Nope sorry. No Dr. Jones here. Even a little far yet from being Dr. Weller.  But my search is beginning to intensify, and I am starting to see some light in an area of instrumental music that I am deeply concerned about.  I promise there will be no fire at the high school or the middle school, but I do expect to turn up the heat…it is January in the Northeast, after all.

This post has been brewing for some time now, and it has taken a few days off from slinging a stick and writing passes to get there.  The Midwest 2009 experience was a big reminder of where our profession is in relation to the music that is made available for school ensembles to study, rehearse and perform.  Studies in English lead us to the pinnacle as evidenced in the works of Shakespeare, Melville, and Milton.  Studies in band lead us to the pinnacle as evidenced in the works Holst, Grainger, Vaughan Williams. But are there not other authors, and likewise are there not other composers?  The names are familiar and many great works are conjured up by a simple mention – Francis McBeth, Clifton Williams, Alfred Reed, Robert Jager, Claude T. Smith, and  Ron Nelson.  Chant and Jubilo, Symphonic Dance No. 3, The Hounds of Spring,  Esprit de Corps, God of Our Fathers, and Rocky Point Holiday (though for me, Mvt. 2 of A Medieval Suite…check it out, seriously).

This is by no means a comprehensive list that follows – but it represents a selection of composers and their pieces that are regarded by many as significant and worthwhile endeavors for ensembles to study and rehearse.  There are names left off – I mean no disrespect.  These are humble opinions and evaluations.  Even the composers listed might feel the piece below is not their best work.  They are all perhaps a tier or two down from pieces by those listed above as of the last day in 2009.  But in another 25 to 30 years, we might find them regarded quite differently.

I have no doubt that Ride, by Samuel Hazo, will one day be a standard measuring stick for ensembles technical facility.  Ghost Train, by Eric Whitacre, will stretch the limits of musicianship by an ensemble.  Bands will come to know new depths of patriotic emotional connection to music by experiencing Julie Giroux’s No Finer Calling.  Movement for Rosa and Watchmen Tell Us Of The Night, by Mark Camphouse, are musical gems with significant social consciousness.  There are a number of pieces by Ticheli which have garnered some deserved attention (and on a personal note,  I think the fact his piece followed mine in the Vandercook performance at Midwest caused me more anxiety than the performance of my piece!).  Even Puszta, by Jan Van Der Roost, has opened our ears to depth and quality of music being written by musicians from other parts of the world.  To my ears, James Barnes’ The Trail of Tears transcends the idea that great music is hard music, and his work reveals our capacity for writing music that transfers well to the medium and is culturally sensitive.

These are but a few pieces regarded as serious literature for mature ensembles.  The process of selecting them and the reasons for doing so are often give less scrutiny as the name of the composer, the “prestige” of the piece, its appearance on state festival lists, or reviews in magazines often provide the impetus for its programming.  Much will be written about these kinds of pieces, much attention will be given to their interpretation, and little will be considered before it is selected.  From my perspective, the opposite holds true in regard to literature for elementary and middle school bands.  There will be little written, little regard to interpretation (as these are “non-serious” musicians), and a lot will be considered (like whether or not it is easy enough to earn a top rating at contest!).

I applaud the efforts of the Teaching Music Through Performance in Band series, as it has done a lot to identify significant pieces at both the elementary and junior high ability/grade level that are regarded as “serious” literature.  There are a number of fantastic composers who are writing absolute masterpieces at this ability/grade level, yet their work is not regarded as significant because it is played by non-serious musicians.  We could spend days going through the history of music citing pieces that are masterpieces, but yet were intended for use by teachers to raise the musical ability of their students.  There are people within our profession that would look upon some of this literature as not worthy of creating a meaningful musical experience.  There are some outside the profession that decry its quality and have made verbal and literary attacks on composers for writing music that has no connection to the performers, or the intended audience.  I reside somewhere in the middle truth be known – while the music written for the American Wind Band to me is the most exciting and interesting written today, it is incumbent upon educators to make informed educated choices in the selection of music for study and find ways in which to make meaningful connections to our students.

At an elementary and middle school level, there are many factors that play in to our decision to select a piece for study that include but are not limited to: balance of our instrumentation, fitting the need of the ensemble, rehearsal time, balancing musical expectations of the administration, community, and students, and the difficulty of the piece versus the ability of the ensemble.  All are areas that must be weighed and considered before we make that selection.  There are two significant qualities I look for in a piece – but I usually cannot get a complete read on them until after I have started working on it: 1) Does it get the students excited about music and point them towards a more meaningful and personal relationship with music, and 2) Does it provide a worthwhile experience whereby the student, director, and ensemble experience growth intellectually, musically, and socially?  If both of those questions come back in the affirmative, it is hard for me to dismiss a piece as not being significant.  Whether it is programmatic, multi-cultural, or an extension of the American Wind Band heritage, I think it is important to weigh it against those two qualities alongside the pre-selection criteria that is utilized.

My question to all of you at middle school or elementary levels (current or future), what criteria do you use in the selection of music for your ensemble and how do you rank them in order of their importance?  Let’s start the new year with a good discussion, and sharpen up our skills as we search for greatness in elementary and middle school band literature.

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