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Stuck

Let’s just say, it’s not going well. My last 3 pieces were knocked back by publishers (as is their right to do) and so far this year I’ve managed to complete a grand total of…(drum roll)…nothing. Sure I’ve started lots of pieces, but I’ve not actually managed to finish any. Not for lack of trying mind you, but I just seem to get STUCK.

Frankly this blog post isn’t going much better. I write one sentence then spend 5 minutes debating what to write next. This is my third attempt at this sentence (yes, the one that says “this is my third attempt at this sentence”). I start, stop, change my mind, can’t quite figure out what I’m trying to say, have a mental debate, start, stop…well you get the idea.

That’s pretty much how my writing is going as well. Before I spend another few hours and 50 words agonizing over why I’m having trouble writing anything, it’s probably more useful to try and answer this question:

What am I going to do about it?

Well my solution right now is to try to write a blog post instead of writing a piece of music. (This isn’t exactly a stellar effort at a blog post, but if you’re reading this, at least I managed to post it which is something at least). My next bunch of ideas are:

  1. Listen to some music
  2. Analyse some pieces I like
  3. Keep writing. Write anything. Don’t worry about finishing, or if it’s good or bad, just write stuff
  4. Work through a harmony book (Vincent Persichetti’s Twentieth-Century Harmony to be precise)
  5. Lather, rinse repeat

I figure sooner or later things will change, hopefully sooner…

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!

Less than you think!

One of the hidden challenges in writing at the Gr.0.5-1.0 level is that there are less “real” voices than you might think. By “real” voices I mean the parts that you can definitely count on to be present in a band and for whom you can write an independent part. Whilst pieces at this level are always scored for a complete band, you are effectively only writing for 5 “real” parts – Flute, Clarinet, Alto Sax, Trumpet, Trombone (+ Percussion). An example of publisher guidelines that give a sense of this can be found here.

So what’s going on?

You always score for a complete band, regardless of the level, because that is what a band is – a complete grouping of woodwind, brass and percussion instruments. This means you must have parts for Flute, Oboe, Bassoon, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Alto Sax, Tenor Sax, Baritone Sax, Trumpet, Horn, Trombone, Baritone, Tuba, Percussion. Then at the beginner levels, in order to provide strength and security for young players, you only have 1 part per instrument (e.g. clarinet, not clarinet 1, 2), but there are still complete families of instruments. So why only 5 “real” voices? Why not an independent oboe part? What about the horn? Surely they could play a different note to the trumpets or trombones?

A large, well established music program will have players for all of the parts – so no problems there. But small and mid-sized music programs will not. And, regardless of size, every music program will have a beginner/ junior concert band of some kind playing Gr0.5-1.0 music. But as the size of a music program decreases, the level of the most senior concert band generally falls. So when writing a Gr.4 level piece, you don’t have to worry about the band having no oboe, or horn. After all, if the program has a band capable of playing at this level, they will have all the instruments being played. But at the beginning levels, you can’t be sure. In fact, you can be sure that many, possibly the majority of them, won’t have a complete band.

What instruments will they have? The ones that are small, cheap, well recognised/comparatively popular in the general community. In other words – flute, clarinet, alto sax, trumpet, trombone and percussion. The alto sax is the most expensive of these, but this is offset by probably having the best image in popular culture. Trombone is probably the hardest of these to recruit players for. Most of the other band instruments are more expensive, less well recognised and unfortunately not so popular. After all, when was the last time you had students queuing up to play bassoon? Have you seen the price of an oboe recently or the face of a parent who has to choose between transporting a flute or a tuba?

My experience bears this out. I have worked a quite a number of schools, of different sizes, and run in different ways (government, independent, Catholic, parent controlled). Even when running small bands of less than 10 students, I invariably had at least 1 flute, 1 clarinet, 1 alto sax, 1 trumpet and 1 percussion (with access to a snare drum, triangle, tambourine, wood block, maybe bells [glockenspiel], maybe a bass drum). Trombone was typically the most likely bass instrument, but even this could be a bit hit and miss affair. Sometimes, I didn’t have any bass instrument at all.

