Is Wind Band’s Moment Finally Here?

Tom Merrill • Travel/Festivals • June 6, 2019

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I spent the first weekend of May 2019 in the usual annual place: Band Geek Nirvana.

Every spring, the University of Illinois holds their SuperState Concert Band Festival. This by-audition, non-competitive event gathers nearly 40 of the most outstanding middle and high school concert bands from Illinois for two solid days of “raise the roof” performances—each day culminating with a performance by the U of I Wind Orchestra or Wind Symphony. There is a live webcast via the website, and because Festivals of Music has been a sponsor of this webcast, I’ve had the privilege of being the on-air host. (The performances are all archived and can be viewed on the site—check them out!) For two days I get to hear amazing ensembles, geek out discussing band repertoire for the viewing audience, and interview phenomenal conductors…many of whom are also dear friends. It’s basically SportsCenter for band nerds—and it is quite possibly the most fun work-related thing I do all year.

Part of the interview process is coming up with questions “in the moment.” There was one question that popped into my brain after hearing the John Hersey High School Band in an astounding, professional quality performance of the Hindemith Symphony for Band.

And it leapt from there, unfiltered, into the live discussion. Hersey High School, like about half of the bands at the event, is located in the Chicago suburbs. And if you’re a musician in the Chicago area—or likely anywhere else—you know that this spring there was a seven-week long strike by the musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This meant the usual patrons of the CSO missed seven weeks of subscription concerts (that’s not meant as judgement of the merits of the strike—merely the effect). And because of that absence, the question that leapt out:

“Do the people who attend Chicago Symphony concerts EVEN KNOW these other incredible ensembles exist in their own back yard, and could fill that cultural need?” That’s a big question, with a lot of possible answers.

If the answer is “Yes, and I attend band concerts”—bravo! Extra points if they’re not a band parent/grandparent or band director. If the answer is “Yes, but I don’t go to those types of performances”— I have to wonder why.

Is it the stigma of the word “band”? Is the image conjured up by that word that of a group parading across a football field to the strains of “Louie, Louie”? Or their 4th grade child or grandchild’s first flutaphone concert? We all know that, yes, there are performances like that. And while it can be a stretch to compare a high school band to an organization at the level of the CSO—I will tell you that there were moments during Marian Catholic High School Band’s performance of Tears by David Maslanka that I had to actively remind myself that these were kids between the ages of 14 and 18 years old.

Is it because orchestral repertoire is their tried and true “comfort food” and wind band music is too “new” or “experimental”? I can appreciate those sentiments; it’s human nature to know what we like and to like what’s familiar. That said—Mozart and Beethoven were cutting edge once. And while I’ve never seen a Stravinsky-induced riot break out at a band concert, it is exciting to hear something that was just created.

That happened over the weekend as well, when the U of I Wind Symphony gave one of the first performances of Come Sunday by young African American composer Omar Thomas. (If you haven’t heard it yet, FIND A RECORDING.) Thanks to a consortium that included U of I and my own alma mater Illinois State University, this was “birthed” in their backyards much like another game-changer work— Maslanka’s A Child’s Garden of Dreams, commissioned by John Paynter for the Northwestern University band.

If the answer is “No”—the good news is the solution to an extent may lie within us. As we hear of how professional orchestras struggle to find audience and stay relevant, what can we do as wind band conductors to get our ensembles on the radar of traditional orchestra audiences?

There’s certainly no denying the performance level of some of these groups, and that in and of itself should be attractive to these patrons. Think about it for a moment: if 25 years ago you told me that there would be high school bands capable of performing works like John Mackey’s Wine-Dark Sea or Michael Daugherty’s Bells for Stokowski (both of which I heard that weekend) I’d have said you were crazy. Imagine what we’ll be hearing 25 years from now.

By the numbers, there should be far more musical consumers out there that were in school band than school orchestra when you consider existing programs. Perhaps it’s time for a reminder— or reintroduction—to what a school wind band is, and the exciting things they’ve missed as the medium has evolved.

Ultimately it may be making the case that wind band is “the same thing….only different.” Meaning, the artistic quality, depth, and inventiveness of some wind band repertoire that is being created today easily rivals works created by people who have been buried in Europe for over a century. Thanks to remarkable teaching, performance quality has risen to match. Only the instruments have changed. A grassroots effort towards awareness…”tooting our own horns” as it were…may be a timely thing indeed.

Tom Merrill is the executive director of Festivals of Music. He has over 25 years of experience as a music educator, travel planner, and festival organizer.

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