Structurally, Udala’m follows a typical pattern for beginner band works – a slow introduction followed by “the fast bit” (aka the part the students want to play and will endure the slow bit for). I looked at the fantastic polyphonic introduction to this piece in my previous post – now onto the fast bit!
From bar 15, the folk melody is played three times, each time preceded by a two bar introduction. Whilst the introduction is pentatonic, this section just uses the first 5 notes of Bb major. Although it hasn’t changed key as such, the subtle shift in the mode from major pentatonic to major still provides an element of contrast.
Each statement of the melody is in unison, with a simple rhythmic ostinato accompaniment. Interest is created primarily through orchestration, from small → medium → large.
- 1st time thru (bar 16-25, small orchestration) – the melody is played by the flutes and oboes in unison. The accompaniment is a rhythmic pedal point played by the clarinets
- 2nd time thru (bar 27- 34, medium orchestration) – the melody is played by the clarinets and trumpets in unison. The accompaniment is provided by the low WW/Br. mainly playing a pedal point type ostinato. The alto sax + tenor sax + horns play the same rhythmic pedal point previously played by the clarinets. The percussion loop a one bar rhythmic figure (shaker + tom-tom + bass drum)
Halfway though this section, the flutes and mallet percussion play a simple counter melody.
- 3rd time thru (bar 35 – 44, large orchestration) – the ensemble is divided in half with the upper WW/Br. playing the melody while the lower WW/Br. play the rhythmic ostinato accompaniment.
- Coda (bar 45-48) – the orchestration remains the same while the last phrase is repeated over a dominant pedal.
It is worth noting that the biggest sound is achieved from the ensemble with only two unison lines being played. One of the mistakes people often make when composing and orchestrating for the first time is to try and create a big sound with big chords and many different parts. In fact, the opposite generally works much better. Fewer parts, less complexity equals a bigger sound.
How many independent parts can a beginner band handle? Two, maybe three at the most (established melody + bass line + counter melody). Surely not five! Yet that is exactly what Michael Story has achieved in his piece Udala’m – an arrangement of a Nigerian folk song. (You can view the full score here and find a recording here.)
How does he do it?
- Pentatonic scale. This piece uses the Bb major pentatonic scale. The nice thing about a pentatonic scale is that there are no sharp dissonances. If fact, if you play all the scale degrees simultaneously as a cluster, you get a dense but consonant sound. This means that any note will basically work against any note, which in turn gives you a great deal of freedom when writing contrapuntal lines.
- Simple melodies. All instruments are playing in an easy range with no awkward or large leaps. Being pentatonic, the melodies are easily understood by the students. (Check out this video to see how easily people can understand a pentatonic scale.)
- Repetition. Each melodic figure is repeated. Once students have mastered their short phrase they can focus on playing that phrase, despite the distraction of the other independent lines.
- Staggered entries. He starts with the single melodic line (played by the flutes) and then adds a new melody every two bars (bar 3, 5, 7 and 9). This helps students to be able to understand what is going on and how the pieces “works”.
- Phrase Variation. If all the melodies were the same length and started on beat one of the bar, 5 independent layers would just turn into mush. Michael Story avoids this by varying the phrases length and the starting point as follows:
- Melody 1 – 2 bars, beginning on beat 1
- Melody 2 – 3 bars, beginning with a pickup note on beat 4
- Melody 3 – 2 bars, beginning on beat 2. Therefore, this melody crosses the bar line
- Melody 4 – 3 bars, beginning on beat 1
- Melody 5 – 3 bars, beginning and ending with a quarter rest. This melody doesn’t cross the bar line
- Effective orchestration. Each melodic line is given to a section that can play independently, regardless of the size of the band. There is nothing ground breaking about this orchestration, but is simple and effective.
- Flutes (+Oboes at bar 9)
- Low Woodwinds and Brass
- Alto Saxes + Horns
Once again, counterpoint is your friend – especially when writing for young bands. It can be a great way to create interest and complexity from simple elements that are easy to play and understand.
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…
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)…
Firstly, sorry about the terrible musical pun in the title, but sometimes you just can’t help yourself.
I was at a new music reading day at the end of last year where a bunch of music teachers smashed our way through about 30 new concert band pieces. A couple of things struck me about the music we played:
- Good pop charts are hard to find. I won’t name and shame, but we played a few truly awful arrangements of some classic rock/pop tunes. Some of which left me mystified as to how you could mess up an arrangement of a piece that had so many great riffs…but that’s a rant for another day.
- So many charts sound the same. Even at harder levels, much of what we played just smooched into one inoffensive, well-crafted piece of vanilla. Given the sheer volume of new music produced every year, this is a bit unsurprising. My take away lesson though: as a comparatively unknown writer, in a country half the world struggle to find on map, I figure there is no future in me producing music like this. As a teacher, I don’t want my students to play music like this because there is not much to learn from it: musically, artistically, or technically.
