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!
In my last post I talked about “having something to say” when writing for beginner bands (or any band for that matter). In this post I’m going to illustrate what I mean by outlining “what I was trying to say” in a couple of my pieces. (Being Valentine’s Day, I did try to say it with flowers. If they didn’t arrive, please contact your local florist.)
The Forge of Vulcan (pub: Brolga Music)
In this piece, I was trying to introduce dissonance in ways that beginner students could cope with and would be able to play successfully. At the time, I had been working through the classic text on counterpoint by Fux – Gradus Ad Parnassum. I realised that if you follow the “rules” about introducing dissonance (prepare it correctly, resolve it correctly), students would/should be able to cope. Hence, I can have the band playing a major 2nd apart for a whole bar (…and loving it!).Notice that the band starts in unison, then moves to the major 2nd, and then resolves to a major 3rd. The dissonance is both prepared and resolved correctly.
To further improve the clarity of these lines, and to make it easier for students to play, it is scored in a “brass vs woodwinds” kind of way. Initially, the woodwinds all stay static on the “G”, while the brass play the descending line in unison. At bar 5, the roles switch, with the brass remaining static on a “C” whilst the woodwinds play a contrary motion line that starts an octave apart and ends in unison with the brass.
This concept of generating dissonance through oblique motion (i.e. one part moves while the other remains static) extends throughout the piece – e.g. the initial melodic statement in b.9, the B section (b.25-40) and a dominant pedal point later in the piece (b.41-45).
So, I felt comfortable that I had written something with some harmonic interest and gave the low brass as much to do as the other instruments, but what about percussion? The Forge of Vulcan is scored for the following percussion: Glock, Timpani, Snare Drum, Bass Drum, Crash Cymbal, Tambourine, Triangle and Anvil. That should be enough for even the largest percussion section! You could, however, get away with just one player doing Snare Drum and Tambourine with just a little bit of cut ‘n paste.
Tonally, this piece is in C Dorian. It therefore uses the pitch set (Bb major) that the students know at this point, but organises it slightly differently. Personally, I have found it very difficult to write in a straight major key at this level in a way that doesn’t feel like it has already been done.
Texturally, the use of a contrapuntal, rather than homophonic (chordal) approach, also helps to make it sound fresher – at least to my ears! For the majority of the piece, there are only 2 lines. But over the final melodic statement, a 3rd line (a countermelody) is introduced into the upper winds and glock parts. At this point in the piece, the rest of the band are playing familiar material and can cope with the addition of another melodic line.
Notice that at times students are playing some quite dissonant harmonies e.g. a minor 7th (F-Eb), a 3 note cluster (G+D+F and C+D+F). It works becuase the lines students play are well constructed and simple within themselves and there is clarity in the way it is orchestrated.
Medieval Fayre (pub: Brolga Music)
Continuing the idea of writing in other modes apart from straight Bb major (e.g. C Dorian, D Phrygian etc) and of taking a more contrapuntal approach to writing, I wrote Medieval Fayre. This piece is in C Dorian, and like The Forge of Vulcan it has 9 different percussion instruments. Two further concepts influenced this piece, which are outlined below:
At university, I took a music history class with the stunning title – 18th Century Classicism in Music (with a title like that, it’s a wonder it hasn’t been made into a summer blockbuster movie). I don’t remember a great deal from this class (possibly because I may have slept through the odd lecture), but I do remember learning that in Mozart’s Symphony No.41, the final movement is in 5 part invertible counterpoint. (Even if you don’t know what that is, you have to admit that it sounds impressive.) Beginner students can’t play 5 part invertible counterpoint, which is handy because I can’t write 5 part invertible counterpoint. BUT, 2 part counterpoint is ok for them and me. So, in Medieval Fayre, I set out to write a melody and bass line that could be inverted (melody becomes the bass and vice-versa). Here’s what I came up with:
It’s not identical when inverted, but it’s pretty close. It also means that the lower brass and woodwinds get to play the melody and as a consequence they are required to achieve the same level of dexterity as the other players in the band.
The final influence stemmed from a question I often ask myself – “What can beginner students be asked do?” We often get caught up with what notes and rhythms the students can and can’t play and forget about all the other elements that make a performance musical. In the case of this piece, I focussed on crescendos. At multiple points through the piece, players are asked to crescendo through a half note (minim) or, in the case of the percussion, crescendo over 4 quavers. This creates musical interest and depth at a level that is achievable for young players.
You may find that after reading about some of my pieces, you just have to rush out and get them. I understand this urge completely and in order to help you fulfil your dream, here are some places you can go to buy them: jwpepper.com, sheetmusicplus, or your local band music retailer. If you like them a lot, why not buy copies for your friends and family? If you don’t like them, you can also use the parts for scrap paper, to wrap glassware when moving house, to start a camp fire and a million other things! Order by credit card right now and….