I spent a week not too long ago working with a remarkable band. A truly remarkable band. They were performing an extremely difficult program so incredibly well. But I found them to be very stiff, less-than-emotive, almost robotic in their collective approach to making music. They could play the spots off the page, but I found it difficult to change the way they imagined a piece, let alone get them to collectively feel and shape that change themselves. They were so used to playing technically difficult music, that I feared they stopped feeling in an effort to master more and more difficult technique.
So, I decided to challenge them in a profound way. The next morning, I handed out a grade ½ ballad. That’s right, grade ½. They hadn’t seen anything like that for a decade! I stood on the podium holding a cup of coffee and told them to play that piece. We looked at each other for a while: me drinking my coffee, them waiting for me to conduct. Finally, I said “you might as well start ‘cause I’m not going to start you.” After a few odd starts, they got it. They “played” it with ease. Also, with absolutely no finesse, joy, heart or soul. At that point, I went off on a quasi-lecture on beauty, love, sadness, tears and all manner of emotions. I asked them to play it again, but this time I wanted them to watch each other, sense each other, emote with each other, connect with each other, to express something, to create something, to breathe soul and life and love and joy into that “simple” little piece. And that is just what they did as I stood there watching, holding my coffee cup as I cried. Oh, did I cry. And I wasn’t the only one.
A month or so later, I received a thank you note from that band with a copy of a recent program. Sandwiched between two remarkably challenging pieces, was that little grade ½ piece that was performed with no conductor. I truly believe we need to challenge our students with some music that will push them to develop technically. But I also believe we need to have a piece in every concert that is so technically easy that they can challenge themselves to make as much music with it as they can.
Dr. Peter Boonshaft is the author of the critically acclaimed best-selling books Teaching Music with Passion, Teaching Music with Purpose, and Teaching Music with Promise. Dr. Boonshaft is currently on the faculty of Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, where he is Professor of Music and Director of Bands. He has also been named Director of Education for KHS America. He was honored by the National Association for Music Education and Music For All as the first recipient of the “George M. Parks Award for Leadership in Music Education.”
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