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.

An Autumn of Performances and Events

I’ve been doing a little marketing for the upcoming Brass Lassie concert, and it occurred to me that I have a busy fall filled with some amazing performances and events I hope you can make one or two.

Friday, September 29th, 2-4pm: I’ll be joining the Bubonic Brass for the Feast of Fantasy at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival. This event is ticketed separately from the Fair; visit the link for details.

Friday, October 6th, 5-7pm: my good friend and colleague Rebecca Hass and I are hosting the second meet-up happy hour for women and GNC folks in the MSP area. We hope to make these a regular thing, so we can strengthen our community and build new connections.

Sunday, October 8th, 7-830pm: October Studio Class featuring guest artist Gabe Mueller! Gabe is a lifelong friend and the inspiration for my studio classes- she hosts her own each month for her studio in St Louis.  (This is an event for members of my studio and their families only)

Sunday, October 15th, 7pm: The aforementioned Brass Lassie concert! Buy your tickets in advance for a discount.

Sunday, October 29th, morning: Reformation Sunday Services with Accent Brass.

Saturday, November 4th, 4pm: Hamline Wind Ensemble Parent’s Weekend performance

Monday, November 6th, 9pm (2 sets): The Adam Meckler Orchestra at Icehouse. I’m really honored to be invited to join the AMO this season on bass trombone (I even bought my very own bass, something I’ve needed for a while, and will share it with you when I get it!). If you’re up for Monday late night jazz, join us!

Saturday, December 2nd, 2-330pm: Hamline Wind Ensemble Winter Concert @ Sundin Hall

Monday, December 4th, 12-1230pm: ‘Lunch With…’ Lauren Husting and Rebecca Hass! This is a tasty little lunch concert featuring works by women composers written for low brass instruments and piano. This concert is free and open to the public.

Sunday & Monday, December 24-25, various times: Christmas services at St John the Baptist in New Brighton. Stay tuned for more details.

As always, I try to keep my gig calendar updated with all relevant information.

 

Weekly Round-up 5/16/16

Performances: May 21, 7-8p 612BREW, FREE.

Hamline Brass Choir, Baccalaureate Service: May 21, 8a Hamline United Methodist

Rehearsals: Hamline Brass Choir Friday morning in preparation for our Saturday morning performance.

Practicing: Resonance. Tunes.

Listening: Tunes for the third Satellites chart. Can’t get this one out of my head:

Teaching: Resonance. Let the air vibrate the embouchure. Let the horn react to the resulting resonance.

Studying: New things to start looking at: grant preparation, doctoral recital repertoire, UMN entrance exams.

Relaxing: Naps were necessary after last week.

“Lunch With…Lauren Husting!”

You can now watch two of the pieces from my 2/8/2016 “Lunch with…” recital in Sundin Hall on Hamline University campus in convenient YouTube format!

David, Concertino (all)

Mills, Red Dragonfly (1st mvt)

My pianist is the lovely and talented Rebecca Hass.

Enjoy!

Weekly Round-up 2/15/16

Happy birthday, George Washington!

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Performances: As always I keep a calendar updated on this site.

Nothing happening for the rest of February- phew- but first weekend of March I’ll be performing with Exultate Choir and Orchestra on their series “Emmanuel”- a performance of the best of the best oratorios we know and love. Check out their website or my calendar for dates and locations.

Rehearsals: nothing on the books for a bit.

Practicing: Sight-reading and some basics, not over-extending myself too much for a week or two.

Listening: I pulled out my favorite Billy Joel album yesterday, Stormfront, in case you were wondering how cool I am.

Teaching: Hamline update: Spring semester has started and I have two students there this semester, which is double last! I’m also excited to get to work with the wind ensemble as a player-coach and meet some more of the school’s fantastic students.

Studying: Still waiting on a copy of Flow to come from the library. So not much.

Relaxing: I had a really low key weekend of comic books, video games, and chats with friends. I have a guest this weekend and I’m excited to do a little MSP sight-seeing!

 

TODAY- LIVE- Sundin Hall “Lunch with…”

I am the featured artist on February’s “Lunch With…” concert at Sundin Hall on Hamline’s campus TODAY! February 8th, 2016, 12-1230 pm. My good friend Rebecca Hass will be joining me on piano.

You can watch live here: http://portal.stretchinternet.com/hamlineadmin/

and the concert will be available for streaming afterward as well.

Thanks for tuning in!

(Also, if you’re nearby and available, you are more than welcome to actually attend- it’s free and there are cookies!)