Friday (Not-So) Quickie: Speaking truth to power...

I recently became aware of a rather amusing exchange between an author/journalist of history, science and nature, and the cult-ish world of secondary education band programs.

figure band: Nerds.

Band music is, for the most part, absolutely awful. I think that's clear to most right thinking people. And while the academy and good composers have known this decades (which is why so few will ever write for band), it seems to be a little acknowledged reality.

Well, not to Stephen Budiansky. In January of 2005, he published an article in the Washington Post entitled "The Kids Play Great. But That Music...".

You should read the whole article, but let me highlight the basic gist of his article:

That Piece [the generic name he gives to bad band music] is nearly always written by someone who (a) is alive and collecting royalties, and (b) has a master's degree in music education. It is always preceded by a very wordy description, read out to the audience by way of preparation, explaining that the piece (a) was inspired by a medley of Lithuanian folk songs and Gregorian chants that the composer heard while researching his master's degree; or (b) depicts the journeys of Lewis and Clark and, if you listen carefully, you will hear the American Indian motif that represents the faithfulness and courage of their young Native American guide Sacagawea and then in the saxophones the sound of the rapids as the raft approaches and then the warning cry from one of the men on the bank and then the raft plunging down the rapids and then the return to calmer waters and then another set of rapids approaching and then. . . , or (c) evokes the soaring ideals we can all aspire to. (Pieces in this last category usually have "eagle" in their titles.) If I've heard That Piece once, I've heard it a hundred times. Different composers, different titles, same bombastic banality.

For example:

embeddence bombastic banality: Some piece of crap called "The Great Locomotive Chase"

Mr. Budiansky wonders why these bands don't play music he, or anybody else, has ever heard before? Or will ever hear again?

The closest thing I've heard to a real Sousa was a creation called "Sousa! Sousa! Sousa!" that (according to the publisher's description) "includes famous themes from 'Manhattan Beach' and 'El Capitan' along with just a hint of 'Semper Fidelis' and other Sousa favorites."

Although, he does concede...

I do understand the pedagogic purpose behind this stuff. Beethoven didn't have to come up with music scored for middle school bands made up of 57 alto saxophones, 40 trumpets, 15 percussionists and one oboe. Fair enough.

Fair enough.

Although, it seems that Mr. Budiansky's and I have slightly different tastes in music -- I wouldn't consider it a crime if Sousa's music was wiped from the face of this planet (save for the "Liberty Bell March", which is, of course, awesome) -- that doesn't detract from his larger point which is a good one.

How in the hell are we going to create a new generation of classical music lovers if they're forced to appreciate music solely through the examples of James Swearingen and W. Francis McBeth?

embeddence sousa: I will allow this.

As an interesting diversion his article is funny and contains plenty of good observations, but you'd hardly think it'd go any further than that.

Nope, Mr. Budiansky's comments received an outpouring of support from readers and members of the educational world. He then collaborated on a research article for the Journal of the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles (WASBE), with the director of the United States Marine Band to, as he puts it, "document the extent of the problem and how it has destroyed the musical education of a whole generation of children." Awesome.

figure gymnasium concert: The Sousa was sublime!

There's actually some nice research of "educational" music and it's failures, plus some interesting data of what is actually being performed by our middle and high school bands.

As result, Mr. Budiansky was asked to speak at the WASBE conference to elaborate and clarify his comments some. Drawing particular ire from Mr. Budiansky was the idea that all this crappy music was written for the benefit of the student.

I recently was sent a demo CD of Robert W. Smith’s “Symphony No. Three” and the description that accompanied it had literally nothing to do with music or art, and everything to do with marketing. It was all about how the solos are liberally cross-cued and how the final movement will “bring the audience to their feet.”

I should mention that Mr. Budiansky seems to particularly dislike the music of Robert W. Smith. It's really a running theme throughout all of his writing on the subject. I can't say that I blame him.

embeddence Robert W. Smith: It's about Don Quixote so, you know, it sounds Spanish-y.

And it was interesting to contrast this with Gunther Schuller’s description of his own recent composition for high school band. His description was all about his artistic goals and the challenge of maintaining his artistic objectives within the constraints of writing for middle-level players. He also stressed how he wanted to challenge students by making them responsible for their own parts—so no doubling and safety nets—and how he was breaking the supposed rules of school band music in doing so.

And we get to the heart of the issue in...

