Tag Archive | grade

Trapped by a Short Score

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Less than you think!

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

So what’s going on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.