Interested in Leading a Large Ensemble?

Advice from three of today’s top composer-bandleaders

Arturo O'Farrill
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Darcy James Argue
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Maria Schneider
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Arturo O'Farrill leading his Latin Jazz Orchestra at CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival 2010
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From the burst of laughter that follows, it’s clear that Maria Schneider is (mostly) joking when she says her first piece of advice to someone contemplating forming a big band would be “Turn around and run.” But given the challenges that face any ensemble in today’s economic and cultural climate, perhaps it’s good advice to any but the most dedicated bandleader.

“It’s sort of like going through labor,” Schneider continues. “It’s the most painful thing in the world and then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Look at this child! It’s the most beautiful thing ever!’ So when somebody says they’re starting a band, I look at them the way some people look at other people when they say, ‘We’re pregnant.’ Congratulations, and, oh boy, are they ever in for a life.”

It’s the rewards that most potential bandleaders have in mind when they envision assembling a big band, and many are willing to put in the long hours of composing, arranging, recruiting and rehearsing. But it’s an executive position as well as an artistic one, and many may find themselves unprepared for the additional responsibilities of managing personnel, raising funds, finding gigs, navigating contracts and dealing with logistics. “It’s a full-time job even without the music part,” Schneider insists.

So how does a beginning bandleader make the transition from musical aspiration to practical action? The first step, according to some of the most successful big-band leaders in modern jazz, is to make sure that you’re confident in your own vision and to project that to the musicians under your baton. According to Arturo O’Farrill, director of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, “In a group of 21 people there will always be three or four who think you’re an idiot and that they could do it better. And they may be right! Nonetheless, you’re the person out front, and if you’re not in charge of your people then there’s going to be anarchy.”

With few, if any, musicians able to keep a permanent working orchestra together full time à la the Ellington or Basie bands of old, rehearsal time is at a premium. In order to maximize the scant hours available, all three bandleaders we spoke with recommended introducing a new piece by focusing on its most challenging sections before attempting to run through the composition as a whole. “What is the absolute most essential thing you need to address first?” poses Darcy James Argue, leader of the 18-piece Secret Society big band. “If we’re going to get through this on the gig without it being a train wreck, where do we have to direct our attention?”

No matter how passionate you are about your own voice, O’Farrill says, not every musician will share your tastes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re wrong for the job. Your duty as a bandleader is to get the most out of their skills. “There are musicians who are going to respect your purpose and vision and there are those who are not. And if you take that personally, you might as well just go back to bed and pull the covers up over your head. No matter what happens, you have to have incredible respect for your musicians. You have to understand that life as a musician is really difficult, and you’re asking a lot of people who are working really diligently to hone their craft to come together and, to some degree, leave their individuality behind.”

On the other hand, Schneider says, bandleaders have to be sure not to squelch too much of a performer’s individuality in favor of their own vision. “It’s challenging, but you really have to be sensitive to not limiting somebody with what you think, because they might come up with something creatively that you wouldn’t think of,” she says. “It’s a really delicate balance, because you get diminishing returns when a player feels like you’re micromanaging them. But there are other times when I’ve felt that I could have gone further in telling them what I’m hearing to help them.”

That doesn’t mean that you don’t correct them when their efforts fail to align with your overall concept, however. “Obviously you can’t recommend the whole Buddy Rich approach in this day and age,” says Argue, referencing the recorded diatribes of the famously irascible drummer-bandleader. “You have to remain incredibly patient, calm and collected and offer positive reinforcement. You have not only your own ego to think about but everyone else’s in the band, and the most positive musical results usually come from trying to describe what needs to happen as opposed to getting upset that it’s not happening.”

Ultimately, those are the moments that make all of the struggles worthwhile-the moment when the baby is born, to return to Schneider’s analogy. “When things are going well and the sound coming out of the band recreates the feeling that inspired you to write the music in the first place,” Argue says, “that’s the best feeling in the world. That’s the sensation that makes it worth all the incredible logistical and financial challenges that go hand in hand with such an unreasonable way of making music.”