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. 😉