“Seaholm!” Screamed out my band teacher, Mr. Underwood. He usually screamed to get my attention, so I always tried to give him a good reason.
The conversation I was having either with or about whatever girl was jarringly and abruptly halted, like a slow dance in church.
“Yeeeeees?” I lazily replied.
“Do you think you could do this and not screw this up? I have something I have to attend to.” With that, he reached out his hand, offering me the baton. In my high school sophomore’s mind, he might just as well have been handing me the keys to his Maserati and saying, “Try not to scratch it.”
“Sure!” I said, as I hopped to my feet. I took the baton and stepped up on the pedestal.
“Oh, noooo…”, I heard a few of my classmates mutter under their breath.
I looked down at the score, which looked like a flock of crows navigating telephone wires to me. I mean I could read music, but this was like reading multiple parts, all at one time… which, of course, it was.
I took a deep breath and slowly raised my hands. As if by magic, all of the band’s instruments seemed to follow this movement to their ready positions. I paused for a moment, if only to take it all in for that much longer, savoring this random bestowment of power and responsibility. Then I began to move the baton in the manner I had (casually) observed, keeping time in a simple cross-like pattern: Up…down… right…left…up…down…right…left… I knew I was kinda doing it wrong and some kids were trying to correct me at first, but they all just suddenly seemed to catch onto and fall into my “style” after a little bit. We continued on for about 10 minutes or so and I can remember cueing the French horns at their entrance and pointing at the flutes where the trumpets were supposed to enter, causing the flautists to all exclaim “What? What?” which was weird. That it caused to the trumpet section to all yell “Oooooh!” in the same manner one would greet a dropped pass in the end zone was even weirder, but such are the politics of high school band. Hey, it did get me out of P.E. though.
Mr. Underwood returned shortly, reclaiming his baton, restoring order and pretty much ending my career as a conductor. Actually, he may have just given birth to it.
I played, marched, and traveled with the Monte Vista Marching Monarchs (whoot whoot!) for four years. This was an award-winning, highly disciplined, and extremely motivated ensemble. We went to the Calgary Stampede in Alberta Canada for example and won Best American Marching Band as we also did at the State Finals in Long Beach.
Our drum majors through that era were Drew Zimmerman, Leslie McMenamin, and Gary Redmond. Each of them won multiple awards as well, and every one of them had a totally different approach and style. Each was great at directing the band not only through the myriad drills and formations, but also in keeping us all connected to the music at all times via the energy, passion, and tempo of their own performance. In action, we weren’t just a well-oiled machine, we were show-stopping badasses.
As a trombone player, I marched at the far right end of the front row. This has also been called “Competition Corner,” because in competitions, that is the first guy they look at. They’re looking for alignment with the ranks, listening for intonation and bad notes, how cleanly you pivot, how dead can you stop. Checking your uniform, your shoes, your spats, your shave, your eyes… you name it. It was maybe the only thing that I did take seriously, when I think back upon it.
As I began playing guitar with bands at parties and in garages and later becoming a producer, I have often been the drum major, bandleader, the front man. I have drawn upon that experience countless times when collaborating with other people to make music, whether at a gig, a jam, or in the studio.
Lately, I’ve also been thinking about the role of the conductor. Not just as musical custodian and time keeper, but as a conductor of electricity. As a conduit of this vibration, they not only transmit their own passion and dynamic context for the music to the orchestra, but like a front man for a rock group, draw from the vibe of the venue and its audience to help drive this entire experience for everyone. Some maestros are very different than others in this regard, as many employ an economy of movement and subtle cues while others utilize much more physical expression like the late Leonard Bernstein, who flailed, leapt, and flew like a total rock star. Bernstein eventually became so convinced of the audience’s role in the performance that he insisted that all of his recording sessions be live concert performances.
As a producer, I mostly find myself on Competition Corner again. Not in the contest-like sense, but in being the point man subtly directing the band, if only at times through the confidence in my presence. Meanwhile, the drum major leads the way in their unique way and style… and the band plays on…
Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning producer, singer and songwriter. He Thanks Ed Underwood for a wealth of knowledge and a busload of patience.