For unknown reasons, wind ensembles and orchestras don’t seem to get along. I’ve always wondered why that is; why, we might ask, should wind symphonies be relegated to a less prestigious position in the music world than orchestras? And why is there such a militaristic stigma surrounding traditional “bands”? The problem I see here is one of upbringing — in schools, the divide between band and orchestra members is sharp and immutable from day one. And, perhaps for the sake of fewer headaches, wind players do not venture across the hall to the orchestra until high school, when both groups are better prepared to play some of the more standard and challenging repertoire. But in my experience, most wind players parked themselves in the back of the ensemble grudgingly — they appreciated the band “culture” far more than the orchestra culture. And what’s more is that most of the wind players, unless they had previously participated in an orchestral performance, were totally ill-equipped to understand the differences in style, balance, and aesthetic. On the flip side, string players (bassists, occasionally a cellist) who played in wind pieces never appeared to grasp their role in adding a new texture to what is can sometimes be a thin, strident, “bandy” sound. Couple these problems with arrangement difficulties when it comes time to borrow pieces from the other side — wind symphony arrangements of orchestral pieces often write the violin part into the clarinet part, a regrettable move, particularly when too many (up to eight or nine) clarinetists sit in a typical wind ensemble, let alone a larger concert band. Bizarre tuning practices develop, too, causing even further problems. I’m saying all of this despite having attended a public school with an excellent music department; my wind ensemble performed at the Midwest Clinic a total of two times, and still I was aware of these issues.
I was reminded of this fascinating problem in music education (one that I think is similar to the practice of “tracking” students based on academic ability or “categorizing” them as math kids or creative writers) because first, I was listening to my favorite piece for wind ensemble, Lincolnshire Posy by Percy Grainger, and second, because Christian Carey recently posted an interview with Dr. David Maslanka by Brooklyn Wind Symphony Artistic Director Jeff W. Ball on the music of the late composer John Barnes Chance and on the growing prevalence of commissioning consortiums among wind ensembles. Maslanka says that
“Wind bands do not need symphonies in order to be ‘important’, to try to lift themselves to ‘orchestral’ status. They need powerful music, well-crafted for the medium, music which inspires the players and their audiences. This has been happening for quite some time now, and the grass roots wind band movement has become a world phenomenon. Wind bands need to program significant works, regardless of length or form, because players and audiences are intensely hungry for deeply nourishing and affecting musical experience.”
It’s true — wind bands don’t need to play orchestral music to be legitimate. While we’re arguing that, though, we might as well admit we don’t have a clue (beyond the works of a few respected composers) what wind ensemble music actually is. Is it actually a blessing to be free of the preconceived notions that come with different periods of orchestral music? Or would wind music benefit from a more restricted definition, from something that can distinguish it from the new music of the orchestral realm but also from jazz and from marching bands? Maybe we could just agree that the wind symphony is suited for amorphous material — it’s the musical “other,” always compared to orchestras or used as training ground at colleges and universities. But the socialization process that accompanies music education should reflect a greater desire to have these two groups communicate more with each other.
And wind ensembles need better and more pieces to perform. An interesting report by Stephen Budiansky and Timothy W. Foley printed in 2005 in the Journal of the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles addresses this issue. And David Goza’s “Lessons from Lincolnshire” shows how Lincolnshire Posy is one of those great pieces that can really prove educational in multiple ways. Goza stresses note grouping, which I completely agree with, but I would also say that the piece has this special way of conveying thought and phrase very tranquilly, as if, collectively, the ensemble could decide to surrender to the next phrase at any given moment — as if it were listening to its own breath outside of itself, not asking the mass to inhale, but waiting expectantly and calmly for it to do so. I hear this especially in the second movement, “Horkstow Grange.”
This piece has so many other neat moments, like the beginning of the third movement, and the lithe and awkward little instrumental lines. Pieces like this are rare, but I think if the music education community could see more of them, so much would change in the way student conceptualize music and the function of the wind ensemble in the greater scope of things.