DIRECTING THE SMALL-SCHOOL CONCERT BAND

an article printed by

The Instrumentalist magazine
July 2001 issue

by

 J. Derek Jones
Director of Bands
Lambuth University
Jackson, Tennessee

May 4, 2001

        Every year after the last football game is over and the marching instruments have been stored away for the winter, directors at small high schools face the same problem as last October: a winter concert quickly approaching and limited instrumentation to pull it off.  This is an unfortunate scenario, but one that happens annually throughout the nation’s small-school band programs as directors ask themselves, “What literature can I possibly do with the concert band when I don’t have any French horns, only one tuba and just 4 trumpets?”

        In many cases, directors choose to go the pop music or light selection route as literature to present at the “required” spring concert for parents.  Because of situations like this, many smaller school ensembles do not attend state and local concert festivals thus denying their students the opportunity to play quality concert band literature.  This needn’t be the case.  There are many things that can be done by the small-school director to help this type of situation.

        The best remedy for getting the desired instrumentation is, of course, recruiting.  This fact may go without saying, but I believe that it is overlooked by many as being a cause of poor instrumentation at the high school level.  Retention from middle school to high school is undoubtedly a problem.  Promotion of the program should be of the utmost concern; especially with the small-school programs.  If one does not work directly with the feeder program, as many small-school directors do, there must be at the least a positive line of communication with the middle and elementary school instructors.  Most importantly, you must make time for all of your ensembles to perform at your feeders at least once during the year.  This can be the most influential recruiting tool you have.  Other ways of garnering interest in your band program are:

·        Taking star pupils down to the elementary and middle schools to perform and promote your program.

·        Performing joint concerts with the middle school band and elementary music programs.

·        Combining grades 7-12 for one big finale piece on joint concerts.

·        Inviting middle-schoolers to sit in with the band at football or basketball games.

·        Have your star pupils go to the middle school to give private lessons (this also helps your students as well).

 

        For the time being, however, it is important that you as a director stand back for a moment and deeply consider the instrumentation that you have to work with.  Upon closer look, it probably isn’t as bad as you had originally feared.  Many of the instrumentation problems can be easily remedied through careful literature selection, electronic instruments, doublings and/or writing missing parts in the score out for a substitute instrument.

        One should first be very careful in selecting music that is playable by the ensemble.  This is not to say that the director is to pick music that is not challenging.  However, for example, it is probably best not to pick a selection in which the first trumpet part stays above G5 and the trumpet section can only spare one first-part player (unless the principal player is of all-district caliber with staying power; but oftentimes this is not the case). With serious consideration of instrumentation along with score scanning and study, literature that is technically and musically worthy of programming, but not completely out of the small band’s reach, can be found.

        If your ensemble is not quite fitted for grade 5 and 6 literature, you might check to see if the piece you would really like to do has been scored for the smaller ensemble before you rule it out.  Good examples of this would be John Zdechlik’s grade 3 setting of his master work “Chorale and Shaker Dance" (entitled simply, “Chorale and Shaker Dance II") and Jim Curnow’s re-scoring of Alfred Reed’s “Russian Christmas Music.”   Many of the works of master composers such as Holst, Grainger, Mahler and others have been tastefully set for the smaller bands as well.  While it best if the original version of these pieces can be performed, a lot of these scaled-down versions put world-class pieces within the grasp of the small band.  One thing to be cautious of is that the overall musical flow of the work has not been compromised in the scaling-down process.

When considering an original work, it is best to look for pieces with smaller amounts of part divisions.  Many composers now are very sensitive toward this matter and keep the small ensemble in mind when penning compositions that fall within the grade four range.  Works to take a closer look at or those with:

·        1 flute part

·        oboe part doubling the flute and/or first clarinet part

·        2 clarinet parts   

·        2-3 trumpet parts

·        lots of doubling in the low-wind sections (i.e.- bassoon, bass clarinet, baritone sax, and tuba having the same or similar parts)

·        2 French horn parts (usually these are very similar to the alto sax parts)

·        2 trombone parts

·        minimal percussion parts that include a variety of "toys" to help with ensemble sonorities

Examples of composers using this type of scoring and some of their works are:

·        Robert Smith - Into the Storm, The Maelstrom, Where the Blackhawk Soars

·        Frank Ticheli - Cajun Folk Songs I & II, Shenandoah

·        David Holsinger - Hymnsong series

·        Jim Curnow - Russian Sailor's Dance, Variations on an Early American Hymntune

