This week I began researching interpretation and feeling as part of my work at Kent State. At first glance, they seemed unrelated. However, the more I began reading perspectives of different composers and conductors, my conclusion is that great interpretation does not just recreate the composer’s intent but rather conveys feelings that the composer intended. The sources abounded including Mark Camphouse’s series Composers on Composing for Band, and a great text edited by John Williamson Rehearsing the Band – both of which I recommend for great insight into score study, interpretation, and enhancing your podium perspective.
The most pervasive musical element in term of correct interpretation by both composers and conductors was in regard to tempo. Other commonalities existed across both conductors and composers (notably by Barnes, & Camphouse) including utilization of recordings, becoming familiar with a score through a secondary instrument (piano or voice were mentioned frequently), and that over time our interpretation of a piece may change because of new perspectives or personal experiences. It would seem to me that the process by which one learns a score varies widely across known experts in the band world, and is a highly personalized decision based upon your pedagogical training. Choices of meter, key, and tonal and rhythmic patterns are sufficed to say objective, but in matters of overall general expressive musical elements, tempo seems to be a common focus because of the great variability for which it can possess. It is interesting to note that a number of conductors and composers both concede that a performance tempo can differ from the ideal (marked tempo in the score), and that the adjusted tempo of the performance can still result in a quality or reputable performance. In some cases it is a matter of ensemble technique that will prevent an ensemble from being able to achieve the demands printed in the score, but it is obvious in the writings that conductors and composers acknowledge this and are able to recognize when other elements are brought to the best possible quality which contribute to effect interpretation.
Another commonality that seems to exist across many of the composers and conductors is they concede that there is a limit to what musical notation can convey, and at times there are ambiguities that may not make sense during score study. Hopefully these moments of questions and uncertainties can be answered by the director as he looks at the work he is studying, compares it with other known pieces by the same composer, and compares the current piece against stylistic practices of the time or pieces of similar musical structure. I believe it is worth noting that here that this process the conductor is going through for just one piece of music is not so far removed from the idea of comprehensive musicianship whereby the musician immerses him/herself in studying music from multiple perspective, each perspective contributing to a greater understanding of a larger picture. Andrew Boysen Jr.’s (Camphouse, 2007, p. 11) comments perhaps summarize the idea best as he asserts that the notation in the score should support the conductor’s musical decisions. It follows that the performance is the very best attempt by an ensemble and conductor to represent what they believe to be the composer’s intent.
Flexibility as it relates to letting the music “live in a certain place” as Giroux states (Camphouse, 2004, p. 80), gathering insight from the ensemble not previously considered as Kirchoff suggests (Williamson, 2008, p.53), and, as Hunsberger observes, understanding each ensemble has an “optimum tempo” (Williamson, 2008, p.37), also seems to an important aspect of interpretation. The modern conductor must have in his arsenal of abilities an understanding to be flexible as his perspective may change while working on a piece with his own students, but find a new perspective when asked to conduct the group of a colleague or an honor ensemble. Getting back to the idea of tempo, both the music and the ensemble must find the tempo at where they can ideally perform. I believe this is the reason why at times pieces are adored by one ensemble, and despised by a group 12 miles away – optimum performance tempo of the music and the ensemble do not converge. Part of this problem may be related to that, but it might also have to do with directors being afraid to vary from the printed score even when it might be more educationally sound to do so (emphasis added, duplicity implied). A discussion for another day – but this isn’t math or science with one right answer – and some directors are chasing a trophy on the wall and it is easier to play it safe. While McBeth and Giroux go as far to say that composers are sometimes indicating the wrong metronome markings they include on a score, Camphouse and McBeth agree with Jack Stamp that composers are not always the best interpreter of their own work. James Barnes recounts a story about Verdi and Toscanini that is a reminder that one’s inner musician is critical for a conductor’s interpretation that is truly “in the spirit” of the composer’s intent. Jack Stamp (Miles, 1998) discovered during his college experience that although Stravinksy was held in high regard compositionally, others did not feel he was the best interpreter of his own work!
The final aspect of interpretation that seems to be a shared concern of importance between composer and conductor is that of feeling, emotion, and passion. To a degree, many of the composers explicitly mention important aspects of feeling, expression, and emotion in the interpretation of their work. No matter what reason a composer decides to put “pen to paper”, their works are a product of their experiences, beliefs, surroundings, and creative ideas – and those experiences are at times attached to significant feelings, emotions, or expressions. As stated by my friend and colleague Dr. Joseph M. Pisano, a composition conveys a concrete thought such as the liberation one’s country, an emotional thought such as the liberation of one’s heart, or a spiritual thought such as the liberation of one’s soul. The composer is literally molding a conceived idea or a feeling into a sonic musical existence. The passion of music becomes interpreted correctly when the conductor understands and enjoys the music, and is able to get the students in the ensemble to “reproduce those feelings” as Hilliard states (Camphouse, 2007). Sam Hazo’s experience with Paul Thornton’s band demonstrates the importance of connecting the music to the lives of the students. Paula instructed her students to write a meaningful life experience to the sound of the music in the margins of their music – it created in every student a way to connect their life stories to the music in which they were engaged in performing. I would be interested in knowing just how many of those little anecdotes written by her students were emotionally charged or connected. Robert Sheldon states that in order to convey passion (emphasis mine), a conductor must possess technical means and the wherewithal and self-confidence to do and say whatever is necessary to get the ensemble to respond (Camphouse, 2002). Frank Ticheli shares that the conductor must find meaning in the work, and believe in it passionately (emphasis mine) (Camphouse, 2002). When asked about it, Mark Camphouse’s opinion is that “Passion (emphasis mine) comes from believing in the music long before a conductor ever steps on the podium…If a conductor has passion for the art of music and for playing great literature, his performance will have passion…” (Brown, 2001, p. 13).
Many conductors have written about helping the ensemble recreate or realize the interpretation of the composer’s intent, and rarely do they discuss a performance that was devoid of feeling, emotion, or passion if it was achieved. Can we forgive a less then perfect performance that lacks emotional expression? My feeling is that many would agree yes. I am not saying technical accuracy and precision may be tossed out – they are part of our responsibilities as educators to ensure that students have mastered. But we might also be aware that there is another side that is beneficial for the student to experience, and that through our own authentic interpretation we may be able to unlock the emotion, passion, and feeling in music for the benefit of our students (Help them find the love!). As Craig Kirchoff (Williamson, 2008, p. 54) states so eloquently, “Without such passion, there is no communication…and not even any real music.”
Brown, J. S. (2001). Mark Camphouse creates music with the passion of a performer. The Instrumentalist, 56 (6), 12-15.
Camphouse, M. (Ed.). (2002). Composers on composing for band (Vol. 1). Chicago: GIA Publications.
Camphouse, M. (Ed.). (2004). Composers on composing for band (Vol. 2). Chicago: GIA Publications.
Camphouse, M. (Ed.). (2007). Composers on composing for band (Vol. 3). Chicago: GIA Publications.
McBeth, F. W. (1992). Interpretation: Unlocking the drama in music. The Instrumentalist, 47 (5), 14-18.
Miles, R. (1998). Teaching music through performance in band (Vol. 2). Chicago: GIA Publications.
Williamson, J. E. (2008). Rehearsing the band. Galesville, MD: Meredith Music Publications