Carrie Winkler, the director of bands from Sheboygan Falls Middle School in Sheboygan, WI asked me if I would be willing to offer some feedback on their peformance of my “A Walk in the Shade” with her jazz band. I was happy to do this, but how, you might ask, was I supposed to do it from 2,000 miles away where I live in Portland, Oregon?

Friends, the future is here! We haven’t gotten our hoverboards yet, (well, not for real) but we have gotten our video phones. So, thanks to Skype, I was able to both see and hear these students play my composition. They told me that my face was projected on the big screen at the front of their bandroom. I couldn’t help but think of this scene from the Wizard of Oz.

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

On a more serious note, I’m happy to report that these students were doing a great job with the piece. They had performed it at Lawrence University’s Jazz Weekend 2014 and had gotten some nice feedback from the judges there. Some of that feedback led them to ask me a question that surprised me by how sophisticated it was. In fact, it was looking in such fine detail at a matter of interpretation, that I actually didn’t have an answer for them.

I’m guessing that the students might read this post, so I thought I’d tell them why I said that so they wouldn’t think I said because I didn’t care, or because it wasn’t a good question.

So, the question, asked by a bright member of the trumpet section, was this:

“Should we end the notes marked staccato with the air, or with the tounge?”

For those of you who don’t play wind instruments, which, mercifully, is probably most of you, this is a question that I wouldn’t expect to hear from anyone studying music below the collegiate level. So, to hear it coming from a middle schooler really caught my attention.

My reply was this, in so many words:

“Whatever you’ve decided to do as a group is what you should do.”

Which means what it means literally, but I should be honest. It also means “I don’t know.” But, I don’t mean that “I don’t know” in this case was a cop out. I just meant that I never intended to dictate the physical aspects of playing the notes in the piece at that level of detail. I suppose its my jazz background speaking here, but I’m just more interested in the group arriving at its own interpretation than in making these decisions for the players.

The decisions that players make, whether its the overall character of an improvisation within a piece, or the small details that section players are given in their written parts, is what makes a piece of music interesting to hear for the audience. My job as a composer is not to make all these decisions for the players, but to provide a compelling environment in which to make those decisions. In other words, my job is build a house you’d want to live in, but not to pick the colors of the drapes.

Thanks to Carrie and all of her wonderful students for playing the piece. I hope you continue to enjoy it!