UTPB's conducting course gives students a different view of music

Jan. 27—Conducting is more than just waving your hands or brandishing a baton, it's a required class in music education at University of Texas Permian Basin.

"It's using your ears and it's also a lot of teaching. My job as director of bands is to put performances together that have a high level of artistic merit. If I just wave my hands, that's never going to happen. There's a whole lot of stuff that goes along with that," Director of Bands Bryan Braue said.

All students are required to take conducting because at some point in their careers, whether the students are moving on to master's or doctoral degrees in performance, they are going to end up having to conduct somewhere along the way.

"It's really good for our students to have at least a basic approach to conducting," Braue said.

There are two classes that the students take for their undergraduate degrees. One is basic conducting, which is split into instrumental or choral, and for the second level he teaches the instrumental and the choral director teaches the choral side.

"The second level is a little bit more advanced focused on either the wind or orchestra level, which is what I do, or the vocal level because it's two different art forms," Braue said.

The motions are basically the same.

"One is always in the same spot; two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight can change depending on what note groupings are there, or what time signatures are there. But that basic is pretty standard. The size of the pattern that they change for dynamics — smaller is going to be softer; bigger is going to be louder. Those kinds of core fundamentals are the same across all conducting," Braue said.

"The instrumental conductors typically use a baton and choral conductors don't. The baton is really just an extension of your hand, and because those ensembles tend to be a little bit larger and more wrapped around the conductor, it's really important for them to have that to provide clarity to the ensemble. ... There are a lot more rhythmic elements to wind band music. Vocal music basically has four parts ... They do a lot more expression with their left hand, or how they move the sound. Instrumental conductors do that, too, but it's just a different style of conducting," Braue said.

He added that he will sometimes not use a baton if he is doing a transcription of a vocal work. He mentioned two lyrical pieces that were originally written for voice and transcribed for band that he doesn't use a baton for.

"I feel like it gets more of what the composer originally wanted. ... It does make a difference whether you use a baton or not ... which is why most vocalists don't use it because they're trying to get a little bit more nuance out of the four different voices that they're conducting, whereas typically a wind band will have anywhere between 10 and 12 voices across the instrumentation," Braue said.

When he says voices, he is referring to the instruments.

Braue said learning conducting has helped him over the years and his teachers have been influential in his career.

He remembers that in high school he didn't enjoy studying chemistry or math, but he always loved history.

"In fact, I think that if I wasn't doing this, I'd probably be a history teacher. I really liked doing that research aspect of things. That was a lot of my doctoral degree, going back and figuring out how do we get to where we are today, because originally, they didn't have conductors. They would just kind of go," Braue said.

"James Rees, who was one of the band conductors for this past weekend, he actually had the band play without a conductor for the first piece when they opened. ... It can be done without, but the conductor's job is really to lead the ensemble, provide the vision and the interpretation of the piece — whether that's choral orchestra or band, there's a lot of in-depth study time that you have to put into trying to figure out what it is," he added.

Braue said it helps if you can read about the music or the conductors to know how to approach a piece of music. With contemporary composers, you can call them and ask what they were thinking when they wrote a certain piece, but you can't do that with Beethoven or Shostakovich.

"It's a lot of what those great minds leave behind in their writing that we have to discover," Braue said.

He added that they perform two concerts a semester. The first one this year is the end of March and then there is a large community concert called Prism.

Students Christian Zuniga and Kimberly Lopez both plan to go into music education and have taken Braue's conducting course.

Zuniga comes from a 5A high school in Corsicana, which is about five and a half hours from Odessa. He started playing tuba at age 11.

"I think his class is a great necessity to have going into teaching," Zuniga said in an email.

Being able to conduct music rather than play it gives you a whole new perspective that he has enjoyed.

"Music has been a huge part of my life ever since I was 11 and I'm 23 now. If I didn't have it, then I have no idea where I would be. I have had amazing teachers in the past from middle school to now with Dr. Braue and Dr. (Lyndsay) Eiben who have all had some kind of impact on my musical journey. I want to have the same kind of impact on my future students and have them enjoy music the same way that I did and be the best teacher that I can be for them.

Lopez plans to go into music education as an elementary teacher.

"I really enjoyed Dr. Braue's conducting because it challenged me to see what conducting is all about. I used to think that conducting was going to be easy, but the class showed me that there is so much artistry to conducting that it is your style and only your style. The class challenged me to become a little loose and not become (a textbook conductor), or so structured that I had to follow by the rules. I believe the conducting class will help me move forward by taking initiative of my learning and appreciate the art style of not only conducting but a person with life behind their conducting," she added.