And I thought how remarkably ironic, that a real composer with a reputation outside of the school music racket is writing a piece not only with more artistic merit but more educational value than the stuff produced by the writers who specialize in the education market. And of course what that really underscores is that the writers for the ed market don’t really care about education. They care about marketability, and that’s come down to getting “superior” ratings at contests with pieces that sound harder than they are; it comes down to pieces that are quote "safely cross cued” to cover up mistakes; it comes down to not challenging students with something that might expose their flubs; it comes down to appealing to the lowest common denominators of ignorance and surface flash to produce pieces with built in applause lines at the end and lots of percussion activity in the middle.

I couldn't agree with this more. Dead on assessment in my experience.

Which is why it went over about as well as lead balloon. This email from the President of WASBE worries that criticism of this music will offend publishers and cause WASBE to lose it's funding for its super important conference. Gasp!


The whole incident is, of course, amusing. Because it's always funny to mock crappy composers like Robert W. Smith. But really, I bring this discussion to Detritus because I believe, that like me, most of the readers here care desperately about maintaining and growing appreciation of music in future generations. What a complete wasteland our school music programs have become. School bands are populated by the very people in who engendering a love of music should be easy, but instead we force them to play shitty music and make stupid designs on football fields. As Mr. Budiansky points out, competitions have become the most important part of any school music program. And just how standardized tests have replaced an emphasis on critical thinking in general education curriculum, various "all-region" competitions have replaced any attempt to teach children about music in our music programs.

I once stood in front of class of 22 music majors at a large public university and played the opening of Beethoven's 5th Symphony (yes, the very very opening part) and asked the students to name the piece. Only two knew the answer. Holy fuck, before that I actually would have thought that impossible. It was actually a pretty depressing moment. Not that they should know that particular composition above any other (although, they really should), but that they really didn't know any music. At all. There are lots of people to blame, and school music programs are right at the top of the list. Seriously, it's their job to teach music, and Elliot Del Borgo doesn't even come close to making the short list -- or the long one.

embeddence worst band piece ever: Just because this is the worst band piece ever.


You can also find all the relevant links on Stephen Budiansky's personal webpage in a section he has humorously titled "The wonderful people who killed school music".


AnthonyS said...

Just, wow. It's amazing that he had the guts to write that.

For me, it really does come down to the music-program-as-support-for-athletics thing. If schools weren't so high on having pep bands and such, perhaps more schools would have orchestra programs at least in addition to band. But a lot of schools would never want to dilute their pool of possible marching band kids by having 1/2 of the interested student population playing things with strings. Which goes to the competition thing. Playing 6 pieces a year isn't a good thing, even with good rep.

Sousa/sublime, ha

Empiricus said...


I'd like to hear your thoughts on why there are few professional bands. Might it be the repertoire? Or is that just one of a billion reasons?


Your last embeddence taught me that China must be an exotic place.

Danny Liss said...

I think even less excusable is the kind of choral music that gets performed in schools. They play the same sort of crap that this guy is complaining about, but the difference is that there's something like 1000 years' worth of repertoire out there. Yet school choruses perform terrible piece after terrible piece with a token real piece of music thrown in for variety.

Sator Arepo said...

Yeah, wow. There's a lot here.

I'll begin by remembering a Sousa moment. Back in Boston they used to [still do?] play Sousa--loudly--during after-school hours at the Forest Hills T stop to drive away the kids. It worked.

Gustav said...

@ E: My hatred of the piece in that last embeddence has long and colorful history.

@ Danny: Great point. You're probably right that the rep for school choirs is worse. Budiansky joked that there were band pieces for "recycling" and "eagles"...well, choirs actually set equally terrible text to that music. AnthonyS may remember a particularly terrible choral piece about fast food, yes fast food, set to the tune of "Funicili Funicula".

John Kurman said...

Hmm. I recall a ditty set to "Funicili" but it was about masturbation.

Last ni-ight,
I stayed up late
to masturbate.
It was so nice.
I did it twice.

You get the idea. As a former band-mo, I've often wondered if there were not some type of deprogramming apparatus in place for the salvagable ones. Get 'em stoned, pop their cherries, get em ready for society at large. Because it WAS a cult. Anyone who would sell tickets to ham dinners for new uniforms (uniforms that were at the height of fashion around the time the bayonet was invented), wear spats (SPATS for fucks sake), or don a hat with a feathered plume perhced on top that looks like an anal tickler, is in a cult.

Not to mention the shitty music. Although marching bands can ruin any piece of music known to civilized man. I still remember having to perform Red Skelton's "Red's White and Blue March". It is about as putrid as his fucking clown paintings found in hardware stores.

Elder Futha- er, uh, John Kurman

Sator Arepo said...

I clearly and un-fondly recall the 8th grade concert band arrangement/medley/partial-birth abortion we played of Prince songs (from Purple Rain, ca. 1989).