1. What are the greatest challenges in writing music for school bands?

My greatest concern has always been to write music that is technically and musically challenging, yet appropriate to the grade level for which it is intended. Beyond that, I try to encourage instrumental directors to select music that matches the playing ability of their ensemble. In other words, are the musical goals attainable and, as a result, will the students feel good about themselves during the process of learning and performing the music?

2. How does your music overcome these inherent problems in writing for bands at the lower levels?

Generally, each publisher provides its staff with a set of guidelines that helps determine the performance difficulties for the various writing projects. I should point out that the suggested rules seldom vary from one company to another. An experienced writer realizes that in order to assist the director with his or her selection of repertoire, the temptation to extend the demands of the music must be avoided so as to maintain the educational integrity of the publisherís product and that of the composer.

3. What are some of the misconceptions about writing for junior high school students that the general public may have?

I take great pride in my desire to write quality music for younger students. Because you are asked by the publisher to adhere strictly to specific grade level guidelines, the process can, at times, be more tedious and difficult than writing upper level music.

4. How did you get started writing for bands?

Following high school, I attended college to fulfill my goal of becoming a band director. It was during my first marching band rehearsal that I was surprised to hear chords based on jazz harmonies that, as a young person, I had never experienced hearing. The person responsible for those sounds was an extremely gifted and talented man by the name of Louis Marini. For the next four years, I was fortunate to absorb a lifetime of valuable information about composing and arranging from this outstanding educator. I completed my degree and was prepared to leave my writing career behind in order to focus on my newly acquired job as a Director of Instrumental Music, grades 5-12. My first rehearsal with our marching band made me realize that, out of necessity, I would need to resurrect the writing skills that Mr. Marini had generously taught me. Even today, his teachings continue to guide me as a composer/arranger.

5. What advice do you give directors for the interpretation of your music?

Iím a huge fan of the book CASALS AND THE ART OF INTERPRETATION, by David Blum. The following excerpt illustrates how I feel about the interpretation of music: "Above all, Casals hated that which was sterile, cold and lifeless. A correct performance held no interest for him if it failed to communicate the essential glory of music, its ability, through the beauty of its contours, the depth and range of its expression, to move us to the heart. When confronted with a student unwilling to make an interpretative commitment, Casals would say: It is even better to do something in bad taste than to be monotonous." Here is another one of my favorite quotes: "It is not marked in the score; that doesnít matter. There are one thousand things that are not marked! Donít give notes - give the meaning of the notes."

6. What other band composers particularly influenced you to write for school bands?

As a former instrumental director and now guest conductor, I have rehearsed and performed works by almost all of the great educational band composers. Each one has provided inspiration as well as valuable insights on how to write for the school band. It should be noted that when I first started my composing career, Claude Smith graciously helped me as a mentor on how to survive in this profession. I, as well as my students, always loved performing his music. He was a wonderful composer and a far greater person than you could ever imagine. I continue to miss him greatly, but his legacy of memorable music helps to fill a much-needed void in all our lives.

7. What non-musical influences have helped your development as a composer?

The emotional qualities of a musical performance are often an extension of the many experiences that we encounter in life outside of music. Travel, reading stories, meeting people are but a few of the influences that have inspired some of my compositions.

8. What advice would you give students wanting to become a composer?

During the last year, I have encouraged all my Capital University students to read W. Francis McBethís article in the June 2000 Instrumentalist titled 50 RANDOM REFLECTIONS ON MUSIC AND TEACHING. The following quote, from this noted composer, is quite insightful: "A career in composition may be fruitless if you do not have a harmonic language (not rhythm or melody) expressly your own by the time you are 30 years of age."

9. Describe any special rehearsal-conducting technique that you may use with school bands.

I encourage bands to occasionally play a chorale without breaking the indicated phrases. Promoting the ability to play long sustained lines helps to develop breath support which, in turn, aids in the improvement of tone quality. When the quality of tone is enhanced, better intonation is more likely to occur. Many intonation difficulties are often compounded when student musicians attempt to tune with an immature or less developed tone. The following is a suggested list of performance rules that Iíve created to achieve the goal of playing with improved breath support. These guidelines not only will provide benefit to the performance of chorales, but may also be applied to other aspects of sustained playing during the warm-up as well.

  1. Play as many notes as you can, with as nice a sound as you can, before you take a breath.
  2. When you need to take a breath, avoid taking it at an obvious place.
  3. Try not to take a breath at the same time as the person next to you.

10. What do you see for the future of instrumental music in the schools

I tend to be a very positive person and firmly believe that you need not look any further than the school music programs to find a high number of quality students with which to associate. In my estimation, the future of instrumental music looks extremely bright and promising.

James Swearingen
Professor, Department Chair of Music Education
Capital University
Columbus, Ohio
© 2001