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.

What I Was Trying To Say Was…

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!).Forge of Vulcan Score ReductionNotice 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.

The Forge of Vulcan - Introduction

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.

Forge of Vulcan Counter-MelodyNotice 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:

Medieval Fayre - Score reductionIt’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.

Medieval Fayre  - CrescendosThe concepts and approaches outlined here also apply to other pieces of mine such as Market in Marrakesh (D Phrygian) and Race to the Moon (Bb Lydian Dominant = Bb C D E F G Ab).

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….

Have Something to Say, Say It With Respect!

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:

  1. Write something you are proud to put your name to
  2. Have a reason for writing the piece. I find it useful to be able to complete the sentence I wrote this piece because…
  3. 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 –

Boring Brass ExampleI 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:

  1. 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
  2. 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. 😉

Odyssey – The Coda

Although I haven’t actually signed a contract yet, I expect that Odyssey will be published later this year. Woo-hoo! I thought it might be useful to let you know the process post sending it off to the publisher. So,

  1. I send the piece to the publisher for their consideration. I emailed a pdf version of the score, a mp3 generated by Finale and a brief description of the piece. Because I have a relationship with this publisher, I didn’t include any material introducing me.
  2. The publisher wrote back with a couple of minor suggestions (“have you thought about maybe doubling the Glock part on chimes”) and was enthusiastic about the piece.
  3. I looked at the suggestions and by and large incorporated them. I then sent back a revised score and a much higher quality mp3 recording generated using East-West Symphonic Orchestra samples (I’ll list details of how I did this at the end)
  4. The publisher took the score and recording to an editorial board meeting where they review potential repertoire for their new catalogue. The board liked the piece, but also came back with some further minor suggestions
  5. I looked carefully at their suggestions, incorporated some but not others. I then sent back a revised score and an email detailed what I had changed. Also, quite importantly, I detailed which suggestions I didn’t incorporate and why.
  6. The publisher replied with one last tweak, and we were done.

From here, I still need to sign a contract. The publisher will organise all the recording, publishing, marketing side of things. The first time I would see a royalty cheque would be late January 2015. So the process from writing a piece to seeing some money is roughly about 18 months.

If you want to know more detail about how I used the EW samples, keep reading, otherwise see you next time!

Using the East West Sample Libraries

First, it’s worth saying that if you are sending a piece to a publisher for consideration, try to send the best recording you can. This may just mean making sure you get the best out of your notation program (can you add some reverb?, can you tweak note lengths, dynamics etc to make it play back better?). In my case, it means using some of the sample libraries I own. Here’s what I do:

  • Create a midi file from Finale of my piece. Technically, I could use my samples within Finale (I think), but it’s really, really awkward.
  • Import the midi file into my DAW (digital audio workstation – i.e. Cubase, Logic, Digital Performer, Protools, Reaper etc). I use Cubase at the moment. DAW’s are generally a much better tool for manipulating midi data and mixing tracks than trying to use your notation program. I generally try to use the right “tool” for the job. Notate in a notation program, produce audio in a DAW.
  • Do a bunch of preliminary editing to tidy up the tracks – glue fragments together, delete midi data my sample don’t recognise, copy and paste midi data (where required) to the correct midi controller for my samples, break up the tracks into various sample patch types. This means putting all the staccato notes on one track, all the legato notes on another track etc.
  • Load up the samples from the East West libraries and press play! In my case I’m working on an old laptop that chokes if I try to run an entire band of samples. So I do sections at a time (e.g. all the clarinet parts), check that they work, render to audio so I can unload those samples and load a new set.
  • Mix the tracks
  • Add some reverb (if necessary)
  • Create an mp3 (High Quality mp3 though)

Hopefully that makes sense – let me know if you have questions.

You can read about the rest of the process of writing this piece here, here and here.

It Is Finished…Pas Deux

Yep, I’ve finished my new piece Odyssey for the second time, and this time it’s personal!  [You can read about how I started this piece here, and a progress post here]. How do you finish a piece twice you ask? To answer that, it helps to explain my writing process. (Bear in mind that this is how I tend to work, but everyone is different). My writing process goes like this:

  1. The initial idea. Where these initial ideas come from, I don’t know. Sometimes they just pop into my head out of the blue, sometimes they come from playing piano and I just hit something or play something that I like or find interesting. Sometimes they come from a kind of musical brainstorming session (i.e. write 3 melodies of 8 bars in 5 minutes), and other times its just from deciding to write a modal blues in G Dorian.
  2. Development. This is where I take that initial idea and develop it into something longer – maybe an “A” section and an intro
  3. I get stuck. Surprisingly, this is the part of the process where I get stuck. I’ve run out of inspirational steam, but I’ve only got about 1/3 to 1/2 of the piece written and I don’t know quite where to go from here. You don’t have to be Einstein to guess that this isn’t the fun part of writing. To get unstuck, I try:
    1. Drinking coffee
    2. Cleaning my study
    3. Checking email
    4. Putting my head in the sand
    5. After these don’t really help, I try:
    6. Thinking about the piece structurally – what is the form of this piece going to be?
    7. What would contrast with what I already have (loud vs soft, fast vs slow, solo vs tutti etc)
    8. Just write something and not worry too much about whether it’s “good” or not. After all you can edit it later, or chuck it completely if you want
    9. In fairness to points 3.1 – 3.4, taking a break does help sometimes
  4. The piece is finished! – for the first time. It’s not really finished, but it feels like it. At this point I’ve got the main pieces in place, right through to the end. It might be sketchy in places, but at least in my head I know what I’m trying to do all the way through. [Here is Odyssey at this point – Odessey – In Progress (concert pitch)]
  5. Refinement. At this point I edit, cut, smooth, shape, polish, wrestle, hammer, the piece into shape. Sketchy ideas are fleshed out. Often this is particularly true of percussion parts which have often ranged from sketchy to “vague notion in my head” to non-existent. [Here is Odyssey at this point –Odyssey – In Progress #2 (concert pitch)] For me, this stage is iterative – evaluate –> refine –> evaluate —> refine repeatedly until….
  6. The piece is finished! – for the second time. This time, it really is finished…almost. [Here is Odyssey at this point –Odyssey – In Progress #3]
  7. Idiot Check. This is where I print out the score (it really is easier to read on paper than on a screen) and check for any silly little errors – missing dynamics/articulations, stuff I forgot to fill in etc.
  8. Perform/Send to a publisher. I’ll be sending this to a publisher I already have a relationship with. Assuming they want to publish it, it will likely come back with a few editorial suggestions/comments. 90% of the time, you should do what they suggest.

