The 2018 All-National Honor Ensembles Conductor Spotlight: Dr. Michael Quantz

The 2018 All-National Honor Ensembles Conductor Spotlight: 
 Dr. Michael Quantz

Throughout the month of March, the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) will be sharing profiles of the 2018 All-National Honor Ensembles (ANHE) conductors, who will lead the nation’s most elite high school musicians in Orlando, Florida, November 25-28. These exceptional musicians will gather at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort to showcase their expert musicianship and perform a gala concert celebrating music education and the arts.Michael Quantz

Dr. Michael Quantz is a pioneer in guitar ensemble curriculum and classroom education for guitar students. Dr. Quantz, Professor of Music at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, will lead the inaugural 2018 All-National Guitar Ensemble. He is a recipient of the University of Texas System Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award and the University of Texas at Brownsville President’s Outstanding Teaching Award. He served as the Director of Education for the Guitar Foundation of America (GFA), and he is a founding Board Member for the Texas Guitar Directors Association which began its service to music education in 2017. In addition, he was the creator and director of the GFA’s International Youth Competition and Guitar Ensemble Showcase. He is also widely known as a conductor and clinician for guitar orchestras, having conducted the Florida Music Education Association All-State Guitar Ensemble in 2017, as well as many world premieres for music in this genre. Dr. Quantz’s guitar ensembles have toured Austria (by invitation, with performances at the US Embassy in Vienna and at the Schoenbrunn Palace), performed twice for the National Flute Association annual convention, and three times for the Texas Music Educators Association convention. Read more about Dr. Michael Quantz here.

When did you first fall in love with music?

My father took me to see Texas Blues great Freddie King who had been coaxed into an informal concert at what was then North Texas State College (UNT now). I think it was 1970. I had never seen a live concert, and Freddie was an incredible force on stage. Every fiber of his being was invested in the music. I had no idea music could be so thrilling and deeply joyful. From that day I was interested in learning how to do that.

There was one more critical push that led me to devote myself to music: That came from my first “real” guitar teacher, Sam Hendricks. I was 17, and he had come to my high school to see if anyone was interested in taking lessons. I had experienced very poor luck with guitar teachers up to that time, and this guy seemed to really know everything about music and playing the guitar. In fact, he was amazing to everyone who heard him at the university. After a few lessons, he gave me an assignment, which was to compose a solo for BB King’s “Strange Fruit.” I worked on that new arrangement (by ear) every spare moment to impress Sam, the best musician I had ever met. I had labored constantly to capture the anguish of that tune with every note in my solo. It was the hardest I had ever worked on anything.

Music itself, of course, is a pervasive thing that most people have done forever, in every culture, in every place, throughout all history.

When it came time to play for him, I was a wreck—his knowledge about everything musical was intimidating to me. I was shaking when I plugged my guitar into the amp. He asked to hear my arrangement, and I played it for him. When I finished, he sat there silent for a long, long time. I was certain that he was struggling to frame his disappointment in a way that wouldn’t be too harsh. Sam always was kind with criticism, but he never gave false praise or exaggerated anything to make a point—he was matter-of-fact as a teacher. After what seemed to be a huge amount of time, he finally leaned forward and quietly said: “I don’t know anyone in the world who could have come up with a more beautiful solo than that. I want you to play that for the whole school next week.” Not only had this been a serious affirmation of my work, I also discovered a means of incredibly rewarding and deeply expressive communication in myself. That moment changed my life.

What inspired you to become a conductor? Describe the process in getting to where you are today.

I fell into becoming a conductor in a way that was almost unnoticeable. When I enrolled at the University of North Texas as a music major, I had an opportunity to see what it was like in the conducting class. My class was unusually large (about 65 performers in the orchestra), so we had only one shot each at the podium before the final exam. My classmates were not what anyone would call “forgiving” of a poor performance at the podium. They would let you know in any number of ways (usually some sort of musical “razzing”) that you were falling short with conducting expectations! I was lucky to get assigned the fantastic North by Northwest movie score by Bernard Herrmann, and we all had a blast playing it while I was on the podium. After that I thought conducting was one the coolest things to do in making music.

