More Than You Can Chew and Even Harder to Swallow

September 5, 2018

By Tom Merrill

It was one of those moments where stubbornness and inexperience collided head on.

It was my first job, five months out of college, and reality was setting in. I had impatient dreams of soaring to the top of the band world pyramid….and here I was in what felt like the most isolated antechamber possible. It was a small northwest Iowa school where I was responsible for all things band, from beginners to seniors and at least one lunch duty per week, in a position that had been a revolving door for much of the past decade.

This was not what I signed on for. But, being the optimist….I was going to make the most of it and bring a high quality educational experience to these high school musicians.

All 23 of them. Eight clarinets, six flutes, three saxes, two trumpets, two baritones and two percussionists.

I was determined to help this ensemble stretch and grow as musicians, and expose them to the finest repertoire that we could cover with the limited instrumentation we had. One afternoon, after scouring our ancient library top to bottom, and quite possibly in a moment of desperate exhaustion, I had found my solution: fantastic literature. Limited voicing, not extreme ranges or tremendously difficult technique required. Here it was: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring by Johann Sebastian Bach, transcribed by Eric Leidzen.

Most of you reading this now can likely imagine the musical train wreck that followed.

In my heart, and in the rational parts of my brain, I realized this was not working. Instinct was screaming find something else. But that little voice, the one you usually think is your friend, kept saying “don’t give in…..if you do you’ll regret it. They’ll know you’re a pushover when things get tough. If you quit on this they’ll OWN you.” And in a moment of weakness I listened and bought in, and pressed on all the way to the concert. To this day, quite possibly the worst moments I’ve had on the podium. Ever.

Sadly, we see this happen sometimes on the festival stage: the groups that program over their capabilities. And it’s a terribly uncomfortable moment for all involved, the adjudicators, the audience, the person on the podium, and most of all, the performers. There can be any number of reasons why this happens, but regardless, the results end up the same.

The great news is this: compared to when I led my group down the path to implosion, there are now a wealth of works out there at multiple levels being written by established composers with artistic merit. This makes it possible for you to provide works of quality to your musicians without needing to constantly push the envelope of their abilities.

This isn’t a suggestion to take the “easy road”–certainly a degree of challenge promotes growth in your ensemble, and that’s important as well. But finding the balance point of challenge and accessibility has tremendous benefits in the festival setting.

This ensures that your clinicians or adjudicators will have something to share with you that can genuinely make a difference. If you’re still chasing notes and rhythms on a complex work, they can’t get to the musical aspects….the factors where their expertise leads to the most growth.

If your ensemble is less worried about getting notes and rhythms right, you can have more focus on pitch, blend, and tone quality. This can instantly lead to a better performance.

It is more intrinsically rewarding to perform something of artistic quality well rather than a flashy, formulaic work written to make ensembles sound good, and your choice of substance will likely be viewed better with the adjudicators who will see the educational value of your choice.

It shows your group at its best abilities, which is optimal for everyone involved….the students, the staff, and of course, YOU! (And the adjudicators don’t mind either.)

If your group feels good about the performance they’ve just completed, there’s often a more receptive mindset towards suggestions from a clinician or adjudicator. They’re not preoccupied with self-criticism. We see this in our festival post-performance clinics; groups that are happier tend to have better engagement during those feedback sessions.

Hindsight is almost always 20/20. Had I to do it over again, I would have realized that finding a different work that would challenge my group but still have the potential for success was a much more positive and less stressful and embarrassing outcome. I learned then that “the voice” (call it ego, call it fear, call it what you will) had no business dictating the direction of my ensemble. I learned to find that balance, and it led to better performances and educational outcomes as a result through my conducting career.

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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