It’s worth re-stating at this point that you should edit your work and don’t be afraid to delete things that don’t work. I went and had lunch after my last post, came back and deleted an 8 bar section that didn’t work. It has also taken a fair bit of “hammering” to get the last 30 bars to work. If you compare versions #2 and #3, you’ll see that the framework has stayed essentially the same, but the detail has changed.

Thanks for reading, I’m off to check for idiots…

A Piece Is Born – Update

It’s finished! Well, not really, but kind of…confused yet?

Since last I posted, here’s what I’ve done. I managed to spend a few hours shortly after finishing my last blog post (here it is) working on my new piece for Concert Band. In that time I did the following:

  • Thought of a name – Odyssey
  • Wrote a chorale theme to go with the opening fanfare theme
  • Decided form-wise to go straight into the chorale following the introduction. It was tempting to go into a rhythmic, march type vibe and just restate the opening melody, but I decided to avoid that approach as I’ve used it before and just felt a little too obvious in this case.
  • Setup a score in Finale
  • Sketch in the introduction and opening chorale theme
  • Decided to score the chorale for just flute and clarinets (+oboe maybe?) the first time through
  • For the second time through the chorale, I’m going to give the melody to the a.sax + cl. + f.hn. My intention is to have the remaining brass and lower woodwinds play reasonably static chords to support the melody. The upper voice of this accompaniment may effectively turn out to be a quasi counter-melody.

It has then sat idle for a couple of weeks due to life being crazy and working somewhere else on my “writing day” until today. This morning I’ve spent another couple of hours working on it and you can look at my in progress score here Odessey – In Progress (concert pitch). Here’s what I’ve done this morning:

  • Tweaked the tempo slightly from 116 to 108bpm. It just felt a little rushed at 116bpm
  • Added the brass to the second time through the chorale. This might not be exactly how it finishes up, but it’s in the ballpark
  • Form-wise, it felt to me like the opening fanfare melody should come back twice and that would roughly be the end of the piece. This meant:
    • Deciding how to transition from the chorale back into the fanfare theme. I’ve used a classic device whereby the last part of the chorale is restated in longer (augmented would be the fancy music word here) note vales. I’ve also changed the harmony slightly so that the return to a “C” pedal feels like a key change.
    • This in turn led to the quasi introduction type section at bar 31-38 with the clarinets playing a simplified version of the fanfare melody, with a “sparkly” response from the fl/ob+tpts.
    • At this point, keeping the low brass and woodwinds on the same rhythmic figure for yet another two times through the fanfare melody seems like a long time for beginners to cope with. It’s also a bit boring for the listener. So I’m going to try to “get out” of that rhythmic figure at bar 39. I’m not sure whether I’ll keep the percussion going through here, and/or whether to have the accompaniment be sustained notes or stop time type “hits”
    • Getting out of the continuous rhythmic accompaniment at bar 39, also creates more interest at bar 50 when it returns for the final statement of the fanfare theme.
  • The piece finishes with the same compositional technique that I used earlier in the piece, namely, restating the end of the theme and then augmenting note values to create a sense of the piece slowing down before the big finish.

At this point, the piece is finished…kind of. I feel at this point that all the main structural elements are in place and that I’ve got a good idea of how it will be scored. If this piece were a table, I feel that I had all the main pieces cutout and stuck together. Now what remains is to sand, polish, and add “pretty bits”. Sp my to do list for this piece is now:

  • Resolve the accompaniment at bar 39
  • Finish scoring all the woodwind and brass parts. Notice that there is nothing in the bassoon, bass clarinet or baritone saxophone parts yet. These will end up doubling bass lines already present in the trombone/euphonium/tuba parts
  • Score the percussion. Again, there is nothing on paper, but I have a good idea in my head of what these will look like. The percussion in this piece will largely augment the woodwind and brass parts, rather than supply an independent voice. This isn’t always the case and if there was a specific independent percussion part I wanted, it would be in the score by now. The percussion will likely end up with:
    • Timpani – doubling the pedal bass line. Timpani is great for this as the player doesn’t get tired in the same way that a wind player does when playing for an extended period without a break
    • Snare drum, Bass drum, Cymbals – these will play march/fanfare figures. Think John Williams Olympic fanfare type stuff.
    • Glock/Vibes – the glock will end up doubling some melodic lines. I’m not really expecting to use the vibes, but it’s easier to have the line there in the score when setting it up just in case. If it’s not used, I’ll just delete it.
    • Edit, tweak, refine until I’m happy. E.g. I’m still debating about making bar 37 a 2/4 bar (and losing two beats at this point).

Once that’s all done, I’ll more than likely leave it for a week or so, and come back and look at it again and make sure I’m happy. If not, then more refining, tweaking, editing until I am.

I’m off to have lunch…