The Art Of Programming 2005 - Re-Branding Band

1 April 2005, Tim Reynish

During the past century, and especially the last five decades, a host of incredible pieces for wind, brass and percussion have been created, most still not known in our festivals, radio programmes or even on disc. Why is the public perception of Wind Orchestra music still that its natural home is only in ceremonial, education or entertainment? The recent CBDNA Conference in New York presented five of the world's top ensembles playing at Carnegie Hall, with several world premieres by leading American composers. Conference was almost totally ignored by the world press, and the opening discussion session was cancelled by Lorin Maazel on the flimsy excuse that the debate promised so much interest that it needed an audience of musicians to hear it.

Re-Brand Band

Perhaps we shall never live down the name of "band" - "band" has connotations that we cannot escape, and perhaps we need to re-brand ourselves and use the terms Wind Orchestra or Wind Ensemble, Symphonic Winds, Wind Sinfonia or whatever, but somehow the "Wind Ensemble of the Coldstream Guards" does not have much of a ring.

Gunther Schuller articulated this problem in a letter to me some time ago:

Unfortunately the situation is worse... because of the social/professional context to which wind music is relegated. long as wind ensembles and bands are located primarily (almost entirely) in schools and academic institutions, the rest of the music world will never take wind and band music very seriously, no matter how good the music is and how well its performed. They see it as relegated to students and amateurs, and just ignore it, don't give the field any respect.

When Ignorance Is Bliss

Another big problem for me is the ignorance of the "profession" about our repertoire. Many of the best works for wind are not published and are not programmed regularly. I would love to see BASBWE or WASBE or some other body representing the world of wind music, engage a public relations officer who regularly made contact with the musical press, with radio and television, with festivals, agents, administrators, conductors, professional ensembles, orchestras and conservatoires, to keep them informed of new commissions, new recordings, new initiatives as well as the repertoire already in existence.

It is risky, espousing causes and Warren Benson challenged us to take these risks in discussing "Aesthetic Criteria For Selecting an International Repertoire", when he proposed three very personal issues, commitment, exposure and risk.

Sooner or later, we have to take the responsibility in our own hands for the progress of WASBE, individually. It's not an international conscience that we're talking about. We're talking about individuals and, when we all do that, there's going to be a glow... I don't want WASBE to turn into a dispensary where people come every two years to get lists that they can go home and file and forget about and do the same old stuff they've been doing before.


All of us tend to play safe when we programme in case the Honours Band is less good than last year, or the wind ensemble we are guest conducting is not as good as it sounds on disc. We pick music which we are sure will work, perhaps without exposed solos, perhaps indeed scoring with safe doublings, as in the more traditional middle-of-the-road repertoire. Also, whereas our orchestral colleagues tend to guest conduct an entire programme, we will guest conduct one or two pieces, so that the programmes tend to be less well-planned as a whole entity, but may turn out to be a gallimaufry of periods and styles, dependant on the occasion or the whim of a couple of conductors rather than the need for artistic growth of the players and audience.

Thus my suggested title for our 2003 WASBE Conference Wednesday discussion was Compromise. We compromised, and the eventual discussion was entitled The Artistry of The Wind Band - a Panel Discussion on Programming.

We compromise the artistry of our programme selection according to the event - attracting alumni - getting a big audience through a "pops" formula - following thematic links which lead us into less than excellent music. We compromise our artistry by agreeing to programme a new work which might turn out to be terrible, or by working with a faculty member on a really poor concerto, because he/she, and probably we ourselves, know no better solo repertoire for that instrument. We compromise our artistry by relying on tried and trusted old favourites which now, viewed objectively, need to be replaced by better pieces. We compromise our artistry by recklessly mixing genres, playing masterpieces by Holst or Hindemith, Schoenberg or Schwantner, alongside old-fashioned transcriptions of standard orchestral repertoire or brilliant Hollywood-style arrangements of hit tunes from film or musical.... and we must include a march because that is part of our tradition.

