Archive | January 2015

Bach to the Future

Firstly, sorry about the terrible musical pun in the title, but sometimes you just can’t help yourself.

I was at a new music reading day at the end of last year where a bunch of music teachers smashed our way through about 30 new concert band pieces. A couple of things struck me about the music we played:

  1. Good pop charts are hard to find. I won’t name and shame, but we played a few truly awful arrangements of some classic rock/pop tunes. Some of which left me mystified as to how you could mess up an arrangement of a piece that had so many great riffs…but that’s a rant for another day.
  2. So many charts sound the same. Even at harder levels, much of what we played just smooched into one inoffensive, well-crafted piece of vanilla. Given the sheer volume of new music produced every year, this is a bit unsurprising. My take away lesson though: as a comparatively unknown writer, in a country half the world struggle to find on map, I figure there is no future in me producing music like this. As a teacher, I don’t want my students to play music like this because there is not much to learn from it: musically, artistically, or technically.

As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot over the Christmas/New Year break about how I can continue to find something original to say as a writer, and to write music that has musical depth, whilst still being accessible for students to play. Enter J.S. Bach and the awful pun.

In 2013, in one of those moments all band directors have where you look through the filing cabinet of charts with a slight air of desperation trying to find something for the band to play, I stumbled across an arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Bist Du Bei Mir by Anne McGinty (published by Queenwood). My band ended up playing this piece as part of our final concert for that year. These holidays I brought the score home to look at the arrangement a bit closer and see what I could learn from it (yes, I know, I should have completed a Ph.D analysing the work before I started rehearsing it with my band, but sometimes you just don’t have the time or energy).

Armed with my new found insights into the oboe, I immediately noticed that the range of the oboe part is from a low D up to Eb (the one an octave above, not the semitone above…otherwise it would be a pretty boring part!). No need for the oboe player to do contortions trying to get up to the F and beyond.

As is common in beginner level pieces, the low brass and woodwind are grouped together on one stave and just play the bass line. But because this is Bach, the bass part is as melodic and demanding as any of the other parts. No 16 bars of nothing but Bb here. I should warn you at this point that I’m about to get on my soapbox. Feel free to skip ahead, I’ll let you know when I’ve climbed down.

I find it extremely frustrating when the lower brass and woodwind players get charts where they basically play Bb, Eb and F the whole time, and barely get out of whole notes. Is it any wonder that players quit and/or in later years seem incapable of playing anything harder? In my experience it’s hard enough as it is getting students onto the larger instruments, without punishing them with boredom for doing so.

Ok, it’s safe to come back, I’m off my soapbox now.

Rhythmically this piece is quite accessible. It’s in 3/4 with an 1/8 note as the smallest rhythmic element – mainly in pairs. There are only two instances of 1/8th notes not in pairs, but each is used multiple times.



There is some nice variation in tonal colour throughout the piece. Most of the time the entire band is playing, but within that tutti instrumentation, there is still good use of tonal variation to create interest for the listener. The melody is played by the following combinations:

  • Flute+Oboe+Trumpet+Bells
  • Flute+Oboe+Clarinets+Alto Sax+Bells
  • Flute+Oboe+Clarinet 1+Bells

Notice that the melody is always strongly supported (always a good thing for beginning ensembles).

The one use of a non-tutti orchestration is when the trumpet 1 has the melody, low brass and wood winds drop out and the accompaniment is played by:

  • Fl/Ob+Cl1+Cl2+AS/TS/FHn.

Whilst providing a nice lighter texture, it also only lasts for 5 beats so the band shouldn’t completely fall apart in that time.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this piece is the use of tonality and harmony. Key wise the piece moves through the following key centres:

  • Bb major
  • F major
  • G minor

Harmonically there is an extensive use of 1st inversion, inverted dominant 7ths, secondary dominantly and even the odd half diminished chord. In other words, quite a sophisticated harmonic vocabulary (Bach seems to know what he was doing!) yet it remains quite accessible for the players.

All in all it makes me reflect on the fact that simple and easy are not the same thing. Beginning bands need repertoire that is ‘easy’ to play, but that doesn’t mean that our writing has to be simple or shallow. I doubt I will ever be considered in even vaguely the same league as Bach, but I wonder whether he provides an example of what I need to aim for in the future.

My New Year’s Resolution

I have a slightly unusual New Year’s resolution…to write better oboe parts. This is unlikely to make the top 10 lists of resolutions on a late night talk show, but unlike TV lists, there is a pretty good chance that this one might actually happen!

I must confess that the oboe is not an instrument I know a huge amount about. My excuse – many of the schools where I have taught didn’t have any double reed players, let alone in any beginner band, so I didn’t need to know much about them in a practical teaching sense. Alright, so that’s not a great excuse – sorry oboe players. (And you’ve got to be nice to oboe players…I mean have you seen them at rehearsals sitting there whittling away at their reeds with a really sharp knife? That’s one player in the ensemble you don’t want to mess with!)

When I began writing for beginner bands, I just copied what lots of beginner band scores seemed to do and had the oboe double the flute. And if you look up the first five notes in a band method book for oboe, they start in the same place as the flutes do. So it’s really easy to think what you should do is just to treat the oboe as a flute-double, all the time. With copy and paste so easy to do in notation programs, you end up just writing a flute part and a bit of copy and paste later  – voila! An oboe part appears! But here’s a quick quiz…

  1. Which is the most awkward fingering combo for oboe in the first five method book notes? (i.e. Bb, C, D, Eb, F)
  2. What range does an oboe player have by the end of book 1 in a method book?

To be honest, I couldn’t have answered this question 3 months ago. After making my usual joke about double reed instruments something of a black art at a workshop, a kind oboe teacher took me aside and explained the facts of life about learning the oboe (thanks, Marcus!). So, now I know the shift between Eb and F and the shift between Ab and Bb super awkward for beginner oboe players. That’s not to say don’t ever use them, but not in faster passages or repeatedly over and over. (If you want to play along at home, try moving your 1st/3rd fingers alternately with your 2nd/4th fingers. If you’ve forgotten how hard this co-ordination trick can be, get a small child to try it and watch what happens!).By the end of book 1 of a band method book, oboe players have learnt down to a low C. Yeah, that’s right, you heard me, A LOW C. I’ll be honest, I had no idea that they went that low that early. BUT, a small caveat here. Just because they have learnt it, this doesn’t mean you should start your next Gr.0.5 masterpiece on a solo low C for oboe. Perhaps this quote will help guide your decision making process:

“Low C can be like a fog horn or a squeaky half dead goose”

In short, mostly stick to low D to the Eb in the top space of the staff.

Since  learning all this great new stuff about about, I’ve looked at the scores of some great pieces for beginner band, and guess what, they have the oboe going down. Who woulda thunk it!

So, after all that I’ve learnt two things:

  1. Writing for oboe is like escaping a burning building…get down low and go, go, go.
  2. Be careful who you copy. If you’re starting out as a writer for beginner bands, look at scores to learn how it’s done, BUT make sure you look at great writers. Otherwise, you end up perpetuating the weakness and faults of the poorly written charts for this level. And what happens when we write unnecessarily hard parts? Funnily enough, players struggle in band rehearsals, get frustrated, think it’s their fault and that it’s all too hard, and they quit. Then we wonder why so many programs struggle to have a thriving double reed section.

I still haven’t had the thrill of trying to play an oboe or bassoon yet, but at least now I should be writing slightly better parts for them to play.


P.S. I figure as long as I post this within a week from Jan 1, I can still talk about New Year’s Resolutions.