Some publishers recognise this reality in the way their print the score. Rather than a full score, they will have a short score with lines for:

  • Flute/Oboe
  • Clarinet
  • Alto Sax
  • Trumpet
  • Low WW’s & Br. (= bassoon, bass clarinet, baritone sax, trombone, baritone and tuba (8vb))
  • Percussion

Horn and tenor sax will typically be indicated by +Hn, or -T.Sx on either the alto sax part or on the Low WW & Br part.

So, not only are you limited in having one part per instrument, now you don’t even have some of the instruments! That lovely 3 part fugue for flute, oboe and bassoon punctuated by a majestic brass chorale, is probably toast. It’s not all bad news though. If you are a beginning writer, this short score is a great place to start. It provides a decent guide to what can/should double what and, if your piece sounds good with this reduced instrumentation, it will sound great with a full band.

But…the short score can easily start limit our creativity and it conceals at least one problem. I’ll explore both of these issues  and talk about the way that having such a limited number of “real” voices might challenge us to rethink our approach to composition at this level in my next post(s)…

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.

BistDuBirMir2

 

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.

Ancient Voices – Take #2

Ancient Voices – Take #2

This is a continuation of my previous post where I began looking at Michael Sweeney’s piece Ancient Voices. In this post I’ll look at some of the harmony and orchestration approaches that Michael uses.

Harmony

The first harmonic element in this piece is a 5 note cluster! In a grade 1 piece!!!!!! Yes, I think it needs that many “!”s. This is not what you would typically expect to see in a piece at this level. But, just like the tempo changes I discussed in the previous post, Michael is clever with how he writes the cluster in order to make sure that it is successful.

AncientVoicesScoreExcerpt#7

  1. The cluster is scored for alto sax (2 parts)  and clarinet (3 parts). Let’s be honest, pitching on a woodwind instrument at this level is much more accurate on woodwinds than on brass. Brass tend to play clusters by accident rather than design in the early years of learning.
  2. It starts with all 5 parts in unison, then moves out to the 5 notes…slowly! This gives the players an easy starting point and enables them to hear the chord develop, rather than just trying to land on a cluster out of the blue.
  3. The cluster is repeated for 5 bars, before being repeated a minor 3rd higher for 2 bars and then returning to the original cluster for one bar. The relatively static nature of the cluster enables students to adjust to the sound of the cluster and for the chord to “settle”.
  4. 1st clarinet outlines the entire chord. Getting pyramid structures/entries to work in an ensemble can be tricky. For some reason, students struggle with having to enter one after another and someone always misses their entry. By having everyone start together and then some players just stop “early” works much better. Having the 1st clarinet play the entire cluster entry means that every entry/note will be heard, every time. I used a variation on this approach at the end of my piece Race to the Moon.
  5. Race to the Moon pyramid chord example
  6. Notice also that in bar 7, the trumpets add another new pitch to the cluster for a total of 6 different pitches sounding at once! BUT the trumpets are scored in 3rds –  a much easier interval to hear and play together for the trumpets. Notice also that the trumpet part could not having been played by the clarinets without crossing the break. So, if you swapped the clarinet and trumpet parts around, this chord would not be as successfully realised by a junior ensemble.
  7. Having a consonant interval at the top of the chord voicing opens it up a little and gives some clarity to the chord.
  8. In bar 9, the flute line includes an eighth pitch (Db) to the sound! What other piece have you played where 8 pitches are sounded simultaneously and successfully…by a junior band? I’m willing to bet that unless you actually analyse the score, neither you as a director or the students have any idea that there are that many pitches being sounded. Some reasons why this works are as follows:
  9. The entries are staggered (WW cluster, then tpts, then flute melody) which gives the listener’s ear time to adjust and shift focus.
  10. Successive entries are lighter/ /more open than the previous entry (cluster, then a 3rd, then a unison line)
  11. Clarity in orchestration. Each entry is in a clearly defined tone color, in a clearly defined register, with good rhythmic separation between the melody (foreground) and the sustained chord (background). This is what gets you good marks in orchestration 101 🙂

