In my last post I talked about “having something to say” when writing for beginner bands (or any band for that matter). In this post I’m going to illustrate what I mean by outlining “what I was trying to say” in a couple of my pieces. (Being Valentine’s Day, I did try to say it with flowers. If they didn’t arrive, please contact your local florist.)
The Forge of Vulcan (pub: Brolga Music)
In this piece, I was trying to introduce dissonance in ways that beginner students could cope with and would be able to play successfully. At the time, I had been working through the classic text on counterpoint by Fux – Gradus Ad Parnassum. I realised that if you follow the “rules” about introducing dissonance (prepare it correctly, resolve it correctly), students would/should be able to cope. Hence, I can have the band playing a major 2nd apart for a whole bar (…and loving it!).Notice that the band starts in unison, then moves to the major 2nd, and then resolves to a major 3rd. The dissonance is both prepared and resolved correctly.
To further improve the clarity of these lines, and to make it easier for students to play, it is scored in a “brass vs woodwinds” kind of way. Initially, the woodwinds all stay static on the “G”, while the brass play the descending line in unison. At bar 5, the roles switch, with the brass remaining static on a “C” whilst the woodwinds play a contrary motion line that starts an octave apart and ends in unison with the brass.
This concept of generating dissonance through oblique motion (i.e. one part moves while the other remains static) extends throughout the piece – e.g. the initial melodic statement in b.9, the B section (b.25-40) and a dominant pedal point later in the piece (b.41-45).
So, I felt comfortable that I had written something with some harmonic interest and gave the low brass as much to do as the other instruments, but what about percussion? The Forge of Vulcan is scored for the following percussion: Glock, Timpani, Snare Drum, Bass Drum, Crash Cymbal, Tambourine, Triangle and Anvil. That should be enough for even the largest percussion section! You could, however, get away with just one player doing Snare Drum and Tambourine with just a little bit of cut ‘n paste.
Tonally, this piece is in C Dorian. It therefore uses the pitch set (Bb major) that the students know at this point, but organises it slightly differently. Personally, I have found it very difficult to write in a straight major key at this level in a way that doesn’t feel like it has already been done.
Texturally, the use of a contrapuntal, rather than homophonic (chordal) approach, also helps to make it sound fresher – at least to my ears! For the majority of the piece, there are only 2 lines. But over the final melodic statement, a 3rd line (a countermelody) is introduced into the upper winds and glock parts. At this point in the piece, the rest of the band are playing familiar material and can cope with the addition of another melodic line.
Notice that at times students are playing some quite dissonant harmonies e.g. a minor 7th (F-Eb), a 3 note cluster (G+D+F and C+D+F). It works becuase the lines students play are well constructed and simple within themselves and there is clarity in the way it is orchestrated.
Medieval Fayre (pub: Brolga Music)
Continuing the idea of writing in other modes apart from straight Bb major (e.g. C Dorian, D Phrygian etc) and of taking a more contrapuntal approach to writing, I wrote Medieval Fayre. This piece is in C Dorian, and like The Forge of Vulcan it has 9 different percussion instruments. Two further concepts influenced this piece, which are outlined below:
At university, I took a music history class with the stunning title – 18th Century Classicism in Music (with a title like that, it’s a wonder it hasn’t been made into a summer blockbuster movie). I don’t remember a great deal from this class (possibly because I may have slept through the odd lecture), but I do remember learning that in Mozart’s Symphony No.41, the final movement is in 5 part invertible counterpoint. (Even if you don’t know what that is, you have to admit that it sounds impressive.) Beginner students can’t play 5 part invertible counterpoint, which is handy because I can’t write 5 part invertible counterpoint. BUT, 2 part counterpoint is ok for them and me. So, in Medieval Fayre, I set out to write a melody and bass line that could be inverted (melody becomes the bass and vice-versa). Here’s what I came up with:
It’s not identical when inverted, but it’s pretty close. It also means that the lower brass and woodwinds get to play the melody and as a consequence they are required to achieve the same level of dexterity as the other players in the band.
