I feel that it's only fair to mention up front that I really don't intend for this post (or the rest of them, for that matter) to sound preachy!!! I have edited the following paragraphs three or four times in an attempt to set the correct tone, and I worry that if I edit it any more, I may lose the entire point of posting it in the first place. If someone had sat me down fifteen years ago and explained WHY it was important to begin compiling my own recording collection, I think I would have jumped on board right away. As always, hindsight is 20/20, and I'm pretty sure that my stock response at the time included the phrases "I'll do that later" or "I don't have the money." If you can take my word for it, the information in this post will go a long way!
Between Spotify, the iTunes Store and the Naxos Music Library, we have more recorded music at our fingertips than ever before. However, the accessibility of these resources sometimes results in less frequent listening sessions. No amount of creative programming will allow a collegiate wind ensemble the opportunity to play every masterwork of the repertoire in one four year concert cycle, so it is imperative to fill in the gaps with live concerts of other ensembles (both in person or streaming) and through recordings.
In essence, think of your knowledge of musical literature as a brick wall. The bricks represent the repertoire that you have performed, and the recordings you listen to serve as the mortar in between those bricks. With a healthy knowledge of recorded music but little performance experience, you have a big lump of cement. Conversely, if you rely only on what you have performed, you have a stack of bricks that will crash to the ground with the slightest nudge. When they are put together correctly, a properly constructed brick wall will last a lifetime, or in this case, a career!
What does your brick wall look like?
To be fair, in some places, my brick wall is much more mortar than brick, and in other places, that pile of bricks is ready to fall with a heavy gust of wind or a nudge. However, through many years of playing in bands, I feel that my understanding of the band repertoire is pretty solid. I have performed Grainger's Lincolnshire Posy no less than three times on trombone and euphonium, as well as Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphoses on a Theme of Carl Maria von Weber by Hindemith. For those pieces, and many others, I feel like that part of the brick wall is solid. I used recordings to learn how negotiate tricky passages, and reinforced those studied decisions on the concert. More than one time, the end result on the recording forced me to go back and study again to get it right.
For a doctoral student in my early 30's, it's easy to rattle off tons of repertoire that I have studied and performed, right? What do you do when you're 20 years old and faced with the principal chair for the first time? Are you expected to know everything right away? Of course not. But if it's on the upcoming concert, the best way to have ice water in your veins is to have an informed opinion, and the best way to go into that first rehearsal is by doing a little spy work. At the beginning of each school year, conductors often provide a repertoire sheet to the ensemble. It might be in the syllabus, or even posted on the ensemble or conductor's website. What do you do if you haven't been given one? Find your conductor in their office hours and ask them if any big rep for your instrument is coming up. Once armed with the list, a quick Amazon.com search will pull up several recordings to choose from. For example, look at the First Suite in E flat for Military Band by Gustav Holst, which we recently played with the Alabama Wind Ensemble. A conductor can explain the style of Holst's music until they are blue in the face, but a recording is often worth a thousand (or more!) words. Off the top of my head, here are four recordings of this piece that I am familiar with, all available through Amazon.com.
It is easy to say, "I've got a recording of that, I'm covered." In reality, one recording can only go so far in giving you an informed interpretive opinion. With the four recordings above, I have presented four contrasting interpretations within the acceptable framework of the correct notes, rhythms, and style. If you look closely, you will see Frederick Fennell's name twice. The Cleveland Symphonic Winds recording is from 1983, which the Eastman Wind Ensemble recording is from around 1955. If you want to see how a conductor's tastes change over time, compare the Chaconne movement of each Fennell recording. The differences might be subtle, but they do exist!
A side note: while many recordings exist, not all are created equal. When beginning this journey of listening, begin with ensembles you recognize. If you recognize none, ask your conductor who you should be listening to. In my opinion, a balance of the few professional wind bands and top notch collegiate ensembles provide a good balance. "The President's Own" United States Marine Band, the Eastman Wind Ensemble, Northwestern University Symphonic Wind Ensemble, University of North Texas Wind Symphony, Indiana University Wind Ensemble, University of Texas Wind Ensemble and many others have put out quality recordings for many years.
The opening low brass statement in the Chaconne will share some characteristics across the board on all four recordings listed above. Some groups play one eight measure phrase, while others breathe after the B flat half note in measure four, breaking the phrase into two halves. Neither is correct or incorrect, as each have merit. Imagine for a moment that all four recordings played a single eight bar phrase. Upon discovering this, you would have a legitimate reason to begin practicing eight bar phrases any time you had this figure in the movement. Breath control, careful pacing and staggered breathing plans would immediately need to be implemented to make this eight bar phrase a reality, considering the range in which it is written. Even if the conductor decides on two four bar phrases, you have now presented options to choose from, and I guarantee that no conductor is going to be upset when presented with proof that the musicians in their ensemble are forming informed opinions!
Some of you are probably thinking, "What's the big deal? Isn't rehearsal where we learn what the conductor wants?" Technically, yes. But consider for a moment just how much more polished of a product could be presented on concerts, if all principal players listened to each repertoire choice right away, and then had a sectional before the first rehearsal to work out things like staggered breathing, note lengths, mute choices, and other considerations? No great sounding section is an accident...they are the product of planned work and worked plans!
The extra heavy boxes of vinyl records and CDs might make moving a little more difficult. The costs of external hard drives filled up with MP3s isn't cheap, though cheaper than it's ever been. Despite these small details, I still think it's worth it...and it sure looks cool to have shelves and shelves of recordings in your listening space!