As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot over the Christmas/New Year break about how I can continue to find something original to say as a writer, and to write music that has musical depth, whilst still being accessible for students to play. Enter J.S. Bach and the awful pun.
In 2013, in one of those moments all band directors have where you look through the filing cabinet of charts with a slight air of desperation trying to find something for the band to play, I stumbled across an arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Bist Du Bei Mir by Anne McGinty (published by Queenwood). My band ended up playing this piece as part of our final concert for that year. These holidays I brought the score home to look at the arrangement a bit closer and see what I could learn from it (yes, I know, I should have completed a Ph.D analysing the work before I started rehearsing it with my band, but sometimes you just don’t have the time or energy).
Armed with my new found insights into the oboe, I immediately noticed that the range of the oboe part is from a low D up to Eb (the one an octave above, not the semitone above…otherwise it would be a pretty boring part!). No need for the oboe player to do contortions trying to get up to the F and beyond.
As is common in beginner level pieces, the low brass and woodwind are grouped together on one stave and just play the bass line. But because this is Bach, the bass part is as melodic and demanding as any of the other parts. No 16 bars of nothing but Bb here. I should warn you at this point that I’m about to get on my soapbox. Feel free to skip ahead, I’ll let you know when I’ve climbed down.
I find it extremely frustrating when the lower brass and woodwind players get charts where they basically play Bb, Eb and F the whole time, and barely get out of whole notes. Is it any wonder that players quit and/or in later years seem incapable of playing anything harder? In my experience it’s hard enough as it is getting students onto the larger instruments, without punishing them with boredom for doing so.
Ok, it’s safe to come back, I’m off my soapbox now.
Rhythmically this piece is quite accessible. It’s in 3/4 with an 1/8 note as the smallest rhythmic element – mainly in pairs. There are only two instances of 1/8th notes not in pairs, but each is used multiple times.
There is some nice variation in tonal colour throughout the piece. Most of the time the entire band is playing, but within that tutti instrumentation, there is still good use of tonal variation to create interest for the listener. The melody is played by the following combinations:
- Flute+Oboe+Clarinets+Alto Sax+Bells
- Flute+Oboe+Clarinet 1+Bells
Notice that the melody is always strongly supported (always a good thing for beginning ensembles).
The one use of a non-tutti orchestration is when the trumpet 1 has the melody, low brass and wood winds drop out and the accompaniment is played by:
Whilst providing a nice lighter texture, it also only lasts for 5 beats so the band shouldn’t completely fall apart in that time.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this piece is the use of tonality and harmony. Key wise the piece moves through the following key centres:
- Bb major
- F major
- G minor
Harmonically there is an extensive use of 1st inversion, inverted dominant 7ths, secondary dominantly and even the odd half diminished chord. In other words, quite a sophisticated harmonic vocabulary (Bach seems to know what he was doing!) yet it remains quite accessible for the players.
All in all it makes me reflect on the fact that simple and easy are not the same thing. Beginning bands need repertoire that is ‘easy’ to play, but that doesn’t mean that our writing has to be simple or shallow. I doubt I will ever be considered in even vaguely the same league as Bach, but I wonder whether he provides an example of what I need to aim for in the future.
I have a slightly unusual New Year’s resolution…to write better oboe parts. This is unlikely to make the top 10 lists of resolutions on a late night talk show, but unlike TV lists, there is a pretty good chance that this one might actually happen!
I must confess that the oboe is not an instrument I know a huge amount about. My excuse – many of the schools where I have taught didn’t have any double reed players, let alone in any beginner band, so I didn’t need to know much about them in a practical teaching sense. Alright, so that’s not a great excuse – sorry oboe players. (And you’ve got to be nice to oboe players…I mean have you seen them at rehearsals sitting there whittling away at their reeds with a really sharp knife? That’s one player in the ensemble you don’t want to mess with!)
When I began writing for beginner bands, I just copied what lots of beginner band scores seemed to do and had the oboe double the flute. And if you look up the first five notes in a band method book for oboe, they start in the same place as the flutes do. So it’s really easy to think what you should do is just to treat the oboe as a flute-double, all the time. With copy and paste so easy to do in notation programs, you end up just writing a flute part and a bit of copy and paste later – voila! An oboe part appears! But here’s a quick quiz…
- Which is the most awkward fingering combo for oboe in the first five method book notes? (i.e. Bb, C, D, Eb, F)
- What range does an oboe player have by the end of book 1 in a method book?
