Honor Band and Orchestra Conductors: Illinois Gets It Right

I just returned from the Illinois Music Education Conference, and I couldn't be more pleased. A few years ago I wrote about the importance of choosing the very best educator-conductors for our students, rather than hiring composers who (a) have a natural bias towards there own music and (b) often do not have the conducting skills that our students need, especially given the minimal amount of rehearsal time. Ocassionally, we get it right but all too often we have not done as well by our students as we should.

This year Illinois got it right in a huge way.

The Honors Band was conducted by Eugene Corporon from North Texas State University, and the Honors Orchestra was conducted by Larry Livingston from USC. Having spent several hours in these rehearsals (more on that later), I can tell you first hand that our students got the experience that we expect from All State. Passion, kindness, and above all, expert teaching through wonderful repertoire. Congratulations to the entire ILMEA leadership team.

Gene Corporon has always been a champion of current composers for wind band. His choices...Carnaval! by Julie Giroux, Magnolia Star by Steve Danyew, and Yosemite Autumn by (Illinois native!) Mark Camphouse... stayed true to that mission and also provided a relevant Illinois connection for students. Livingston (who worked at Northern Illinois University for a time) chose the first movement of Mahler's Second Symphony in C Minor. Yep, you read that right, Mahler 2.

Had you asked me before any conference whether students should be attempting Mahler 2 I would have responded with more than a bit of concern, but this year I would have been wrong. Though it might be a mistake for most conductors to attempt Mahler in what is essentially one day of rehearsals, watching Larry Livingston teach...using the score only for calling rehearsal numbers...proved how essential it is to have great teaching and musicianship to go along with great repertoire. Students' musical lives can be forever changed only when both factors are present. I've seen plenty of honor groups where the person on the podium was not up to the repertoire they selected. This year was an amazing treat.

If you were at Larry or Gene's first rehearsals you know what each phrase sounded like the first time it was attempted. This is very important for gaining perspective on someone's teaching. For example, as capable as our students are, they did not understand the Mahler at first...it is a deeply profound tour de force. They needed to be taught, and Larry Livingston taught them. He taught them about the historical context of the piece, he taught them about Mahler's personal and professional history, he demanded that they expect more from themselves, and he taught the musical concepts needed to foster technical and expressive clarity so the students could grasp this monumental work. Most of all, he made sure the students knew he cared. Do you suppose the students were "engaged" as a result? Indeed. If you are a teacher who is still complaining and/or confused about using the Danielson Framework in the teaching of music...it was all there for the taking. Inspired teaching will manifest itself in any framework (a discussion for another time).

This brings me to my next challenge for our state associations around the nation: In addition to hiring great educator-conductors, treat the rehearsals as the most important professional development experiences at the conference. 

For example:

  • Formalize the rehearsal rooms for observation by setting up 50 chairs for teachers (keep the student cases/coats elsewhere)
  • Secure scores so teachers can follow and learn
  • Provide credit to teachers who observe at least one contiguous hour of a rehearsal. Too many teachers think that watching the last ten minutes of a rehearsal session (because they need to pick up their students anyway) is sufficient. It's not. You are missing so much of the teaching process. The time before the break is usually a review...you have missed the actual journey. If you went during the heart of the rehearsal blocks you know this. I did, and never did I see more than five or six colleagues. This is a shame. If you observed for an hour or more...bravo!! But by my calculations it's probably about 50 teachers at best. Not enough.
  • Allow the guest conductor to "get real" with teachers at break time. Teachers need to know how to better prepare their students for these events, and I often wonder why we do not allow our guest conductors to express their thoughts directly to teachers while those thoughts are fresh. 
    • How do you think our students stack up as compared to other places you've conducted? 
    • Knowing what you know now, would you have selected easier/harder repertoire? 
    • How can we improve so that you and our students can have an even better experience next time?

Hold a short session at a break or at the conclusion of the day for this type of frank communication to take place and everyone learns something.

    During one brief break in the orchestral rehearsal Dr. Livingston approached me and said "thank you for spending so much time here." I said "I'm sorry more of our colleagues are not here, we need to change that." He poked me in the shoulder and said "then say something."

    And so...now I've said something. 

