Thoughts on Wind Band Repertoire

Today a colleague in my area reminded me about Stephen Budiansky and his Washington Post article from 2005. I had been meaning to write about his views and our current state of affairs in wind repertoire, so here goes...


I have previously stated that, next to building trust, selecting repertoire is the most important thing we do. From that post:

Keep in mind that there is a very good reason that the vast majority of compositions go out of print within a few years. You should spend more time researching and choosing repertoire than you do in score study (and you should do a lot of score study, right?). If you are a young teacher you should rarely perform a piece that is less than five years old. Later in your career you will understand why this is essential. Music that has stood the test of time has done so with good reason in most cases. Let the profession help you in this regard.

As Budiansky discovered after the release of his Washington Post article, this subject is considered a "third rail" in the band world. It's basically our version of Social Security reform efforts. Consequently he received some terse feeback from some composers, publishers, and even music organizations. But I agree with him that our profession needs to be courageous and spend time in honest dialog about this subject. I have attached Budiansky's most recent thoughts at the bottom of this post. If you are a band or orchestra director you should definitely read it, after which a strong look in the mirror will be in order. At the end of the document he makes some recommendations to which I would like to provide some response and additional thoughts:

1. get rid of festivals, contests, grading of works — all of that apparatus that encourages us to look at music as assembly-line fodder rather than as art to be evaluated and embraced for its beauty and artistic significance

The point I resonate with is competition. Generally, I don't believe in mixing competition with concert band or orchestral ensembles. That is not to say it doesn't make kids prepare more effectively... it often does exactly that. But in my mind competition is really an evaluation of the teaching, and all too often directors make the mistake of believing that adjudication is about the students. If you don't believe that the judges are in the room to judge your teaching, you really shouldn't be going to contests. Even if you do understand that, it still takes a very mature group of students to understand it, and even then it is difficult for them not to place ratings and trophies at the top of their priority list.

Add to that the unacceptable venues (almost always  gymnasiums) and the fact that most directors rarely adopt the adjudicators' recommendations (but are quick to point out mistakes on the recording to their students), and you see why I not only resist taking my students to contests but also stopped adjudicating such events. To me it puts students in a untenable situation whereby focusing on the joy of music making is highly improbable, and that just doesn't interest me. I do however value input from respected colleagues, so I regularly bring clinicians to my rehearsals and afterwards (privately) I ask for the truth about my teaching. This allows me to continue to improve and at the same time brings benefits to my students without the distraction of competition.

Having said all that, I do believe there are non-competitive festivals out there that can fulfill two essential components for performing ensembles: A venue designed for music performance, and a knowing audience. If you can't get your kids to one of these types of events, then consider starting such an event, or renting a true concert hall once a year.

Due to the fact that the "grading" of music has become inconsistent and (at times) misleading, I tend to agree with Budiansky that we need to rethink stamping a "difficulty level" on wind band music which, by the way, does not even take place in the choral world, nor most of the best orchestral repertoire. Good directors can evaluate the difficulty of a piece by reviewing the score.

2. start teaching music teachers about music and how to make aesthetic judgments about music

This is, far and away, the most important point Budiansky makes. Our colleges and universities have largely failed undergraduates in this critical area. There are only a handful of schools that have a dedicated class in repertoire study and evaluation. Most schools briefly glaze over the topic as part of a larger methods course. In my opinion the vast majority of undergraduates leave college without the slightest clue on how to evaluate the merits of the extant repertoire, which is why they resort to the latest publications, or what they themselves played when they were students. (There is also a larger problem here that deals with the lack of public school teaching experience by many of the professors teaching music education courses, but I have to leave that for another time.)

There is also a bit of presentism that must be considered when we are talking about excellent repertoire that has stood the test of time. As Budiansky has pointed out, many pieces that are considered to be the "best of the best" today were not well accepted in their time. Further,  there were certainly many compositions by many composers that lasted no longer than many of the "school" compositions of today. But of course we don't discuss those because we simply don't know anything about them... they were lost over time. Therefore I'm not convinced we have more "bad" music being written today... there's just no way to know how much bad orchestra music has been written over hundreds of years.

Finally, what is "popular" and what is "legitimate" music is a moving target. For example, nearly any Sousa march is today considered to be of the highest order, yet in his time marches were the popular music of the day. He used as treats for the audience after playing his more "serious" compositions or transcriptions. Naturally, the audience loved the marches and perhaps more importantly school bands loved to play the marches because it was the most current music you could play (like a garage band of today being able to play a John Mayer song). Ask your students how many of them listen to marches on their iPods. You get my point. Aside from military bands, there really are no full-time professional concert bands today and even if there were, we wouldn't see teens lining up at the train station to greet them like they did in Sousa's day. The idea of relevance in wind band repertoire needs further thought and discussion as we also discuss what makes a wind band composition worthy of study.

