Rob Wagner's World of Sight and Sound
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In 2010, the Australian Band and Orchestra Directors Association (ABODA) reached its 25th anniversary. In the July issue of Interlude, the journal of the Victorian Branch of ABODA, the President Jemima Bunn conducted interviews with five of the men who helped to bring ABODA into existence - Russell Hammond, Bruce Worland, Rob Wagner, Ralph Hultgren and Andrew Mathers. Here are extracts of the interview with Rob.
JB: How did you begin your life in music? Who were your first teachers, influences and sources of inspiration?

RW: I came into music a little later than some people. I was not from a musical family, although the art form was appreciated and enjoyed by my parents. But I showed much interest in music from around Year 6 and music classes quickly became my favourite subject. In Year 9, I took up the trumpet and worked very hard at it. This was in the days when there were no concert band or orchestra programs, such as we have now. My ensemble experience came from participation in the local community Philharmonic Orchestra and playing in “the pit” for Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. By Year 11, I knew I wanted to be a music teacher.

My tertiary years included some wonderfully creative experiences. This was in the early to mid ‘70s when the old Melbourne State College was in existence. Music, drama and visual arts students were all housed in the one building. This offered wonderful interactions by allowing one to explore both your own art form and cross arts. “New” music of the day (Cage, R. Murray Shaffer, Messiaen, Berio, Stockhausen etc) and early electronic music frontiers were being investigated by a faculty of brilliant and creative minds. It was exciting to be a part of explorations into music performance that ranged from the early music of Monteverdi through to jazz and rock. Much of this was done with a strong educational foundation and focus. People who were the greatest influence on me included Geoffrey D’Ombrain, Peter Clinch, Adrian Thomas, Ian Ellis and Ken Whitburn. They were fascinating men to learn from, each bringing unique talents and knowledge to the musical table. It was an absolute joy to go to university each day. During that time, I played trumpet, saxophone and finally settled on trombone. I was also composing using either graphic or traditional notation (or a combination of both) and compositions included a set of musical responses to Bruce Dawe’s poetry and a work for saxophone quartet.

JB: Were there any musicians, conductors or teachers who made a lasting impression on you during your early years?

RW: There is a wonderful brass teacher, Tony Brookes, who worked closely with me at university, developing my instrumental skills. The thing I value most about Tony is his desire to constantly review and renew his theories about teaching in general and brass in particular. He is a great thinker, always refining and honing his skills as a musician and teacher, always working to communicate better with his students. Later when I became an instrumental teacher, I endeavoured to model Tony’s approach to music education. Even after my time at university, I maintained contact with him and enjoyed many challenging discussions on philosophical and systematic approaches to instrumental music education.

A few years down the track, I played in a 9-piece jazz-rock outfit called Banana Fish. This group played at many festivals and also had a 2-3 night residency at a large bar called The Grainstore Tavern, in King Street Melbourne (when it was a much more civilized place than the sleazy place it is now days!!). In my mid-twenties, I joined a “little big band” – a 12-piece ensemble, known as the Anne and Johnny Hawker Band. John was a phenomenal trombonist, a fabulous bandleader and amazing arranger. He taught me much about the music industry. He was incredibly generous with his time. During the eight years I remained with John’s band, we played 3 -4 times a week, performed from a book that grew to around 1400 charts, backed national and international artists, and worked in freelance studio recording for television, commercials and corporate in-house productions. Although he was one of Australia’s finest trombonists, John would be the first to admit that he was not a very good teacher. But, I became a much better musician by standing next to John each night, just absorbing all that he did. Each week, he would arrange 3 or 4 new songs, many being performed on the gig, without rehearsal. By necessity, my sight reading skills got to be pretty good! Hardly a day goes by when I don’t draw upon these great performance and industry experiences in one way or another.
Rob Wagner conductor concert band
JB: What were your earlier years as a conductor or teacher like? What memories or lessons learned can you share?

