“You Want Me to Do What?”
Tips for String Teachers When Communicating with Winds, Brass and Percussion
By NAfME member Michael Gagliardo
“Don’t be afraid,” my undergraduate conducting teacher and mentor said to me. “Just tell them what you want them to do. It’s not that hard.”
“OK,” I thought. Easy enough. There I was, a 23-year-old, under-experienced undergrad, standing in front of a university/community town-and-gown orchestra. We were about to play Copland’s “Buckaroo Holiday.” So, I dropped the stick and off we went.
It started out pretty good. But then there was something in the string section that I wanted to fix. And so, I brought the orchestra to a stop. I knew what it was – I knew what I wanted to hear, what I wanted the passage to sound like. “Just tell them what you want them to do,” I heard in my head. And so…I did.
What followed next was a jumbled line of instructions that, to the string section, probably sounded like, “I would like this section to sound like a hoard of wild dogs circling a hot tub full of Swedish meatballs. Please play this passage like you’ve been pulled into a wood chipper by the tractor beam of a Martian U.F.O.”
You see, I am a piano, trumpet and euphonium player. My only real experiences with the string section of an orchestra, up to this point, had been my String Methods class, my limited conducting experiences with my own high school orchestra as a student conductor, and the time I spent ignoring the string section while sitting in the back of the orchestra, counting (or not) the endless measures of rest in the trumpet parts for Beethoven 5. It was not until years later that I finally figured it out. And my conducting teacher was right – it’s not that hard or intimidating, if you remember a few simple steps.
Learn How to Speak the Language
The biggest problem that string players face when stepping on the podium in front of woodwinds, brass and percussion is that they don’t know how to “speak the language.” It’s not that you’re a bad musician – you’re not. It’s not that you don’t know what you want – you do. It’s simply the fact that winds, brass and percussion – and especially student players – speak a language all their own. As conductors, we study scores, and plan rehearsals, and know exactly what we want it to sound like when we drop the stick. When it doesn’t, the challenge then becomes communicating with the musicians in a language they can understand to get the desired results.
My own experiences serve as a guidepost for this fact. Even though I had a semester of string pedagogy, I would have been hard pressed to tell you the difference between on the string and off the string, or between the tip and the frog, or even between arco and pizzicato (I knew what pizzicato was – everything else was “non-pizzicato!”). Knowing the language of articulations, bowings and techniques enabled me to more accurately describe the sounds and styles I was searching for in performance. Breaking down this language barrier made all the difference.
Know the Transpositions
Here’s a real-life horror story about transpositions. I was at an assistant conductor audition for a symphony orchestra with 35 other candidates. One by one they bring us out onto the stage of the concert hall, where there’s nothing but a grand piano. They ask me to sit down at the bench. The orchestra’s artistic administrator is in a chair at one end of the bench, and the orchestra’s maestro is in a chair at the other. The artistic administrator takes out a score (I think it was either Wagner or Mahler – there were a LOT of instructions in long German sentences) and says, “Play the English horn line in concert pitch, please.”
I knew I was dealing with a transposing instrument, and that’s about it. But – for string players working with winds and brass, the transpositions can be intimidating, and sometimes downright daunting. It’s like reading alto clef for the first – and second, and third – time. And just like people who tell you they won’t go to a symphony concert because they don’t know what to wear and they’re afraid that they’ll clap at the wrong spot, it can be enough to keep great conductors and educators from adding these instruments to their orchestras.
Repertoire, Instrumentation and More
So many factors come into play when adding woodwinds, brass and percussion to your orchestra – more than what we can deal with in just this short post. But remember – we are the educators, and we have the tools and the talent! I hope you’ll join me in Dallas in November for a more in-depth discussion – hope to see you there!
About the author:
Nationally acclaimed American conductor, educator, and NAfME member Michael R. Gagliardo has served as the Music Director of the Etowah Youth Orchestras since August of 1995. In May of 2016 he was named Music Director & Conductor of the Gadsden Symphony Orchestra, after serving as the Principal Guest Conductor of the GSO during the 2015-2016 season. He is also a recognized composer, arranger, and speaker. In 2015, Gagliardo’s composition Corbeau: Suite for Orchestra received its Carnegie Hall Premiere.
Born in Alton, Illinois, Mike Gagliardo began his musical studies on the piano and the trumpet and studied conducting with Donald Tracy at Eastern Illinois University and Leonard Atherton at Ball State University. He currently resides in Gadsden, Alabama, with his girlfriend Janet and their four-legged children, Mattie Mae, Murphy and Max. In addition to his work in music, he is the owner of Mattles & Company LLC, an event planning and consulting firm.
Throughout his career, Mike Gagliardo has demonstrated a continuing commitment to arts education. He is a frequent guest speaker and presenter at conferences for music educators and professionals, including the national conferences of the League of American Orchestras, the American String Teachers’ Association, and the National Association for Music Education, and state conferences for music educators in Alabama and Colorado. He has also been a presenter at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s Summer Teachers’ Institute, and continues to present educational outreach programs for the Knox Concert Series, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Alabama, the Gadsden Public Library, and the Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County.
Michael Gagliardo presented on his topic “You Want Me To Do What? Tips for String Teachers When Communicating with Winds, Brass and Percussion” at the 2017 NAfME National Conference last November in Dallas, TX. Register today for the 2018 NAfME National Conference!
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