Background and Overview of the Wind Band

Jeffrey Renshaw


The wind band currently stands at a level of development which reflects tremendous growth over the past four decades and promises a highly encouraging future as a concert performance medium. We have witnessed innumerable commissions of new works, we have been part of the creation of new international associations and partnerships, we have felt the fresh breath of innovative performance techniques, and yet, many conductors remain outside this forward progress with eyes and ears turned only toward the past. Restrictive adherence to traditional concert band activities only - though they serve positive developmental purposes in many ways - is no longer sufficient to project serious wind activity into the future on increasingly higher musical levels. The primary way in which serious musicians and concert audiences may be expected to accept the 'wind band' as a serious art medium is through the same quality approaches to performance and repertoire practiced by the orchestra, opera, choral and chamber ensembles.


Since the establishment of the first wind ensemble, at the Eastman School of Music in 1953, there has been an ongoing debate between traditionalists and innovators. This discussion has resulted in periods of cooperation and has now, some 40 years later, arrived at a mutual understanding. The concept is truly not new. As founder of the Eastman Wind Ensemble, Frederick Fennell's models where based on long standing practices in the professional orchestral field with wind models dating from the 17th century and earlier. In the most basic terms, the wind ensemble simply means an adherence to the specific instrumental weights called for by the composer - often, but not exclusively, single players on each musical line. This is no different than the symphony orchestra that does not use the same number of strings for Mozart and Beethoven Symphonies or the same wind weights for Haydn and Mahler.


Unfortunately, the original précis of the wind ensemble has been transformed into a general purpose instrumentation exhibiting the same burdens as the large concert band. Many high schools and small colleges have transformed the original concept into a "select ensemble" with no real attempt to alter the instrumentation to reflect the composers wishes, or to program a repertoire to fit the resources of the ensemble. The generic wind ensemble has come, in many circles, to signify an elitism rather than a musical value. The same problem results when a small group performs the Hindemith Symphony in B-Flat with only single players as it is to use the large woodwind and brass sections of the symphonic band to perform a contemporary chamber work. At best, the attempts of even the most conscientious programming results in a limited repertoire for both ensembles. As a serious performing ensemble establishing an audience, or an educational institution providing experiences for the student, an exclusionary approach is totally unacceptable. Performance practices, stylistic concerns, and even basic timbre, change from the Renaissance consort, through the Classical chamber repertoire, into the "Golden Age" of the symphonic band, and up to the contemporary sounds of the wind orchestra. One size does not fit all.


With all of this misconception, based primarily on misinterpretation of the original intent, a new name should be used to redefine the concept of the composer-stylistic sensitive ensemble. The Contemporary Wind Band then becomes an "umbrella" that encompasses the two basic philosophies: Flexible Instrumentation and Fixed Instrumentation. Flexible Instrumentation is an ensemble of wind, brass, keyboard, harp and percussion performers which utilizes varying instrumentation and personnel in a non-restrictive approach. Composers are provided the ability to specify exact resources, i.e., specific number of parts and the exact number of performers to each part. When performing music without exact information, the conductor must rely on historical research and a personal musical intuition to establish a balance of voice parts through personnel assignment. The ensemble may vary in size from the quintet, various chamber music combinations, the orchestral wind section (13-30), and to 50 or more performers.


Fixed Instrumentation is an ensemble in which the number of performers on a part never change. Often parts are added when not specifically called for by the composer, i.e., alto clarinet in the symphonic band. The ensemble may vary in size from the quintet to the large concert band of 100 or more. All performers participate in each composition performed.


Prior to the early 1950's a fixed instrumentation/personnel concept was used almost exclusively. Bands were based upon standardized or fixed instrumentation's which were established by various professional, educational and publishing organizations. This approach, which was encouraged by the publishers (for purely non-musical reasons), served a unifying purpose as these standardization's established ultimate guidelines for bands to follow while creating a somewhat singular approach to repertoire. Other factors to consider include the use of the Washington based military service bands as role models along with major university symphonic bands; and, national band contests utilized an 'ideal' instrumentation against which groups were judged.


However, this standardization also created an approach to wind performance in which the fixed instrumentation and personnel did not vary from one composition to the next, thus providing the same basic timbres regardless of the original style of the work.