Spirit of the Stallion – part 1
I’m currently working on a fantastic piece with my year 8 band (students who are now in their second year of playing) – Spirit of the Stallion by Brian Balmages. It is a grade 1 piece for concert band. You can find a full score here and a recording here.
This piece is both fun to play and has an amazing level of skill and compositional craft in it. Over the next few posts I’ll be looking at some of the aspects of the piece that have caught my eye, starting this week with meter.
At first glance, there seem to be meter changes everywhere. As a the result, upon handing the piece out, students start curling up in the corner and crying about how inhumane it is. This is understandable, after all there are 27 meter changes in a piece of only 65 bars long. That’s almost a meter change every 2 bars. But if we take a deep breath and look at what is going on, things are not so back.
Firstly, he only uses 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4. The 1/4 note pulse never changes. There are no tempo changes. Phew! Ok, now that your breathing is returning to normal, let’s take a closer look at what is going on…
The form of the piece is:
Intro (3 bars)
The introduction is easy – three bars of 4/4. Then the fun begins…
The A sections all follow the same metrical pattern:
4/4 | 3/4 | 4/4 | 3/4 | then four more bars of 3/4
Musically this equates to a 4 bar phrase that is rhythmically tense, followed by a 4 bar phrase the is rhythmically relaxed.
With the accompaniment strongly emphasising beat 1 of each bar and the melody bouncing off of beat 1, this section is much easier to play that it first looks. Notice also that Brian has limited the musical requirements in terms of rhythm and pitch. This enables students to focus on the meter changes.
This is followed by a relaxed phrase that stays in 3/4 and only has simple rhythms.
Repeating this A section pattern four times is very helpful in giving students time to get used to the metrical pattern and to learn its unique groove.
The B section looks easier – the time signature mainly stays in 2/4, but don’t be fooled. In fact, Brian has layered parts in 2/4 over the top of an accompaniment figure that is really in 3/4. Rhythmically this equates to:
Notice that it is not 3/4 playing in the same time as 2/4. The 1/4 note pulse is the same across both parts.
The C section is just in 3/4, no cross meter parts, just straight, simple 3/4.
Just when you couldn’t get enough of changing meters and layering of meters, the final A section cames along. Now we have both going at once. The same shifts between 4/4 and 3/4 as before, but also another part playing across the barline in 3/4 the whole time. To top it off, the accompaniment has also changed slightly to imply 2/4.
Fortunately, this only lasts for four bars before a more straight ahead coda – although straight ahead in this piece means you only change time signature once or twice!
I’m a big believer that if students understand what is going on, they will play it better. So, we’re doing lots of clapping to try and get our heads around everything that happens in this piece meter-wise. Fun and educational…always a great combination.
P.S. You may be wondering what the car is doing at the top of this post. Well, the car is a Mitsubishi Starion. Mitsubishi has a small car called the Mitsubishi Colt (aka a young horse). Legend has it that when Mitsubishi was naming this larger car it was meant to be called the Mitsubishi Stallion (aka an adult horse). But a bit of mis-communication around a Japanese accent speaking English and it wound up being called the Mitsubishi Starion instead. Who knows if it is true, but it’s a great story…
Udala’m – part 2
This post continues looking at the piece Udala’m by Michael Story. You can find my first post here, a full score here and a recording here.
Structurally, Udala’m follows a typical pattern for beginner band works – a slow introduction followed by “the fast bit” (aka the part the students want to play and will endure the slow bit for). I looked at the fantastic polyphonic introduction to this piece in my previous post – now onto the fast bit!
From bar 15, the folk melody is played three times, each time preceded by a two bar introduction. Whilst the introduction is pentatonic, this section just uses the first 5 notes of Bb major. Although it hasn’t changed key as such, the subtle shift in the mode from major pentatonic to major still provides an element of contrast.
Each statement of the melody is in unison, with a simple rhythmic ostinato accompaniment. Interest is created primarily through orchestration, from small → medium → large.
