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School of Music takes on concert experiment

August 12, 2008

Imagine watching a band concert as if it were a football game. The play-by-play announcer might sound something like this:

“Watch out for the timpanist! In two minutes he will pound the life out of those drums. Oh, wait, there goes the trombone section!

Did you ever see such an attack in your life? Each one hit the note exactly on time. What a team!”

Such commentary might not be too far-fetched in the months to come, as ASU’s wind program in the Herberger College School of

Music makes some drastic changes to both how music is played and listened to.

Starting with the new semester, all students who play wind instruments will go through an audition process. After the audition, they will get to choose from the more than 20 ensembles on the schedule for this year.

Each ensemble will rehearse for three weeks, then the members will rotate into another ensemble. This process will be repeated throughout the year, giving the students a wide range of musical experience.

Such traditional ensembles as the symphonic band still will exist, says Gary Hill, director of bands, but it won’t be the same students sitting in the same chairs for an entire semester or year.

Instead, the band directors will gather students to rehearse and play the concert band repertoire as needed. Those same students then will rotate to smaller ensembles, such as wind quintets, contemporary and world-music combos, studio bands, or single-instrument groups such as an oboe choir.

Hill and his colleagues also plan to experiment with audience participation.

“We started asking ourselves, ‘What would draw in new audiences?’ ” Hill says. “We thought there might be a certain group who might enjoy texting with the musicians – obviously, not while they are playing – and there might be those who would like a play-by-play description of what is going on.

“There are also people who might love to chat about the music, and there are people who want to come and have a pure classical experience.”

The first phase of “audience research” will be carried out Sept. 18, when the wind students present a free concert at 7:30 p.m. in ASU Gammage.

The auditorium will be broken into designated zones for those who wish to text, chat, get a play-by-play, or simply sit and enjoy the music, Hill says.

“After the concert, we will ask for feedback and evaluate the feedback,” he says.

This idea isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem, Hill says.

“This is a Research I institution, and as musicians, we ask ourselves, ‘What does this mean for us?’ ” he says.

Audience participation used to be a much more vital part of classical concerts, Hill says.

“Mozart, for example, wrote in his letters that audiences sometimes clapped for certain chords,” he says.

The idea for offering a large variety of ensembles and having students choose which ones they are interested in came from many discussions among the wind-instrument faculty.

“Our students are going to make a living in many ways,” Hill says. “Our belief is that they will be required to do a lot of things rather than be specialists. That’s why we want our curriculum to be as fluid as possible.”

Part of that flexibility is having students comfortable with playing a wide range of repertoire.

Hill describes wind music as being part of a continuum, ranging from large performance ensembles such as concert bands, which are restrictive in terms of instrumentation, to small groups that are more flexible and may use improvisation, for example.

“We are trying to get farther down the flexibility spectrum,” Hill says.

The new concept of flexibility and change, with most projects being three weeks long, will be much more challenging for the students – and faculty, too, Hill says.

There will be a lot more music to learn, and the band directors will have to work speedily to bring the ensembles to performance level.

“Most projects will culminate in a performance,” Hill says. “But others clearly will not have a public event as a goal, such as a pedagogy ensemble, where the students will learn teaching skills.”

The new structure will affect all wind students, from freshmen to doctoral students, Hill says.

In years past, students aspired to join the wind ensemble or symphonic band, but now, in a sense, everyone belongs.

Hill says he believes ASU is the only university that has changed its wind program so drastically, offering students so many choices.

“From the feedback I received at professional conferences last spring, many people are very interested to see how this works,” Hill says. “Some of our peers are planning to visit this year, just to take a look.

“Yes, we are pace-setters! In fact, Allan McMurray, director of bands at Colorado, told me last year that our band program already is considered the most innovative program in the country … and now this!”