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Melodic Musings: Merit’s Faculty Reflect on Conservatory Winter Concerts

A student in a purple gown plays cello with the orchestra. A rainbow graphic with colorful music notes accents the photo.

The 290 students of the Alice S. Pfaelzer Conservatory had the chance to shine at the annual Winter Concerts held on Friday and Saturday, December 9-10. Over the course of two days, the students performed over 50 pieces of music in 18 different ensembles. From bombastic jazz standards to a stunning cello concerto, the Winter Concerts were a magical time of music.

With only 12 Saturdays between the beginning of the Conservatory year and the Winter Concerts, the students have a limited timeframe in which to prepare a concert’s worth of music…all while attending theory classes, participating in small ensembles, and learning from guest artists featured weekly at Live from Gottlieb! To accommodate this, it’s up to the ensemble directors to be strategic in selecting music that will push the students while still being realistic given the time constraints.

We talked to a few of our ensemble directors about their process for preparing for the Winter Concerts and how they decided on the perfect repertoire for their students.

charles "chip" staley, instrumental large ensembles department chair, wind symphony ensemble director

Ensemble Director: Concert Band & Wind Symphony

Carling Fitzsimmons

Ensemble Director: Voices of Merit & Perfect Cadence

steven goodman, merit philharmonic and conservatory symphoic band director, clarinet faculty

Ensemble Director: Merit Philharmonic & Symphonic Band

Establishing Priorities

There are many elements to consider when building a concert program. Chip Staley, the director of Concert Band and Wind Symphony, focuses on two main criteria when picking pieces. “The literature needs to be a vehicle for improving musical understanding. That’s number one,” he explains. “And number two, it has to be something that is reflective of the people in the ensemble, their experience, and their interests. If you can do both of those things, then you’re doing great.” Part of tapping into the students’ experience comes down to highlighting works by BIPOC and other underrepresented composers.

Carling Fitzsimmons directs the Conservatory’s two choirs, Perfect Cadence and Voices of Merit. Like Chip, she’s very intentional with her song choices. She says it’s key to meet the students where they are and still push them to develop their skills and musicianship. “I need to take into consideration the pedagogical needs of my singers at any given time and choose repertoire that they will enjoy and that will help them grow as musicians.” She loves the challenge of finding diverse music that connects with all of her students. “I look for pieces that will not only be appropriately engaging for the singers, but also represent a wide range of identities, perspectives, and musical styles.”

Steven Gooden is the director of Symphonic Band and Merit Philharmonic. For him, the students’ ability to connect with the music is fundamental to his process. “I think they need to be able to relate their current 2023 life to this music,” he explains. “Why is it relevant to them? That’s what I try to find, music that can connect with them and create an atmosphere where they feel like they belong in that music.”

Choosing a Theme

A group of students in black outfits sings in a choir onstage.

For Carling, it all starts with a central idea. “Singing – and actually, music in general – is storytelling,” so she considers the story she wants to tell with the students. For this year’s concert, the theme was transformation. All the songs were connected with the running theme of change, whether that be a change of one’s perspective, a change of heart, or the transformative power of music.

But inspiration can be found in unexpected places. For Symphonic Band’s performance, Steven put together what he calls a “three-course tasting menu,” influenced by Chicago’s gourmet restaurant scene. “I learned a lot about chefs and their artistry. There’s a lot of similarities between putting the right combination of flavors together and the right combination of pieces. So there’s a consistent palate for all three works.” This allows him to introduce larger themes and encourage higher level thinking amongst the students.

Engaging Students

For all three directors, student interest and feedback are an essential part of picking music.

To start the fall semester, Steven polls the entire ensemble. “Every year, I asked them, ‘What music do you want to play?’ And then I listen to every single piece that every single kid says.” From there, Steven incorporates the student preferences into his overall planning.

Carling asks herself a simple question when picking music for the semester: do I like this piece enough to want to listen to it for the next three months? “If I don’t want to hear a piece for longer than a few weeks,” she says, “chances are neither will my singers!”

For Wind Symphony, Chip has a Student Leadership Team. Among other responsibilities, this team provides student insight on the pieces they perform. Preparing for this year’s Winter Concert, this student team advocated for “Sanctuary,” a 10-minute master work by Frank Ticheli. “They had an option to choose an easier, safer route, and they chose the one that was more of a challenge,” according to Chip. “They would love it if we were playing it perfectly, but sometimes you have a piece where you understand we’re not going to be perfect, but it is going to be thrilling.” The importance of taking on these artistic risks is something he hopes to impart on his students.

A student plays oboe onstage, with cellists in the foreground.

For Wind Symphony, Chip has a Student Leadership Team. Among other responsibilities, this team provides student insight on the pieces they perform. Preparing for this year’s Winter Concert, this student team advocated for “Sanctuary,” a 10-minute master work by Frank Ticheli. “They had an option to choose an easier, safer route, and they chose the one that was more of a challenge,” according to Chip. “They would love it if we were playing it perfectly, but sometimes you have a piece where you understand we’re not going to be perfect, but it is going to be thrilling.” The importance of taking on these artistic risks is something he hopes to impart on his students.

“I want them to love the music,” Steven says. The involvement of the students in the selection process makes them more connected to the music and gives them a sense of agency in the art they’re creating, something all three directors value.

For Chip, there’s nothing like the power of live music to bring people together, both the musicians onstage and their audience. “It’s what our society needs more of, where we share and we respond and we engross ourselves in the magical qualities and communal experience of live music,” he says. By choosing compositions that excite, challenge, and speak to students, our faculty create artistic experiences that go beyond a simple concert program and contribute to their musical development.

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