Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Writing for Wind Band

For the second project this term, you have a choice between writing a piece for wind band or writing a piece for a reading by the Ora Ensemble.  Today's post has information about the wind band project (and is an edited re-post of my 27 Feb. 2009 entry).

Length: 5 minutes minimum

Difficulty level:  Grade 3-4, if submitting it to the Gower Community Band "Terra Nova" Competition.  For the purposes of this course it can be of higher difficulty, but be aware that doing so might disqualify your piece from consideration for the Gower competition, as well as for the CBA competition, if you plan on entering either of these.

What do those grade levels mean?  Good question!  After researching this on the Internet for the better part of an hour, I was unable to find an "official" explanation of grade levels, but PLEASE correct me if there is such a document, and I will post it to this blog immediately.  In the meantime, below are links that explain grade levels, but note that these explanations differ from one another.  The third has many recordings of pieces at different grade levels, which might help give you a sense of what particular grades of concert band music sound like:
Chart of Band Instrument Ranges for levels III and IV, according to Saskatchewan Band Association:

  • These are written ranges, meaning that transposing instruments (Cl., Sax., Tpt., Hn.) will not sound as written.
  • Be aware that not all notes within the ranges of these instruments are equally easy to play.  The most comfortable notes for brass players are usually within the lowest octave above their fundamental note (for Bb tpt. it is Bb; for F hn. it is F, etc.); if they have to play notes in the highest portion of the ranges above for protracted periods they tend to experience lip fatigue.  
  • Source:, page 19.
  • I created this chart myself; in cases of any discrepancies between my chart and the SBA ranges, go with their ranges.
  • Thanks to Jason Caslor for drawing the SBA guidelines to my attention.
  • Other band associations or publishers may have slightly different ranges for these levels, but this at least gives you something to go on.
SBA Available Dynamic Levels:  The same publication cited above lists (on page 15) six available dynamic levels for level IV:  pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, along with cresc., decresc., morendo, sfz., fp.  Frankly, my feeling is that this range of dynamic levels should suffice for almost any kind of music you want to write.

Available Articulations:  The SBA publication cited above references articulations (with a code: FO#3), but does not appear to explain what the code means (it claims to do so on page 6, but I could find no explanation on that page).  In any event, I would suggest limiting yourself to the following articulations:  Staccato (.), Accent ( > ), Tenuto (—), Tongued (notes not under a slur are normally tongued individually), and Slurred (but use common sense in your slur patterns; irregular patterns are probably not feasible at this level).

SBA Available Meters:  2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 2/2, 3/8, 6/8, 9/8, 12/8, 5/8, 7/8.  I would guess that if 5/8 and 7/8 are available, 5/4 and 7/4 would also be meters that level IV bands could handle, but I could be wrong.  I would also guess that, while the listed meters are available, frequent meter changes could move your composition beyond levels III and IV.

SBA Available Note Values:  All note values from 16th to whole note, with dots on eighth notes or larger.  Triplet 8ths and triplet quarters also available.  As with everything else, common sense is necessary here; there are combinations of these values that can make for very tricky rhythms, and too many contrasting rhythmic patterns happening simultaneously can also be tricky, possibly raising the level of your composition beyond III and IV.  Syncopation and hemiola are listed as being available, again within common sense.

Instrumentation:  See information posted on the main School of Music bulletin board.  For that matter, read all posted information about the competition before you begin.

Deadline:  12 noon, 9 April, 2012 (this is both the course deadline and the Gower deadline).  Note that the deadline if you write for the Ora Ensemble is the same.

Reading opportunity:  Dr. Jason Caslor has agreed to schedule readings of your concert band compositions on 28 March, 2012.  I am guessing he would like score and parts at least a couple of days in advance of that reading, but I strongly encourage you to aim for this deadline; this will allow you time to make changes/improvements before you hand in the final version.

Copies:  The GCB Terra Nova Program requires four bound copies; I require one.

Other information:
  • Scores should be printed on both sides of the page.   
  • The following information should be included in the score (usually on the left hand page opposite page one of the music):  
    • Duration;
    • Instrumentation (instrument list in score order, including number of divisi required, such as "Flutes 1, Flutes 2, Flutes 3," etc.);
    • Notes to the conductor and performers (if applicable); and 
    • Program notes.  Note that the GCB Terra Nova Program requires program notes.
  • The GCB Terra Nova program also requires that the composer's name not appear anywhere on the score (this information, along with contact information, should be submitted in a sealed envelope accompanying your submission).  
  • The copy you submit to me should have your name on it.
Here are my suggestions:
  1. Compose using "short score" format. Essentially, this means writing something that looks like it could be piano music (i.e., written on treble and bass clefs), or possibly 3-5 staves per system, possibly assigning different staves to different groups within the band. This gives you better control of the composing process. It's much easier to get a sense of the form and create longer lines when you can see more of your music on a single page (such as 4-5 systems of music on one page), as opposed to one humungous system per page.

  2. Write annotations on on your short score indicating instrumentation for particular sections or lines of music if you have something specific in mind. For example, you could write "clarinets and flutes in octaves" over a line, or "brass" over a chorale-like chord progression.  If you don't have specific instruments in mind, no need to do this; just figure it out later when you are orchestrating.