3. play a lot of stuff in class that you never plan to perform but which it is important for students to be exposed to as part of their education. Worry more about teaching music and less about technical perfection

I wholeheartedly agree with this recommendation. It has everything to do with the investment of time that leads to musical dividends, and resisting the programming of repertoire that is too far beyond the current abilities of your students. We've all been there, and we have to improve. That way the music students do present can be played well.

4. absolutely play new works and original works for wind band but evaluate them against the entire competition: only include them in your curriculum if you honestly believe they’re as good as the best of the last 1,000 years

While this point may reveal Budiansky's lack of expertise in music education (he is a writer/historian and holds a math degree from Harvard) it is on the right track and should not be dismissed out of hand.

As those of us in the band profession know, the wind band movement is much younger than the orchestra medium. This presents us with some real challenges when it comes to repertoire selection, especially in light of modern percussion instruments and techniques that leave much of the older wind band repertoire lacking (and most orchestral transcriptions from "1,000 years" ago).

While many teachers can justify having percussionists sit out for certain pieces, or play parts that are far easier than the winds, I struggle to  justify it. If we assume that only a small percentage of the "in print" repertoire is excellent (perhaps 5%?) that percentage drops dramatically when we try to identify repertoire where winds and percussion are treated equally. In a professional ensemble it doesn't really matter if you don't use all of your personnel on a given piece, but in education it does. Nevertheless, Budiansky's point remains: we must evaluate all repertoire carefully and only play the very best, and it needs to be an excellent experience for the entire ensemble, not just the winds. Those pieces are out there, but it takes time and effort to find them.

5. stop letting the for-profit merchants dictate curriculum, repertoire, what you can play at Midwest, what you’re allowed to utter at a MENC conference. Put educational and artistic goals, not the profit motive, back in the driver’s seat. Publishers are not evil people; they are not the ultimate root of the problem; but their interests are never going to place artistic and educational merit ahead of their bottom line. That’s your job as educators and directors. You really have to take a stand on returning educational and artistic decisions to the hands of the people who have no conflicts of interest

The bottom line is that publishers are going to publish what teachers want to purchase. If the colleges and universities teach undergraduates how to properly evaluate, identify, and purchase only great repertoire, what do you think the publishers would make available? Many of us are personally acquainted with some of today's successful wind band composers. Nearly all of them have written at least one or two excellent works, works that should be purchased and performed by the vast majority of groups. Keeping those works in print is good for the profession, good for students, and sends the right message to composers and publishers.

It has always been true that difficult music (for nearly any medium) has a hard time getting published because publishers do not feel the interest level will be strong enough to warrant the investment. They are not completely wrong about this. The good news is that today's technology is making it easier for composers to self-publish. Take for example some of the recent works of Kenneth Snoeck which are well-crafted, equally challenging for all sections, and available direct as pdf files. I believe we will see more composers use pdf publishing for their works that, for whatever reason, are less "publisher-friendly," and that is good for us.

As far as the Midwest Clinic, that is an event that was built on a partnership with the publishers from year one. For those of us who have performed there, you know that going into it, and if you don't agree with it, you don't apply. What it meant for me personally was hours upon hours of sifting through new repertoire to find pieces worthy of the experience. It isn't easy but it can be done.

6. if you don’t treat music as a serious, curricular, academic class, then there’s no reason to expect the administrators, parents, and students to do so. If you treat it as an athletic event or a group activity rather than as something worthwhile in its own right, don’t be surprised that it — and you — then get no respect

I can't find anything to disagree with or add to. Spot on.

7. most of all: dare to criticize! it’s a sign that your brain is functioning. And if somebody’s feelings get hurt, they’re in the wrong business anyway

Yes, I think we should speak frankly about repertoire. But more importantly we need to take a strong look at what our colleagues are performing, because what we believe is manifested in what we do, not merely what we say. Seek out the directors that you respect and find out what they are programming. This is one reason I started the BDG Twice-Taught List. Pieces that are taught multiple times by successful teachers should carry weight with other teachers. Many teachers, regardless of their age, would be well-served to duplicate the choices made by these teachers. And why not? It's not a competition, right? There is absolutely no shame in giving your students the same great repertoire that other fine programs are utilizing.

So Mr. Budiansky, while I know you have received some criticism from some over the years, I thank you for your candor. You have raised some very important points that deserve careful consideration. We know that music is not made in isolation. Composers, publishers, ensembles, teachers, and audiences are all part of the collective endeavor. But as Budiansky rightly says, thicker skin is needed if we are going to make the best choices for our students.



HS and MS Concert Band Composer Graphs

Here are graphs showing the top composers being programmed this semester by high school and middle school band directors around the country. If you would like to enter the repertoire you are teaching please stop by our Google Spreadsheet and enter it. There are nearly 500 700 800 900 entries now, and the results update this chart automatically, so please check back in the coming weeks. NOTE: The purpose of this data collection is to reflect current trends, nothing more. You must draw your own conclusions.

High School Chart:


Here is the Middle School Chart: