Conducting Perspectives with Rodney Winther

Rodney Winther is Professor Emeritus of Music and recently retired after fourteen years (1997-2011) as Director of Wind Studies and Professor of Music at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.  His duties at CCM included conducting the Wind Symphony, Chamber Winds and the CCM Chamber Players, while also teaching Masters and Doctoral students in Wind Conducting.

The Band Post speaks to Rodney Winther, who is in Singapore to work with the Singapore Youth Chamber Winds (SYCW), for their inaugural concert on 5 June (Sunday) at SOTA Concert Hall. He also held a conducting masterclasses on 28-29 May for 8 conducting students with OBOG Wind Symphony as the band in attendance.

TBP: In your opinion, what does it take to be a conductor?

RW: I think being a conductor is no different from being an instrumentalist. It takes dedication, long hard work, finding a good teacher, and years of concentrated efforts. I think for most people, they do not have a concentrated goal. They might want to be a great conductor, but they don’t know how to get there and that is what is hard.

I have been watching conductors and musicians for all my life. Most musicians too have already learnt so much about conducting. It is a matter of learning maybe the techniques, how to hold the baton, how to use your left and right hand and how to study the score, but those are things that could be taught. I think of a person as a musician who has a good heart and willing to work on it, then I’ll think it is certainly possible to be a conductor.

TBP: Through the conducting masterclass, what are some of the observations you have made?

RW: Well, first of all, I am very lucky as I do this kind of masterclasses all around the world. I feel that the same problems exist everywhere, not just in Singapore. People are often uncomfortable in using the left hand, and that’s very common. There are also people who are not comfortable in interpreting a piece of music, and having interpersonal skills such as not knowing how to motivate the groups.

Everyone is different; we have 8 conductors for the class and they are all different. Some of them are very confident, maybe too much so, overpowering the group and some are very shy. It is my job to mould them and point out different methods to approach the music. By the time we are done, hopefully they will have experienced something new, something different, and hopefully they can take that and apply it to their situations and hopefully continue to get better.

TBP: What advices do you have for the conducting participants?

RW: Well, I think the most general advice I could give is that one should work really hard to learn the music that they are conducting. Score study is very important as it all starts with that. The technique of the conductor should come from what they want to hear. So you study the score, you decide what you want to hear, what the composer is trying to do and YOU become the representation of the composer.

Musicians don’t know what is on their page; they have one line and they might be able to hear other parts but they don’t see it as well as the conductor, which is why that is up to the conductor to put all these things together. I think that is one of the biggest problems with every conductor, not just the participants, to be able to synthesize all of this information and direct it out.

TBP: What about advices for young aspiring conductors?

RW: Oh! Don’t! Stop right now! (Rodney laughs) No I’m just kidding. Watch! Go to all concert rehearsals, band, orchestra, jazz, Chinese orchestra – all kinds of concerts with any type of music that you can think of that requires a conductor or have different styles. Try to put that inside you, like putting money in the bank, and taking a little out every time you need it. You are always using this. So watch and learn!

Even if you are young, you should find a good teacher; someone who can just show you basics, how to hold your hand, how to study your score, learn transposition, form, design, theory, and music history! As a conductor you have to be aware of the kind of music that you are conducting.

There is this idea of watching other disciplines, like choir. Wind players are essentially vocalists, and all musicians are singers. It is how we use our air, our motion, the idea of tone production, and putting the voice we have into a physical instrument. This is our instrument as singers (Rodney points to his throat).

Watch choirs and listen to great singers. Listen to Jazz groups. Jazz is a great discipline and a lot of our music involves jazz-like figures. Watch orchestras; watch the string players, see how they can move together and bow together. Chamber music is really important as you have to create great music with only 5-15 players regardless of woodwinds, brasses or percussion.

All these exciting music experiences will create a person, and hopefully he or she will become a conductor.

TBP: As a conductor, do you have works for band that you will really like to conduct?

RW: Karel Husa’s Music for Prague 1968 which is one of the great works for the 20th century. Lincolnshire Posy by Percy Grainger, a wonderful piece of music. David Maslanka’s Symphony No.4 is a very interesting and great piece of music. Adam Gorb as well!

