How to Pull Off a Successful Commission Consortium for High School Band

Miller-Asbill SkypeShapiroAs technology continues to improve, how music is created, taught, and experienced is changing. In a recent Commissions in Concert series, CSIC and a consortium of seven schools from different cities commissioned a work by Alex Shapiro, who composed a new electroacoustic wind band piece. Technology played a crucial role in this commission. Through dedication and commitment, Composer, Alex Shapiro, and Music Director, Miller Asbill were able to reach across the country and work together to bring to life Alex’s new piece, Tight Squeeze. How did they do it?

CSIC interviewed Composer, Alex Shapiro, and Music Director, Miller Asbill, in early 2013

CSIC: Alex, how did you handle the different arrangements for the groups in the consortium?

Alex: There are variables to consider when composing for a high school band, because the particular instruments in the ensemble are determined by the number of students available in a given year who happen to play them. I handled this by emailing each of the band directors and asking them to send me a list of their line ups this year. They did, and I proceeded to make an organized chart so I could see which instruments that are standard to bands would be missing. When I began composing TIGHT SQUEEZE, I only wrote for the instruments that everyone had. Once much of the music was in place, I went ahead and added the additional instruments and expanded the color of the orchestration. My hope was that by taking this approach, the piece would sound full with smaller forces, as well as larger ones.

CSIC: You also created a digital audio accompaniment track, how did that fit in?

Alex: As I design the accompaniment track, I can compensate for the frequencies that may be missing in some school ensembles. If they won’t have a tuba, or a piccolo, I can add very low and very high sounds that will blend naturally with the live players. Since younger players are not quite up to speed with the full range of their instruments, or with complicated polyrhythms and syncopations, I can include those pitches and rhythms in the prerecorded track, thus making the entire piece sound more advanced than it actually is. And I can even sneak in some of the melody or bass line in a manner by which the audience won’t hear the doubling in the track, but the students will find this guide helpful when they’re learning the piece. Being able to make the accompaniment track available to the students to download at home is a real advantage as they learn the piece by practicing with the track. They’ll be guaranteed to play up to tempo!

CSIC: How did the remote rehearsals go using Skype?

Alex: Skype is a fantastic way to connect the musicians with the person and place from which all those notes on their music stands came, and the difference between their first run-through of the piece that day that I’m “there,” and the final run-through, is remarkable. But oh, do I have stories!

For instance, at one rehearsal, when I was scheduled for a final e-coaching of TIGHT SQUEEZE, I was not at my home, but at a university during a residence. For some bizarre reason, I was unable to get an internet connection that day. As a few grad students observed over my shoulder, I frantically tried everything I could, to no avail. With just one minute before the downbeat, I forewent the nice large screen and speakers I had planned to use, and instead, logged into Skype on my iPhone and held it at the appropriate angle for the entire 50 minutes!

And there was the afternoon when, with just 20 minutes before I was to speak live to an audience in Maine about PAPER CUT, the power suddenly went out in my neighborhood. I was especially thankful that little San Juan Island only has about three police cars. I have never driven to my boyfriend’s [electrically superior] house so fast in my life! I managed to get my laptop and camera set up and run a comb through my hair (thank goodness nothing below the waist matters in these cases) with about 90 seconds to spare, and no one in Maine was the wiser.

I’m a sailor, and you wouldn’t go far out to sea with only one radio or one GPS if you could avoid it; you always have backups for emergencies. So both of these stories are examples of a digital-age composer having what are known as “redundant systems” available at all times!

CSIC: Fantastic! Going back to the Skypehearsals, how do you make a strong connection with the students?

Alex: With regard to the music-making itself, my ability to hear the band and offer specific coaching suggestions is quite helpful for the end result. I call this the “outsider effect”: their wonderful band director may have told them the exact same thing that I’m telling them, but coming from me, the enpixelated, visiting composer-stranger, the students sometimes pay a little more attention. I do many Skypehearsals for my band piece called PAPER CUT which involves the highly synchronized playing of printer paper. It’s really effective for me to visually demonstrate to the students exactly how the paper should be held and played.

The main difference right now between a composer being videoed in versus being physically present is that with the current limitations of broadband connectivity speed, the audio signal is greatly compressed and sometimes unreliable. This means that the composer can get a decent sense of basic things like tempo, pitch and general dynamics, as well as any visual elements, but won’t be able to hear (and thus, coach) any subtleties in the performance. This will change over time as internet technology catches up with the way we’re using it interactively.

CSIC: Do you have any advice for composers and conductors alike who are apprehensive about using technology in their methods of creating and teaching music?

Alex: Absolutely: don’t be scared of these great new tools, and don’t feel as though you have to take on every new aspect of digital technology at once. Jump in a little at a time, and become comfortable with these music-making and communication-building assets. This is a very wonderful age in which to be creating music! We’ve never before had so many advantages, and I encourage all my colleagues to put these gifts to use and be the ones responsible for building a vibrant 21st century of music lovers.


Next, we interviewed music director, Miller Asbill. Here is what he had to say about the commission consortium and remote rehearsals.

CSIC: How does the consortium process differ from working with a piece commissioned specifically for your group?

Miller: It’s all about the composer, and if the composer enjoys working with students and different types of programs, then it works well.

CSIC: Would you recommend a consortium to other educators?

Miller: Absolutely, and I would do it again! When you do a consortium, it’s cheaper and you get the same experience as if you’re the only one doing the commissioning. Of course, it depends on the composer and if they make themselves available to the group as the process begins. For us being the first ones in the consortium, it was great having Alex involved. She was intimately engaged in every step of the process, and that was fantastic.

CSIC: The rehearsals with Alex Shapiro were conducted via Skype. What challenges, if any, have you faced through these Skype rehearsals?

Miller: I recorded the rehearsals and would send Alex those recordings so that all along the process, she knew how things were going. It was a nice collaboration. At one point, Alex had to use her phone to Skype in, but we made it work. We even made up for it! Alex spoke to the audience at the end of the concert via Google Hangout which made it more interesting, and the audience loved that opportunity.

CSIC: You have been involved in music education throughout your career. How do you see the advancement of technology changing the future of teaching music?

Miller: I think that using technology in rehearsals is already a common practice, so it’s not truly cutting edge anymore. Most conductors love the collaboration and economically it’s certainly cost beneficial. If you can schedule two to three other rehearsals, it becomes a force multiplier. Another way to think of this process is that by using technology in rehearsals, state and national educational goals are achieved. By using technology, students learn and become more invested in the artistic and education experience.

It always better to see a human being face to face, but it is still a cool experience to be able to talk with somebody over the computer. When we used to do consortia you didn’t meet the composer unless you had special fund in your budget, but now we have the technology to change that.

CSIC: Do you have any advice for music directors who want to put together a consortium?

Miller: Number One: Get into consortia like this program. Number Two: Ingratiate yourself to composers and say this is what I’d like to do and get connected with the technology.

The composers are going to write what they’re going to write and the job as a conductor is to make that music come alive. It’s not about the conductor; it’s about the composer’s voice. When you can record things and share it with the composers before rehearsals that is always helpful. The piece is literally a living thing, and I’m not exaggerating when I say the night before the concert Alex had two big changes. One we took and one I said we just couldn’t make happen, but this is good, because the next group that plays this piece will have the benefit of the work that Alex and I did together. This process is wonderful thing, and my students and I absolutely cannot wait to do it again!