Five Minute Read: What to Play?

Mike Lawson • Uncategorized • February 5, 2016

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As the competitive marching season begins to wind down, many of us are turning our thoughts to the literature we’ll tackle with our concert ensembles. Every year, we weigh a multitude of factors in programming our fall, winter, and spring concerts. What is our instrumentation? What performer strengths and weaknesses are inherent to our ensemble? What is our audience? To what important works do we want to expose our students? With so many questions, there’s one question that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle.

Is This Music Worth It?

Dr. Myron Welch, my conducting teacher at the University of Iowa, was often careful to remind his students that we have a limited number of career musical choices as conductors. Even if you are lucky to have a heavier concert schedule than most, how many different pieces of music will you get to rehearse and conduct in your career? 200? 250? With repeated works from canon repertoire and approved festival lists, 250 is a very generous estimate.

What I’m getting at is that, with such a limited number of musical opportunities, you want them all to count! The worst feelings I’ve ever had as a conductor is that feeling of regret, years later, when I say to myself, “Why did I program that piece of music?” That’s rehearsal time that I want back.

Now, I’m not here to tell you which pieces are worth it, and which aren’t. My choices wouldn’t be your own, and there are many sources of literature selection these days, such as the Teaching Music Through Performance series of textbooks. No, I want you to take a moment to craft your own statement of musical aesthetic.

Explain Yourself… to Yourself

I recommend that you take a moment to articulate to yourself, in writing, a guiding statement on what makes for quality concert literature. This is a personal statement. I’ve developed the following guiding statement for selecting concert works:

The work displays careful craftsmanship (i.e. extensive motivic development, economy of style and thematic content, impressive formal and harmonic construction)

The work’s structure bears careful examination and analysis, holding up no matter how closely it is scrutinized.

The work still manages to generate a genuine emotional response in the listener, and in the conductor, no matter how much time he/she has spent studying and rehearsing it.

The great thing about this process is that everyone’s personal statement can be different. What I think is a great piece, someone else will not, and vice-versa. But by creating this statement, at least I can ask myself honestly, “Is this music going to be something I’m glad I spent three months with 25 years from now? Or will I want that time back?”

Dr. Ward MillerI urge you to take some time to craft this statement to yourself. You’ll find that it not only focuses you on the right future literature for yourself and your ensembles, but that it also reveals something about yourself. It will shine a light on why you highly value certain works of musical art, and that is a fascinating glimpse into our own minds. And that’s insight that will serve you well, whether selecting music for a holiday concert, a chamber recital, a festival performance, or a spring finale.

Dr. Ward Miller currently resides in Minneapolis, MN where he spends his time arranging and composing, and working as a music education consultant.


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