The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Take a Veterans Day poll and Conductor James Smith discusses music education and performance with young people | November 11, 2010

A poll: Today, Nov. 11, is Veterans Day. What is the best piece — and why — of classical music to honor veterans? The Ear wants to hear — and see if anyone also loves Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin” (especially in the original piano version) in which each movement is an homage dedicated to a friend who died in World War I.

By Jacob Stockinger

A former professional clarinetist who will play Carl Maria von Weber’s Concertino for Clarinet with the UW Band Concert on Nov. 23 (at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall), James Smith (below, in a photo by Jack Burns) teaches conducting at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he conducts the UW Symphony Orchestra and the UW Chamber Orchestra.

Smith, who is the music director of University Opera, also serves as the music director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, seen below conducting a Dvorak symphony during WYSO’s last Winterfest concerts.

This weekend will see more than 300 talented young musicians kick off WYSO’s 45th season with the Evelyn Steenbock Fall Concert — three concerts honoring southern Wisconsin’s private music instructors and school music teachers.

WYSO’s string orchestra, Sinfonietta, conducted by Mark Leiser, will open the concert series at 1:30 p.m. with selections including Britten’s “Salley Gardens,” and Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida,” followed by the Concert Orchestra, under Christine Mata Eckel (below), playing Curnow’s “Phoenix Overture” and Stephens’s “Danse de Espana.”

At 4 p.m., the Percussion Ensemble, led by Vicki Peterson Jenks in her 30th year with WYSO, will enliven the crowd with a spirited rendition of Jared Spears’s Windstone Suite. The Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Tom Buchhauser, will follow, performing “Hoe Down,” and “Saturday Night Waltz,” from Aaron Copland‘s Rodeo, an audience favorite.

On Sunday, Nov. 14 at 2 p.m., WYSO’s top level performing group, the Youth Orchestra, under conductor James Smith, will perform John Harbison’s “Mary Lou,” in honor of the centennial year of Mary Lou Williams, the “First Lady of Jazz.” Youth Orchestra will also play Massenet’s “Le Cid,” and two movements of Kalinnikov’s Symphony No. 1.

The WYSO press release adds: “Each of the concerts honors music teachers in the southern Wisconsin region, recognizing their incredible educational work and thanking them for their partnership with WYSO. What they do everyday is irreplaceable in the lives of students.”

The Steenbock Concerts will be held in Mills Concert Hall in the UW Humanities Building, 455 N. Park St. in Madison. WYSO concerts are generally about an hour to an hour and a half in length, providing a great orchestral concert opportunity for families.

Tickets are available at the door. Admission is $8 for adults and $5 for children under 18 years of age.

WYSO was founded in 1966 and has served nearly 5,000 young musicians from more than 100 communities in southern Wisconsin.

Smith (below) recently took time from his many duties to talk to The Ear for the following Q&A:

How would you compare the music education of young people – middle school, high school and college – now compared to, say, 10 or 20 years ago? Why is music education important? How do the skill levels or achievements of students then and now compare?

I hesitate to offer an opinion. I have not walked in their shoes. After leaving orchestral performance, I have only taught in college. I can write that it thrills me when a bright, eager and talented student from WYSO chooses music education as their career-path.

I  can write that there are some outstanding programs that are surviving in spite of the budget cuts in arts education.  This is because there are some great teachers working for the students.

The UW students are indeed better, particularly in the string area.  The talent pool auditioning for the orchestras fluctuates a bit from year to year, but we have a great team of studio teachers who attract very well trained young musicians.

When you put together concert programs, do you make concessions to the skill level of students? How do you decide what pieces they will study and eventually perform?

Of course, one must understand the performance level of the students, and offer them challenges that are appropriate to their skills and patiently structure a realistic learning curve.

I have a formula that goes something like this: 75% of the orchestra can play 80% of a specific composition with confidence, and the remaining 25% can significantly close the gap.

Some compositions are not appropriate. For example, Shostakovich’s Symphonies No. 6 and No. 9 work for WYSO when we have the appropriate solo voices, but Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 would not be a wise choice.

How does performing inform teaching and vice-versa?

If you are an active performer, you have a better understanding of the musical and technical challenges faced by the students with whom you work. Therefore, you can more easily relate to their successes and their failures – rejoice in the former, forgive the latter. You face the same challenges everyday. You know how hard it is to get a phrase honed to near perfection.

Was there a turning point in your life – a performer or a piece of music or a teacher – who changed your life and made you aware that you wanted to become a professional musician and then a music educator?

I have had a wonderful life in music, so there have been several turning points, almost all because of demanding, insightful, caring teachers.

At the tender age of 14, I my clarinet teacher recommended that I continue my studies with Oakley Pittman, the professor at the local college.  If I had not studied with Mr. Pittman, “Chief” as he was call by his students, I am certain I would not have chosen music as a career.  After Chief, each mentor came along at just the right time to set my head straight.  That took real talent and immeasurable patience.

Are there special projects for WYSO or UW that you have planned that people should know about?

Each concert and opera is a special project.  There are some exciting ideas in the wind, but it is too soon to mention them.  The weather may change.

Are there other things you would like to say?

I am not sure what your readers would find interesting. Besides, I need to go study scores for next week’s rehearsals.

Do you have a message for Smith or about his devotion to music education?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music


  1. Oakley Pittman, woodwinds teacher and concert band director at Southern Methodist University was to be the first clarinet in the Sousa’s soon-to-be organized new band, but Sousa died before the project came to fruition. Pittman played many woodwinds, serving in symphony orchestras as clarinetist, flutist, and bassoonist. I studied clarinet, oboe and bassoon with him on the way to a music education degree, and was a member of his SMU concert, Mustang marching and AFROTC bands. He also produced the “Pigskin Revue” variety show at homecoming with a jazzy stage band and arrangements by Jack Rohr.

    He was called “Chief”because he was the Chief Warrant Officer leading the 531st Air Force Band (TX Air National Guard) containing fine young musicians from his other bands. We played at John Connally’s inauguration at the capital.

    We always played fine repertoire in each band and he was always teaching from his classical orchestral experience: “The misnamed “long sign” (-) over a note does NOT mean to hold the note long–it means full bow and the note is to be detached from the following note (detached) and emphasized (“detache” “apportamento”). Notes without the any marking are held long.

    He was also active as a judge at contests where he was able to hear the results of band leaders he had taught. High school band quality improved greatly across the nation during his lifetime and he helped to create that new quality.

    Comment by Lyelle Palmer, Ph.D. — March 24, 2011 @ 11:41 am

  2. […] Source: Classical music: Take the Veterans Day check as good as Conductor James Smith discusses song prepara… […]

    Pingback by Classical music: Take a Veterans Day poll and Conductor James Smith discusses music education and performance with young people | 7 Top M Download — November 13, 2010 @ 5:16 am

  3. Silly question: I’m just curious where you found the picture of the young oboists. I thought I’d post it at my site to show the flat chin I’m always talking about with my students.



    Comment by patty — November 11, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

    • Hi patty,
      It was a picture provided by WYSO.
      I doubt they would object to the purpose you have in mind.
      Thanks for reading and writing.

      Comment by welltemperedear — November 11, 2010 @ 3:12 pm

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