Trapped by a Short Score

In my previous post I talked about the fact that when writing at the Gr0.5-1.0 level, you only have 5 “real” voices. To reflect this reality (and to save paper), some publishers only produce a short score at these grade levels which shows the following parts:

  • Flute/Oboe
  • Clarinet
  • Alto Sax
  • Trumpet
  • Low WW’s & Br.
  • Percussion

This can be a really useful guide if you are starting out writing for band as it reduces the seemingly very large numbers of parts in a band to a more manageable level.Writing to this basic template means that:

  • The bass part will be solid and in balance with the rest of the ensemble
  • The chart will be relatively “indestructible” – almost no matter what instruments are missing, or whether the band has one trumpet and 10 alto saxes, it will still largely work.
  • It limits your choices and forces you to simply what you are writing. This usually gives your piece much greater clarity and in turn makes it easier for students to play.

It’s useful to think of the band at this level as occupying 3 registers, high-middle-low, as shown below. Notice that there is only one “high” voice and one “low” voice. The only register where you can get any kind of close harmony  happening is in the middle register where you have 3 voices.1st Five Notes - Registers This then leads to a few basic tutti voicing options:

  1. Unison/Octaves. With the restricted range at this level, this is your only option for a tutti unison. RegalMarch_bar1
  2. 2 part – Fl./Cl./A.Sx, Tpt./Low WW’s & Br
    Vulcan Bar 1_4
  3. 3 part – Fl./Tpt in octaves (melody), Cl./A.Sx are unison (harmony). I also think of this as a Fl./Cl. pair and a Tpt./A.Sx pair where each pairing has equal weight on the melody and harmony.RegalMarch_bar5_6
  4. 31/2 part – Fl./Cl. in octaves, Tpt/A.Sx in harmony Lullaby_b40_43
  5. 3 part – Fl./Tpt in octaves, Cl./A.Sx in harmony Lullaby_b44

All good so far… But, there are some issues with this simplification. The first issue is an easy trap to fall into – treating the oboe as simply a flute double. As I highlighted in another previous post, this is a trap I certainly fell into (it’s not my fault, I play the trumpet your honor!). To highlights just two problems. The oboe gets louder (and more “honky”) as it goes lower, the flute gets softer and has more difficulty projecting as it goes lower. Changing from D to Eb is easy for the flute (just wiggle your RH little finger). On the oboe, not so much!

The second issue is “cut ‘n paste”. The ability to cut ‘n paste is one of the great advantages of computer notation. (Despite only being a youthful 17 yrs old, I’m old enough to have written out plenty of music by hand…every single darn note of it!). This can be a huge time saver. BUT it can also make us lazy orchestrators. Just give all the low WW’s and brass the same part, all the time, every time. Copy, paste…and you’re done! Double the flute and oboe, all the time, every time. Copy, paste…and you’re done! Copy, paste…and you’re done! Copy, paste…and you’re done! Copy, paste…and you’re done! See how easy it is! (I’ve resisted copying and pasting that phrase a bunch of times as well).

Lack of colour in orchestration gives charts a sameness. Every piece sounds like the last one. every piece has that “beginner” band sound. It also generates a tendency to always double everything. Why not, it doesn’t take any extra effort to just get the trumpets to join in on the clarinet part, all the time. A better approach is to follow some advice I heard from a publisher a few years ago –

orchestrate for what you want tone colour wise then cue parts to cover

You just need to be careful not to overdo this and end up with a part that has so much cued and non cued material that a beginner player can’t sort it all out. A common place I’ve used cue parts is on bass lines. Sometimes I will just want to have the bass clarinet and bassoon playing the bass line, but I will usually also cue it on baritone sax, trombone and euphonium. That way I get the best of both worlds.

Consider also continual doubling of parts from a players point of view. Imagine being the bassoon player in the band, but you can never hear yourself  because there is always louder bass instruments playing along with you. How long will you stick with it? Conversely, what a joy to actually hear a bassoon timbre in a junior piece? Sure, the tone might be a bit dodgey and intonation might be special, but have you heard beginners on other instruments recently? (Admit it, we’ve all had that magic brass player in our band who can never hit the same pitch twice in a row.)

So, short scores are useful in lots of ways, but if you’re not careful they can also limit your creativity. This is unlike coffee and chocolate…nothing but goodness there!

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