You Want Your Music Heard?
Write for Concert Band
The Justin Bieber of the composing world, Eric Whitacre, who makes little teenage girls and their directors too, faint with just a smile once told me, “Band music sells. Band directors always want the newest music, orchestras want to play the old, and chorus is in-between.” That’s why he arranges several of his choral works into band pieces. Not only does it give another opportunity for marketing purposes, but it’s a great way to hear your works in another light. Whitacre said concerning the first time he heard his work for chorus “Cloud Burst” performed by a band, “It was grand and cinematic, like hearing the work renewed in THX.”
The point of this article is to help composers get their music played live by considering writing for concert band. A band is a living, breathing pipe organ full of color, power, emotion, and endless possibilities always looking for new works and composers to commission. In America alone there are literally thousands of concert bands spending millions on new music each year, and your piece could be one of them.
Now that I’ve whet your appetite, you opened up your dusty notation software, opened the concert band templates, picked the ensemble that entices your creative juices, clicked on it, and BOOM! You just made a big mistake. “What ‘n da world?” Those templates can get you into trouble because they do not work in a real world situation. Did you know that there are band directors who will not pick out a piece of music simply because the Oboe 2 part has strong independent lines? Now, does that mean you cannot write your “epic, tear your heart apart, mournful 20 minute oboe solo cadenza?” Of course not, but you better have that solo cued in the trumpet 1 part, and it better be scored for straight mute, Jack! Here is a typical template taken from a popular notation software for large concert band and my comments:
- Piccolo (Yes! Just write for one part though, 2 parts sound awful. It makes you want to shoot yourself, but how do you tune 2 piccolos? You shoot one of them.)
- Flute 1 and 2 (Yes! There are always lots of flutes and good players, plus they sing like angels when played in harmony.)
- Alto flute (No! The only time you see this flute is in flute choirs with flute majors who major in flute. Do I need to say flute one more time? OK… Flute!)
- Oboe 1 and 2 (Debate time... in recent years band composers are writing less and less for oboes because of the lack of talent on the instrument. If you have 1 good oboe player you are fortunate, but I know so many band directors who will not pick music if it has an important oboe line. If there are important oboe lines, directors will tend to give the oboe solo to a trumpet with a straight mute, a clarinet, alto saxophone, or flute. So try to write for 1 oboe but not 2 parts. If you still feel compelled to write an oboe 2 part, be sure that it is either doubled or cued in another part.)
- English horn (This has become more of an orchestral instrument and not much of a band instrument in recent years. Plus, a typical program will not even have access to one. The only reason to write an English horn part is for a featured solo and not simply for another voice in the ensemble for blending purposes. If you write a solo for this instrument it’s best to have cues in other parts such as clarinet or alto saxophone to cover the part if missing.)
- Bassoon 1 and 2 (If you have 1 good bassoon player you are lucky so there's no point in writing 2 different bassoon parts in band. If you still feel compelled to write a bassoon 2 part, be sure that it is either doubled or cued in another part.)
- Contrabassoon (What band is going to spend $20,000 on an instrument? Next!)
- Clarinet in Eb (The only way an Eb sounds good in a band is if it's in 2 rooms down the hall. It's in the same range as a piccolo but louder and more painful.)
- Clarinet in Bb 1, 2, 3 (Yes! Clarinets are like heaven in a band.)
- Alto clarinet in Eb (No! Most bands don't have them, and no Eb part is going to have their own part. They will just double the alto saxophone or 3rd clarinet.)
- Bass clarinet in Bb (Yes! They could be that deep lush instrument that you are looking for. There tends to be a lot of good clarinet players in a band so some switch to bass clarinet the entire time. So feel free to write solos for this instrument also.)
- Contra alto clarinet in Bb (Yes! Also known as a contrabass clarinet. A lot of bands have them but no solos are written for them since they tend to either double the bass line or add weight to the woodwinds.)
- Soprano saxophone (Most likely no unless you want a unique solo sound and not just for ensemble writing. A great example of this is Johan de Meij’s “The Lord of the Rings: Gollum/ Sméagol.”)
- Alto saxophone 1, 2 (Yes! You have lots of good alto sax players. A dime a dozen.)
- Tenor saxophone 1, 2 (Just write one part unless it's jazz. Makes a great solo instrument for color or little ethnic Jewish writing. Tenor saxophone players tend to think that they are special and don’t like to be called just another blender instrument even though that’s their main function in a band.)
- Baritone sax (Yes! These players tend to be beast and can play solos also. Just make sure their part in “serious” music doesn’t make the band sound like it just made a fart joke.)
- Harp (No! Not in a band.... um.... Never.)
- Piano (Sure if you want to cheat, but you don’t need a piano in band, that's why God made the percussion instruments, Jack!)
- Trumpet 1, 2, 3 (Yes! Trumpets sound great in 1, 2, 3's and the players are a dime a dozen. When all the trumpets play in unison the sound is mellower than when they are divided.)
- Flugelhorn 1, 2 (No! This one made me laugh. Unless you are writing for jazz, English band, or your name is Berlioz, think “March to the Scaffold,” a typical band program will not have one. Maybe they will have… one. Makes a cool solo instrument, but make sure the part can be covered by trumpet, horn, or maybe even trombone if the ensemble does not have a “flugeldoogle.” That’s the technical term by the way.)