Apart from the cluster chords (which I’ve just spent 600+ words droning on about), Michael also uses some straight triads, min7 chords and some sus type chords as seen here in this section at bar 18

AncientVoicesScoreExcerpt#4

This is scored for 2 clarinets, alto sax, tenor sax, french horn, and low WW’s/Brass which gives it a nice warm, lush sound. One interesting thing to note is the way the first chord is orchestrated. The 3 notes in the bass stave (A, E, A) are given to the french horn, trombone (aka Euphonium/low WW’s) and tuba. How would you distribute the notes? The default (and slightly unthinking option) would be to just “go down the score”. F.Hn = A, Tbn = E, Tba = A. Instead, the F.Hn is given the E. This keeps the tbns and tba in octaves for this passage. Once again Michael sets the band up for success because this is easier for the players to pitch (the trombones being beside the tuba, whilst the french horns are usually on the other side of the band). This kind of attention to detail in orchestration is what you also find in the great writing for symphony orchestra.

AncientVoicesScoreExcerpt#5

Repetition/Orchestration

Repetition is great in beginning level pieces because there is less material for the students to learn. As a composer, you will create a much stronger work if you try to exploit the possibilities found in a small amount of material rather than just jumping from new idea to new idea. But simple, mindless cut ‘n paste repetition is almost always boring at the very least and leads to a weaker piece. Ancient Voices uses orchestration as a means to create 16 bars of material from one simple 2 bar motif.

AncientVoicesScoreExcerpt#6

First it’s played by the lower WW’s/Brass, then it is immediately repeated with the addition of the trumpets. Then there is a two bar percussion interlude (based on the opening of the piece), before the motif is played by the trumpets, then with the addition of the flute+oboe+glockenspiel. A one bar variation in 1/4 notes is then played by the trumpets, then trumpets + flute + oboe + clarinet, then by the entire band in unison/octaves (bar 56-57).

I think I still have more things to rave about in this piece, by I’ll leave them for next time…

Ancient Voices – Take #1

Ancient Voices

Instead of my usual self-absorbed, ego-driven analysis of my own works, I thought I talk about someone else’s work for a change – Michael Sweeney’s piece Ancient Voices

You can find a recording of Ancient Voices here.

I am currently rehearsing this piece with my Yr.8 band (~27 students. the majority of whom have been learning for approximately 18 months). This will be about the 4th time I have done this piece with a band. I keep coming back to it because as a conductor I find that:

  • I think it’s a great piece of music
  • It explores sounds, textures and techniques that I don’t find in other works
  • It has depth. This means that there is stuff in there to rehearse beyond getting the right note with the right rhythm. It enables me to teach music, not just notes.

As I composer, I like it because it’s a great illustration of what I’ve been banging on about in previous posts and I’ve learnt a lot from studying it.

It turns out that I’ve learnt so much, that it won’t all fit into one post, so I’ll break it up into at least two posts. So, in no particular order, things I have learnt from this piece are:

Easy ways to achieve new tone colors:

Michael writes for what he wants, but provides options in case it’s not possible. In the opening bars trumpets are in straight mutes, flutes double on recorder. Both of these options are easy to do and relatively cheap to accomplish ( a recorder ~$9, a straight mute $16).Both options provide an interesting new tonal color. In marketing speak, it helps create a point of difference .