To be honest, I couldn’t have answered this question 3 months ago. After making my usual joke about double reed instruments something of a black art at a workshop, a kind oboe teacher took me aside and explained the facts of life about learning the oboe (thanks, Marcus!). So, now I know the shift between Eb and F and the shift between Ab and Bb super awkward for beginner oboe players. That’s not to say don’t ever use them, but not in faster passages or repeatedly over and over. (If you want to play along at home, try moving your 1st/3rd fingers alternately with your 2nd/4th fingers. If you’ve forgotten how hard this co-ordination trick can be, get a small child to try it and watch what happens!).By the end of book 1 of a band method book, oboe players have learnt down to a low C. Yeah, that’s right, you heard me, A LOW C. I’ll be honest, I had no idea that they went that low that early. BUT, a small caveat here. Just because they have learnt it, this doesn’t mean you should start your next Gr.0.5 masterpiece on a solo low C for oboe. Perhaps this quote will help guide your decision making process:
“Low C can be like a fog horn or a squeaky half dead goose”
In short, mostly stick to low D to the Eb in the top space of the staff.
Since learning all this great new stuff about about, I’ve looked at the scores of some great pieces for beginner band, and guess what, they have the oboe going down. Who woulda thunk it!
So, after all that I’ve learnt two things:
- Writing for oboe is like escaping a burning building…get down low and go, go, go.
- Be careful who you copy. If you’re starting out as a writer for beginner bands, look at scores to learn how it’s done, BUT make sure you look at great writers. Otherwise, you end up perpetuating the weakness and faults of the poorly written charts for this level. And what happens when we write unnecessarily hard parts? Funnily enough, players struggle in band rehearsals, get frustrated, think it’s their fault and that it’s all too hard, and they quit. Then we wonder why so many programs struggle to have a thriving double reed section.
I still haven’t had the thrill of trying to play an oboe or bassoon yet, but at least now I should be writing slightly better parts for them to play.
P.S. I figure as long as I post this within a week from Jan 1, I can still talk about New Year’s Resolutions.
Instead of my usual self-absorbed, ego-driven analysis of my own works, I thought I talk about someone else’s work for a change – Michael Sweeney’s piece Ancient Voices
You can find a recording of Ancient Voices here.
I am currently rehearsing this piece with my Yr.8 band (~27 students. the majority of whom have been learning for approximately 18 months). This will be about the 4th time I have done this piece with a band. I keep coming back to it because as a conductor I find that:
- I think it’s a great piece of music
- It explores sounds, textures and techniques that I don’t find in other works
- It has depth. This means that there is stuff in there to rehearse beyond getting the right note with the right rhythm. It enables me to teach music, not just notes.
As I composer, I like it because it’s a great illustration of what I’ve been banging on about in previous posts and I’ve learnt a lot from studying it.
It turns out that I’ve learnt so much, that it won’t all fit into one post, so I’ll break it up into at least two posts. So, in no particular order, things I have learnt from this piece are:
Easy ways to achieve new tone colors:
Michael writes for what he wants, but provides options in case it’s not possible. In the opening bars trumpets are in straight mutes, flutes double on recorder. Both of these options are easy to do and relatively cheap to accomplish ( a recorder ~$9, a straight mute $16).Both options provide an interesting new tonal color. In marketing speak, it helps create a point of difference .
Imaginative Percussion Writing:
Look at the percussion in the first 4 bars:
- a bass drum roll
- hit rim of BD
- hit center of head (as opposed to normal spot…how does this sound different, do you as a composer know? If not, you can’t use a color you don’t know or can’t imagine!)
- snares off (as opposed to on)
- stick on dome of cymbal
- soft mallets on a cymbal roll
- wind chimes
- medium/low tom
Notice that none of these (expect perhaps the roll) are hard. Hitting the centre of the bass drum head, or the dome of the cymbal is no harder than hitting it anywhere else. It does require the percussionist to read the instruction, think about what they are doing, and actively consider the tone color they are producing. Hey, maybe percussion is a serious instrument. Maybe, just maybe we shouldn’t just get any old person to “fill in” on percussion if they forget their clarinet one week. After all, we expect/demand the woodwind and brass players to engage seriously with their part and we never get one of the percussion players to just “fill in” on clarinet. On clarinet it matters whether it’s an F or F#, even for beginners, so why shouldn’t in matter where you hit the bass drum or cymbal? (there endeth the rant about taking percussion seriously and demanding more from our percussion players).
Leveraging what students CAN do
Continuing on the tone color theme, Michael effectively leverages what students CAN do at this level to create unique sounds and textures. In bar 34-45, virtually the whole band plays percussion via a pencil striking the music stand. Again this is cheap! It’s a good excuse to ensure everyone in the band has a pencil. It also enables you to rehearse a percussion rhythm with the whole band. As a conductor I love this because I can afford to spend time with the percussion section to really nail the rhythm and accents, without the rest of the band going bananas and setting the building on fire (trust me, leave brass players alone for 2 minutes and you’ll need a sheepdog to help you herd them back into line!*) (* this may be a slight exaggeration)
In bar 13-16 and bar 46-49 he asks the students to sing a sustained open 5ths. One note only, the only syllable is “Ahh”. Need I say that this a cheap way to generate a new tonal color? And what’s not to like about getting your students to sing?
