Photo credit: 2019 AVHS Yearbook, Valley Images
The band director was standing boldly and attached to the music as he continued to conduct the piece. The song he had dreamed of teaching a band for decades but never tried in the past due to intimidation, was now a reality. The music created a magical effect that not many high school bands could create. It was something intuitive beyond the notes on the pages that turned into an angelic sound that touched all who were in the theatre. The ensemble watched the director as he gracefully conducted their lyrical ending of the piece and slowly released his arms after the very last note. The joyful, energetic cheers of the crowd were overwhelming as every member of the audience began to stand up.
On March 11th, 2019, at their concert and the following day at the South Suburban Band Conference, the AVHS Wind Ensemble performed the transcription of the famous orchestral piece, Symphonic Dances from West Side Story under the direction of their band director, Mr. Corey Desens.
“I was in college when I heard the song for the first time. Ever since then, I knew that I wanted to teach it someday,” said Mr. Desens.
However, Mr. Desens wasn’t sure if he would be able to teach the direct transcription of the piece. He thought that he would only be able to teach an arrangement (a simplified version) the song during his teaching career; the direct transcription of the piece was so difficult and out of his comfort zone. It wasn’t any simpler than the version that the composer, Leonard Bernstein, taught his orchestra to play.
After some time, Mr. Desens pushed himself out of his comfort zone when he decided to attempt to teach his band the direct transcription of Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.
The magnitude of the piece, being 23 minutes in length, forced Desens to be as efficient as he possibly could with his time. Not only was it long, but also extremely challenging, and he had to figure out how to make the band progress in the learning of the music in time for the concert.
“I have spent more time figuring out how to go about teaching the students to learn this song in the most efficient matter than any other song in my teaching career.”
When Mr. Desens finally decided that this would be the year to attempt to play the piece finally, he knew that it would require a lot of extra work on his part that he wouldn’t have time to accomplish during the school year
Desens spent the whole month of July on getting the peace ready for the Wind Ensemble who would eventually start rehearsing the song in December.
The piece required more instrumentalist than the band had, so he had to spend that month during the summer rewriting parts to make sure that every part in the music was covered somehow.
For example, the band only had six percussionists, but the piece required eight of them. The percussion players had to run to get to different instruments because at times they had to play two or three different parts to make sure every percussion part was covered.
Mr. Desens had to write and computerize substitutional parts for even more instruments were needed such as the bassoon and 4th French Horn part, thus making the process a month to complete.
Even teachers have a great number of assignments to do outside of school.
“My daily homework has been what I am going to teach the next day and how I can teach it so that the students can understand it in the most efficient, quick way as possible.”
Mr. Desens had this task to do every day with extra pressure because if the band wasn’t capable of learning the song in time, he would have to throw away the countless time he spent preparing it and give them a simpler song.
Overall, the fact that Mr. Desens and the Wind Ensemble were able to play such a demanding piece is a unique achievement few high school band students will experience.
“I hope that the band students who experienced playing the piece without understanding the magnitude of what they accomplished will look back at it some point in their lives and realize the achievement of being able to play a piece as elite as Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.”
There is many obstacles that stop people from trying to achieve great goals. Mr. Desens was intimidated by his goal of teaching his band the piece. He is a human just like everyone else, but eventually dared to try, and so can you.