    Let's take the next step. The rehearsals are not just for the students dear friends, they are arguably more meaningful for us. I learned things this week that are going to directly benefit all of my students, not just the All Staters. Even if I never get a little red stamp on my professional development sheet, and even if I must stand because there is nowhere to sit, I will continue to spend more time in rehearsals than I spend in the exhibit hall. 

    You should, too.



    Three things:

    1. I wanted to make mention that Larry Livingston also gave an amazing clinic session that was attended by precious few band and orchestra teachers. A huge missed opportunity. If you were there.... you know why! Never miss an chance to gain insights ... especially off the podium...from a great educator-conductor.

    2. The importance of observing rehearsals isn't just an "all-state" issue. The same goes for local honor festivals (in Illinois they are called "district" festivals). We need to spend more time learning from conductors at every opportunity, instead of sitting in the cafeteria commiserating. Honor ensembles are not just for student learning. If we don't attend rehearsals, the only people that benefit are the few honor students. If we do attend, all of the students we will ever teach will benefit because we will become more effective. There is a very powerful difference here. How does sitting in the cafeteria make you a better teacher? You know the answer to that.

    3. Larry asked to have a piano in the rehearsal room. He played improvisations for the students several times. He was sharing himself with them...giving a gift. This will give you an idea.

    10 responses
    Another thing they could do is to put the rehearsal schedule where it is easy to find. Including what pieces will be performed when. There are plenty of other opportunities at a conference (clinics, informal discussions, etc..) and sometimes its hard to weigh the known (clinic) against the unknown (will the band be on break?, tuning?, in sectionals?).
    I can't agree with you more, Brian! Everything I have ever learned, everything I am as a musician, a conductor, a trumpet, I learned observing rehearsals and performances. Your comment on FB about "these are the real clinics" couldn't be more spot on! In fact, the earth should have split open when you posted it. The problems are many, but it seems today's music educators are worried less about teaching and making great music for the right reasons, as they are what is the quickest shortcut, what is the newest fad, how can I advance my career, and on and on. I'll stop now, but keep driving the point home!
    I concur on both of these great educators. I have witnessed both of their rehearsals here in Texas, and I can tell you one plus for Texas - the rehearsals are almost always packed with other directors.
    Thank you for writing this Brian. My wife and I are heavily involvedas all-state managers in Michigan. I am somewhat dumbfounded why more educators don't take the opportunity to observe rehearsals. I am foremost in the rehearsal for the kids but what I gain as a director is immeasurable!
    Right on the spot. These are two of the vey best at what they do. Was fortunate to take a class with Livingston while he was at NI and also watched him in action conducting the Iowa All-State orchestra a few years back.
    Absolutely agree! One of the biggest arguments I used to have with colleagues was the need to a.) attend festivals, and b.) once there to watch the guest conductors work. In 40 years I have yet to walk away from a rehearsal that I didn't pick up something I could use. When you have world class conductors like these two, the rewards are multiplied. Why should we get "credit" for attending a TRS retirement session but not for spending an hour or more in these rehearsals? Even more importantly, should we be concerned with "getting the credits" or learning immediate, and important, techniques we can be applying today in our rehearsals?
    David, you are absolutely right...it should not matter if we receive credit, but I do think it would help press the point that rehearsal observations are just as important as anything that *does* award credit. ~Brian
    Great article, Brian! Couldn't agree with you more. Larry was astounding! I spent hours going between Honors and All State orchestra thinking how that was as rich a learning environment for me as for my students. I too wish that the scheduling was such that teachers would be enticed to spend more time at rehearsals! Thanks for your thoughts!
    I happened to go to Larry's conference session. Not being an instrumentalist, I did not know what I was in for. It was a wonderfully inspiring session! His passion for music making and teaching brought me to tears a few times.
    Had the pleasure of watching Dr. Livingston at the MA All state last year. Spent two solid days/nights watching Peter Boonshaft this year. I almost felt like a band member as I was there from start to finish. There were two other directors that did the same. Not only was it wonderful to watch him take apart the music like a surgeon but it was also inspiring to watch someone in passionate pursuit of perfection. I am so grateful that my students were able to have an experience like that. It was a shame so many directors missed what I am two others experienced!