New Opportunities for Guitar Students
An Interview with 2019 All-National Honor Guitar Ensemble Conductor Bill Swick
This year the 2019 All-National Honor Ensemble (ANHE) Guitar Ensemble will perform alongside five other All-National Honor Ensembles in Orlando, Florida. Bill Swick currently teaches guitar for the twelve-time GRAMMY award-winning Las Vegas Academy of the Arts and is the guitar task force chair for Clark County School District in Nevada, the nation’s fifth largest school public school district. Swick will lead the 2019 ANHE Guitar Ensemble. He holds a Bachelor of Music and a Masters Degree in Music Education from the University of North Texas. He has been on the guitar faculty at Drake University and University of Nevada-Las Vegas, and now is in his twentieth year teaching public school. Here, he discusses the growth in guitar ensembles, the new experience of conducting a guitar ensemble, and offers advice for guitar students looking to improve their performance.
When did you first fall in love with music?
I grew up at a time when television had a lot of performing musicians. I remember watching pianists like Floyd Cramer, Liberace, and Fats Domino. I loved hearing Boots Randolph play the saxophone. And then there was Roy Clark who in his early days only performed amazing instrumental guitar arrangements. There was Chet Atkins who appeared on television regularly. And, there was the “Lawrence Welk Show.” And the granddaddy of all was the “Ed Sullivan Show.”
Our family did not own a radio or record player, so television was the only opportunity to hear music. I remember listening to television theme songs and wishing I could play them on an instrument. After begging my parents, I finally received my first guitar at the age of twelve. I suspect I was in love with music prior to receiving my first guitar, but having a guitar sealed the deal.
What inspired you to become a conductor? Describe the process in getting to where you are today.
It has only been recently that I have thought of myself as a conductor. I purchased my first conductor’s baton just four years ago. I studied conducting in undergraduate and graduate school, but opted to be a performer whenever possible. My first years of teaching involved leading three university jazz bands. While there is a lot of detail involved in being the head of a jazz department, conducting is not a high priority. The many years of teaching guitar ensemble has eventually led to needing some conducting skills.
In the early years of guitar education, the music was not involved to the point of needing a lot of conducting skills, and early guitar students were not trained to watch a conductor. It has only been in the past ten years or so that guitar ensemble music has evolved to a level that conducting makes sense.
What are some of the greatest accomplishments, and challenges, you face as a conductor of a large ensemble?
As a performer first, the biggest challenge is realizing that the conductor is the only person not playing an instrument! That’s been my biggest challenge. In the early stages of rehearsing, I often do play with the ensemble and use my instrument to express the things I would like to hear. Besides the actual conducting, the management aspect of selecting music, organizing a program, and placing musicians on parts are a big part of the responsibility. While I have been credited for creating one of the nation’s top high school guitar programs, I am convinced it is not due to my conducting skills. My real strengths are teaching and management.
What factors do you consider when programming music for a concert or honor ensemble?
There seems to be a parallel for directors of guitar ensembles to program performances the same way one would program a guitar recital. There is a tendency to perform selections from a variety of musical periods and to start with the earliest music and work through history to the the most recent compositions. For guitar ensembles, most early music is transcriptions of music written for other instruments. For years, I programmed transcriptions and arrangements of music from the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and Romantic. I have always believed that these transcriptions actually sound better performed by a guitar ensemble as opposed for the original instruments.
In the past ten years, there has been a large amount of new music written for guitar ensembles, and music for guitar ensembles is being written regularly by some very talented contemporary composers. There is no longer a need to perform music that was not written for the guitar, considering the rich and creative music becoming available. Another factor is the skills young guitarists are developing due to the additional pedagogical materials being written. These heightened skills are making it possible to perform more challenging and interesting selections written specifically for guitar ensembles.
To get to the question about factors in choosing materials, I search for music with rich melodies and strong harmonies that also include interesting rhythmic patterns. I also like pieces that experiment with making non-traditional sounds with guitars. I want my audiences to walk away thinking, “I didn’t know a guitar ensemble could make all of those different sounds.”
When programming a performance, I am privileged to know composers from around the world who are writing great music for guitar ensemble, and it is my desire to present to my audiences an evening of music from various parts of the world.
What are some of your favorite pieces of repertoire?
My favorite pieces for guitar ensemble repertoire are always the ones I am currently rehearsing for the next performance.
What excites you the most about the ANHE program?
The ANHE Guitar Ensemble had its first performance last November. Fortunately, I was able to play the role as ensemble manager. This year, I am privileged to be the conductor. It is so exciting to have a guitar ensemble be recognized as a viable part of music education and for the students of guitar to have the same opportunities as the band, choir, and orchestra students.
It is so exciting to have a guitar ensemble be recognized as a viable part of music education and for the students of guitar to have the same opportunities as the band, choir, and orchestra students.
The students who participated in the inaugural guitar ensemble did not have any expectations. Most students conveyed they made many new friends, had a great time, worked really hard, suffered from sleep deprivation, and performed in the best sounding guitar ensemble of their lives. These students seemed to have a musical experience that exceeded their imaginations. Many of the younger students hope to return for the second ANHE guitar ensemble. This is what excites me about the ANHE program, and I am so very thrilled and honored to be able to participate in such a great program.
What do you hope your young musicians who attend will take away from their experience?
Like the students who participated in the first ANHE Guitar Ensemble, I hope the students this year have the same experiences, walking away with the feeling of participating in an exemplary ensemble, making new friends, having the feeling of an honor, an accomplishment and an opportunity to have a memorable musical experience.
What advice would you share with young aspiring musicians?
With the inclusion of guitar ensemble now a part of the ANHE, guitar teachers now have a long-term goal for which their young guitar students can focus. The current first step is to know what has to be accomplished before even being eligible to audition for ANHE. The goal is for every state to establish an All-State Guitar Ensemble. Once that occurs, every student must achieve acceptance into the All-State Guitar Ensemble before being eligible to audition. Each state has (or will have) steps students must follow before auditioning for All-State. Students should be aware of those steps and prepare for them.
Get the music early, take it seriously, practice regularly and submit early.
For the time being, each state determines the qualifications for guitar students to be eligible to audition for ANHE. The first step is to know the requirements and fulfill those requirements. The audition music is published by NAfME in early February with a deadline of submission by early May. That is approximately three months to prepare the audition music, make the videos, and submit the materials. Get the music early, take it seriously, practice regularly and submit early.
Why do you think music education is so important for all students?
There have been ample materials written on the importance of music education for all students. I am indebted to NAfME for recognizing the guitar as an important instrument for a sector of students who would otherwise not participate in a music class. The same is true for the creation and inclusion of the Innovation Council for the many students who now have the opportunities to study music in a variety of ways not directly associated with the core music classes of band, choir, and orchestra. Music education is so important in so many ways for the development of team-building, learning structure and discipline, and having the experience of creating and expressing.
The deadline to apply for the NAfME All-National Honor Ensembles is May 3, 2019. Learn more and apply today.
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