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]
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)…
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.