Imaginative Percussion Writing:

Look at the percussion in the first 4 bars:

  • a bass drum roll
  • hit rim of BD
  • hit center of head (as opposed to normal spot…how does this sound different, do you as a composer know? If not, you can’t use a color you don’t know or can’t imagine!)
  • snares off (as opposed to on)
  • stick on dome of cymbal
  • castanets
  • soft mallets on a cymbal roll
  • wind chimes
  • medium/low tom
  • triangle

Notice that none of these (expect perhaps the roll) are hard. Hitting the centre of the bass drum head, or the dome of the cymbal is no harder than hitting it anywhere else. It does require the percussionist to read the instruction, think about what they are doing, and actively consider the tone color they are producing. Hey, maybe percussion is a serious instrument. Maybe, just maybe we shouldn’t just get any old person to “fill in” on percussion if they forget their clarinet one week. After all, we expect/demand the woodwind and brass players to engage seriously with their part and we never get one of the percussion players to just “fill in” on clarinet. On clarinet it matters whether it’s an F or F#, even for beginners, so why shouldn’t in matter where you hit the bass drum or cymbal? (there endeth the rant about taking percussion seriously and demanding more from our percussion players).

Leveraging what students CAN do

Continuing on the tone color theme, Michael effectively leverages what students CAN do at this level to create unique sounds and textures. In bar 34-45, virtually the whole band plays percussion via a pencil striking the music stand. Again this is cheap! It’s a good excuse to ensure everyone in the band has a pencil. It also enables you to rehearse a percussion rhythm with the whole band. As a conductor I love this because I can afford to spend time with the percussion section to really nail the rhythm and accents, without the rest of the band going bananas and setting the building on fire (trust me, leave brass players alone for 2 minutes and you’ll need a sheepdog to help you herd them back into line!*) (* this may be a slight exaggeration)

In bar 13-16 and bar 46-49 he asks the students to sing a sustained open 5ths. One note only, the only syllable is “Ahh”. Need I say that this a cheap way to generate a new tonal color? And what’s not to like about getting your students to sing?

Changing tempo is not hard!

Changing tempo with in a piece is not hard, even for beginners provided that:

  • the tempo changes are easily understood (e.g. twice as fast/half as fast)
  • only 2 tempos are involved (i.e. there is a “slow tempo” and a “fast” tempo)
  • they don’t happen to often (every two bars is unlikely to work)
  • The transitions are well thought out

Does Mr Sweeney do this? You bet your Grandma’s apple strudel he does!* (*Today is the last day of term…if you are a teacher you’ll understand that I’m a little “punchy” today). The piece starts with a slow tempo (76bpm). At bar 34 it doubles tempo (152bpm). If you look at the transition from bar 33 into bar 34 you’ll notice no-one has to actually “make” the tempo change – i.e. no-one plays a specific rhythm on both sides of the tempo change. In bar 33, there is a sustained note in the brass and the percussion only has a bass drum roll and a wind chime gliss. This means that the conductor can use bar 33 to set up the band for the new tempo at b.34. Smooth!

AncientVoicesScoreExcerpt#1

In bar 69, the tempo reverts to the original slow tempo (76bpm). If you look at this transition, again no-one has to “make” the tempo shift straight away. The woodwinds and brass have a sustained note (they only need to watch the conductor for a bar!). The percussion play on beat 1 (easy), BUT they rest on beat 2. This is the crucial beat for the conductor to “show” the new tempo and therefore for the players to adjust to the new tempo and in this case, all players have to do is watch beat 2, they don’t have to play beat 2. The only movement on beats 3 and 4 is in the percussion, so the conductor can focus entirely on ensuring that they have adjusted to the new tempo. Nice!

AncientVoicesScoreExcerpt#2

At bar 79, the tempo doubles to 156bpm again. This is the trickiest tempo change because percussion and low brass do play across this change. But, by this point they should be pretty aware of what the fast tempo will be having played it before. Because the tempo is doubling, for the percussion it is no harder than moving from 1/8 notes to 1/16th notes, despite how it looks on the page. Notice also that the percussion accents line up with the low WW/Br rhythm and that the rhythmic pattern continues in subsequent bars.

