Original Publishing Date: April 2009
Following Officer Training School (OTS) graduation and commissioning, I reported on December 17th to Bolling AFB, Washington, DC. After eleven years of teaching, including Assistant & Associate Professorships at Michigan State- and San Jose State Universities, I walked away from a promising academic career and returned to military service (I had served as an enlisted Army Reserve and National Guard bandsman from 1972-1978.) Although I loved teaching, I was ready to climb out of the slime of academic politics. I was thrilled when, on my first day at OTS, the Air Force asked me to raise my right and swear that I would not “Lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate anyone who does.” Thrilled? I was reborn.
Mike Bankhead picked me up at National airport that snowy night then whisked me off to the Andrews Air Force Base Officer’s Club where we watched the incredible Singing Sergeants perform. My entry into the Air Force was possible because Lowell Graham planted the seed of the idea, Mike nurtured it, and Col. Gabriel made it possible. Mike was gracious, enthusiastic, and very encouraging. I felt I had a made a great decision in joining the Air Force and Colonel Gabe’s team. I was on my way.
In my first few months at Bolling, Colonel Gabriel generously gave me “stick time” with the Air Force Concert Band. They were incomparable, of course, but once I got my feet under me, I began to find areas I thought I could improve. With each rehearsal, I felt more and more confident that I could rise to their high level of expertise. Privately, I congratulated myself on becoming a professional conductor. Little did I know how much I had to learn.
The following fall, I joined Colonel Gabriel for a three-week Concert Band tour of the South. As Assistant Conductor, I was to be prepared to stand in for the Colonel should he become incapacitated (fat chance!). Every night, in mess dress uniform, I took my place in the stage right wing with scores and baton in reach, just in case.
One night, at intermission, the band’s principal Horn, Chief Master Sergeant Johnny Woody, found me.
“Hey, LT. How about a beer tonight after the show?”
I’m not much of a beer drinker, but here was one of the band’s legendary musicians asking ME, a newbie Second Lieutenant, to socialize.
“Uh, sure, Chief!”
“Great! Meet me at the bar in the lobby of the Hilton (where we were staying) at midnight.”
“OK, Chief!” (Note to young officers: ANY time a Chief asks you to step into his/her “office”—no matter HOW they define “office”–jump at the chance, even if the jumping MIGHT be by the Chief, into your byproducts.)
At midnight I made my way to the bar. Rounding a corner, I found the booth in which Chief Woody was waiting—along with three more of the band’s senior Chiefs: Principle Clarinet Jim Murphy, Principle Saxophone Jim “Scotty” Scot, and Principal Bassist and Concert Band Noncommissioned Officer in Charge, Fritz Wyss. Somehow, I didn’t think this was going to be a social gathering.
After pleasantries, Chief Wyss, spoke up:
“LT, thanks for coming. Let me get to the point. We want you to know that we think you’re a pretty good conductor” (In my head, I was starting to feel like the legendary Michael Jackson doing the “moonwalk!” Yeah! Alright!). The other Chiefs nodded. Then he continued…
“And we think YOU think you’re a pretty good conductor!” (Inside I’m starting to feel like the convicted MJ).
But he wasn’t finished.
“Do you know what the guys the band are calling you behind your back?”
I shook my head, sullenly.
“They call you ‘The little professor’.”
“Why,” I asked quietly. My blood was starting to boil. Then I thought of a large, East coast book chain by that name, but I wasn’t making a connection.
“Well, mostly, it’s because when you take the podium, you talk about the form of the music; you talk about its history, you talk about its theory.”
“Yeah,” I thought to myself. “So what?”
“Well, LT, has it ever occurred to you that we’ve played this music before? Has it ever occurred to you that we know that stuff? Has it ever occurred to you just how precious our rehearsal time is, and that we just don’t have the time to hear about all of this?”