Michael Quantz

For years after that I doubted that I would ever have that kind of opportunity again, especially as a teaching and performing guitarist. At that time, guitar ensembles or guitar in ensembles were extremely rare. It wasn’t until 1995 when I was hired to teach high school guitar and estudiantina (singing and strumming guitar) in Brownsville, Texas, that I began conducting regularly. I had to learn an entirely new way to conduct that could communicate many layers of information in a didactic way for an ensemble (guitars) that sounded a lot like percussion in terms of attack. There was a good deal of trial-and-error (heavy on the errors) on my part. As the large guitar ensemble in music education became a more frequent thing over the next dozen years, I found myself to be more practiced conducting large guitar groups than most of my colleagues. That naturally led to more opportunities to work with this genre all over the country, which required further refinement of my ability to communicate with these young musicians who, in those early stages, rarely worked with conductors. For several years I was kind of living the old joke: “How many conductors does it take to screw in a light bulb? Nobody knows . . . because no one ever looked.”

What are some of the greatest accomplishments, and challenges, you face as a conductor of a large ensemble?

The biggest challenge is alluded to above: getting performers in this new type of large ensemble to be aware of the basic elements that make ensembles work, like following the conductor. The performers were almost never experienced in paying attention to a conductor. I found that a few “follow-the-conductor” exercises at the beginning of every session and me talking very little helped tremendously to focus the performers on communication from the podium. Now honors guitar groups in school districts all over the U.S. are accustomed working with conductors. Other challenges stem from the fact that this is an expanded choir of like instruments. Organizing the participation of many students from disparate regions can be problematic when assigning parts for multiple pieces unless there is a detailed plan for sections and part assignments. Fortunately for classical guitar, there is a huge range of timbres which helps define multipart textures and provide expressive contrast. Adding bass classical guitars (sounding an octave lower) also helps the texture of larger ensembles.

I have been extremely fortunate to participate in dozens of premiers for music in this genre. One of the most memorable was during the Guitar Foundation of America conference in 2010 for the premier of Powerman by Graham Reynolds, commissioned by Austin Classical Guitar. We had more than 200 mostly high school students on stage, and the event was featured on Austin Public Television. I think that was a real watershed moment as the repertoire for large guitar ensemble appeared to begin a large expansion after that.

The ANHE event for guitar ensemble represents an arrival point. We have a new population of students across our nation supported by music education at a high level, and those students now have access to a terrific event like this. It’s a fulfillment of decades of devotion and effort from some amazing teachers.

What factors do you consider when programming music for a concert or honor ensemble? What are some of your favorite pieces of repertoire?

That has changed a great deal over the last five years. It’s much easier to program music specifically written for large guitar ensembles that display a variety of styles, textures, and moods. It’s also a bit easier to find music with interesting stuff across all the parts. There is still high value, though, in adding transcriptions of well-known music so guitar players have a chance to become acquainted with this repertoire on a much deeper level. That usually happens to be fun for everyone too. One of my favorites in this regard is the second movement to Beethoven’s seventh symphony—passionate, complex pathos, grand and intimate all at the same time, and it works amazingly well for large guitar ensemble.

What excites you the most about the ANHE program? What do you hope your young musicians who attend will take away from their experience?

Those are two sides of the same coin for me. The ANHE event for guitar ensemble represents an arrival point. We have a new population of students across our nation supported by music education at a high level, and those students now have access to a terrific event like this. It’s a fulfillment of decades of devotion and effort from some amazing teachers. It’s rewarding for me to see a beloved instrument with a huge following be added to the scope of musical experience in schools. When I began teaching music 40 years ago, that wasn’t even a concept for people who played and taught guitar.

I hope the students feel a sense of acceptance, appreciation, and accomplishment through being part of such a prestigious process. I hope too, of course, that they experience incredible joy creating and performing music together that moves the spirit and nourishes the soul. The “together” part is a big deal. It sets our efforts in motion through many different pathways and binds the experience to a sense of larger purpose and sharing with a broader community. My friends in the Social Sciences tell me that is powerful stuff for us all.

Why do you think music education is so important for all students?

Music itself, of course, is a pervasive thing that most people have done forever, in every culture, in every place, throughout all history. Its importance in life is self-evident. So many details exist in learning music that directly relate to shaping how we develop as individuals and how we respond to and work with others. Music education (especially in performing ensembles) addresses methodical processes, keen awareness, creative imagination, and ways of collaborating to achieve complex, ambitious goals. I think those are pretty desirable habits to practice in school.

Visit every Friday throughout the month of March to meet the next ANHE conductor! 

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Elizabeth Baker, Social Media Coordinator and Copywriter. March 16, 2018. © National Association for Music Education (