Tag Archive | scales

Udala’m – part 2

This post continues looking at the piece Udala’m by Michael Story. You can find my first post here, a full score here and a recording here.

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. 

  1. 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
    Udala'm 2 Ex 1
  2. 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)
    Udala'm 2 Ex 2.jpg
    Halfway though this section, the flutes and mallet percussion play a simple counter melody. 
    Udala'm 2 Ex 3
  3. 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.

    Udala'm 2 Ex 4

  4. 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.


Udala’m – part 1

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.)

Udala'm Ex 1.jpg

How does he do it?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.
  4. 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”.
  5. 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:
    1. Melody 1 – 2 bars, beginning on beat 1
    2. Melody 2 –  3 bars, beginning with a pickup note on beat 4
    3. Melody 3 – 2 bars, beginning on beat 2. Therefore, this melody crosses the bar line
    4. Melody 4 – 3 bars, beginning on beat 1
    5. Melody 5 – 3 bars, beginning and ending with a quarter rest. This melody doesn’t cross the bar line
  6. 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.
    1. Flutes (+Oboes at bar 9)
    2. Low Woodwinds and Brass
    3. Clarinets
    4. Alto Saxes + Horns
    5. Trumpets

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.

How to cover scales with ketchup (tomato sauce)

This is post isn’t about composing, but I’m so excited about my current approach to doing scales with students that I thought I’d post about it. I’m guessing most of you reading this do some teaching of beginners so hopefully you find it helpful.

If my children are any guide, then the only way to make vegetables palatable is to drown them in tomato ketchup. As I teacher, I’m always searching for the magic ketchup that will make scales palatable to my students. Whilst I’m not sure that such a thing exists, some approaches to scales seem to work better than others.

My students and I have a fundamental difference of opinion. I want my students to be able to play all 12 major/minor scales a a decent tempo, and from memory. My students don’t want to practice scales at all. This cartoon captures their sentiment perfectly…

Awesome already

My current approach to solving this stalemate is based on only doing the first 5 notes of the scale. I start with C major, then I do D minor, then D major, at which point the process repeats itself.The picture illustrates what I mean.


Here’s all the reasons why this approach is cool:

  1. Five notes fits our short term memory processing abilities much better than the full scale.
  2. It covers both major and minor scales
  3. Major and minor scales are integrated with each other. Previously I would do a few major scales, then if there was time and I could be bothered, a few minor scales.
  4. It avoids explaining a harmonic minor scale with the raised 7th. Notice that this extra complexity occurs exactly where are our short term processing power runs out (at the 7th object/thing).
  5. Instead minor scales are presented as a variation (or one step away) from a major scale. I know that D minor and C major aren’t the relative major and minor scales in a classical theory sense. But from a learning point of view it is much easier to teach D minor as “take a C major scale, drop the bottom note and add one note on top”. (I use my fingers to demonstrate.)
  6. It highlights the fact that it is the 3rd note that is the key factor in defining a scale as major or minor. This holds true across modes (Lydian, Major, Mixolydian are all “major” modes with a major 3rd, the remaining modes all sound “minor” with a minor 3rd).
  7. It makes getting to a new scale a matter of altering one note. It the above example the next scale is E major, but students only have to alter the G to a G#…easy!
  8. For beginning students it allows them to learn a much wider range of scales within a limited note range. Limited note range isn’t so much of an issue on strings, but on brass instruments it certainly is.
  9. To get the full octave scale, all that needs to be done is to combine two 5 notes groups. 5 note C major + 5 note G major = full octave C major. Better than that 5 note C major + 5 note G minor = full octave C mixolydian. Similarly, 5 note C minor + 5 note G minor = full octave C dorian. Or, 5 note C minor + 5 note G major = full octave C melodic minor ascending.

Before I finish, I should acknowledge that I got this concept initially from a colleague Steve C — yes he and I do actually sit around talking about how to teach kids scales and have fun doing it (even without ketchup). Thanks Steve!