If I ran a poll to ascertain the 5 top words used in conjunction with "wind band repertoire" I'm pretty sure that "quality" would be high on the list. Quality may be closely followed by "artistic", "merit" and "excellence". Perhaps you can think of others? These words are so overused they have become meaningless with regard to repertoire selection. Asking a Band Director to select "quality repertoire" is like asking a child to "choose wisely" in a candy store. What does it actually mean?
The word "quality" stems from the Old French term qualite. Qualite was first used in the 1300's to define a characteristic of someone's personality, a particular aspect of their self that was redeeming or otherwise. It was not until the late 14th century that the term became associated with a "degree of goodness", or social rank/status (www.etymonline.com/word/quality). When we consider the evolution of the word and its association with wind band repertoire, quality in composition is associated with goodness. What I'd like to suggest here, is that our obsession with quality repertoire should consider a more diversified approach to repertoire selection, one that considers all categories of wind band music.
Wind band repertoire can be divided into various categories. Fundamentally, the repertoire has two main genres - Functional music and Concert Music. Interestingly, as the diagram below clearly shows, Educational Music has it's own branch of Functional and Concert music.
With further investigation, Educational>Concert Music is divided intoVernacular and Cultivated art forms. Within the Vernacular portion of Educational Music there is one box labelled "Formulaic". Within this box we place the time-honoured wind band pieces that are based on a successful formula that controls form, orchestration, phrase length, rhythmic parameters and pitch range. There is little doubt that "Formulaic" music is successful and loved by many. Yet it is only one category of the educational repertoire. Sadly, (and I do not believe this statement too bold or presumptuous), Formulaic Music usurps many of these remaining categories and makes up at least 70-80% of most school-orientated band repertoire. Love it or hate it, Formulaic Music has its place yet it can be argued that it is the cause for the ongoing "quality repertoire" campaign.
In 1946 Richard F. Goldman, director of the well-known Goldman Band of New York City published an article in the Modern Music Journal (and later in the text ‘The Concert Band’) entitled ‘A New Day for Band Music’. In this article he cited that,
“A great deal of pompous trash is written, called “symphonic”, or “grand”, or bearing some other type of inflated description to foster a baseless illusion in the mind of the composer or the audience or both. It is a misfortune that so much of the educational music falls into this category.”
R.F. Goldman, The Concert Band (Rinehart, Incorporated, 1946), 261-65.
Fast forward almost 50 years and Frederick Fennell writes something similar about educational music;
"Choosing music is the single most important thing a band director can do, and is the only thing a band director can do alone, made more important because of the substandard repertoire continuously being published. So many publishers in the business today are printers who don't care about quality, but only about what will sell. We must not allow them to give the band a bad reputation nor to make our decisions for us, since the music we choose today can affect students for ever.”
T.L. Dvorak et al., Best Music for High School Band: A Selective Repertoire Guide for High School Bands & Wind Ensembles (Manhattan Beach Music, 1993), 7.
Are we going to fast forward another 50 years and have another giant from the wind band field write the same thing? Or is it time to diversify our repertoire selections and provide a more nutrient dense experience for our students?
I believe the call for "quality" repertoire should be reframed as a call for "colourFULL" repertoire. And I'm not specifically talking about female composers, LGBTQIA+ composers or composers of colour. I'm talking about compositions that step away from the Formulaic approach. THIS is where true diversity and repertoire growth lives. Well-written, original repertoire categorised as Exploratory, Cultivated and works that allow for Process-Orientated, Student-Focused learningopportunities will all further the repertoire and bring relevancy to 21st century audiences and students.
Of course, these works need to be well orchestrated and consider educational limitations, but here is where the issue becomes challenging. Composers who write exploratory music, or process-orientated music are not going to use the time-honoured formula. They will use their own approach, their own orchestration, their own character, this is what makes the music original and progressive. The result? Repertoire that sounds different. Repertoire that will be rehearsed differently in order to highlight the composer's unique textural complexities and timbres. Repertoire that produces a different ensemble tone, possiblydifferent to anything else you have encountered before.
Original, cultivated, exploratory works such as these, that do not embrace the time-honoured formulaic approach, will ask the Director to use different techniques to draw the music from the page. This "quality" repertoire is hence defined using the original use of the word, i.e. a redeeming or distinctive flavour. It has a unique quality, one distinctive to that particular composer.
So the next time you read or hear about the call for "quality repertoire", exchange that word "quality" for "colourFULL" or "compositionally diverse" and know what that means for YOU. Everyone is on the same page here, we love wind bands and want to see them grow and prosper. But nothing ever prospered by staying the same. Growth only ever occurs through transformation and the only way the repertoire for schools will transform, is if YOU, the Band Director step away from the time-honoured formula and do.something.else.