- 1st time thru (bar 16-25, small orchestration) – the melody is played by the flutes and oboes in unison. The accompaniment is a rhythmic pedal point played by the clarinets
- 2nd time thru (bar 27- 34, medium orchestration) – the melody is played by the clarinets and trumpets in unison. The accompaniment is provided by the low WW/Br. mainly playing a pedal point type ostinato. The alto sax + tenor sax + horns play the same rhythmic pedal point previously played by the clarinets. The percussion loop a one bar rhythmic figure (shaker + tom-tom + bass drum)
Halfway though this section, the flutes and mallet percussion play a simple counter melody.
- 3rd time thru (bar 35 – 44, large orchestration) – the ensemble is divided in half with the upper WW/Br. playing the melody while the lower WW/Br. play the rhythmic ostinato accompaniment.
- Coda (bar 45-48) – the orchestration remains the same while the last phrase is repeated over a dominant pedal.
It is worth noting that the biggest sound is achieved from the ensemble with only two unison lines being played. One of the mistakes people often make when composing and orchestrating for the first time is to try and create a big sound with big chords and many different parts. In fact, the opposite generally works much better. Fewer parts, less complexity equals a bigger sound.
Udala’m – part 1
How many independent parts can a beginner band handle? Two, maybe three at the most (established melody + bass line + counter melody). Surely not five! Yet that is exactly what Michael Story has achieved in his piece Udala’m – an arrangement of a Nigerian folk song. (You can view the full score here and find a recording here.)
How does he do it?
- Pentatonic scale. This piece uses the Bb major pentatonic scale. The nice thing about a pentatonic scale is that there are no sharp dissonances. If fact, if you play all the scale degrees simultaneously as a cluster, you get a dense but consonant sound. This means that any note will basically work against any note, which in turn gives you a great deal of freedom when writing contrapuntal lines.
- Simple melodies. All instruments are playing in an easy range with no awkward or large leaps. Being pentatonic, the melodies are easily understood by the students. (Check out this video to see how easily people can understand a pentatonic scale.)
- Repetition. Each melodic figure is repeated. Once students have mastered their short phrase they can focus on playing that phrase, despite the distraction of the other independent lines.
- Staggered entries. He starts with the single melodic line (played by the flutes) and then adds a new melody every two bars (bar 3, 5, 7 and 9). This helps students to be able to understand what is going on and how the pieces “works”.
- Phrase Variation. If all the melodies were the same length and started on beat one of the bar, 5 independent layers would just turn into mush. Michael Story avoids this by varying the phrases length and the starting point as follows:
- Melody 1 – 2 bars, beginning on beat 1
- Melody 2 – 3 bars, beginning with a pickup note on beat 4
- Melody 3 – 2 bars, beginning on beat 2. Therefore, this melody crosses the bar line
- Melody 4 – 3 bars, beginning on beat 1
- Melody 5 – 3 bars, beginning and ending with a quarter rest. This melody doesn’t cross the bar line
- Effective orchestration. Each melodic line is given to a section that can play independently, regardless of the size of the band. There is nothing ground breaking about this orchestration, but is simple and effective.
- Flutes (+Oboes at bar 9)
- Low Woodwinds and Brass
- Alto Saxes + Horns
Once again, counterpoint is your friend – especially when writing for young bands. It can be a great way to create interest and complexity from simple elements that are easy to play and understand.
New vs Hard
Is it new or is it hard?
This is a question I often ask my students. At first glance they look the same to students. However, some things are genuinely difficult to do on an instrument, but other things are just new or I haven’t learnt that yet. As simple example of new, but not hard would be the following examples for a beginner trumpet player:
Both examples are quite easy, requiring the player to only move one finger. However F is one of the first five notes, whereas F# is not. So the second example will seem “hard” to a beginner…until you explain the fingering. At that point what seemed hard turns out to just be “new”.
When writing for junior bands, it is important to realize that some publisher guidelines simply reflect the order in which students learn concepts. This is not the same thing as order of difficulty. Let’s explore this idea with respect to note choice. Typically in a method book the 1st five notes are concert Bb, C, D, Eb, F. This is usually then extended up to include G and down to include A.
