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:
- 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!
Regal March Analysis #2 (aka What I learned from John O’Reilly)
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.
Regal March Analysis (aka What I learned from John O’Reilly) #1
Well, it’s been crazy concert season at my schools the last few weeks, so I’ve not posted as often as I would have liked (i.e. not at all). But things are calmer this week, so I thought I’d start my anaylsis of my piece Regal March. From my last post you’ll know that before writing this piece, I analysed a few John O’Reilly pieces of a similar standard to better understand how to write at this level. I then shamelessly stole concepts from Mr O’Reilly for my own piece.
By way of background, you need to understand that Regal March (you can find a recording here, and a pdf score here) is a grade 0.5 level piece. It’s aimed at students who have been learning for less than 6 months. It requires only skills learnt in the first 12 or so pages of any beginner method. These are:
- A range of 7 notes – from a concert “A” to the “G” a 7th above (so concert A, Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G)
- Rhythms of a whole note, 1/2 note, 1/4 note and 1/8 notes in pairs, preferably on the same pitch
The first thing to realise is that there are very few “real” parts in this piece. When I first started arranging, I thought something like “Wow, look at all those different instruments, I’ll have to write lots of different parts”. WRONG! Most music consists of 2 layers – foreground (aka the melody) and a background (aka the accompaniment). Sometimes there is only one layer (e.g. a solo melody or a tutti unison – think of the opening of Beethoven Syphony No.5) or sometimes three layers with the addition of a counter-melody. Regal March is a mix of single layer, tutti unison figures and what I think of as 1.5 layers. It’s less of a melody + accompaniment and more of a two part counterpoint or duet. I’ll post a piano reduction of the score soon which makes this much easier to see. So, what can we learn today….
1. There is only 1 clarinet part, 1 trumpet part etc.
At this level, that’s what you whould score for. Only split instruments if absolutely necessary and only for a brief time. This makes the piece much easier for the players – “As long as I sound the same as sarah beside me, I’m on the right note!”, and easier to rehearse – “Trumpets, you should all be playing an “E”. Let’s play an “E” and see if we all sound the same…no remember, 1st & 2nd valves for “E””.
2. There is only one register in which students can play.
The opening few bars are a tutti, unison figure. As the players only have a range of 7 notes, there is only one register on their instrument in which they can play these bars. The end result is 3 octave span scored as follows:
- Clarinet/Alto Sax/Tenor Sax/Trumpet/Horn
- Bassoon/Bass Clarinet/Baritone Sax/Trombone/Euphonium
At this level, for a tutti, there are really no other choices. The only exception is probably the French Horn. It could have been written an octave lower (with the trombone isntead of the trumpet).
3. There is only one bass part and it is scored the same the entire way through the piece.
There is no “accompaniment” as such in this piece. Rather there is a single note bass line written in counterpoint to the melody And, it is scored the same the whole way through the piece. Bassoon/Bass Clarinet/Baritone Sax/Trombone/Euphonium in unsion with the Tuba an octave below. Sometimes the tuba is given an alternative part an octave higher in unison with the Trombones. This was done to cater for students playing a Eb Tuba rather than a Bb Tuba (this is common in Australia, but rare in the USA).
4. Flute/Oboe are always in unison, so are Alto Sax/Tenor Sax/Horn.
It is very common at this level to write the Flute and Oboe in unsison. Similarly the Alto Sax and French Horn are in unison. This is mainly because Oboes and French Horns are something of a luxury in a beginner band so shouldn’t be given a part entirely by themselves. It’s also difficult for beginners to pitch accurately on a horn when starting out so it helps if they can “follow” another instrument. The Tenor Sax can either double the Alto Sax or double the bass part. In this piece, it the alto part works better for the tenor than the bass part does.
In summary, there are few “real parts”. In fact, the piece can be thought of as only having the following “real parts” – Flute, Clarinet, Alto Sax, Trumpet and a generic bass part.
I’ll go through the rest of the piece and talk about scoring choices in my next post.
If you liked this post and found it helpful, tell your friends, if not, tell your enemies. 🙂
In the beginning…
This blog is me (Tim Fisher) thinking aloud about writing for Concert Band – primarily junior level bands. I’ll be talkiing about how I got started writing for concert band, how I approach writing for band and things I’ve learned about writing for band. I’ll be thinking and learning as this blog goes along, both through the process of writing it and from feedback from readers like you. This means that it’s entirely possible that I will change my mind about issues as time goes on – nothing is set in stone!
So, how did I get started?
I had completed an undergraduate degree in music where we had to write arrangements for our class. This is always tricky because you never have a balanced ensemble, it’s usually some weird mix of 4 singers, viola, 2 flutes, one trumpet and bagpipes…how do you write for that! But in the process I found great orchestration books like: Rimsky Korsakov’s Princples of Orchestration, Walter Piston’s Orchestration, and Samuel Adler’s The Study of Orchestration. These are great places to start if you don’t already know what the range of a flute is or how a trumpet transposes or how a trombone works.
I had also been writing for jazz ensemble, so I had found books like: The Complete Arranger by Sammy Nestico, Inside the Score by Rayburn Wright and Arranging for Large Jazz Ensemble by Dick Lowell & Ken Pullig.
But as great as these books are, they still leave you a bit short of information when it comes to writing for Concert Band. There are no strings (the heart of the orchestra), and no rhythm section (the backbone of a big band). And, at junior level band writing, you only have one trombone part, not 3, one trumpet part, not 3 or 4, one alto sax, one tenor sax and so on. What to do? The secret is to do what orchestrators and arrangers have been doing for centuries – study the work of other writers to find out what they did. In my case that meant getting some scores of easy works for concert band (grade 0.5 and 1.0) by John O’Reilly and reducing them to a concert pitch, short score. I then tried to figure out some standard chord and melodic line voicings, doublings and other techniques that he used. Armed with this information, I then wrote my first piece for Concert Band – Regal March. It’s not destined to become a master work for band, but it’s a solid piece of writing for a concert band at the Gr 0.5 level.
So what should you do?
- Find a couple of pieces that are similar to what you want to write, then get the score and study it. If you don’t have access to scores, you can by them pretty easily from places like jwpepper.com
- Write and arrange something yourself using what you’ve learnt from your score study
- Keep reading my blog! In the next post I’ll talk about the writing techniques I used in Regal March
see you next time….