AncientVoicesScoreExcerpt#3

There are a bunch of other great things going on harmonically and orchestration wise in this piece as well, but I’ll look at them next time.

I’m Not A Conductor…

The other week, I had a revelation – I’m not a conductor. Now those who have been in ensembles I’ve conducted in the past may possibly be shouting “darn straight!” at this point, but before you get too excited bagging my conducting skills, let’s back it up a little and I’ll explain what I mean.

What I realised is this – my primary job when I am in front of an ensemble is to rehearse the ensemble. This is not quite the same as conducting an ensemble. The difference is subtle, but important. Changing how I think about my job, changes how I view my skill set (and thus where I need to improve) and changes what things I will spend time on in a rehearsal, and possibly more importantly what I will ignore.

Sidebar – I know that this blog is meant to be about composing for young bands BUT

  1. It’s my blog and I’ll write what I want to… (for a more in-depth analysis of this worldview, go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XsYJyVEUaC4 )
  2. I think that the skills required to effectively rehearse a band have a considerable overlap with the skills required to compose/orchestrate music for young bands. After all, my approach to writing percussion is heavily influenced by my experiences in band rehearsals with 7 percussionists and nothing but a snare drum part on every piece. Being aware of how easy or hard a passage is to rehearse/perform is a key feature of effective writing.

So, with that out of the way, let’s go exploring!

I think rehearsing a band effectively involves four things:

  1. Knowing what you want the final result to sound like.
    • Listen to a professional recording of the piece
    • Think through the piece (look through the score) and decide questions like:
      • Who has the melody?
      • Who has the counter-melody (if there is one)?
      • Who has the accompaniment?
    • Remember, if you don’t have a target, you can’t hit it!
  2. Knowing what your band ACTUALLY sounds like.
    • Actually listen to them!
    • Don’t sing along – it’s all too easy to convince yourself that a line is being played properly when it’s not…see previous point.
    • It’s better to mess up your “5 against 4 beat pattern, whilst simultaneously indicating a slight staccato and diminuendo and accelerando” and actually listen, than the other way around (P.S. if you can make your junior band actually do all that by reading your beat pattern, you probably don’t need to be reading this blog)
  3. Realistically assess how close your ensemble can get to your ideal, final result given constraints of time and skill level.
  4. Have a bag of techniques and rehearsal tactics to get you quickly, efficiently and enjoyably to your final goal.

Notice the emphasis on having a solid musical concept, being able to listen critically, and having a suite of rehearsal (aka classroom management) techniques. Contrast this with how I’ve spent most of my time in conducting courses. Most conducting courses I’ve experienced tend to focus on things like:

  • Beat patterns
  • Tricky bits (fermata, cuts etc)
  • Technical beat patterns (6/8 to ¾ or alternating 5/8 and 7/8)
  • LH vs RH gestures
  • Prep beats/starting to conducting when the phrase begins on an upbeat (anacrusis)
  • Gestures to reflect musical elements such as dynamics, articulation, phrasing

Now, this is all good stuff. Technique is important. Please don’t take this post to mean that you should never improve your conducting technique. Good technique = more clarity = desired result faster.

BUT, I reckon you could get away with the following bare minimum, provided you have a solid grasp of what I described above in terms of rehearsing a band:

  • Count in at a consistent speed (if you can’t, then buy a metronome)
  • Count in at the right speed (if you can’t, then buy a metronome)
  • Keep a consistent speed (if you can’t, buy a metronome)
  • Be consistent at the “corners” aka “tricky bits” (always do the fermata the same way so students can understand, even if it’s technically “wrong”)

Much I what I’ve learned about rehearsing a band, I’ve either:

  • Stolen from other conductors I’ve played under or worked with
  • Experimented on the job
  • Read books to learn more

Some really helpful books I’ve read are:

In looking up those books titles, I once again re-read the first page of Francis McBeth’s book. I found myself once again shouting “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Dear Bandmaster,

