Saturday, November 20, 2010

An Interview with Dr. Mallory Thompson

Dr. Mallory Thompson, director of bands, professor of music and coordinator of the conducting program at the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University, performed as a guest conductor of the Concert Band on September 19th at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas, Va.  Fanfare had the opportunity to interview Dr. Thompson about her experience rehearsing and visiting with the band.

First of all, Dr. Thompson, thank you for being our guest, and for conducting the band.  What are your impressions, so far, of the Navy Band, and your first rehearsal?

Mallory Thompson (MT):  Ah, well, they are terrifically talented musicians, very well prepared, it’s a wonderful ensemble, they’re flexible, they’re willing, anything I ask them to do, they can do. It’s just a total pleasure. I really am thoroughly enjoying myself.  It’s like getting a new car, you know, you want to drive it fast, and test everything out and see what it can do.  It’s a fantastic machine, and I mean that as a very high compliment.

You’ve just come back from viewing a funeral at Arlington Cemetery.

MT:  Yes.

And what was that experience like for you?

MT:  Well, it was very moving. My father was in the military, he fought in World War II and there was a military honor guard at his funeral a year and a half ago, and of course this made me think of that. It’s kind of a strange dichotomy, isn’t it? It’s such a beautiful setting, so idyllic and peaceful, and beautiful, but with such a heavy heart for the people who are going through the experience, because we can all empathize. I’m really very glad that the band took me, so I could see it, see that aspect of what the band does, and see how it serves such an important role for the family.

Yes, that really is our number one mission, and while we very much value the other things we do, like concerts, it’s doing that well that allows us to perform those other functions. It’s something most musicians come here not really knowing a whole lot about, but in time, they learn more about the ceremonial aspect of the job.

MT:  Well, I don’t think there’s any way they could know about that aspect without witnessing it.  You can read about it, but until you see it, you can’t really know what it is. And I think: what trumpet player wouldn’t be moved by playing Taps?

Based on your experience today, would you recommend a military band to your students?

MT: I’ve recommended military bands to my students for years. I think it’s a wonderful career option for them, and it’s one that I’ve encouraged, the more experiences I have with the military bands.

I know this isn’t your first experience with a military band…

MT: Right…and having those opportunities for me is incredibly meaningful. I know firsthand the level of musicianship of these ensembles, the variety of experiences that they get as players and the responsibilities in the form of service, as well. I recommend military bands to my students all the time.

One thing we try to do is to try to attract the kinds of musicians who would have the experience and abilities we’re looking for, and who could come here and audition successfully.

MT:  You know, one thing you could do, if you don’t already, but if you don’t….it could be really great to have students go back to their alma maters to play recitals, or have a brass quintet, or woodwind quintet go back and do that.  I think that’s the best publicity.
I think another thing that is really impactful is when you play at the Mid West Clinic, and I’m not saying that self-serving because I’m on the board of the clinic, but I just know how much everyone looks forward to the military band concerts.  And maybe that’s a pain in the neck to do that kind of traveling at that time of the year (mid-December), but boy, I’ll tell you, that’s huge in the profession.

Related to that, what aspects of this job do you try to impress upon your students?

MT: Well, students, when they are preparing for an audition, will come in and play a rep list for me, and I’ll give them feedback. If there are a number of students that are taking the same audition, we’ll do a screened audition, and I’ll listen, and call out excerpts for them to play. And then I’ll give them notes on the audition, and tell them who I think would have won the audition, in my opinion. I think that….wherever you are in your career, it’s all the same…you’re working on the same things…making good attacks, making good releases, playing musically, showing a wide dynamic range, and not taking anything musical for granted.

I also talk to them about the interview, if they make it far enough to get to the interview, and I’ll tell them, “You better be ready to speak like an intelligent person! In the case of a younger person, I say, “Just don’t talk too much, don’t try to be funny, think about where you’re going, and think about the professionalism you want to exhibit.” So, whenever I do this, I always ask myself, “How can I help my students do a better job of preparing?” And every time, I get answers that I hope will help me do a better job for them.

Do they ever ask you about military band jobs, and what’s involved, in your experience?

MT: No. They never ask me. They know that I go (guest conduct military bands), because I tell them about things. They really don’t think past theaudition. So, if they speak to me about it, then I’m able to tell them a little bit more. It’s never in a derogatory sense, I mean, every job has a balance of this and that, and the other, and nobody gets to do just whatever the one thing might be that they like the best. And, every part of a job should be done very well. But, if they do an audition, I have a chance to talk to them about it a little bit, and make them think about things. I think the worst interview someone can have would be if they never thought about anything except the repertoire that they play.
In your opinion, being a member of the board of the Mid West Clinic, what do you think the Navy Band could do to foster our relationships at those kinds of events?

MT:: I really don’t think you need to be doing anything other than what you’re doing. You’re making good quality recordings, the group, I think, just keeps getting better, which is everybody’s goal. I think the band, by its presence shows leadership in the field. I think the outreach is good, with touring and things. I think the best thing would be to get more individuals or little groups out to their alma maters, and play and model what kind of musician works in this organization. And then kids (will say to themselves), “Wow, what a great life! I’d like to aspire to do that, if I could.” And especially, it could be a different form of PR especially if it’s a young member, who goes back, soon, to their alma mater, where people still know them. So that they (the students) look up to them for having this position, but they also hang around with them, and they think, “Wow, this is really a great life!”

And the same teachers are there that this person studied with, who can introduce them to the students.

MT:  Right.

Well, Dr. Thompson, thank you again for your time. We really appreciate your coming by and taking the time to give us your thoughts. The band is looking forward to your concert at the Hylton Center. It’s been a great experience for them.

MT:  Well, I’m really thrilled to be here, and I’m looking forward to the concert as well. Thank you.

Senior Chief Musician Aaron Porter is the Navy Band's public affairs director.

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