Technique Versus Music . . .

        Technique: "The manner in which technical details are treated . . ." Webster Dictionary. In music, technique is interpreted to be the basic skills learned to produce specified results. Let me be perfectly clear: technique represents the tools by which means music may or may not result - NOT music itself.

        I will cite several examples to make my point. The late Arturo Toscanini (March 25, 1867  -  January 16, 1957) was known as a great conductor. He, indeed, did produce some timeless performances. However, while a great musician, he was not a good conductor. The stories of his tantrums and outbursts of rage are legion. Whether true or not, stories abound of his breaking clusters of batons and throwing them at the orchestra and tearing the pockets from his vest by jamming his thumbs into them in a rage. Now this was with players of profound skill and artistry. My late friend, Frank Miller, legendary cellist of the Chicago Symphony, was one of Toscanini's players, and Frank lacked nothing as a musician, technician and artist. The point here is that Toscanini went into a rage because he lacked the conducting technique to convey his desires via the baton. Other famous tyrants of the podium included the late Fritz Reiner. However, this musical subjugation they imposed upon the players was not totally their fault, as I will explain later.

        Within the narrower brass band world, wherein I have considerable experience, a similar example can be found in the late Erik Leidzen. He was a great man, a great Christian, a capable pianist, a great composer, and a lousy conductor . . . for the same reasons and with the same results. Erik behaved himself, like the gentleman he was, when in front of the redoubtable International Staff Band. However, at music camps before youngsters he was a merciless tyrant. He even took a kind of dark pride in this reputation. The same can be said of Emil Soderstrom and many (most?) other brass band conductors. It was especially true of the professional Concert Band giant, Dr. Leonard B. Smith (a Leidzen pupil), under whom I played for years, and never once felt that I was having anything extracted from me via love (though I did love the man). He was a musical tyrant and significantly lacked conducting technique. Tantrums were his method. This phenomenon abounds to this day within the brass band world (both Contesting and Salvation Army), and for the same reason, a lack of conducting technique.

        I said earlier that this lack of technique was not wholly the fault of the tyrants. At the time these gentlemen ascended to conducting thrones, conducting itself had not evolved into anything like the discipline it can be today. I have a video tape of Reiner stating that each conductor must develop his own gestures to convey his wishes. This would result in musical anarchy! Sadly, one can see evidence that the sound discipline and proven techniques of conducting have still not spread as far as they should. Watch a broadcast of almost any major symphony orchestra, choral group, or especially brass bands, and you may discover that there is very little to connect the notes being heard to the gestures of the baton! I know of one situation where massed bands were playing and members of the bands not usually under the conductor had to wait until after the downbeat to join in  -  it was impossible to discern when to come in by watching the conductor!?

        It was not until Nikolai Malko (Ukraine, May 4, 1883  - June 23, 1961) that conducting began to make any sense and have any universality of gesture. He published The Conductor and His Baton in 1950, which was the first treatise to provide consistency and logic to baton technique. His principles were further refined and better articulated by one of his pupils, Elizabeth A.H. Green of the University of Michigan a decade later in The Modern Conductor (for which book, I was privileged to be a pre-publication reader for Ms. Green). The Nikolai Malco International Conducting Competition remains the gold standard for conductors in the world today. Using Malko's methods, one can step in front of any ensemble and make their wishes clear, hardly speaking a word.

        I will give the most rudimentary of examples to make my point. One cannot drive a nail into a board without raising the hammer in preparation of striking the nail. One cannot effectively strike a nail from a standstill, there must be a wind-up. No one can watch this and be misled as to when the nail will be struck. Similarly, in conducting there must be a preparatory gesture to give the musicians fair warning of when to commence. The more like the actual tempo and other beat-gestures, the better. If the music begins on the first beat of a measure, then the preparatory beat should be as though it were the last beat of a previous measure, exactly in the desired tempo. With this simple technique mastered, at least the first beat of any piece is assured. In schools and even some professional situations one can witness a conductor beating out a whole measure, or more, in preparation of beginning the music. This is totally unnecessary and a sign of the absence of sound conducting technique. The prototypical "a-one, a- two, a-one-two-three-four" often seen at the beginning of jazz pieces is a prime example. The funny thing is that the tempo thus outlined sometimes is totally different than the one that ensues . . . go figure!

