The recent Holiday concert which the students at Mercer presented was really well done, and as their teacher I am especially proud of their efforts over the past two months. There were some very traditional settings like “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and “Winter Wonderland” (both older arrangements by Jerry Nowak), mixed in with some newer and interesting settings of familiar Christmas carols like “Hey Man Christmas Swings!” by Larry Clark, “Passacaglia on an English Carol” by Robert Longfield, and “Bell Carol ala Big Band” by Rob Romeyn. I have to give full credit to Michael Worthy at Ole Miss for the moment that took the audience’s breath away and brought tears to the eyes of many moms. During the Middle School Band’s performance of “Christmas Time Is Here” (from A Charlie Brown Christmas, arranged by Michael Sweeney), we played a pre-recorded audio clip of each senior band member in the wind ensemble and concert band wishing their parents Merry Christmas, sharing a Christmas wish, or thanking them for all their support through the years. Michael shared the idea at the Midwest clinic last year, and it worked really well.
Immediately after the concert and the days that followed, I received many notes, read emails, and had a number of conversations with students that were full of positive comments about the entire performance. An interesting conversation took place with a parent who has sent three kids through the band program during my tenure, and she remarked that even without that piece or that audio clip this concert was the best she’s ever heard. She further noted that it is so rewarding to hear the music of the holiday season recreated in new and interesting ways by so many students. The compliment was an honor to be sure, but I am always curious if the students in the ensembles make that connection as well.
The day after the concert during rehearsal, the students in the three ensembles listened to the concert recording and used a rating scale to self-evaluate their ensemble’s performance. Included in that evaluation, I posed an open response question to the ensemble related to how these kinds of performances might better connect music in the school with music in society. Listed, anonymously, here are just a few of the responses:
“I think the audience enjoyed the Christmas Song (arr. by Nowak) the most. The familiarity of the melody appealed to them, and the arrangement we played reflected the characteristics of the song” – 11th Grader
“The Christmas Song has to be the audience favorite. The song completes the nostalgic experience that is a Christmas concert.” – 12th Grader
“I think the audience enjoyed the Nutcracker the best because it was instantly recognizable, and our setting of it was true to the original.” – 9th Grader
“The audience enjoyed the Nutcracker Suite the most. Even though we used different instruments than the original, we strived to be the same stylistically. You could still tell where the plot was during each portion of the song.” – 11th Grader
“I think our musicianship developed the most in the Nutcracker as we switched between styles in each section, and we tried to stay true to the intent of the original. I think the audience responded so strongly to our arrangement because they recognized the songs and how close to the original we were performing” – 12 the Grader
I grow weary of the argument that traditional school ensembles are not responsive, and that they do not connect with students and their community. I remain of the view that they can connect very well with students and community provided their director recognizes how that bridge can be built and is effective helping students recognize those connections.
A holiday concert provides a traditional ensemble the opportunity to instill within its members a sense of community and shared humanity. This time of year brings out the best in people’s attitudes, dispositions, and sentimentality, and to allow a traditional ensemble like band the chance to tap into that vein of positive traits can be a powerful spring board for its future. The music is familiar enough – the settings of that music allow educators to discuss musical concepts and ideas developed by the writers to create a satisfying musical experience both from the aesthetic and the paraxial.
One could quickly criticize the program I selected for this concert that it contained no significant works befitting the style of the wind band. That being said, my own view of the program was that it provided moments that were in the students’ developmental range, pushed them to acquire and develop new skills, stretched them to be more expressive musicians, and challenged them to consider how music can be altered in various styles. I would add further that I am less convinced that there is one definitive style for the wind band – the wind ensemble and concert band are sometimes at their best when they can present a multitude of styles with efficacy and conviction.
Perhaps those moments that stretched the students raised the aesthetic awareness and expectations for students and parents alike. Perhaps those moments that were in the students’ “wheelhouse” reaffirmed to them the joy of performing creatively in a collective ensemble. Perhaps those moments that generated warm feelings for parents and pride in their sons and daughters in the community. Perhaps those nostalgic moments made the business of society seem years away and once again all was calm, all was bright. Perhaps there were all these things – but make no mistake about it they helped make Christmas time here for our community. It’s only a Christmas stocking bonus that the students became better people and musicians. Merry Christmas all, and I will talk to you next year!