Quick: Name three composers of wind band literature whose music was written before 1950 that will still be revered in the year 2020?

That should be a fairly easy question for any conductor who has studied scores and understands the pieces that have been at the foundation of the American Wind Ensemble and Concert Band.

Name three composers who wrote music for wind ensembles or concert bands between the years of 1950 and 1980 and will still be played in the year 2020.

Hmm….

I will go with J. Clifton Williams – Dedicatory Overture (1964), Alfred Reed – A Festival Prelude (1962), and W. Francis McBeth (1961) – Chant and Jubilo. Arguably these may not represent their “best” work, but they are ones which 1) I believe are engaging to students, 2) representative of the composer’s stylistic practice, and 3) provided appropriate challenge at the difficulty level for which they are designated. The debate may go on below and it should – so if you have different answers, please include them below.

Moving on, now name three composers who are writing music for wind ensembles or concert bands between 1980 and 2010 who might be enjoying rehearsal and programming time in 2020.

Hmm…getting tougher…

My choices go like this: James Barnes – The Trail of Tears, Mark Camphouse – Movement for Rosa, and Frank Ticheli – Symphony No. 2. Here again – the pieces above may not represent their best or most challenging work. The choices get tougher – there are more of them, they become more diverse in their style and sonic landscape, and these pieces have enjoyed more exposure and attention as technology has improved our ability to connect with the media.

All of that being said, it can be difficult to think in those terms due to the sheer numbers of new pieces for concert band and wind ensemble that are being published today. Critics both inside and outside the profession of music education challenge the sounds that are created, programmatic elements, and point towards the general detachedness of the pieces from anything musical. Some would argue that school music ensembles have become a culture of their own that is unresponsive to students or that the ensembles can be disconnected and insensitive to cultures outside this country. Some choices are made for ensembles on the basis of whether or not the band can perform a piece well enough to get a superior at the next contest, and little thought given to how that literature could be utilized to extend learning beyond the 44 minutes of the rehearsal period.

Though I do not completely disagree with these arguments, I do not believe that the apparent disconnect is at a critical mass. As I consider the communities in which these groups are situated and what they contribute to their local culture I ask this question: Has the traditional school wind ensemble and concert band become something unique and vibrant – a quality of the arts that some scholars have suggested to be celebrated and offered for study? While they embrace, continue, and revere classical traditions and forms, these traditional ensembles continually seek ways to expand existing models and ideas which continually deepen the aesthetic and paraxial experience of the students who engage with it. While I acknowledge that not every piece of music falls into this appraisal, there have been significant, engaging works created for traditional ensembles not only so the artist might say something that has not been said before, but so the performer may be transformed during their interaction.

At some point though, there will be “new classics” to emerge that mean no disrespect to those pieces that are the foundation of American Wind Band and Concert Band literature (see the Teaching Music Series, Composers on Composing for Band, or Rehearsing the Band for some concise lists). As we move past the date of their origins and the times in which they were created, it becomes much easier to identify how significant a piece they might be. It really is no different than those of us who teach a history course on American Popular Music – it’s easy to understand why Elvis, the Beatles, and Little Richard were important to rock and roll, and why we can’t tell yet if U2, Greenday, and Dave Grohl will ever be in that same class. Any director must maintain careful balance of the needs of the students (educational & enjoyment), their communities and schools, and the fact they are heritage bearers of the American Wind Ensemble and Concert Band. These ensembles have been at profession’s core for years, and that was no accident. On one hand the music teaches something, on another it preserves part of our heritage or extends someone else’s culture. On one hand it excites and transforms the mind of the performers, on the other it motivates them to perform at levels not thought possible. We are the educators – educators that must define our own vision of a quality work, research possible pieces that fit that vision, examine how the piece lines up with our goals and objectives for the students, consider how the audience might be engaged by the piece, consider how you can extend learning through the piece beyond the rehearsal hall walls, and make a decision. Picking music for our ensembles is a lot like something I tell my band students about learning music – I didn’t say it would be easy, I said it would be worthwhile.

New classics will emerge – but not without heavy sustained discussion from those in the profession who earnestly care about the future of wind ensembles and concert bands. We cannot rest solely on reviews from magazine’s or websites to provide the final verdict, though to their credit they do invest considerable time to make their best recommendations to directors.  We must further add to this process a comparison against proven, time-tested pieces of similar length, style, or tonality to gauge the overall quality in terms of its craftsmanship, imagination, sensitivity and authenticity (a line of thinking first proposed by Bennett Reimer in 1991 – a guy who I am guessing will still be discussed in 2020). The debate will continue and could prove to be divisive, but I urge all parties involved to make their decisions based upon a clear personal definition of quality that ultimately is in the best interest of the students who they profess to “share the love of music”.

I conclude by sharing my list of “new classics” for band, and urge you to add yours.

James Barnes – The Trail of Tears
Mark Camphouse – Movement for Rosa
Frank Ticheli – Symphony No. 2
Julie Giroux – No Finer Calling
Andrew Boysen Jr. – I Am
Patrick J. Burns – Toccata
Jack Stamp – Ricercare
Samuel Hazo – Ride
Robert Jager – Esprit de Corps
Jan Van Der Roost – Puszta

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