Issue: January - March 2009
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by M. Max McKee  Bio

 

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The Wind Ensemble Craze

Of course the concept has been around for a long time. The creation of the Eastman Wind Ensemble in 1952 had a lot to do with the acceptance of a concept. And many of us saw a reason to incorporate it into high school and collegiate programs. After we got the ball rolling with the Symphonic Band program at Southern Oregon University in the early 70's, I saw a way to do something special with a 40-member group out of the larger 90-member band. It met one day a week and every concert featured several performances by the Symphonic Wind Ensemble. It became so successful that the students encouraged me to rehearse every day with that unit.

Good idea on the surface. The next Fall we had 90-plus students apply for the 40-member SWE. The next year 70 tried out; the following year 45. With no place to play, many students disappeared from the scene. So, we shifted gears and went back to getting numbers. It was so successful, we soon had over 100 in the band and incorporated the help of a couple of other faculty members to split the rehearsal at least once a week.

The problem here was the lack of leadership in the second band during the split-rehearsal days. Again, some of the students decided that their high school band had been better (which it probably was) and that student was merely an unwitting weak link in an otherwise dynamic situation.

I mention all this because after 45 years of teaching, it became obvious to me that in many situations (a small college in our case), the safety in numbers adage is extremely important. Much of what I was personally looking for is the same thing I observe today: Respect by those outside the band field via a name change: Wind Ensemble, Wind Orchestra, Symphonic Wind Ensemble, etc.

Someone recently said, "Isn't it interesting? We are the only profession in the world where when introduced to someone outside the profession, the person says 'I'm a band director' while looking at his feet!" That goes hand in hand with the definition of a Wind Ensemble: It's a band that fits on one bus.

I can't even guess at the total number of times people hearing that our Wind Ensemble had an upcoming concert remarked, "Oh, I don't go to those events where just the clarinets and flutes play. I like to hear the brass and percussion as well." It seems to me that if it looks like a band, if it sounds like a band and probably smells like a band, we should call it a BAND!

I also got totally convinced from years and years of judging that small groups (especially with younger players and even inexperienced college-age students) can never attain the mature sound of a large ensemble. It's a given that if you have 4 of 5 beginners in a 40-piece band, you will be hard-pressed to "hide" them. With a group of 80 players, you can figure out many ways to bury those players while allowing them the opportunity to get excited about performing with a lot of fine players. I often observed absolute beginners on bass clarinet, bassoon, string bass and even horn improve to third year performance capability in a matter of 3 or 4 months. By selecting the right literature and showing those players how to play one note per bar in the beginning stages and to skip difficult technical passages, I had great success with that for over half my career.

But the best part is that many of those who WERE given a chance to play are the very ones who contact me now to say "Thank you."

Computerizing a Marching Band Show

In 1971 I started learning from the Southern Oregon University Registrar how to program in Fortran on the college's IBM 360 computer. He showed me how I might take batches of 4 letters (AAAA, for example) and move them to specific places on the page. His instructions showed me how to place them in a vertical line or in a traditional horizontal position. I soon learned how to place numerous squads (AAAA, FFFF, ZZZZ) in different positions and thus build geometric patterns. Because at that time I was using a combination of Bill Moffit's "Patterns of Motion" drill and A.R. Casavant's diamonds and angled lines, my discoveries were allowing me to "program" charts on a computer.

As it so happened, the family moved to Boulder, Colorado for the summer of 1971; it was there that I entered the DMA program as a clarinet major. I found out that NASA had a monstrous CDC computer system on the Colorado University campus, so I applied for a computer-use grant and was awarded the grand total of $100 for use of the NASA computer. Little did I know, however, that the system was so fast that output of even a 3-inch stack of "marching band drill" pages and 2 or 3 boxes of computer punch cards took all of 8 seconds of computer time. The cost was something like $1.27, giving me weeks of access and thousands of printouts on the $100 grant.

The premise of my work was that it should be possible to create a show with a series of geometric designs that could become completely different in appearance through computer manipulation. If, for example, Squad Awas instructed to start on the 40 yard line facing center field with four commands (of eight steps each...forward 8, left pinwheel 8, right pinwheel 8, and forward 8) thus creating specific shapes when combined with complementary commands of all the other squads, the look of the geometric patterns could be completely different if Squad A instead started on the hash mark facing the sideline. The results during the summer of 1971 were very promising, but back home the student council of SOU (then Southern Oregon College) decided to eliminate funding for the Marching Band. Within one year we no longer had a marching band program.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, Hugh McMillen (Director of Bands at CU) was so intriqued he invited all the directors in the state to come to campus to witness the early development of computerization. About 25 showed up in early August and the folks at the NASA Computer Center agreed to assist in a live demonstration. Considering that there was no such thing as a home computer in those days, the demonstration was extremely novel and exciting for those who attended. The computer would, of coures, execute EVERYTHING in just a few seconds. So, my actions would need to be executed in delayed stages, giving the directors and myself time to move from one process to the next. First, a pneumatic punch-card reader sucked about 750 cards into the CDC system and immediately spewed them back to a nearby location. Elapsed time something like 7 seconds. Second, the group moved to the "white glove" area of the 4-story building in which the computer system was housed to observe the printing of hundreds of sheets of paper on a machine that handled, and printed in one simultanerou pass, something like a 5-foot wide series of perforated sheets. Again, elapsed time was just a few seconds. Simultaneously, the sheets were separated and stacked by another machine. Third, several thousand punch cards were created so that each of the permeantations created separate versions of the many "shows" that my Fortran program determined had matched my specific rules and thus created unique but still pleasing geometric patterns.

While that was the end of my marching band days, I still believe that the concept has validity and could be written with any of today's modern home computers. Just think of it: Create a single show for the year and present a completely different look each game without further instruction! If you are a programmer, why not give it a try?

Next time: Children's Programs and Travel

 

 

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