More from Charles Staley
Those who attended Neuqua Valley High School’s concert at the Midwest Clinic in December probably noticed Charles Staley’s conservative conducting style with modest gestures – containing gestures – that indicate only what happens in the music. “The engine for the Wind Ensemble comes from within each musician, so I’ve been taught by many people. Directors of advanced groups should never be in a position where the musicians depend on them for generating time. If they do, then that is all you are doing. For me, the minimalistic style of John Paynter makes sense in that a conductor does only those things that are necessary.
“If I think about my conducting in any way that has to do with gesture at the expense of the musicianship, the musicality, then I’m failing because I’m in the way with movement that is unnecessary. Students look up, see something, and try to interpret it. They may think, ‘What is he doing?’ and then they go back to what they know is right. In the mean time they are probably thinking, ‘Wow, I don’t know if I want to look up again.’ Consequently it is wasted effort and energy on my part.”
Staley suggests directors consider the way he approaches William Zehle’s Trafalgar march (RBC) and bring out only what he wants the audience to hear, such as the music’s great melodies. “I want to shape the line so everyone agrees that is where we are headed. Here are the accents, and I’ll look at the euphonium and the oboe because that is what I want to hear. Whatever I’m doing reaffirms what we decided on in rehearsals. The beat will take care of itself and should not be my main concern.
“The same thing applies to Percy Grainger’s Mock Morris (LudwigMasters), but I have to feel like I’m actually riding a horse to be jaunty so my conducting works for the ensemble. If I don’t, then I’m too static; and being static on a piece like that is death.”
For beginning students who do not yet have an internal feel for the beat, Staley says his colleagues teaching sixth-grade band have to be a lot more active in their conducting for the students to know what to expect, and that is appropriate for them. “It’s what you need to do to make the music happen, and for sixth grade it’s very different than for an advanced Wind Ensemble.”
The list of people who have influenced Staley is substantial, the most important being John Paynter, who for many years was director of bands at Northwestern University, and Harry Begian, professor emeritus of the University of Illinois. “Paynter was a great listener. His beat basically mirrored the patterns and phrases in the music, but what he was really doing was being a critical listener. That he could hear everything and react to it was very impressive to me.
“Harry Begian is over the top, and I mean that in a loving way, regarding the interpretation of pieces that can only be done his way. He is very passionate about music. I also asked Steve Squires, now at Roosevelt University, to meet with me privately for conducting lessons and he graciously agreed. He taught me to clearly indicate the inevitability of the beat.
“Dennis Glocke of Penn State was a huge influence, just by having him instruct the band; he was one of my cooperating teachers when I student taught in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Can you imagine, I was inspired by his teaching of the Headless Horseman by Timothy Broege (Manhattan Beach). I loved the fact that the students were seventh graders, and he treated them as though they were responsible musicians. They responded that way and just adored him. He was surrounded by seventh graders all the time.
“Dick Grunow, who is now at Eastman, taught me about the musicianship that a band should have when I was in his junior high band. Recently, Craig Kirchhoff became an important influence when our Wind Ensemble was the clinic band for his Midwest session on expressive conducting. One thing he sees in young conductors is that they stop at the beat pattern – the mechanics of the beautiful beat – and somehow that is their training. Fortunately there are people who go beyond that. He questioned whether we really wanted to stop there.
Beyond a Beat Pattern
“There is so much more to an interpretation than just a beat pattern. When you think about it that way, then you look at people a little differently. Some people look at Dennis Glocke and wonder where the beat pattern is. Although it is incredibly clear to me that he is shaping sounds.
“Craig Kirchhoff and Don Schleicher, orchestra director at the University of Illinois, also shape sounds in their conducting. Schleicher’s gestures are not in any conducting manual, anywhere. He worked with my band on La forza del destino and some of the other orchestral works that were transcribed for band. Students play better under him because his gestures are more in keeping with what he hears in his head – an orchestra – whereas I’m just hearing the winds.”
Staley never studied conducting under Frederick Fennell, but he attended one of the master’s conducting workshops and studied his recordings. “I’ve studied everything he recorded. You don’t study Posey without listening to Frederick Fennell’s version or without listening to others.
“Fred Fennell is the reason I feel strongly that the concept of the wind ensemble is correct because having one musician on a part challenges students at a much higher level than a symphonic band. From Harry Begian’s perspective, I can see the benefit of having a symphonic band.”
Begian, the master of the symphonic band, and Charles Staley once had a similar version of the same conversation. Staley asked: “Should I really have a wind ensemble at the high school level?” Begian replied: “You shouldn’t because you won’t get that big, fabulous University of Illinois sound. You’ll get the wind ensemble at its biggest, but it is still not as big as a symphonic sound. You can still have one to a part within that group and still have more dynamic range.’’
“Dr. Begian is, of course, exactly right; but for me I think that putting players one or at most two to a part makes it much harder for them to rely on others. They are forced to develop their own opinions and make their own musical decisions, and that is what I want for my students.”