So, E natural occurs later in the method books than Eb not because it is harder, but because the method books chooses to start with Bb, C, D, Eb, F (i.e. a major scale). Similarly, A natural comes before Ab, because…well I suspect it’s just because it fits into Bb major, whereas Ab doesn’t. So these two notes could be used in a very beginner piece if you wanted because it will generally take about 30 seconds to explain the new fingering…and you’re done!
This is a good example of a concept a publisher/editor once said to me – namely in any given piece you can ask students to move one step away from what they already know. The emphasis is on ONE step. Only one step and only one per piece!
CAVEAT – I get that not all instruments are the same and although the previous examples are true for all brass and mallet percussion instruments, it’s not necessarily true for every woodwind instrument…but you get the idea.
A counter illustration is probably useful at this point…
Bb is taught straight away, but method books take a long time before they introduce “B” natural because “B” natural is genuinely awkward for trombone (7th position). It will also have big intonation issues for trumpet. It will be very sharp unless the 3rd valve slide is adjusted (which is an intermediate concept). Low brass instruments with only 3 valves will have exactly the same issue. The whole point of a 4th valve on low brass instruments is to solve this intonation issue.
Now, to all the flute players in the room screaming at their screen right now – yes, “B” natural is quite easy on the flute. And while we are at it, yes concert Bb major is an awkward scale for flautists to start with and yes, you would prefer to start flautist off with notes below the break (aka below “D”).
But, I’m glad the flute players were all screaming because it illustrates yet another point…
the deeper your understanding of each instrument of the band is, how it works, what is easy and what is hard for that instrument, the more effectively you can write for band and the better you will be able to exploit the specific capabilities of each instrument to produce great original music.
Say that seven times with a mouthful of marbles!
So in conclusion, moving one step away into something new is OK, genuinely hard is not.
[Photo by Leio McLaren on Unsplash]
My Favourite Chord
This is one of my favourite chords:
Personally, I think about it as an Ab(add2)/C rather than the Cm7(b6), but whatever floats your boat. The important thing is what it sounds like.
I love the mix of warmth (generated by the 6th between the lower voices and the 10th between the outer voices), bite (generated by the 2nd between the inner voices and the 7th between alto and bass) and ambiguity/openness (generated by the 4th between the upper voices and the 5th between the soprano and tenor).
A closely related chord that is also a favourite is this one:
I hear this as a minor chord with the added b6, rather than as a major 7 chord. This is similar to the previous chord, but the semitone on the inside rather than a tone gives is a little more bite. It’s interesting that the same 3 notes (C, Ab, Eb) can be heard in 2 different ways depending on the added tone (Bb or G).
Why do you care what my favourite chord is? Well you don’t, except that they might become yours. More importantly for me though is that this is another interesting place to start writing from. The question of “how can I write “X” for young bands and get away with it” has been a fruitful one for me in the past. Here’s hoping that one of these chords will do the same job in the future.
Now it’s time to listen to Appalacian Spring by Aaron Copland. I love what Copland does with major chords!
Ogopogo is a great piece for beginner band written by Robert Buckley. Here is my analysis of it…
Key: D Phrygian. Yay! It’s not in Bb Major or in C Dorian (which seems to be the new favorite beginner piece key)
Form: Intro (8) | A (8) | A (8) | B (2+2+2+2) | A (8+2) | A (8) | Intro (8) | Coda (6)
Subtle variations in the accompaniment and the the way the “A” melody is stated prevent the four “A” sections from feeling too repetitious.
Note Range: Concert Bb –> G (i.e. the first 6 notes)
Rhythm: Primarily 1/4 notes. Some use of half and whole notes. very limited use of 1/8th notes. He only ever uses two 1/8th notes at a time, and only one 1/8th note pair per bar maximum.