  3. I've had teachers insist that it is best to begin 'orchestrating' ('bandating?' 'bandifying?') your score after you have completed the previous two steps, but there is no rule about this; there are advantages to orchestrating as you go as well (i.e., composing a few pages in short score, then scoring them for band, then continuing the short score version for a few more pages, then orchestrating, etc.).

  4. Try to avoid the temptation to "overscore" (which means to use thick textures by default). There is nothing wrong with having sections of your band piece with rests in the majority of the instruments.  Overscoring — writing a dense and confused score — is a mark of an inexperienced/insecure orchestrator, so try to be bold and consider including at least some transparently-scored sections, so that tutti textures will have greater impact when they occur.  On the other hand, thinly scored band music can sound less effective than we had imagined because it is more challenging to play, especially for less accomplished players; weaknesses within sections are more exposed, something that is a consideration when the performers are at an intermediate, amateur level. 

  5. Since you have a wide variety of instruments at your disposal, consider using colour, texture, or density as organizing principles.

  6. Bear in mind that most music fits into foreground-background (prominent-supportive) roles, or foreground-middleground-background roles. Work hard at not confusing the listener as to what they are meant to be hearing most prominently.

  7. Are there some techniques or styles you've heard (or heard of) that you'd like to try? Minimalism, world music, fusion, klangfarbenmelodie, etc.? Sometimes a good way to begin is just to pick a style or technique that interests/excites you, and then run with it.

  8. How do you feel about a plan?  The longer the work, the more a plan comes in handy, so consider formulating one.  Remember that you can always change your plan as you go.


Elliott Butt said...

I used this blog as a reference guide throughout the entire composition of my band piece. There's a lot of great information in here.

One thing that I find strange is how this grading system is based on "soft" rules. Even though these guidelines are fairly clear, when it comes to something like a competition (which may ask that you compose for a specific grade level) it can really come down to someones opinion if it meets the requirements or not. I just see this a little but unfair, as you may be under the impression that you stayed within the guideline quite well, while the judges may see it differently.

I completely understand the need and reasoning behind the grading system, but I just think it could be more firmly defined.

Josh Penney said...

I find it interesting look at Elliott Butt's post, how the grade levels are fairly soft and sometimes open to opinion. I know when I write, I often write things that fit within the description of the levels, however it can sometimes come off as hard. Makes me wonder if I submit it, will it get breifly looked at and thrown away because something would require a little more work, and are not necessarily out of the bands playing level. It's tough.

What I found very helpful in this article is the section on over scoring, or maybe better it defaulting. I know as a trombone player, I hate it when I receive my part in a first rehearsal and all I see are rests, but as a composer it makes me wonder why I have so many rests. After a while it becomes evident, but when I write it really tears me between two things. I hate leaving instruments with very little, yet I don't want the integrity of the piece to be lost just so the low brass won't be bored. It is very true that waiting to score for the entire band can be powerful. I guess I'll have to find other way to use colour and texture to engage other instruments so they don't fall asleep in rehearsal.

Josh McCarthy said...

I found this article very helpful in terms of writing for a wind band, which is something I'd love to do, and to have it performed before I finish my undergrad. I am glad you included typical ranges for all of the instruments necessary, that's obviously come in hand. Maybe now that I know that this competition exists I'll plan on entering it in the future! I feel like the issue with writing for a full band is that me as a composer must now learn how to write idiomatically for each instrument, which I feel you should maybe write a blog on, that would be grand.

Duane Andrews said...

Great tips and resources in this post. I find it's a good challenge to write in this type of limited context and this post is a great reminder to keep orchestration funamentals in check such as colour, texture, density, foreground-middleground-background...

Jack Etchegary said...

This post was a very helpful read! As I continue to work on my composition for the GCB competition, I am often wondering of where to go next or am searching for inspirations on how to expand my ideas. I am brand new at orchestrating, and after reading this post, now realize that I have not actually be orchestrating at all. The idea to write the piece like it is to played on piano, grouped into various sections of the band is an excellent step to take here and I completely disregarded that as an option. I have mainly been writing various parts as I go, thinking on the fly of what should be double, tripled, etc. I have the disadvantage of not yet taking Orchestration as a course, so this attempt has been quite haphazard and rushed in my efforts to meet the competition deadline. In the future, I hope to be able to more effectively go about scoring a wind band piece, or a large ensemble piece in general. For now, I'm quite thankful that I read this post when I did as I can tell it will help me along my process to finish my piece on time to be submitted.

Joe Donaghey said...

Very helpful post that I will continuously look to while I compose my wind band piece. What is interesting to me is the strict guidelines for note values. 16th notes to whole notes are what is recommended but what if the piece is played at a very slow tempo? Is the use of 32nd or 64th notes more of a reading problem than a playability problem? I guess aesthetically a smaller note value is more intimidating to play even if the rhythm could be the same at a higher tempo and using 16th and 8th notes. This brings up the point of why do we choose certain note values? I once heard of a composer who composed a piece using very small rhythmic values like 128th and 256th notes and adding double dotted values to give the performer an intended anxiety in performing. The name eludes me at this moment but it is fascinating that a choice of values can affect a performers mindset and outcome of the piece being played. I also believe Ferneyhough has used 4096th notes....of course, he would.