        I must digress a bit and tell of at least two noted conductors, who had no access to the Malko concepts, no formal training, and yet conducted with unerring clarity, consistency and authority and who did not need to browbeat or intimidate the musicians under them. One is the late brass band composer, Eric Ball. The other the late Bandmaster of The Salvation Army International Staff Band, Bernard Adams, O.F. Both made music and brought out the best potential of any group privileged to be under their guidance. I played often under both, and both were my good friends. There was never any doubt what they were asking of anyone under them, and, subsequently, rehearsals flowed with minimal talk, maximum music, and eventual memorable performances. Happy musicians make the best music. I never witnessed either man "scare" or intimidate music out of anyone. For me, I squeezed the last drop of my best out for both of them because they "loved" it out of me. They were two exceptions that proved the rule.

        I believe the late patron saint of classical conductors, Bruno Walter, also loved the music out of the performers. That said, his technique lacked in some areas, leaving him helpless to convey his wishes and forced to repeat passages endlessly in rehearsals until it was "beautiful enough."

        The tyrannical outbursts of those like Toscanini, Reiner, Leidzen, Soderstrom, Smith and others would not be tolerated today (in professional or amateur venues  -  except in the Brass Band Movement!). Neither would the romanticism of a Walter. In the latter case, "time is money", and professionals today are better equipped to produce anything a conductor can imagine, so he'd better be able to make clear his desires.

        Having mentioned the Brass Band Movement, and this tome being about Technique Versus Music, I must now venture into even more treacherous waters by opining that the movement is generally motivated against music, sacrificing it upon the altar of technique. Until fairly recently the movement was totally populated by musicians without any formal or systematic training. Having said that, it is nothing short of a miracle that performances are as good as they are!

        In the Brass Band Movement technique is the goal, not a means or requisite of reaching a goal. Absent naming names, I can tell of a performance of a very difficult trombone solo, which has been recorded by a most prestigious band at a tempo so fast that it is nothing short of musical blasphemy  -  totally destroying any semblance of music in the piece. They transmogrify great music into a comic book! Why? "Because they can" . . . a sniveling excuse for destroying a great piece of music! Clearly the conductor (a lettered man) and the soloist cared nothing whatever for the music, but only to show off technique. I cannot call this an un-musical performance because it is so rabidly anti-musical!

        Much in the Brass Band Movement is thus.

        Technique, whether in composing, performing or conducting is but an essential first step in achieving music. If technique is apparent, then it has failed. Since technique is the final goal of the Contesting Band Movement, the movement has failed.

        My late friend, Phil Catelinet, often expressed similar sentiment. Though he was as able as any composer in the history of the movement, he eschewed writing much for it for this reason. Even the paragon of brass band composers, Eric Ball, held similar feelings (sub umbra, to be sure, as this was his living). He tried and was among the very few who were able to provide enough difficulties for the performers to satisfy the affected worship of technique while fairly forcing them to achieve musicality at the same time.

        Having earlier mentioned the "un-trained" status of most of the populace of the Brass Band Movement, I will be quick to say that the lack of formal training is not the sole culprit. I will cite again my late friend, Eric Ball, as a prime example. Without benefit of any significant formal education in music, he achieved redoubtable status as a brass player, pianist, conductor and composer. He led the movement in the use of classical forms and was a master of the understanding and use of especially the Sonata Allegro process (Triumph of Peace, The Challenge, etc.) Why? He was a seeker, and not an egotist. He studied the scores of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and many more and sought to get into the mind of the masters.

        Inversely, many who tout post-graduate degrees produce some of the worst musical mischief . . . precisely because they don't seek the soul of the music, but rather notoriety and ego. Music serves them, rather than they serving music.

        When discussing such things with a master so great, but often mis-perceived an egotist, Leonard Bernstein (August 25, 1918  -  October 14, 1990), there was a clear and deep humility in the man before the muse. He lived to serve music and, in turn, it served him very well. Leonard had profound, almost boundless technique as a pianist, conductor and composer, but it never got in the way of the music; but was rather the servant of his beloved muse. Yet even such a monumental figure was totally a seeker, never feeling that he had arrived. Let it be so with all of us.

        God bless you!
        Bob Getz

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