Out of the band list, Bach and Mozart! If you put me in front of a group playing Mozart, I’m a happy kid. What is there not to be happy about Mozart?

You have just heard us working on Sousa’s march (in the morning masterclass), and that is pretty exciting stuff! What people don’t appreciate is the idiosyncrasies of a march and what does it takes to put something like that together. It takes a lot doesn’t it?

TBP: Do you feel that conductors choose pieces based on what they like?

RW: Yes, but, it goes way more than that. When I pick music for masterclasses, I try to find music that helps the soul where people don’t have to worry about technique, they can just focus on balance, beautiful sounds, but not fast. If you look at the music we are doing in the masterclass, for example, the Strauss’s Serenade, it is not very technical but it is just gorgeous. We also have Hymnsong of Philip Bliss and Amazing Grace, pieces that are just there to create mood and sound.

Secondly, it’s music that are technical. Young people love it! They like to show off a little, so you got to give them some music that have that technique.

The last thing, it’s music for the mind! Some music that helps you grow musically, or requires a kind of sound, technique, balance. A good example would be, twelve tone, something that has a different harmonic basis. Charles Ives’s music for example. Charles is always going to get you, then you go “Wooo, where did that come from?” It got to be something that makes you think.

So, those three things, Music for the soul and heart, Music that involves technique, and Music for the minds. If you do all three things, then the musicians and audience are going to have a complete meal and a holistic experience. It is more than what the conductor likes.

TBP: With regards to the music that SYCW is performing, are they picked by you solely?

RW: Yes, except the piece by Chen ZhangYi. I have the score, but have not worked on the music yet. I have also met him for the first time yesterday – a very nice man. And yes, the music is going to be hard.

We have a lot to work on but these are good musicians. They auditioned for their parts and like I say, it is something new. What I hope is this thing will happen like an annual experience and the word will spread. If you want to play in one group, you want to be in SYCW. We have great music, great conductors, terrific coaches and teachers. I am going to be a much better person when I leave so that is our goal.

If you look at the pieces we are playing, we have a Beethoven piece that requires 8 woodwinds players, which essentially is the woodwind section of an Orchestra. We have another piece by Strauss, so you move from Beethoven (Classical period) to Strauss (Romantic period), and we are doing a piece for 13 players which has the wonderful romantic tradition that Strauss is so great in. He was only 17 when he wrote this piece and it was his first piece for winds. We also have a piece by Francaix for 10 players; it has the French quirkiness which makes you smile, and it is very light, very delicate, and tells a lot of stories. So that is for the woodwinds, all very different pieces.

When you think of brass, you think of fanfare, so we are doing the Fanfare from La Peri from Dukas; a really short but powerful piece. We are also doing back in the medieval, renaissance period, a piece by Tielman Susato, arranged for Philip Jones, one of the great trumpet players of the 20th Century. They will learn the renaissance style starting with Dukas, the renaissance period by Susato, and finally a brass symphony by American Composer, Balmages. It is really great as these three pieces of music create their own packages for the brass players.

Finally, we take one quintet from the woodwind and the brass, and we create this brand new piece by Singaporean composer, ZhangYi, called Homages. That is a fascinating title, as it means a tribute to different composers and styles so it is going to be great.

TBP: Finally, is teaching band different from teaching chamber groups?

RW: Hmm, yes. You are often dealing with different sounds, instrumentation, and music. I get to do Mozart and Beethoven with chamber groups and this is why I like doing chamber groups so much. I can do Mozart and Beethoven music with the band but it will be a transcription and often, it is never the same as chamber.

I love to do music from the classical period, and in that respect, it is much different. We are also dealing with different sounds. The idea of working with a quintet or a double quintet, is different from working with 75 wind, brass and percussion musicians. The thing we are trying to teach in chamber music, is more individual responsibility on their parts, listening skills, good balances, tuning, how do we tune and listen, self confidence – all of these you can learn much more through chamber music.

Talk to string players, ask them what would they rather do, play in a string quartet or full orchestra? Or look at the Canadian Brass, what do you think? Would they rather sit at the back row of the orchestra or continue doing Canadian Brass? Even a great orchestra, after a period of time gets tedious.

Once they experience it, it will change their lives, they won’t go back.

Band Post
Band Post

A contributing editor at TBP.

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