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]
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.