Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Jessica's Tips for Writing for Youth Band

Guest blog by Jessica Blenis, who was one of the prize-winners in the Gower Community Band composer's competition last year:

Having had the experience of writing for the Gower Community Band last year I figured it'd be helpful for all those writing this year to give a bit of insight into techniques which might make it easier for the composer, conductor and the musicians.

1. EDIT EDIT EDIT. Then edit again. Sometimes you'll swear you've put an accidental in and when your program plays it back it sounds right but there's no accidental marked in. Mine did this oodles- there were wrong notes all over the place. Of course I'm working with Finale 2005. Even pro-Finale people, I imagine, would recoil at the mention of using a program which dates back five years.

2. Number and imbalance of instruments: I'm not exaggerating when I say that there was a really strange, out-of-balance, instrumentation found in the Gower band, which is not surprising or unusual for a community band.  For popular instruments, like flute and clarinet especially, there were 8-10 people where we'd usually expect 2-3. There was a fair number of trumpet players, I think 3 trombones maybe 4, Several sax players, but one bass clarinet (Katie Noseworthy played it), no bassoons, 1-2 oboes, a few horns, 1-2 tuba players, and I think 3-4 percussionists. Here are some tips for dealing with this imbalance:
  • if you want a solo (as in, just one player) flute line, definitely indicate this in the score ("solo"). Otherwise you'll have 10 flautists playing it and making 10 people play the same thing at the same time isn't very wise when it's an exposed part (it can be a challenge to play a unison line in tune).
  • exposed parts- definitely write 'solo.'
  • Don't go crazy with percussion- I almost had to step in and play with the band but due to time constriction, I couldn't. So I'd say three to four percussion parts would be enough unless you've got one person playing two parts which needs to be indicated on the score in order for it to be seen easily.
3. Range:  Keep in mind that the age range goes from I think 11-70 and most of these people are not professional or able to play wide ranges. Here's a basic outline that I was told to stick to for instruments where range is often a problem:
  • trumpet: Don't go too high above the clef, or stay there for prolonged periods of time.
  • french horn: I wouldn't write anything above written G5 (sounds C5) and nothing too noodley.
  • trombone/tuba: noodley writing is discouraged- these guys really like a simple but groovy bassline. Nothing too high above the bass clef, and tricky slurs were a bit of a no-no too.
4. Dynamics: Generally, the sound is loud- I was warned by Jill Abbot (School of Music graduate and horn player in the Gower band) about this, but didn't find it was a huge problem. However, with a big group like this, a limited range of dynamics can be expected, and some dynamics- aka pppp- are out of the question due to the sheer number of people playing. If you want something to be soft but with a full concert band range of sounds, try using 'solo,' where one person from that section plays by themself, though it's not necessarily a solo seeing as in each other section someone else is playing by themself. So cut back on numbers and indicate a dynamic, and when you want a big sound, have a tutti but definitely make sure that you write dynamics appropriate o balance out the sound- a trombone playing ff could quite possibly cover up (overpower) the sound of a clarinet playing ff unless you've taken register into consideration and put the trombone in a lower register and the clarinet in a higher one.

5. Rehearsal numbers or letters:  make sure they're very clear and put them in places which make sense- in other words, at the beginnings of phrases so if the conductor decides to start at H, the poor clarinetist isn't in the middle of a wicked run.

6. Idiomatic writing is best. Leave runs and whatnot to instruments where dexterity is more expected and long notes to insturments which would normally be given such things.

7. Level:  Grade 3-4.  Consider the level of your piece- high schoolish. In other words, certainly do not write stuff you'd be intimidated to play! Something that looks nice on the page can sound absolutely wonderful and intricate without being lip-busting. It looks great when you glance at a score which is black with notes but you have to be realistic and merciful! Some of the people in the band are very capable of playing tricky stuff while others are still on their way to getting there.

8. Appeal. I don't kno how many people in the Gower band came up to me and said that at first they really disliked the piece- which is my fault, seeing as I wrote something with a great amount of dissonance which isn't what they were used to playing. I'm not saying screw dissonance and atonality and write something tonal and predictable, but people will enjoy playing something they like much more than playing something which looks good on the page, and the audience will also like the piece more if it has appeal. The Gower people were very stuck on finding the melody- so make it findable. I didn't- my melodies were hidden and that was something I wish I'd changed before I submitted it. If you want your piece to stick with them, I'd say give them something that attracts people- but with your own personal seal on it. Not the animal, though. Seals bite. What I mean is make the work yours, but when you're writing for an ensemble it is wise to take into consideration what they habitually play, what they're capable of playing, and what they'd probably like to play/hear.