I sat silently. My mind raced, yet I felt I was in slow motion. Mostly, I was embarrassed. I knew what the Chief was saying was true and that it had been obvious to everyone but me. Had I blown it with The USAF Band? Was my Air Force career going up in flames? Had I made an enormous mistake by walking away from academia? This was an “acid bath,” and I began to feel ill. Then the Chief continued.
“Look, LT, we didn’t ask you here tonight to give you a ‘blanket party.’ Well, maybe we did…a little!”
Everyone laughed at that one, even me.
“To tell the truth, we wouldn’t be sitting here with you, in the middle of the night, if we didn’t think you have talent and promise. So we have a suggestion for you: take page from Colonel Gabriel’s book. Have you noticed how well prepared he is for every rehearsal? Have you noticed how he knows EXACTLY what he wants when he steps on the podium? How he has quantified his concepts? For example, if he sees a quarter note with a dot under it, he’s already decided whether that staccato note will be half value or quarter value? If it will be accented or not? And if it IS accented, HOW it will be accented…with a sideways accent, a roof-top accent, or a wedge?
“And,” one of the other Chiefs added, “that he SHOWS us what he wants with his conducting, rather than tells us?”
“So here’s the deal, LT” Chief Woody added, “We want you to rethink how you approach rehearsals. You don’t have to know everything about every piece, but you DO need to know the basics so our rehearsals are productive–things like tempo, phrasing, style, and your sense of the architecture of the piece. Keep your high standards for pitch and color—that’s great–but don’t stop to tell us every time we drop a note. WE know we chipped it. Telling us just wastes time, and what does it accomplish? Chances are, the next time we play that passage, we won’t goof it again.
If you do these things, if you prepare well, if you know what you want, what you’re going to stop for and WHY, and if you SHOW us what you want, we will play for you. We’ll watch you like a hawk and do our best to play what we SEE. And when we don’t, it’s because we don’t understand your physical vocabulary. When that happens, please tell us what you want, but when you do, we ask that you use only six words: ‘faster,’ ‘slower,’ ‘louder,’ ‘softer,’ ‘longer’ and ‘shorter.’ That’s it.”
And that WAS it. The meeting was over. Even though these guys had played a two-hour concert, had been on the road for two weeks, and were “road-weary,” they took time to mentor me. Using classic “upward delegation,” they put the responsibility for being prepared right where it belonged. I liken it to what I’ve learned as a private pilot: “If you’ve earned the right to fly the plane, you better know where you’re going and how to get there successfully.” I had been salvaged. I didn’t sleep much that night, or much the next night as I pondered the lessons given to me by, probably, 160 collective years of rich, professional experience. .
By the third night, I resolved that I could—and would–do what these great musicians had asked me to do. I did, and it worked. I prepared quantitatively (which forced me to think in detail about my interpretive decisions and to commit to them), and I limited my remarks in rehearsals to The Six Words. They kept their end of the deal, too. Our rehearsals became more efficient, we had more fun, and they gave me their music.
I soon discovered that The Six Words also work in contexts outside The USAF Band. Musicians of every background—including young students–appreciate and respond to this kind of preparation. I now believe that there is no better way to convey respect to a performer or to the composer than to do these things. This experience taught me one another valuable lesson: in the end, music cannot be TAKEN; it can only be given. The conductor can ask—even demand—but it’s up to those who “make the sounds” to ultimately decide how and to what degree they will respond.
A few years later, I was assigned to my first command at the Air Force Band of the Golden Gate, Travis AFB, CA. Unbeknownst to me, those four Chiefs (and other senior leaders of The USAF Concert Band) followed my career and watched to see how and what I did. Now and then, I’d get a call or a note from one of them encouraging me. Sometimes, I still do. Overall, I think they’re pleased. But how does one repay mentoring such as this? Other than trying to do what they taught me, I wrote a sincere and enthusiastic letter to each of them as they retired, thanking them for believing in me, caring enough to pat me on the back, and (figuratively) kicking me in the a–. Mostly, I thanked them for giving me my greatest conducting lesson.
“Faster, slower, louder, softer, longer, shorter”: The Six Words that changed—and vastly improved– my professional and musical life.