The above salutation is used because I want you to read this. If the usual “Preface” were printed here, it would be overlooked. In reviewing our beginnings as conductors, I’m sure we had similar educational backgrounds. This is not meant to criticize higher education, but the carryover of usable information from university to job tends to be infinitesimal. Ninety percent of the workable technique that I use as a conductor-clinician, I never heard of in school. Professional articles do not offer much assistance. With bated breath you read the articles like “Getting the Good Sound From Your Bass Clarinets,” where the writer tells you to be sure players have good instruments; to make sure they are seated while playing; to use a cane reed; etc., etc. The more serious periodical is no better. It usually offers something like a complete analysis of the accented passing tones in the Hindemith Symphony. Such an analysis may be interesting, but you are looking for solutions that actually work and that can be used in tomorrow’s rehearsal.

Hopefully, this blog follows McBeth’s example in providing real, practical advice on writing for bands, or in this case, what we are really doing when we stand in front of a band each week.

 

 

…now break ’em

That’s what we all like to hear. Forget the rules, do what you want! Unfortunately I was using a bit of dramatic licence with the title for this post. We’re not really going to break the rules – more like bend them a little, find hidden nooks and crannies, poke around in dark corners…you get the idea.

First though, a reminder – you can’t break the rules if you don’t know them. See my previous post to brush up on some of them if you are a little hazy. Learn the guidelines for the grade level you are writing for and why they are what they are. BUT, this is not a helpful place to write from. Just worrying about sticking to the rules get us focussed on the negative and stifles creativity. It’s a bit like trying to avoid a tree when riding a bike. If all you think about is “I must not crash into that tree”, you will almost always….crash into the tree. We hit what we focus on! So, to avoid the tree, look at the space beside the tree. Musically this means ask postive questions like “What can they do?” or “How can I write a ______ piece at this level?”

Let’s start with thinking about what students CAN do. Imagine a concert band rehearsal where everyone has had just one lesson on their instrument. What can they do at this point?

  1. They can start and stop making sound (noise?) together
  2. They can make sound as an instrument family (e.g. all the woodwinds, all the brass), which means you can do call and response type sounds between them
  3. They can do lots of funky 2oth C extended techniques e.g. key slaps, blowing air through their instrument
  4. They can sing, clap, stamp feet etc
  5. They can play loud or soft

Notice we haven’t played a note yet…but we could write a piece that uses lots of atmospheric sounds. Why not use the fact that even playing a unison note is a tricky business for a band after one lesson and use random note clusters? One thing beginners brass players (and dare I suggest especially beginner French Horn players) can do really well is random pitching 🙂 Lots of air and not much sound…sounds like a job for a few beginner flute players I know.

Now let’s think outside your favourite enclosed shape (why should it be a square?). When the publishers say Gr 0.5 can use Bb major and Eb major key signatures, that doesn’t quite mean you have to write in Bb major or Eb major. Sure, the key signature needs to have either 2 or 3 flats, but that’s not quite the same thing as a major scale. Instead think of it as a pitch set. After about 6 pages in a beginner method book, students can play (concert) A, Bb, C, D, Eb, F and G. As I noted in previous posts this could be A locrian, Bb major, C dorian, D phrygian, Eb lydian, F mixolydian and G natural minor. Or it could be Bb or Eb major pentatonic, C or D minor pentatonic…the list goes on. Now, given that students can only play those notes in one octave at this point, some scales/modes are trickier to write in than others. But at least we now have a much bigger palette of tonalities to choose from. By midway through a beginner method book, students have also added Ab (high and low) and E natural, creating more scale/tonality options. My pieces have used Major (Regal March , Lullaby) Dorian (The Forge of Vulcan, Medieval Fayre , Conquest), Phrygian (Market in Marrakesh), Lydian Dominant (Race to the Moon) to name a few.