Hope this helps! If you're writing for the band and have any other questions please feel free to ask!

Clark here — I just wanted to thank Jess for taking the time to share these tips with others. They are very helpful! I also wanted to add a few comments of my own:

#1. "Edit edit edit..." Absolutely! In fact, I would suggest that when an ensemble plays music that has mistakes in it, it can be PAINFULLY embarrassing for the composer! I think any composer who has had this experience can attest to that. It also can make the ensemble and conductor lose faith in the composer and the composition; this is not only embarrassing, it's a lousy way to start a working relationship. Here are links to my "Musical Detail" blogs, in case you missed them:

#2. The number of players of the different instruments is definitely imbalanced, but that is pretty typical of community bands (and probably school bands as well), hence the need to double lines of hard-to-find instruments (e.g., oboes, bassoons) in other instruments.

#3. Range limitations — definitely bear this in mind; orchestration texts often have a list of instrument ranges for professional performers AND for amateurs; keep the latter close-at-hand when composing.

#4. Dynamics; good points all.

#5. A good idea for rehearsal letters is to place them at structural division points. As Jess says, never put them in the middle of a phrase.

#6. Idiomatic writing is obviously welcomed by performers (this is true for professionals as well, but especially true for amateurs), but since most students do not have a well-honed sense of what constitutes idiomatic writing for every instrument, go with your instincts on this and check periodically with performers of those instruments to see if your instincts are right.

#7. Again, unless you have a fair amount of experience, it is hard to know what exactly constitutes a "high-schoolish" level of writing for wind band, so go with your instincts and check with people who have more experience periodically (your teacher, the band director, other people with experience conducting bands, etc.).

#8. "Appeal." This is tricky... We all tend to want people to like our music, but I have been harping away at my students to venture beyond traditional tonality ever since I began teaching composition; how to reconcile the two?

I guess the most important thing to keep in mind is that it IS possible to have both; to write music that appeals AND doesn't resort to tired old clichés of tonal music. For the purposes of this course, you already know that you MUST venture beyond tonality, and I have explained my pedagogical rationale for this on numerous occasions, including several blogs (Why Atonal Music?, Atonal — Even the Word Sounds Unpleasant!, Atonality = Noise?).

If someone comes up to you and says, "at first, I didn't like your music!" this probably means they DO like it now, so that's a good thing! They don't have to love it at first sight/performance. In fact, new pieces often sound like crap the first few times they are rehearsed, especially if the performers aren't professionals, and if the composer isn't professional. It's a learning curve for everyone. The more experience the composer has, the more we know how to write idiomatically, to score effectively for large ensembles, to take the performance level of the ensemble into account, to include TONS of detail in the score so the the rehearsals don't have to stop every fifteen seconds to fix a problem or ask a question.

I am suggesting that a person saying "at first I didn't like the piece" may be an indicator of their response to a lot of things, including the chaotic way it sounded the first few times it was rehearsed. So, stick to your guns and write the best music you can, making sure your final score is as clear as it possibly can be, and don't feel pressured to write overly-simplistic music to make it appealing!


Mary Beth said...

thanks jess these are some great tips on writing for band:)

Adam Batstone said...

Great post. Over the past week I have been putting in the final details of my piece. Also making sure the parts for the reading contain enough detail. Alot to consider!

Kim Codner said...

I would also suggest, that when you get to work with the band (if you are lucky enough to do so), just really know your score. They will work on it and when the time comes for rehearsals, you can work with them and tweak what isn't sounding ideal. Make sure you have a reason why you put in that specific dynamic, slur, doubling, etc...

Also, I agree with Jess on her point #2 "amount of instruments".
Lots of flutes and clarinets... just sayin'.
I wrote for a full flute section and ended up using just the 1st flutes afterall. Made a big difference.

Good luck to everyone!

Aiden Hartery said...

These comments are really well thought out, and helpful!