Changing tempo is not hard!
Changing tempo with in a piece is not hard, even for beginners provided that:
- the tempo changes are easily understood (e.g. twice as fast/half as fast)
- only 2 tempos are involved (i.e. there is a “slow tempo” and a “fast” tempo)
- they don’t happen to often (every two bars is unlikely to work)
- The transitions are well thought out
Does Mr Sweeney do this? You bet your Grandma’s apple strudel he does!* (*Today is the last day of term…if you are a teacher you’ll understand that I’m a little “punchy” today). The piece starts with a slow tempo (76bpm). At bar 34 it doubles tempo (152bpm). If you look at the transition from bar 33 into bar 34 you’ll notice no-one has to actually “make” the tempo change – i.e. no-one plays a specific rhythm on both sides of the tempo change. In bar 33, there is a sustained note in the brass and the percussion only has a bass drum roll and a wind chime gliss. This means that the conductor can use bar 33 to set up the band for the new tempo at b.34. Smooth!
In bar 69, the tempo reverts to the original slow tempo (76bpm). If you look at this transition, again no-one has to “make” the tempo shift straight away. The woodwinds and brass have a sustained note (they only need to watch the conductor for a bar!). The percussion play on beat 1 (easy), BUT they rest on beat 2. This is the crucial beat for the conductor to “show” the new tempo and therefore for the players to adjust to the new tempo and in this case, all players have to do is watch beat 2, they don’t have to play beat 2. The only movement on beats 3 and 4 is in the percussion, so the conductor can focus entirely on ensuring that they have adjusted to the new tempo. Nice!
At bar 79, the tempo doubles to 156bpm again. This is the trickiest tempo change because percussion and low brass do play across this change. But, by this point they should be pretty aware of what the fast tempo will be having played it before. Because the tempo is doubling, for the percussion it is no harder than moving from 1/8 notes to 1/16th notes, despite how it looks on the page. Notice also that the percussion accents line up with the low WW/Br rhythm and that the rhythmic pattern continues in subsequent bars.
There are a bunch of other great things going on harmonically and orchestration wise in this piece as well, but I’ll look at them next time.
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…
Well, here is the long-awaited sequel to the smash hit blog post of the summer…Regal March Analysis #1. By all accounts, it’s a non-stop, thrilling roller-coaster ride of emotions. As promised in that post, here is a score reduction of Regal March (RegalMarch_ScoreReduction).
I noted in the previous post that there are only the following “real” parts – Flute, Clarinet, Alto Sax, Trumpet and a generic bass part. The only problem is, at this point I was used to writing for ensembles where I had 3 trumpets, or 2 altos, 2 tenors and a baritone sax. In those cases, voicing a chord was easy – 3 trumpets = root, 3rd, 5th. Simple! The bass part is easy to sort out, but what do you do with the other instruments? How do you voice a chord so that it is balanced? From my analysis of John O’Reilly’s piece I found:
- There are no 3 part triadic structures in the upper voices. It’s always either one or two notes against the bass note (or unison with the bass note). This leaves you with 4 instruments and either 1 or two notes to distribute.
- One note is easy: Cl/AS/Tpt in unison with the Fl 8va (i.e. Fl – CL/AS/Tpt).
- When there are 2 notes to distribute, the most common choice was: Fl – Tpt in octaves = melody note, Cl+AS in unison = harmony note. This is what I primarily used throughout Regal March. It is illustrated here –
- Bearing in mind that the flute will always double one of the other 3 instruments the octave above, your other two choices are:
- Fl – Cl = melody, Tpt+AS = harmony. Given students lack of dynamic control, it’s very easy for the Tpt/AS combination to overpower the Fl – Cl combination
- Fl – AS = melody, Tpt+Cl = harmony.
Some other useful scoring options are:
- High vs Low. I used this approach at b.13-16
- Band vs. Percussion. I used this approach at b.29-33
- WW’s vs Brass. I didn’t use this approach in this piece, but did use it in another easy level piece The Forge of Vulcan. I’ll Look at this piece more closely in later posts.
I also followed John O’Reilly’s pattern in terms of when to change scoring/voicing approach. Notice that in every section, the scoring approach stays relatively constant. For instance in b.5-12 Fl-Tpt = melody, Cl+AS = harmony. At b.13 the approach changes to “high vs low”, then to unison tutti, then returns to the approach used in b.5-12. This does two things – it helps delineate the form, which is good no matter what level you are writing at, and students are able to comprehend what their “job” is quite easily. (e.g. “flutes at b.5-12 you have the melody.”).
That’s all for this week, feel free to add your comments or ask questions.