Beginner level guidelines usually emphasise writing/orchestrating pieces so that they can be played by bands with limited instrumentation. This is a good thing, but it’s very easy to fall into the trap of having everyone playing all the time – just in case. The result is a lack of colour in the piece, everything comes out grey. A great piece of advice I heard at a music conference was to “write what you want, and cross cue to cover”. If you want a section of your piece to be an oboe solo with bass clarinet accompaniment, then write it that way. BUT, cue the oboe part on the flutes, cue the bass clarinet on the bassoon, baritone sax and trombone. That way if you have a band with all the instruments and the can play it with just the oboe and bass clarinet -great! But, if the band only has flute, and trombone, they can play it too. The middle section of my piece Race to the Moon is a good example of this.Race to the Moon- Cue Example #1In this case, I wanted to have just the flutes, oboe and bassoon playing. However, I’ve also cued the bassoon part on the bass clarinet and baritone sax. As it happens, I’m doing this piece with a band at the moment and although I have a bassoon player, it’s better when I get the baritone sax player to help him out at this point. But, at least there is a change in colour for the bass line at this point and the bassoon player actually gets a chance to be heard (which is a bit rare in beginner band pieces).

Another great piece of advice I’ve been given is “it’s ok to introduce one new thing in a piece that is one step away from what students already know”. This means that if you absolutely have to have an F# in your Gr. 0.5 piece (which they haven’t learnt yet), then that’s ok. Provided that’s the only new note in your piece, and you haven’t also got a new rhythm, or a new something else.

My mother always said it’s more polite to take small bites rather than stuff the whole thing in your mouth at once…so with her wisdom ringing in my ears, I’ll leave it there for now. I’ve still got some other thoughts and ideas, so there’ll be a part 2, to this part 2!

 

 

Know The Rules…

Well, that’s a headline that sells newspapers…(If you like that, you should check out my self-help bestseller Success – It’s way harder than you think!). I should say from the outset that this is part 1 of a two-part post. Part 2 will be …now break them – something that has much more appeal for our inner rebel.

I’m assuming that you have some level understanding of the “rules” of harmony, melody, how instruments work, instrument transposition etc. That’s not what I’m talking about in this post. Instead, I’m talking about music publishers rules. Actually, they are more like guidelines that they strongly encourage you to stick to, but it sounds edgier to say “rules”. Pick up almost any Concert Band piece and on the front of the score it will say something like “Grade 1” or “Medium Easy”. This tells you how the publisher has graded or rated the difficulty level of the piece.

All publishers grade the difficulty level of the pieces they publish. Exactly how they define each level varies slightly, but most adopt some kind of system that grades pieces from 1 to 5, with 1 the easiest and 5 the hardest. Often publishers will further refine these grades at the easy levels so it’s not uncommon to find pieces graded on a scale of 0.5, 1.0, (1.5), 2.0, (2.5), 3.0, 4.0, and 5.0. Some examples of publishers grading systems can be found at Brolga, Alfred/Belwin, Grand Mesa Music. For each grading level, publishers have guidelines about:

  1. Note choices – e.g. at the very easy (Grade 0.5) level, notes are restricted to the first 5 or 6 notes students learn. More about this later in the post.
  2. Range considerations for both instruments and parts for the same instrument. The 3rd trumpet part will have a lower allowable range than the 1st trumpet part.
  3. Key signature choices – note that key signature is not the same as tonality. A key signature of two flats can mean Bb major, G minor, C Dorian, D Phrygian…
  4. Rhythmic choices – no septuplets for beginners! (amongst other things)
  5. Time Signature choices
  6. Other scoring considerations with relation to solos, cross cueing and other similar issues

Alfred Publishing has its guidelines quite freely available on their website and often on the back of the “folder” music comes packaged in. You can find it here.

