David Morrison: The sound of band music

By Jamie Morris

David Morrison: The sound of band music
David Morrison. Photo: Jamie Morris

In its first year in existence the Kawartha Lakes Concert Band performed two concerts. The first happened just three months after it formed; the second was for a sold-out audience at the Academy Theatre. “When the band participated in the Peterborough Kiwanis Music Festival, it earned a mark of 93 per cent and went on to win top prize for community bands in province-wide competition. So, as the band prepares for “To All a Good Night,” the Dec. 14 concert that will kick off its second year, the question is, what’s responsible for this success?

Some good fortune for sure: Who knew 74 musicians would answer a call to join, or that there’d be such a good balance of brass, woodwind, and percussion players? (Show me another community band that has 14 clarinets — a core component, clarinets are the violins of a concert band — and two bass clarinets, or three tubas and six trombones).

And there’s been community support. LCVI lent space and some equipment. More recently the Lakeland Funeral facility opened one of its rooms for practices (for the princely sum of $1 a month).

But ask any of the band members and they will tell you the real question isn’t “what” is responsible for the success, but “who,” and the answer is band founder and director David Morrison.

If you have any connection to music locally you already know David. He’s now retired, but he taught secondary school music for 30 years, directed the Lindsay Kinsmen Band for eight years, played key roles with the Trillium Lakelands Arts Camp, and launched the Odyssey Project. So, “who’s David?” is less interesting than the question of what’s enabled him to pull the very best from the players.

Because here’s the thing about a community band: Players come from a broad range of experience and abilities. Two stands down from a high-school trumpeter is an 80-year-old who’s dusted off his horn after decades away from playing; three stands away is the school board’s Arts Consultant, an accomplished tuba player.

The Recipe for Success

Let’s start with a love of music. Both David’s mother and maternal grandfather were piano teachers, so naturally he took piano lessons and later picked up tenor sax. Some of his musical tastes were forged as a teen in the late 1970s (which explains how an Earth, Wind and Fire medley found its way into the first concert and why selections from Chicago X and Chuck Mangione will join Christmas music and Mozart in the next one).

After high school in Scarborough David studied music at the University of Western Ontario, where he met his wife-to-be, Colleen, another music student (piano and flute).

Love of music is contagious. It’s no accident that when David takes the podium three Morrisons are among those awaiting the downbeat — Colleen on clarinet and sons Ian and Graeme on baritone sax and bass, respectively — or that a goodly number of players are former students of his. The rest of the band has been infected too (in a good way).

Next is the ability to turn a motley collection of players into a cohesive ensemble. “You need to get to one place,” explains David. He’s drawn on various strategies. Choice of repertoire is crucial. Early pieces were easy and left nobody exposed; more challenging works were added gradually.

Better to play fewer pieces well than many sloppily, so there are no more than a dozen in the music folders. Each piece is an opportunity to polish a skill and improve. A focus could, for example, be on “dynamics” — the challenge of playing softly, or building from piano (soft) to forte (loud).

Each piece is broken down and reassembled so players understand how their individual parts fit with the whole. David really wants players to be sensitive to this and will sometimes ask everyone to listen for one instrument.

For players or sections wanting extra help he’s slotted in extra, optional, rehearsal times. And he’s put together a website with a members’ area that includes reference recordings — expert versions of a piece the musicians can listen to these on their own, or even play along.

Effort and hours? Being a director takes both. Here’s David on how he prepares for the Monday night practices: “I always have a plan. I usually spend between one and a half and two hours with the scores and recordings over the week to identify areas where I would like to improve something. I usually try to choose three pieces that I really want to move forward each week.”

Finally, a good leader has to set goals. Concerts and competitions are incentives to play at the highest possible level, and give players objective measures of progress.

If this all sounds a little dry and earnest, it’s not — and it can’t be, because the other thing about a community band is that the process has to be fun.

The view of David from the concert audience shows a slight figure with greying hair and beard and wonkish glasses. Players are close enough to see more: an earring and a forearm tattoo, ease and rapport, a slightly unnerving ability to imitate the unmusical playing he wants to eliminate but also expressively sing or gesture to model what is wanted; above all, the pleasure he takes when it all comes together and the band plays as one.

“To All a Good Night” takes place December 14, at 7 pm at Cambridge Street United Church. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students and are available from any band member or at Fit Body Boot Camp or Cathy Allan Ladies Wear.

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