The final influence stemmed from a question I often ask myself – “What can beginner students be asked do?” We often get caught up with what notes and rhythms the students can and can’t play and forget about all the other elements that make a performance musical. In the case of this piece, I focussed on crescendos. At multiple points through the piece, players are asked to crescendo through a half note (minim) or, in the case of the percussion, crescendo over 4 quavers. This creates musical interest and depth at a level that is achievable for young players.
You may find that after reading about some of my pieces, you just have to rush out and get them. I understand this urge completely and in order to help you fulfil your dream, here are some places you can go to buy them: jwpepper.com, sheetmusicplus, or your local band music retailer. If you like them a lot, why not buy copies for your friends and family? If you don’t like them, you can also use the parts for scrap paper, to wrap glassware when moving house, to start a camp fire and a million other things! Order by credit card right now and….
Whenever people talk about an artist “having something to say”, my mind immediately goes to a stereotypical angst ridden artist pontificating at great length in a boring voice about how their latest work is a juxtaposition of a basket weaving and a post modern interpretation of the life of cats…this is not what I mean. In fact, I’m not 100% sure what I mean by that phrase (no, please hang in there, it gets better I promise!), but “have something to say” is about the best way I can think of to express the concept I’m trying to get at. A related concept is one that Aretha Franklin said quite well – R.E.S.P.E.C.T. – respect for yourself as a composer and respect for the students who will play your piece. Great, but what does that mean? Here are some thoughts:
- Write something you are proud to put your name to
- Have a reason for writing the piece. I find it useful to be able to complete the sentence I wrote this piece because…
- Write something that has some depth. Even if it’s a supposedly “fluffy” genre like pop. After all, there is some pop music that says something and some pop music that says nothing (compare perhaps Superstition and What Does the Fox Say?).
A story might help illustrate…
I am a brass player/teacher which means that if I’m assisting at a concert band rehearsal, I often spend most of my time up the back of the room helping out the trumpets, low brass and percussion. Early on in my teaching career I found a couple of things extremely frustrating and I vowed to never write a piece that did either of these things – write percussion parts for only snare drum/bass drum, and to write boring low brass parts. Both of these things, in my opinion, led to a lack of skill development and/or students not wanting to play in band anymore. How on earth can you get trombone players to get excited about music and to improve as players if you write music like this –
I might be exaggerating the flute line a little, but I’ve seen way too many pieces where the low brass play literally that for the WHOLE PIECE! It is just not fair to write that for players. As a band director you also shouldn’t be surprised to you find that your low brass players quit and/or seem incapable of remembering any slide positions or valve combinations if that is what you ask them to play.
Beginner bands tend to have quite a few percussionists. What are you supposed to do when the piece only has a snare drum and a bass drum part and you have 7 percussionists? Triple the parts? I’ve found myself in situations like this where you are trying to get multiple percussionists involved and excited when there are very few parts for them to play – and it’s very difficult. There is a vast array of percussion colors out there – we as composers should use them. It is much easier (in my teaching experience) to have lots of parts but only a few percussionists, or to have lots of percussion instruments required, but you only have a limited number of instruments in your band. As a director, I then just encourage students to find ways to use the gear we have to get as close as possible to the sound the composer was after.
If you are sensing that poor writing for low brass and percussion is something that drives me crackers, you would be right. While I’m listing things that I find frustrating as a band director (and that I try to avoid as a composer) here are two more:
- Boring harmony. Just because you are writing for beginner students does not mean that you can only write straight primary triads in a major key. Personally, I find it very hard to write a piece that sounds fresh and original with just straight (major) primary triads fully voiced. One composer that I love that I think manages to write lots of major triads in an interesting way is Aaron Copland – check out Appalachian Spring
- Boring Form/Mindless Repetition. Repetition is good – compositionally it is one of the ways to tie a piece together and for beginner bands, it gives them less material to learn. But blanket copy and paste is generally boring and (dare I say it) a bit lazy. Re-voice, re-harmonise, re-orchestrate material when it is repeated and you will create a much more interesting work. I played a great piece with my band yesterday that illustrates this idea quite well – The Forbidden City by Michael Story. The same melody is presented 4 different ways, which creates a simple yet interesting piece.
Next time, I will post about a bunch of pieces I’ve written and what I was trying to say. It’s bound to be the most anticipated blog post of the year!
Remember – if you liked this post and found it helpful, tell your friends, if not, tell your enemies. 😉