On The Topic Of Honor Band Conductors

I feel the need to express concern regarding a trend in the hiring of guest conductors for "all-state" and other honor bands across the country. Specifically I am questioning the practice of hiring composer-conductors for this important experience without proper scrutiny towards their teaching, conducting, and programming history.

Don't get me wrong, current composers are vital to our shared art. And I support the programming of new music at these events when the composition is of the highest caliber. Furthermore I am supportive of composer-conductors for honor bands under the following guidelines:

  • Their teaching and conducting is comparable to our finest collegiate and military band conductors.
  • No more than one third of the musical minutes (not just titles) devoted to their own compositions.
  • The remaining two thirds of the minutes selected from the accepted masterworks for wind band.

This has rarely been the case in my view, and I suspect the same holds true for you. What I see are composers who use the majority of performance minutes (and therefore the majority of the rehearsal time) for their own compositions, and their teaching/conducting is not on par with our nation's best wind band conductors. And I have rarely seen a composer program our great masterworks alongside their own compositions. I'll leave it to you to decide why that might be.

It is time for school band directors to end this star-struck behavior of hiring composers for honor band events without proper scruitiny. Our students deserve the best teacher-conductors, period. And they especially deserve to perform the masterworks of the wind band canon. If you want to show appreciation to a living composer who is not a great teacher-conductor, commission a (short) piece specifically for the occassion! There are many ways to pay tribute to, support, and encourage living composers.

If you are on the voting committee for an honor group and you are considering a composer who cannot meet the bullet points above.... please move on. These experiences require the adults in the room to put the students' musical experiences first.

Afterword: Our college and military band conductors also need proper scrutiny, particularly in regards to their ability to relate to our students, choose realistic repertoire, and pace the experience properly. In short, we must do our due diligence, rather than assuming that anyone who has served as a guest conductor somewhere in the past will be a guaranteed fit for our students.
6 responses
Couldn't agree more with this! I see it also in hiring guest clinicians. Too many directors are afraid to bring in the top talent because they fear being somehow "lessened" (or perhaps lessoned?) by a great teaching talent.

Ultimately, our ego as directors is our worst enemy in these cases.

Glad that someone else is speaking out about this! I wrote a series of articles about it too. http://jazzbeginshere.com/blog/be-our-guest-hiring-a-guest-clinician/

I'm with you all the way on this one, Brian--well most of the way at least. Of late, I have seen festivals and honor ensembles (I'm currently living with one foot in both string and band camps) trot out the same conductors for multiple events. Neither does this serve our students well.

I take your sound advice one step further in that festival/honor band planners actually view a potential conductor in action. Ability to effectively lead a college ensemble or military band does not automatically transfer to working with younger musicians. I have enough first-hand evidence to prove this. We have to remember--as you have--that its all about the students.

Excellent points Brian. I would add that as long as you properly rotate repeated conductors it will not be a repeat for the students. Teachers must also remember that the point is not their own sense of "newness" but what is ... as we've said ... best for our students.
I've often brought in guests to work with my own students and am not afraid of the "star quality" overshadowing my own efforts and abilities.  More often than not, the guest stresses the same things I do, just often in a different way.  Related to this is the band director who insists on bringing me in to work with his students at contest time because, in his own words, "You are the only person I trust."  I can think of no higher compliment.
Brian, I could not agree more. It has been a plague out her in New England for the last few years. I have seen composer/conductors program the entire concert with their new 'Symphony' and nothing else. Hard to imagine. I have also seen collegiate marching band conductors program literature not so savory as well. It has been over a dozen years since I have seen a conductor program Lincolnshire Posy on our all state concert! That was amazing. So instead of complaining I got on the all state concert committee (way too much work) to bring in a conductor I know will honor the best literature out there!
Brian: These are really good thoughts. Many of our honor bands in Indiana (including a couple of our all state bands) have been the victim of this type of selection. The responses to my post have been most helpful. Thanks for everything that you do to keep this site running smoothly. Glenn