by Peter Greene
One of the great challenges of band leadership is concert programming. Many well-meaning directors suffer under the quaint notion that programming is somehow related to informed and intelligent choices based on an understanding of quality music. This sad misconception is the product of excessive education and has led to more than a few directors (actually, these poor guys are just as likely to call themselves “conductors”) to find themselves facing a silent audience, staring out like a young doe caught in the headlights of a van full of Metallica fans. Don’t blame these guys; no doubt they also watch PBS and have never even owned a lava lamp.
Band concerts were never meant to be Major Cultural Events. Culture is for orchestra-goers, who neither expect nor desire to be entertained. The strength of the American band has always been a relentless mixture of kitsch and class and eclectic middle-brow culture-mulch. Nowhere else in the world of performance can you expect to find the works of Beethoven, Jerome Kern, Michael Jackson, and Kenny Rogers side by side. Bands cannot be programmed like anything else in the universe.
Even Sousa spent a few years playing to indifferent response before he mastered this arcane and barely scrutable art. However, I offer you the following system to help, at least a bit. This scale is designed primarily for your basic hometown adult band, but can be applied to a school concert band as well. It may not be applicable to anything calling itself a wind symphony. I call this the Binmore scale, named for my grandparents, who didn’t know music, but they knew what they liked.
First spot the potential program piece five points just for good luck. Then consider the following.
PULSE:Add two points for a strong two or four beat pulse. You may also add two points for ¾ time if it is a nicely gliding one-beat. One point for 6/8 if beaten in two. No points for a pulse so slow that, in a human, it would require CPR. Minus one for exotic tempi such as 5/4. You cannot hold your audience’s attention if it is distracted by spasmodic foot tapping.
FAKE ENDINGS:Subtract one half point for each false ending. Few things can discourage an audience more than a clear and convincing cadence followed by the whole damn thing starting up again.
STYLE: Subtract two points for any work whose main appeal is that it’s “pretty.” Let’s be honest. There are only a few bands in the country that can pull off pretty, and yours probably isn’t one of them. Subtract three points if the program notes refer to instrumental color or use the term “tone poem.”
FAMILIARITY:Add two points for recognizable themes or melodies. This is where knowing your audience is vital and educating them is a lifelong project. There are certain sure bets. Few audiences won’t to recognize the stirring strains of “The Lone Ranger Theme” or Wagner’s famous “Kill the Wabbit.” Other pieces can become familiar to an audience through sheer, dogged repetition.
REAL DIFFICULTY:Be honest. If you have a grade two band playing grade six music, subtract one to three points depending on the degree of mutilation.
PERCEIVED DIFFICULTY:This involves a principle well known to performers in the world of dance. Twenty dancers can perform intricate, extensively rehearsed maneuvers of great difficulty and skill, but the audience will only applaud wildly after eight girls stand side by side and kick. If your piece goes really fast with lots of notes or involves a trumpet player turning purple and popping a lung out of his bell, give it one point for each awe-inspiring passage.
GENRE:Here you need to know your material and your players, because there are some outstanding exceptions to this rule. However, in general, when a concert band attempts works from the realm of rock, jazz or swing, it works about as well as when Cousin Mell’s barbershop quartet attempted Handel’s Messiah. If you have to explain swing to your clarinets, or your Dixie ensemble has to read the music, you’re in trouble. Subtract up to 3.
MONOTONY : Subtract one point for every repeated section over twenty-four bars. Subtract two if the section is over sixty bars. You may give yourself a break if you do something substantially different the second time through. Anything longer than one page of player music with no noticeable variation in dynamics, tempo, or style must give up one point. This may be the fault of the composer, the players, or the director, but it will not matter to your audience who’s to blame for boring them.
NOVELTY: Any extra special touch will help, however small or corny, as long as you don’t go completely berserk. A real fire engine beside the band stand blaring away on “The Midnight Fire Alarm” is good, but not if you start to hose down the audience. Add one point.
VOCAL SOLOIST: This is a completely subjective, non-musical call (and yes, I hear you out there saying, “Of course, because vocalists have nothing to do with music”). The vocalist will not be judged on quality, but on community popularity. In the average small market, everyone’s beloved Aunt Minerva, who sings those lovely solos over to the Methodist church, will always be a bigger hit than the most gifted pro. Add two points if Minerva can really sing; one point if she’s merely beloved.
ENTHUSIASM:The band’s, that is. If your band really loves to play a particular piece, their enthusiasm will transcend a large number of technical flaws. Live audiences love to watch performers having a good time. This is one prime reason that Regular Folks don’t flock to the symphony. Americans respond to people who love their work, and orchestras generally give the impression that they have all been rushed to the concert at gunpoint from an afternoon of root canal. Yes, it may be a distraction if the trumpets share a spontaneous high five after a series of difficult runs, but your audience will love you for it. Add two points.
TONALITY: Or lack thereof. Maybe your audience will like a modern composition like “Fantasia on a Tone Cluster,” but I doubt it. Subtract one point.
Score each individual piece and then check your score against the following scale.
11 and up: Stars and Stripes Forever with fireworks and the piccolo section on a hydraulic lift; a definite winner.
5-10: Workable, but unlikely to risk the health of any weakhearted audience members.
0-4: This will make a good popcorn break during informal concerts; generally referred to by audiences as “that whaddyacallit you played last week I think.”
Negative numbers: Now we’re in the realm of pieces such as John Cage’s arrangement of “Prelude to Afternoon of a Faun” and other works guaranteed to make your audiences beat a hasty retreat to the mall.
Once you have the individual works scored, work out your total program score. In addition to the scores of the individual works, make the following computations.
DURATION: Subtract one point for every ten minutes over an hour that your program runs. If it runs over two hours, subtract all your points.
70 and above: Now would be a good time to start that fund raising campaign.
45-69: The audience won’t dislike it, but they may not remember having been there, either.
25-44: Publicize this as “An Evening with the Chinese Water Torture.”
0-24: Not even the players in the band want to be there.
A final important note. Good announcing can cover a multitude of sins and enhance any number of strengths. Announcing can, for instance, raise the audience’s perception of a piece’s difficulty (“Folks, we’d just like to take a moment for silent prayer before we attempt this next piece”) or help them spot the interesting features in a work (“In the following piece, you’ll hear the oboe make a noise that can actually peel paint off walls”)
Announcers can help clear the audience’s palate. They can personalize the members of the band so that the Aunt Minerva effect kicks in. And they can help educate the audience so that the familiarity of works can grow over the years.
Announcing actually deserves its own separate article, but I do have to pass along one piece of critical advice: DO NOT LET THE DIRECTOR TALK TO THE AUDIENCE. There’s only one Leonard Bernstein, and he probably isn’t working for you. Okay, maybe you got lucky, but in general directors fall into the “interminable babble,” “incomprehensible babble,” “condescending babble,” or “babbling babble” categories. I have seen a real live band present a two hour concert containing 45 minutes of music and 75 minutes of director-speak. This is not a band concert; it is a lecture with musical interludes and that’s not what your audience signed up for.
Feel free to link or copy—just give proper attribution, please. You can find more of the Peter Greene’s work on a variety of subjects at his blog right here.