Scorpion! is a piece by Richard L. Saucedo. It is a loud, energetic, driving piece (tempo is 138bpm) that is all about the vibe it creates rather than beautiful melodies and harmonies. My students enjoyed playing it and stylistically it’s not something I would typically write so I thought it would be useful to look a little more closely at it. You can find the recording and score here.
The piece is 74 bars long and is based on a 4 bar harmonic unit. My outline looks like this:
A(8) | buildup 1 (8+2) |A(8) | A(8) | B(4) | buildup 2 (8+2) | C(9) | A(8) | Tag(8) | unison A(4)
The form doesn’t neatly fit into any predetermined shape, but is probably closest to a kind of rondo form.
One of the first things to notice about this piece is that nearly everyone is playing nearly all the time. This helps to make it loud and also creates a kind of wall of energetic sound effect. It is scored for:
- Clarinet 1,2/Bass Clarinet
- Alto Sax 1,2/Tenor Sax/Baritone Sax
- Trumpet 1, 2/Horn
- 3 percussionists
- Oboe, Horn and Timpani are listed as optional.
With the a few brief exceptions (the most notable being the 4 bar “B” section) the percussion play continuous ostinato figures all the way through.
The brass and saxes are typically playing rhythmic chordal figures. Triads are assigned to Trumpet 1, 2 and Horn and are often a doubled by Alto Sax 1, 2 & Tenor Sax.
The low brass and woodwinds play single note rhythmic ostinatos, most often on a pedal G. They do get the melody for 16 bars on the second “A” section.
The upper woodwinds and mallets (Flute, Oboe, Clarinets, Xylophone, Bells) play a mix of unison/octave ostinatos (typically on a pedal G), or unison/octave melodic lines. In the “C” section, the upper winds are also strengthened by the Alto Saxes.
I’ve found Saucedo’s orchestration approach for a triads and rhythmic ostinato line a useful addition my my bag of tricks.
Well, there you have it. My compulsion to name any kind of follow-on post like it’s a sequel in a action movie franchise. I’d like to think Ogopogo II – Percussion Thunder both sounds like a movie you might want to see, and gives you the clue that I’m looking at the use of percussion in Robert Buckley’s piece Ogopogo in this post.
You can find a link to Ogopogo Episode XVII – No, that’s an Eb flutes, the blockbuster prequel to this post here.
(Ok, that’s most of the silly stuff out of the way, now onto the useful (I hope) content.)
My gut feel, having worked with this piece for a month or so, is that the percussion are like the coming of colour TV in this piece. Without them, the piece will still work just fine, just like you can watch TV just fine in black & white. But having percussion there brings lots of colour and makes the David Attenborough nature documentary much more enjoyable to watch.
Hmm, that just turned into a mish-mash of metaphors. So to summarise:
No percussion = piece still works
With percussion = piece sounds much better.
The percussion are scored as follows:
Percussion 1 = Medium Tom (or Snare Drum, no snares), Triangle, Bass Drum
Percussion 2 = Suspended Cymbal, Bell Tree, Hi-Hat
Mallets = Bells
Percussion 1 needs two players, possibly even three, percussion 2 could be played with just one player.
The percussion are never independent from the band, and there is no section which is just percussion. Hence why the piece is still playable without any percussion. Instead the percussion are used primarily as a highlight colour.
The opening low brass crescendo figures are reinforced at the end with a bass drum and suspended cymbal hit. I suspect I would have been tempted to add either a suspended cymbal roll or a timpani roll or both to the crescendo. It’s interesting to see a beginner band writer going for subtlety rather than the “everyone hit something” approach.
Similarly the bells are used to just highlight the answering figure in b.2 rather than play the entire phrase. Again I suspect I would have just had the bells double the main melodic line here.
In bar 16 and other similar places the two bar crescendo/decrescendo figure is highlighted with a bell tree and a single note from the bells. Notice the nice blend between a bell tree and the bells. At the end of the piece (b.61-2), Robert uses triangle and bells together. Once again, high, metallic percussion instruments work nicely together.
The tom part essentially reinforces the rhythm of the melody. At b.17-22 the bass drum and tom setup a nice little percussion “groove”. However it remains subtle and reinforcing, not the key driving element.
I read a Sammy Nestico quote once where he talked about the eraser being the arrangers most important tool. The concept was create clarity through removing what was unnecessary. Adding more doesn’t make things better. Instead it generally just clutters and obscures things. This is what I see in Ogopogo. A really well crafted piece for beginner band where unnecessary clutter has been removed. The composer has chosen simplicity and clarity over the seemingly more common “let’s all play, all the time, and loud” approach.
So there you have it, the Ogopogo trilogy and like all good trilogy’s it doesn’t have 3 parts.
Thanks for reading!
PS – yes it’s possible I spent as much time on the silly graphic as on the post, but it was fun.
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…
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!
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)…
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
- 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 )
- 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:
- 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!
- 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)
- Realistically assess how close your ensemble can get to your ideal, final result given constraints of time and skill level.
- 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:
- The Creative Director: Alternative Rehearsal Techniques – Edward Lisk
- The Creative Director (Beginner & Intermediate Levels) – Edward Lisk
- Effective Performance of Band Literature – W. Francis McBeth
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!”
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.
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?
- They can start and stop making sound (noise?) together
- 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
- They can do lots of funky 2oth C extended techniques e.g. key slaps, blowing air through their instrument
- They can sing, clap, stamp feet etc
- 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.In 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!
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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…
- Rhythmic choices – no septuplets for beginners! (amongst other things)
- Time Signature choices
- 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:
- 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.
- 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 Advantage) and 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
- 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.
- 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.
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:
- Write something you are proud to put your name to
- Have a reason for writing the piece. I find it useful to be able to complete the sentence I wrote this piece because…
- 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 –
I 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:
- 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
- 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. 😉
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…