposure. If we are to escape this rut of the generic “band” sound, we need to embrace the music of composers who fully exploit the unique timbres inherent in our ensemble and view their orchestrational choices not as an afterthought, but a vital part of the compositional process. 

Compositional Structure
If you think about it, form – that is, the actual structure of a piece – is the foundation on which Western classical music has been built. From this large structure springs the melodies, harmonies, compositional techniques, and orchestration that make each composer unique. Composers of wind music from Handel to Mozart to Grainger to Ticheli have been able to innovate from within these established forms to craft the cornerstones of our medium. More than that, one of the things that truly distinguishes music of the highest artistic merit is a composer’s skill at carefully blending their music into these confines. Here’s the thing, though: those kinds of seamless transitions are really, really hard to do. In fact, nearly every composer with whom I’ve ever spoken has told me that one of, if not the, most difficult parts of their process is to craft effective transitions so their music can meld unnoticed into the next section. Seek out those composers who shun the easy transitions and instead take the time to create works in which the form is a quiet framework on which their music evolves. 

Compositional Craft
Compositional craft is the final criteria for establishing new works of artistic merit. It is also, perhaps, the hardest to actually quantify, because it is truly a composite of instrumental independence, melodic shape, harmonic language, creative orchestration, and compositional structure. Simply put, the music should demonstrate a certain level of true compositional prowess and craftsmanship. 
Craftsmanship implies a personal integrity – that the composer respects the process of composition by producing music that is built both on the exacting standards of the best of our repertoire and on the individual stamp of the composer’s training and experience. Yes, these pieces with extraordinary craft are hard to find, but it has been my experience that they are the ones that create the moments that my students will never forget. These pieces may have not been their favorites at first, but they are the ones that they remember long after our time together. 

So, in the end, after all of this discussion, is it really that important that we take the time to search for new pieces of extraordinary artistic merit – to skim the very top of the myriad new pieces that are written each year? I firmly believe that there are very few things that we do as music educators that are more crucial than programming for our ensembles. It is our responsibility to not only teach our students notes and rhythms, but to shape and elevate their musical tastes. We are the ones entrusted with introducing music to the students that they won’t otherwise discover themselves. And it is because of this, that our duty must lie in educating our students, not in entertaining them. 

Think back to your high school English classes. Those four years were filled with history’s best authors, playwrights, and poets. Did we initially fully understand everything that we were asked to read? Perhaps not, but the purpose of that curriculum was to elevate us to the level of writing – to make us better and smarter by exposing us to those master works. Our repertoire in band should be no different. 

When our students graduate from high school, the vast majority of them will never participate in organized music again. This means that the experiences they have in junior high school and high school band will largely shape their musical tastes outside of popular music for the rest of their lives. These musical tastes will be established solely with the music placed on their stands. 

To add further urgency, we have only a finite amount of pieces with which to establish these standards. As an example, when I taught high school, my ensemble performed about 10 pieces of concert music a year. That gave me only 40 chances to have my students gain an appreciation and understanding of the power and beauty of classical music. What happened in my band room largely determined if they would ever download a classical recording, attend a live classical concert, or financially support the arts in any way. Because of this, we owe it to our students to put nothing less than the finest music of our medium in front of them. For the good of your students, and in many ways the future of classical music, I implore you to maintain only the highest of standards and to be unwavering in your expectations of our new masterworks.

Dr. Jeffrey D. Gershman recently joined the faculty at the Capital University Conservatory of Music, where he conducts the Symphonic Winds, Wind Symphony, and teaches conducting. His past positions include serving as the associate director of Bands at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, the director of instrumental activities at Texas A&M University-Commerce, and the co-director of instrumental music at Monroe-Woodbury High School in Central Valley, New York. 

Gershman maintains an active guest conducting schedule with both professional ensembles and high school honor bands throughout the country. He has presented lectures at state and national conventions and is in high demand as adjudicator, judging band festivals throughout the United States as well as in Singapore and Australia. 

In addition, Gershman has published articles on repertoire, programming, and score study which have been hailed as “groundbreaking.” As an arranger, his transcriptions of works by Eric Whitacre, Frank Zappa, and John Corigliano have received critical acclaim, with performances at Carnegie Hall, as well as regional and national conventions.

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