Jimmy Tarbuck As King Lear

The actual mix of a programme has often been likened to putting together a good meal. A substantial course often needs a sorbet to follow, but a whole succession of sorbets is self-defeating. I found the decision of one conductor at the 2004 BASBWE Conference in a programme of short in-your-face pieces to follow the one substantial work, Daugherty's UFO, with a short bonne bouche, so that we were left, some of us, with the feeling that the whole evening had been spent with short entertaining pieces which detracted from each other. As one colleague put it, "It was like inviting Jimmy Tarbuck to play King Lear; nothing wrong with Jimmy Tarbuck, nothing wrong with King Lear, but together!"


The same care has to be taken with encores. When at the WASBE Conference in Luzern, the United States Marine Band followed a great performance of Lincolnshire Posy, (itself a suite of six short movements), with three marches as encores, I found this completely satisfying and natural. When the National Youth Wind Orchestra of Holland at WASBE Boston played an arrangement of Daphnis and Chloë, and the Dallas Wind Symphony gave a superb Symphony in Bb of Hindemith at CBDNA in Denton, I personally did not need a James Barnes encore after Ravel, nor a Sousa march after Hindemith. A group of marches, or a lighter piece, would have been perhaps appropriate earlier in the programme. And when one of our top professional wind bands at Luzern WASBE Conference played Selections from Abba followed by Brass Explosionafter a programme that verged on being light, I and many others were irate. The band claimed that it showed their versatility and also that the audience loved it. I believe very strongly that our pre-occupation with playing "something for everybody" or "sending people home with something they can whistle" results often in programmes which send mixed messages to the public.

The average music lover is given a clear choice by orchestras, and can go to a concert knowing that he/she will hear a traditional classic/romantic/modern programme, a "pops" programme, an experimental programme or a parks programme. With our continuing tradition of compromise, our concerts are too often an uncomfortable mélange of all of these styles.

Johan De Meij & Warren Benson

In the superb WASBE Journal of 1998, edited by David Whitwell and subtitled "On the Role of Emotion in Music", Johan de Meij wrote:

I think there are several reasons why most audiences remain unmoved by the average band concert.

  • First, the programming consists of too many short works in different styles, including entertainment works, marches etc., while substantial works of high artistic quality are often missing.
  • Second, conductors pay too much attention to technical aspects and spectacular effects.
  • Third, I have seen too many mechanical, non-emotional conductors, with whom technique and precision prevail over emotion and musical depth.
  • Fourth, I do not enjoy concerts if there is a lack of quality in non-professional players, or a lack of passion with professional players.

In the same edition, Warren Benson wrote memorably:

...I wish I could hear more wind conductors and instrumental teachers using better and larger vocabularies that relate to beauty, aesthetics, to charm, to gentleness, strength and power without rancour or anger, to useful tonal vibrancy, live sound, to grace of movement, to stillness, to fervour, to the depth of great age the exultation of great happiness, the feel of millennia, the sweetness and purity of lullabies, the precision of fine watches, the reach into time-space of great love and respect, the care of phrasing, the delicacy of balance, the ease of warmth, the resonance of history, the susurrus of wind in the pines and whisperings in churches, the intimacy of the solo instrument, the kind weight of togetherness and the rising spirit of creating something, bringing something to life from cold print, living music, moving music.

Recently still I heard a wind band at a University famous for its contemporary music following a reasonable performance of Paris Sketches with what I considered to be a painfully crude poorly balanced out of tune performance of a dreadful rock arrangement of the Bach Toccata in D Minor. Dramatically mixed messages again! I don't go clubbing much (never did) but I find the rock idiom exciting. I thoroughly enjoyed the CBSO and Simon Rattle performing Blood on the Floor by Mark-Anthony Turnage, and I loved conducting Christian Lindberg's funky post-Zappa Concerto for Wind Orchestra. However, can anyone take us seriously, if we mix up so many types of music? Does it matter if they don't? Why not simply go on dumbing down our medium providing a quick fix with fast food repertoire which eventually exhausts the interest of both players and audiences