·        Jay Dawson - Amazing Grace

·        Jim Swearingen - The Light Eternal, A Vision of Majesty

        If you have an ensemble that lacks supporting parts or entire sections (such as double reeds or French horns) and just can’t spare the players to convert from other sections, you might consider recruiting a keyboardist to “fill in” what’s missing on a synthesizer.   The quality of the synthesized sound has risen considerably over the past few years and, while not as good as the real thing, they can be a wonderful substitute for lack of instrumentation.  I was recently recruiting at a local high school during their scheduled band period and had the opportunity to hear them run through some warm-up exercises.  I was very impressed with the tuba sound being produced, but as I scanned the low brass section, I found no such instrument in the hands of the students.  With a quick walk to the other side of the room, I found the “wonderful tuba sound” was that of an electronic wind instrument!  With the volume set at the right level, I heard no balance problems whatsoever.

        If you find the idea of bringing a plugged-in instrument into the wind and percussion ensemble totally distasteful, there are some other ways to fix instrumentation problems.  Below I have provided a list of some common problems faced in smaller bands and some solutions:

PROBLEM                                                      SOLUTION

1. Limited number of low brass players.       Transpose trombone parts out for tenor sax, bari sax, or alto clarinet.  If a trumpet player can be spared, they can be easily converted into treble clef baritone players.

 

2. No French horns.                                        Double the part in the alto sax line (where, in many cases, it’s doubled anyway).  Again, if a trumpet player or two can be spared, transpose the horn part for fluegelhorns.

 

3. No oboe.                                                     Try the part on soprano saxophone.  A trumpet with a straight mute coupled with an alto saxophone using a doughnut mute in the bell playing the part in unison also produces an acceptable oboe sound.

 

4. No bassoon.                                                 An extra baritone sax makes an excellent substitute.

 

5. No tuba.                                                       If at all possible convert someone, but if time, talent or size prohibits this, baritone sax can be used.  Just make sure the band has something to listen down to.

        When a work is re-scored, it is best if the re-scored part sits where the instrument normally playing that part would be.  For example, if your baritone saxophone player is playing or doubling the tuba part, they need to sit on the back row in the middle of the band instead of with the rest of the saxes.  This may appear odd visually to the audience member, but is imperative to ensemble balance.  If  you are concerned about what the judges think at concert festival, an attached note on the score explaining part re-scoring will help eliminate confusion.

        It is best if all the parts on the score are represented somewhere in the ensemble at all times.  On a recent performance of John Zdechlik's original Chorale and Shaker Dance, I had to re-score the third/fourth horn part (which oftentimes doubles the first/second horn part as well as the alto sax part throughout the work) for a resting trombone.  This primarily took place in the opening chorale section up through letter C.    Initially the ideal sonority was a little off, but was easily worked out with proper balance within the instrumentation that was represented. 

        Remember that part re-scoring should not take place if the end result is that the balance of the group is put in jeopardy.  Without the proper pyramid-shaped balance scheme (more sound being produced on bottom than top), ensemble cohesiveness and intonation can never be achieved, no matter the size of the ensemble.

        At this point I should add something about the forgotten ones: the percussion section.   Most directors assume that if the snare, bass drum, and cymbal parts are being covered, the rest is just icing on the cake.  This is not always the case.  Putting someone on timpani can greatly enhance the low sonorities and give the overall ensemble that extra “punch” that many of the bigger bands naturally have.  This can be achieved by moving the cymbal player to bass drum, and the bass drummer to timps.  Your snare player can then cover the cymbal part.  Furthermore, with a quick study of the percussion score you might find that having that triangle or wind chime part will help the overall presentation of the work more than having the bass drum part throughout, especially when these parts fall “in the cracks” of the music.  Recently my concert band performed David Holsinger's On an American Spiritual.  At measure 67, the percussion section is divided into five parts.  As I only had three percussionists in the ensemble, I chose to exclude the bells part (already being covered in the upper woodwind parts) and the bass drum.  As you can see in the figure below, the bass drum part is minimal, whereas the suspended cymbal part helps lead the ensemble into crescendi, thus boosting the overall sound of the group.

        The small school band does not have the luxury of pulling from a large pool of talent.     However, the fact that a band is small and lacks certain instrumentation does not mean that quality literature is totally out of their reach. With determination, the small-school band can achieve a rewarding musical experience through the performance of good-quality grade three, four, and five literature.