- Horn 1, 2, 3, 4 (Um... are we writing for orchestras playing lite classical? This is where band composers mess up. Copland said, “There is no greater sound than a horn section playing fortissimo in unison.” The horns get divided so much that their parts get thinned out and then the director spends more time tuning the horn parts than rehearsing the band. I have heard so many players in the band say, “I thought horns where supposed to be the coolest sounding instrument?” It's ok to write harmony for the horns but let them play in unison also. We get the chills when they play as a section “ripping it up” in one of those “epic” counter-melodies. Have you ever heard mellophones in a marching band? They almost always play together in unison against the trumpets’ melodies. They never play in tune, but oh still what a sound! By the way, call it a horn not a French horn.)
- Trombone 1, 2, 3 (Just trombone 1 and 2, normally 3rd trombone plays bass trombone. By the way, don’t ever call it a tenor trombone. We know that a trombone is a tenor trombone “Mr. Weirdo who thinks they’re full of smarticles.”)
- Bass trombone (Yes! God's instrument!!! By the way just a little hint, bass trombones love to play low notes but find it an insult if all you do is double them with the tuba throughout the entire piece.)
- Euphonium (Yes! The cello of the band. Beautiful solo or ensemble writing. Sounds better in unison than in chords. Warmer and weaker than trombone, but adds mellowness to trombone lines and richness to horns.)
- Tuba (Yes! Love your tuba player, buy them dinner, and write solos for him also!)
- Cello (No! Is this a joke? LOL. Never have I seen this written for band. Next you will want a viola in there. This is why God Made the Euphonium.)
- Double bass (This is added when a composer doesn't know how to write for band. They want to give the tuba a rest or solo, but good part writing never needs a double bass in a band. There are other ways to accompany a tuba solo than another bass instrument. You could use muted trumpets, mallet percussion instruments, trombone and euphonium playing chords, etc. Heck, even write a tuba/ piccolo duet.)
- Timpani (Yes! Makes a band sound mature even if it's a bunch of yuppie novices. How to make any band sound great: tuba, bass trombone, timpani, chimes, gong or tam tam, crash and suspended cymbals, bass drum, low marimba, and vibraphone....BOOM!!!)
- Percussion 1, 2, 3, 4 (Um yes, maybe....maybe just 3 parts.)
Band directors love to talk and share to one another. If one of them has played the latest greatest piece, could be yours, they will say, “Hey man, I just played a new work called ‘Godzilla Eats the Bieber’ It was totally awesome! You should go out and buy it now.” Here is the instrumentation that I recommend if you are still considering getting your music performed by a real, large band ensemble and yes, in the band world trumpets are ahead of the horns in the score. “Why you say? Because the band world was smart enough to realize that trumpets are actually higher than the horns, go figure, and we are not living the 1800’s anymore so we also figured out that there are more brass instruments that can blend with woodwinds and not just their alto ‘epic’ brother who likes to be played with a hand stuck into his nether regions.”
Woodwinds: Piccolo, Flute 1 and 2, Oboe, Bassoon, Clarinet in Bb 1, 2, and 3, Bass Clarinet, Alto Saxophone 1 and 2, Tenor Saxophone, and Baritone Saxophone.
Brass: Trumpet 1, 2, and 3, Horn 1 and 2, Trombone 1 and 2, Bass Trombone, Euphonium, and Tuba.
Percussion: Timpani, Percussion 1, 2, and 3.
So go ahead Jack, orchestrate your piano piece called “Shopping List,” in which in your own mind doesn’t sound anything like Chopin or Liszt, for band; turn that, “Oh God not another string quartet that will never be as good as Beethoven anyways” into something fresh and unique for winds; or become “Champion of Band Hero” by taking your EPIC, cinematic, I can only compose music if I first spent thousands of EPIC dollars on samples with words like EPIC or Stormy Drummies version 2.516910 in them and my entire life’s inspiration is based on a world where Italian plumbers like mushrooms, into the greatest, truly EPIC piece for EPIC concert band that will actually be played on Earth by real EPIC musicians that you, the composer, will forever change with the most heart wrenching, emotional, EPIC music that you pour your bleeding, EPIC heart into each… and every… little… EPIC… note…EPIC!!!!
“But, but, I wrote that for strings. It won’t work for winds!” I was once commissioned to arrange Gustav Mahler’s 1st movement of his 5th symphony and the finale of his 2nd symphony that is scored for full orchestra, choir, and pipe organ into a piece for 2 piccolo trumpets, 2 trumpets in Eb, 3 trumpets in C, 5 trumpets in Bb, 5 flugeldoogles, 3 cornets, and percussion, and the sound was sweeter than warm chocolate chip cookies straight from the oven with a scoop of vanilla bean ice-cream, Jack. So what was your point again?
There once was a pretty cool cat, I don’t know let’s call him Jesus who said, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” So my translation in musical terms would be, “Those who live by the sample will die by the sample.” Writing for concert band is the perfect opportunity for any composer to hear their works performed by a large, powerful ensemble, but it’s up to you to take that leap of faith. And in the immortal words of Duck Dynasty’s Uncle Si, “Hey! Now that’s a fact, Jack!”