Dynamics: This piece has excellent dynamic range across sections and within phrases. The dynamics for each section are:
p cresc. f | mp | mf | mf | f | ff | p cresc. f | mf, mp, p
In addition to the marked dynamics, Robert also orchestrates each section to reflect the dynamic marking. He makes extensive use of one bar crescendo and one bar diminuendos, which in turn then becomes an important unifying device.
Motivic Material/Development: The introduction is based on an ascending scale fragment. This concept then becomes the basis for a 2 bar secondary motif that answers the main melody (bars 7-8, 15-16, 23-24, 39-42, 49-50, 57-58). This motif has the cresc./decres. device mentioned earlier. The introduction is then inverted for the coda.
The melody in the A section is 8 bars built as 2+2+4. The initial 2 bar idea is repeated and developed in the second 2 bar phrase. This is then answered in the final 4 bar phrase. (Yes, there is some great music theory terminology that describes this type of phrase construction, but right now I can’t remember what it is and can’t be bothered looking it up. I figure the important thing is that I recognize what’s going on.)
The B section is 8 bars built as 2+2+2+2. Essentially a pair of question/answer phrases.The final 2 bars is repeated creating a transitional passage leading us back to the “A” section. This is further reinforced by breaking the one bar cresc./decres. device and instead having a 4 bar crescendo.
Low WW’s/Br tutti, then A.Sx/Tpt/(Fl/Ob 8va) and harmonized by Cl/T.Sx/Hn
Here’s what I find interesting…
- He doesn’t include Fl/Ob in m.2, but adds them in m.4. I reckon I would have just orchestrated both bars the same by default. (that’s not a good thing!)
- In m.7-8 he leaves out Fl/Ob/T.Sx/Hn. Again, I think I would have just defaulted “everyone in” in a unison tutti passage like this. Leaving out Fl/Ob seems like a colour choice. The Hn. is left out because it would just sit either awkwardly high or awkwardly low. The T.Sx is left out because…well I’m not quite sure why. Maybe because it is generally doubling the Hn. so it makes it more consistent for the students?
- In m.2, m.4, m.6 the harmony part is a dotted 1/2, the melody is three 1/4 notes. A simple and subtle way to create interest.
My takeaway: always think about every orchestration choice. Don’t just mindlessly (aka lazily) use the default settting.
The melody is Cl/A.Sx. The accompaniment is a single 1/4 note on beat one of each measure, played by the low WW/Br.
The melody is played by Fl/Ob in octaves with the Tpt. This is harmonised by the A.Sx/T.Sx/Hn playing a 4th or 3rd below the melody. Apart from creating an interesting harmony, this also puts these instruments in a great “easy” register.
The bassline is similar to A1, but now there is a 1/4 on beat three played by some of the low WW/Br.This is in contrast to beat one which is tutti.Again a simple and subtle way to create interest.
My takeaway: always think about every orchestration choice. Don’t just mindlessly (aka lazily) use the default settting.
In the first phrase the melody is played by Fl/Ob in octaves with the Cl. The accompaniment is played by T.Sx/Hn in 5ths with Tbn/B.Sx /Tba (8vb)
In the second phrase the melody is played by A.Sx/Tpt. The accompaniment now in 4ths played by Cl and T.Sx/Hn./Fl.+Ob. (8va).
Apart from the obvious shift in timbre between the two phrases, there is also a shift in tessitura. (I just wanted show show off a few music theory words…I do remember a few at least!)
In m.29-30 the secondary motif is scored for Cl./A.Sx/Tpt with Fl.8va, the repetition in m.31-32 is full band tutti.
Here the melody shifts to the low WWs/Br. This is punctuated by 1/4 note chords from the rest of the band, again voiced in 4ths/5ths with Cl/A.Sx/Tpt and T.Sx/Hn. The Fl/Ob. double Cl 8va.
In m.43, m.45, m.47 there is a unison statement of the melody by the ensemble. However the note value has changed from a short 1/4 note (+a rest) to being a full length 1/2 note.
There is a similar shift in tessitura in m.44 as occurs in the B section.