I have a hunch that one of the key reasons people have their piece rejected by publishers is because they break these guidelines, either by accident or deliberately (“rules are sooo restrictive man…I just want to write freely”, or “that’s just the way I wrote it, the 3rd trumpet has to play a high ‘C’ pianissimo or my vision will be lost”).

There are good, practical reasons why publishers have these guidelines and a great deal of thought has gone into developing them, even if you don’t agree or like them. It is important to note that sticking to the guidelines in most important when writing for the easiest grade levels. Publishing guidelines mean that:

  1. There is consistency in difficulty level across each part and to a lesser degree within each part. This prevents the situation where the flute part is crazy hard, but the clarinet part is very easy. In this case, either the flutes flounder or the clarinets are super bored. It also helps prevent a situation where 95% of the flute part is quite playable by a second year student, but 5% is only playable by a university graduate. Ok, that may be an exaggeration, but you get the idea.
  2. Pieces correlate to the general instrumental music pedagogy out there in the real world. (woo-hoo, I’ve used pedagogy in a sentence. It may even be used correctly….). Let me explain. Most students in Australia (where I live) and in the USA learn to play woodwind, brass and percussion instruments in some kind of ensemble based program using a band method book as a key part of the instruction. The big music publishers all have their own method book (e.g. Essential Elements, Tradition of Excellence, Accent on Achievement, The Yamaha Advantageand most of these are evolutions of previous method books. This equals a great deal of thought and experimentation wrestling with the question “what is the best way to start beginner students so that they can all play together in a band from virtually their first lesson?”. Inevitably this involves some compromises, with some instruments having to compromise more than others (Oboe and French Horn being two classic examples). If you look at these various method books, you will see that they have all reached essentially the same conclusion. They all start with:
    • the first 5 notes of the Bb major scale, and slowly expanding outwards to the one octave Bb major scale (+ a semitone [half step] below). The first note outside the Bb major scale is usually concert Ab, followed by concert E.
    • note values of a whole, half and quarter notes (semibreve, minim, crotchet), which then expands to include dotted 1/2 notes, 1/8th note pairs, and then dotted 1/4 + 1/8 notes.
    • Time signatures of 4/4, 3/4, 2/4
    • Medium tempos
  3. Notice that this correlates to the guidelines for grade 0.5 to grade 1 pieces. In other words, the guidelines spell out what the students actually know at this point in their learning. You could argue that beginner students could easily play in 6/8 and in concert C major after learning for 9 months, but this is not what students are generally taught in the first year of learning, so to write a band piece in C major and 6/8 aimed at level 0.5 is almost inevitably a doomed exercise.
  4. It ensures similar scoring options across the grade level.
    • At the grade 0.5 level, there will only be 1 trumpet part, 1 french horn part and 1 trombone/baritone part (with Tuba the octave below). This reflects the fact that pitching is tricky for beginner brass players and unison parts for each instrument provides them with the greatest chance of success. There are similar restrictions on the number of woodwind parts.
    • Similarly, the low woodwinds (bassoon, baritone sax, bass clarinet) will be scored in unison with the trombone/baritone/(tuba). This is a reflection of the likelihood of actually having all these instruments present (not very likely) and means that with just one player of any of these instrument means that the bass line is covered. This is very important as small band programs with limited numbers of players are most often just playing easy repertoire.

So, I’d encourage you to try to write within the guidelines for a grade level. It will help ensure that your piece is successfully played by a band and means that your piece is much more likely to be accepted by a publisher. A great resource to help you learn what students can and can’t do at the lower grade levels is the beginner books themselves. The conductor’s score book usually has a detailed listing of what concepts are introduced, and when.

All this talk of rules and guidelines can feel very restrictive, so in my next post I’ll talk about how to “break” them (successfully). Until then, ponder this question What CAN students do at this level? This quote from Stravinsky (he wrote some stuff that seems to work ok) is also worth thinking about:

The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.

Less relevant, but funny, is this one:

Harpists spend 90% of their lives tuning their harps and 10% playing out of tune.

See you next time.