Musicianship & Musicality vs. “The Entertainment Factor”

Last night, I attended an excellent choral concert given by our new choir director here in the district. While I was impressed with the concert, I couldn’t help leaving there somewhat down. I talked with the choir director this morning and asked him if he thought the level of musicianship in our groups was about the same. He actually told me that he thought the band was slightly better, which I was pleasantly surprised by. At any rate, what made me down was that even though I thought our groups were musically equal, I knew that he and his program would receive much more recognition for their performance than the band ever would. I think this is due in part to a few things – 1) There are hundreds of kids in the choirs, as compared to a mere 40 in the middle and high school bands – Thus increasing the concert attendance for the choir 10-fold. 2) The choir program here has a rich history of outstanding groups and programs. The choir program also includes an outstanding show choir, which generally performs about 20-30 public shows per year. This helps to fuel the program, and get public recognition. I wish that I could get my jazz band going enough to act in a similar fashion for the band program. When I was in high school, our jazz ensemble performed in the community regularly, and it was a great ambassador for our band program and school.

While talking with the choir director this morning, something occurred to me. I don’t think it will matter how “good” my ensembles get musically. It will matter to me and possibly the students, of course, but I don’t think the audience will care much. What the audience wants is entertainment. So, then, the great question becomes How do I get the group playing at a very high level, and yet entertain my audience? Do I need a gimmick? Do I just do a “light piece” or two on my concerts? What do you do to combine the two? If I can successfully do this, will my bands get more recognition? And, I guess a more broad question – How am I going to improve my band’s visibility in the community, thus gathering more recognition? I may need to launch a PR department! Thoughts?

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3 thoughts on “Musicianship & Musicality vs. “The Entertainment Factor”

  1. Doug, I hear you. Vocal music will always be more accessible to the general public than instrumental music. My wife, who is not a musician, likes almost any vocal music better than almost any instrumental music. (So i’ve been investing a lot more in CDs by Ella Fitzgerald and Louie Armstrong.)

    I would think if you really have a goal of getting more PR and a bigger audience, you’d have to be very deliberate about it. Adding one or two pop pieces to the program probably wouldn’t do much. But planning a concert with a musical tribute to some public figure might draw some attention.

    Another approach might be to give the newspaper columnists something to write about. They’re not going to write a review of your performance of festival-quality literature. But if you try to make some sort of connection with the public at large you might be more likely to get some press coverage. What about having a local celebrity narrate a piece, or emcee a concert? Or perform a benefit concert for a local charity? Or something else that’s pressworthy?

    One of my colleagues recently had a huge story written about him in the paper. While he is a fine musician and teacher, the story was not initiated by his pedagogical skills, but by an event one of his ensembles was planning. And the writer didn’t care whether his groups were performing Grade 1 vs. Grade 2 compositions (elementary), but about the stories behind the event.

  2. One thing I have found is that short is good. The untrained ear, which compromises a majority of an audience, has a short attention span. So I scan hundreds of pieces to find ones that are musically rich, but are short and upbeat for audience appeal. I think that band directors often program too many pieces too, which once again, does not appeal to the non musician. That’s where a choral person comes out on top: pieces are short, they have words, which the audience can relate and creates more of an interaction.
    Another idea to gain appeal is to take a programatic approach. Before the band plays, give the audience ideas of what the piece is about or how to listen to it. My approach would be to try to train the audience.
    Good luck. Gaining a reputation takes time.

  3. Hey Doug,

    This is a constant concern of mine – balancing the program so that it entertains and educates. I see the value of both sides, and each has their place given the right context. A couple of thoughts about this whole balancing act:

    Maybe the term we are seeking is enrich – both the audience and the students. I can remember a District Band a few years ago that included an arrangement of Simon and Garfunkel songs (2002?). In that context, it was a perfect fit to the program and the students did not feel it was unworthy of their musical investment. The songs transferred well to the medium and displayed the craftsmanship of the arranger.

    I felt it was frustrating when we put together super programs and only have 150-200 in the audience. One thing I have started doing is generating “themed” concerts. Music is selected with an over-arching theme or songs have a common thread. Last year we hosted “All Things English” which included Holst, Vaughan Williams, and….The Beatles. Despite the Wind Band performing 1st Suite, The Beatles Forever (By the Middle School Group) was received equally as well.

    It has only been within the past two years I really felt concert attendance has improved. My assessment of it is that these things take time to cultivate within our communities. I always tell my ensembles that if they are excited about what they are playing, they should invite two non-band friends in addition to their family to the concert. Maybe you should consider appointing a student PR Director – hey wait a minute, maybe I should do that too!

    Finally, not to get all to Field of Dreams on you, but if you build it (the band program) they will come. You are on the right track!

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