RW: Unfortunately, the university taught no formal conducting skills. When I went out teaching, I learned “on the job” mostly by watching others. Although, this was not the best approach, it was all I had at the time. And fortunately I worked with some very enthusiastic educators from the south-east part of Melbourne – people such as Nancy Ovenden (who passed away a several months ago), Glenn Davis, Ron Hunt and Craig Seymour. They were people who just loved working with kids.

It was not until I met and worked with Roland Yeung that I received formal training in conducting technique. Roland was also very helpful to me in achieving a better understanding and interpretation of a score. He remains a great colleague and mentor today.

I also participated in the January ABODA Summer Schools, working with Dr James Croft (a wonderful teacher and dear friend) and Dr Larry Curtis. And by working behinds the scenes in preparation for each summer school, I also got to learn from many other summer school clinicians including Jerry Junkin, John Williamson and Barry Kopetz.

JB: How did you become involved in Australian Band and Orchestra Directors’ Association? What is the value of such organisations in our music community?

RW: I have been involved in ABODA since its early days. The National Band & Orchestra Clinics formed by Russell Hammond were always exciting events, with insightful clinicians and featuring a wide variety of topics. At the state level, I was vice-present of the ABODA Victorian Branch for over five years, working alongside another dear friend, Andrew Mathers. We had a dynamic committee who undertook a number of ambitious state conferences with national and international guests.

If a teacher is to grow his/her skills, it is essential that they become a part of their subject association. Indeed, schools and education authorities demand that we undertake ongoing professional development. As many instrumental teachers and conductors find themselves working in isolation, ABODA plays a vital role in strengthening knowledge and skills about all aspects of ensemble direction.

JB: How do you structure your rehearsals?

RW: For many years, I would prepare by writing out what I wanted to achieve in the time available and then allocating that time across the works under study. This was most helpful in keeping me on task, both in making sure I didn’t spend too much time on one piece to the detriment of others, and by also ensuring that I got to the important parts of each work that required the most rehearsal. It allowed me to be far more focussed and keep the rehearsal moving along.

My bands rehearsed on Friday afternoons after school. This was like “the graveyard shift”!! Initially it was very tough keeping the kids enthused about band when all their friends had left school and were preparing for the evening’s parties/part-time work etc. I found that if I rehearsed the same way each Friday, I quickly lost their interest. This resulted in a handful of discipline problems. By the end of the rehearsal, they were a rabble! However, if I tried different things, rehearsed each piece with a diverse focus or alternative approach, used a variety of warmups…..and used different jokes (…..!!), I could keep them on task and invested in the music. The rehearsals became far more productive. Now, I look upon those late Friday afternoon rehearsals as one of the best things I ever did, forcing me to become a far better conductor, improving my ensemble direction skills and creativity in the delivery of each rehearsal. At the end of the rehearsal, while it was still fresh in my mind, I would note down the strategies that worked well and those that failed. I prepared for the next rehearsal within a few hours after the last one had ended.

These days, after having conducted countless rehearsals over the years, I don’t always write down a rehearsal outline because I can instinctively do this in my head and can still keep a track of what I want to achieve in the allotted time. But I always go into the bandroom with a clear understanding of the tasks at hand and what needs to be achieved.

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JB: How do you approach score study? What are your views on score marking?

RW: Score preparation is critical to successful rehearsals and performance. Unless you have a clear understanding of what is in the music, you are using your rehearsal time inefficiently or worse, failing to help the musicians come to grips with the musical understanding required for a successful performance. Preliminary study is vital before the first rehearsal – you must have a well-formed concept of the music at hand. After that first rehearsal, I often revise my preparation and study based on the resulting musical responses of the musicians. Sometimes they surprise me with the ease in which they deal with musical or technical issues. At other times, problems arise that perhaps I hadn’t anticipated. On those occasions, I need to come up with new strategies for dealing quickly with issues before the next rehearsal.

What are my thoughts on score marking? Well, each individual conductor will have his or her own approach to this. Some of my scores are littered with instructions, cues, single descriptive words, chords symbols and lots of coloured marker pens. Other scores are pretty clean. It depends greatly on the sophistication of the musical concepts and the degree of difficulty involved in executing a clear and incisive conducting instruction from the podium.