My takeaway: This tessitura shift is a great device that I plan on stealing as some point in the future
This is identical to m.1-8
The orchestration approach here is the same as for the intro.
- I like his use of the A.Sx , T.Sx in reinforcing the horns. The horns are never left alone. Sometimes it’s reinforced by one sax or the other and sometimes by both.
- There are a lot of subtle orchestration shifts and different instrument combinations, yet at the same time it is rock solid orchestration that will withstand the beating that a beginner band gives every piece!
No, I haven’t talked about percussion at all…I’ll do that next time. So just hold off with the beaters for just bit longer…
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:
- Listen to some music
- Analyse some pieces I like
- Keep writing. Write anything. Don’t worry about finishing, or if it’s good or bad, just write stuff
- Work through a harmony book (Vincent Persichetti’s Twentieth-Century Harmony to be precise)
- 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:
- Alto Sax
- Low WW’s & Br.
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. This then leads to a few basic tutti voicing options:
- Unison/Octaves. With the restricted range at this level, this is your only option for a tutti unison.
- 2 part – Fl./Cl./A.Sx, Tpt./Low WW’s & Br
- 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.
- 31/2 part – Fl./Cl. in octaves, Tpt/A.Sx in harmony
- 3 part – Fl./Tpt in octaves, Cl./A.Sx in harmony
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:
- Alto Sax
- Low WW’s & Br. (= bassoon, bass clarinet, baritone sax, trombone, baritone and tuba (8vb))
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:
- 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.
- So many charts sound the same. Even at harder levels, much of what we played just smooched into one inoffensive, well-crafted piece of vanilla. Given the sheer volume of new music produced every year, this is a bit unsurprising. My take away lesson though: as a comparatively unknown writer, in a country half the world struggle to find on map, I figure there is no future in me producing music like this. As a teacher, I don’t want my students to play music like this because there is not much to learn from it: musically, artistically, or technically.
As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot over the Christmas/New Year break about how I can continue to find something original to say as a writer, and to write music that has musical depth, whilst still being accessible for students to play. Enter J.S. Bach and the awful pun.
In 2013, in one of those moments all band directors have where you look through the filing cabinet of charts with a slight air of desperation trying to find something for the band to play, I stumbled across an arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Bist Du Bei Mir by Anne McGinty (published by Queenwood). My band ended up playing this piece as part of our final concert for that year. These holidays I brought the score home to look at the arrangement a bit closer and see what I could learn from it (yes, I know, I should have completed a Ph.D analysing the work before I started rehearsing it with my band, but sometimes you just don’t have the time or energy).
Armed with my new found insights into the oboe, I immediately noticed that the range of the oboe part is from a low D up to Eb (the one an octave above, not the semitone above…otherwise it would be a pretty boring part!). No need for the oboe player to do contortions trying to get up to the F and beyond.
As is common in beginner level pieces, the low brass and woodwind are grouped together on one stave and just play the bass line. But because this is Bach, the bass part is as melodic and demanding as any of the other parts. No 16 bars of nothing but Bb here. I should warn you at this point that I’m about to get on my soapbox. Feel free to skip ahead, I’ll let you know when I’ve climbed down.
I find it extremely frustrating when the lower brass and woodwind players get charts where they basically play Bb, Eb and F the whole time, and barely get out of whole notes. Is it any wonder that players quit and/or in later years seem incapable of playing anything harder? In my experience it’s hard enough as it is getting students onto the larger instruments, without punishing them with boredom for doing so.
Ok, it’s safe to come back, I’m off my soapbox now.
Rhythmically this piece is quite accessible. It’s in 3/4 with an 1/8 note as the smallest rhythmic element – mainly in pairs. There are only two instances of 1/8th notes not in pairs, but each is used multiple times.
There is some nice variation in tonal colour throughout the piece. Most of the time the entire band is playing, but within that tutti instrumentation, there is still good use of tonal variation to create interest for the listener. The melody is played by the following combinations:
- Flute+Oboe+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:
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.