Taking the Baton: Lessons learned from a semester on the podium

Last fall, the director of the Hamline University Wind Ensemble, Dr Janet Greene, approached me with a proposition. She was to take a sabbatical semester in the spring and needed an interim conductor for the band. She thought I’d be a good fit, citing the few times I’d coached or conducting brass ensembles at Hamline, and wanted to offer me the opportunity. Needless to say, I was honored, but, initially, skeptical and mildly terrified of the idea. She encouraged me to think about it and I promised I would.

It’s not that, as I noted above, that I haven’t conducted before. Chamber groups, brass choirs, etc, have all been a part of my experience. I know which direction to wave my arms in various meters, and I can run a solid rehearsal. My trepidation stemmed more from the doubt that I could be musically inspiring to a group of college kids, that I could evoke a connection to the music and their colleagues that so many of the best conductors I’ve worked with have done.

Janet was not to be put off my fears, and assured me that most of the work would be organizational, and rehearsal-oriented (“You don’t have to be Leonard Bernstein. You just have to be there for them.”). Then she mentioned the salary increase and I had a much harder time saying no.

So I was hired. I was caught up on the admin needs, given direction on how to pick repertoire, and granted access to the roster and the list of students that might step up if there was a need. Hamline is not a big university, and the music program is tiny. I’ve been lucky to have at least one student per semester in my low brass studio, and in the fall I had none at all. Most of the ensemble participants are not pursuing musical degrees, and there are many different levels of playing ability. Somehow, we managed to pull together a band with at least one person on a part (minus bassoon, which we went without, and trombones and oboe, for which parts we hired ringers).

With such a small ensemble, and uncertainty in what parts could be covered, it was hard to pick repertoire. I knew for sure we would attempt Ticheli’s An American Elegy, in honor of the 20 years since the Columbine High School shooting. I wanted diversity on my program, and found a copy of Folk Suite by William Grant Still in the library. With a little money available to purchase new works, I grabbed a copy of John Zdechlik’s A Centennial Fanfare for brass, and a new-ish piece by New York composer Carrie Magin called And the Nightwatchers Awake. The woodwinds were game to play an arrangement of the Overture to Il Re Pastore by Mozart, and a quirky Herbert Hazelman piece called A Short Ballet for Awkward Dancers rounded out the program. Later I would be asked if the Percussion Ensemble could perform, and was delighted to add a brand new work (i can’t believer it IS butter!) by Hamline student and composer Leah Hunter to the program.

Our final program for the Spring 2019 concert

The start of the semester was hard. I was nervous, the students were struggling to get back into the flow of things, the weather was AWFUL and kept people from making rehearsal all the time. I wasn’t sure who was going to show up. Not having a full trombone section was painful to me (Alex, a former student of mine, has been gamely playing with HUWE for years even as he attends college elsewhere, so he was always there at least. But dang, you really need at least 2 trombones, 3 is preferable, to make a band sound good). An hour and 15 minutes twice a week felt both too long and stressful and too short to be effective. I worried constantly about whether they liked me, about mistakes I had made or weird things I’d said (no one loses complete access to their vocabulary like I do when I’m anxious), while at the same time being frustrated that things didn’t seem to get practiced in the off hours.

But we started to find a groove. I made a few personal revelations:

  1. It’s okay if they don’t like you. They may like you more if you stop trying so hard to be nice.
  2. The program has gaps in instrumentation and ability that exist for many different reasons. None of them your fault. Your responsibility is to provide a semester of learning and musical experience.

I’m a product of 2 (and a half) big university music programs where the wind ensembles were the crowning glory of the college, and I have always enjoyed playing in wind bands more than other large ensembles. At Wisconsin, James Smith asked so much of us, and gave us so much in return, he was like our own local Lenny in many ways. I probably don’t need to tell you what an honor it was to play under Eugene Corporon at North Texas. The caliber of that band was some kind of magical. And working with Emily Threinen at the U showed me what a woman, poised, direct, and intelligent, looks like on the podium. In all of those programs, though, you had a group working to play at near professional levels to present an end product as polished as it could get.

Hamline is not those places, and its players are not those musicians. Make no mistake, though: it is in no way inferior. The act of making music belongs to all of us, regardless of level, and while we can hope to have the best concert possible, what matters more than anything is the process. What are we learning as we go? What inspires us and sticks with us? I remember very little about the actual concerts I’ve played, but there are little details – phases spoken, techniques learned, jokes bandied – from rehearsals that I will never forget.

So it became my goal not to worry so much about the product. I had to take a lesson from my own pedagogical book: it’s not the how, it’s the what and why. Can I express to these students what makes the music so vital to their current experience? Can I help them problem solve, work together, play from the heart? Can I be honest with them about what scares me, what I’m learning to do, as well as what I already know, what I can offer from my own experiences?

There were still frustrations as the semester went on (would they ever just WATCH ME when an ensemble moment was critical?!?), but more and more, as I relaxed into my role and the students warmed up to me, rehearsals left me with a feeling of warmth and accomplishment. I could hear the music coming together, I could feel my effect on their interpretations. I felt- dare I say it? – right at home on that podium, with their attention focused on me.

Our concert flyer

Concert day arrived! The rest of the trombone section was present at the dress rehearsal, and suddenly, the ensemble sounded READY. They were excited. It was time for hard work to pay off, and for the music to be let loose into the world, enjoyed.

The final bow

I didn’t feel nervous anymore, as we took to the stage. I remember a few tricky spots that wavered, but more importantly I remember some glorious moments – especially the Ticheli, which these young people who were either just babies or not even born when Columbine happened played so tenderly I actually cried while conducting. Overall, they triumphed. And I can take credit only for my small part in it. These are dedicated and kind humans, who love music, who love the process. I am so humbled to have worked with them.

And I hope I get to do it again, and soon.

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