I could spend a whole article on score study by itself. I have a bunch of things I do that work for me and were developed over many years, but which may not necessarily be useful for others. However, I view score study with fun and with great enjoyment. It is not a “necessary evil” for me.

JB: What is your concept of band/orchestra sound? How do you achieve it?

RW: I want my bands to sound rich, exciting and colourful. I want to ensure that balance between parts is appropriate to the composer’s intentions.

Some people swear by the “Pyramid Concept” of balance and blend and use it indiscriminately, endeavouring to apply its rules constantly, regardless of the work under study. This approach gets “right up my nose!!” If your band performs a wide variety of repertoire then it would be really dumb to apply the Pyramid to all works. I hear far too many performances that are dull and colourless because the Pyramid has been used inappropriately.

For example, symphony orchestras don’t consciously use the Pyramid in performance of their repertoire –composers were not conceiving a bland tonal colour in their orchestral writing. Also, it is totally inappropriate for concert bands to perform Broadway and movie music, or jazz and rock styles using strict Pyramid principles. Yet, I often hear bands trying to achieve this effect. It’s just plain wrong!

The band and orchestra sound is about achieving what is appropriate for the music under study. What is the composer striving for in the orchestration and choice of instrumental colours? How are the harmonies voiced? Which instruments must predominately feature in certain sections of music? What are their melodic and harmonic roles at any point in time? What is the appropriate sound or tonal context for that particular genre of music? And at its very basic level, can your band or orchestra replicate the desired outcome with its current instrumentation?

The best way for a conductor to learn and understand tonal and balance characteristics is by listening to recordings and live performances - to all styles and genre, musical eras and many ensembles.

There! I’ll get off my soapbox now!!

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JB: How can we best advance our art?

RW: The main thing to consider here is make sure that our art is accessible without compromising meaning. This is easier said than done. One example is through concert programming. I have sat through some dismal concerts where programming decisions were not clearly conceived prior to the first rehearsal. If you want to advance the cause of music (any music…..EVEN concert band music!!), then you need to gently take the audience by the hand and help them understand it and enjoy it. This does not mean that you should compromise your programming decisions by playing a pile of pop arrangements or a bunch of lame original compositions that all pretty much sound the same.

It is important to advertise your concerts. Some of the world’s most impressive musical art has also been the world’s best kept secret! If you are a person who is not at ease selling your concert, then find someone who will spend time with you developing a promotional strategy, or they can action the advertising on your behalf.

JB: What advice could you offer to current music majors, graduate music educators or young band and orchestra directors?

RW: The best advice I can give is to love and respect your musicians. They give up their time and energy to attend your rehearsals and performances. Value that. Treasure it. If you want to grow a great group of people, guide them with love and respect and they will follow willingly.

JB: What are your current sources of inspiration or personal fulfilment?

RW: I have always enjoyed searching for new and exciting repertoire. Unfortunately, much of what is published in educational music have been the same pieces, “warmed up” on many previous occasions under different titles! I look for new ideas, new sounds and interesting themes. Also, it pays to look into your music library and revisit ‘old’ repertoire. This is something I enjoy very much because personally I often gain new insights into works previously studied and performed.

JB: What are your interests beyond music?

RW: Recently, my main interest beyond music has been ensuring I stay alive and healthy. Open-heart surgery tends to have a habit of focusing the mind somewhat!!

I enjoy photography, web page building, electronics, dabbling in the share market, and the Collingwood Footy Club!

JB: To what do you attribute your musical success?

RW: How does one measure musical success? What one person considers a successful career is usually very different to someone else. I’ve just enjoyed my work, leading and guiding people, and having fun.

JB: If you could do it all over again, would you do anything differently?

RW: Sure! But what’s the point of even considering this? Unlike our sneaky feline friends, we only get one life. It’s better to live it the best way you can and make the most of your opportunities. And then, if possible, look for situations where you can contribute or pass on your knowledge to others.

JB: I f you were programming your last concert, what pieces would you include?

RW: Geez! What a question to ask a man who has just had open-heart surgery!! God, I don’t know! I don’t even want to think about it!
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