I know what you're saying about editing! You really do need to go over each part SOOO carefully. (especially for cues and making sure everything is lined up properly and readable.)
The best way to go about writing for people you don't know, is to think about writing your music, instructions, EVERYTHING as if the person who will read it is not very experienced/ "idiot proof" it. Things that make sense to you may not make sense to other people!
Dynamic, phrase, tempo markings are more important that you might think! Never be afraid to give too many of these. If you think you are, then it's probably a good amount.

With a large ensemble, writing loud music is tricky business. What you expect a forte to be could turn out to be a triple forte with so many players playing at once. So I guess common sense/ experience should help with decisions. Different instruments will play a louder forte. A trombone can be one of the loudest instruments in the band, so a forte for a trombone should be treated differently than a forte for a flute.
Thinking about the positions of the instruments is also important. It is good to know that generally the high woodwinds would be in front, middle woodwinds behind that, and brass and percussion in the back. Knowing this could really help imagine and prepare for a well planned balance.

Jess's suggestions were helpful! Her experience with the Wind Ensemble this year really gave her a great experience with writing for such an ensemble.

Vanessa Carroll said...

Both Jessica's and your additions are such great tips!

Writing a good piece is one thing, but if you don't do the "house keeping" elements (you know, like editing, dynamics, basically just making your score look presentable) it can quickly take away from the quality of your piece!

Thanks guys!

Anonymous said...

While this is very helpful, I would really advise against writing down to the kids' level of playing. While it may make it easier to make a nicer sounding concert, we are not here to make nice sounding concerts. We are here to teach musicianship. For this reason, I would also advise against writing only 'traditional' parts. For example, while the tubas may enjoy nice and easy 'oompa' parts, I guarantee you that upon reaching a higher level of repertoire, they will find themselves extremely lacking in technical skill. This is not just a problem with tubas, but also with flutist and clarinetists who, upon reaching a higher level repertoire, are unable to improve, having played at the same basic level with no focus on any intonation or harmony lines.

Sarah-Beth Cormier said...

This was a really helpful piece to read. In high school, I wrote a piece for our concert band and ran into many of the difficulties described here: overly loud sections, imbalanced instrumentation, etc. So I was already aware of these challenges but did not have any strategies for overcoming them. I am working on a march for a high school level wind band right now, and these tips will come in handy!

Duane Andrews said...

This post is full of great practical tips and is a must read for anyone writing in this context. The most challenging thing I’m finding is striking the balance between writing for the band (both in terms of skill and appeal) and writing for myself but I find writing in these limited contexts a great workout and insightful for understand the more essential aspects of the composition process.

Anonymous said...

It was very helpful to read about some of the concerns regarding writing for wind band. More specifically, the problem of writing appealing music spoke to me. I believe that composers should absolutely be free to go beyond tonality, and 'the things we expect' to hear in a piece of music. However, when performing in local venues (especially in NL and smaller communities) atonal and dissonant pieces would more than likely not go over well with regards to 'audience appeal', so how exactly is this balance found? How do composers go beyond tonality and still write pieces that are well received?

Jack Etchegary said...

Very nice to be able to read another perspective on writing for wind band. I was drawn into the discussion of writing "appealing" music. It is definitely understandable that many people in this setting (community band or school band) are definitely not exposed to a large amount of new, contemporary music, or let alone music that is inherently unusually dissonant. I think striving to find a balance in writing things that are both familiar (perhaps.. tonal) and also include new harmonies can act as both an incentive for a piece to be nice to listen to/learn and also a learning opportunity for band members! I am working hard to take all of these different perspectives and apply them to my own composition process as I finish my piece to submit to the GCB competition.

Pallas A said...

As a string player, I find that writing for wind band has been incredibly intimidating. I occasionally forget that wind players need to breathe and cannot play for the entire duration of the work, so that aspect of orchestration has been a struggle. The imbalance of the ensemble has also been harder to address than I thought. Many of the bass instruments need to be cross-cued, so in the case of the woodwind section, the lowest instrument that does not need to be cross-cued is the tenor sax. I printed out a range guide and referred to it throughout the composition process and ensured that everything I wrote was cross-cued if needed. I want to make sure that even if I know nothing about wind band, at least everything will be playable in terms of range and appropriate cues. I like the tip about using solo strategically to ensure a certain balance. Similarly, I think that I'll revise my piece and lower the dynamics for the trombones and brass instruments, just to be on the safe side.