by Ken Tilger, Band Education Specialist –
Taking our previous Behind the Scenes post (Behind the Scenes: Picking Band Promotions) one step further, I want to share what I hear and listen for when previewing new concert band recordings. Although I’ve broken these ideas down into an outline format, it’s neither a checklist nor sequential; just things I keep in mind while listening. Hopefully this will give you some ideas that you can incorporate in your listening to new music, and further insight into some of the thought process that goes into Stanton’s band promotions.
At “first glance”, I’m listening for elements that make a piece sound unique, creative, and interesting regardless of difficulty, and all of the following contribute to this first impression.
Percussion – One of the things that we’ve noticed over the past decade or so is how much interesting, colorful percussion adds to a piece. Use of accessory instruments, quality mallet writing, and battery percussion beyond “boom-chicks” and basic subdivision makes a huge difference in the sound and maturity of a piece no matter how basic the overall difficulty. This presents great opportunities to teach accessory instruments, and helps keep students engaged – we all know what happens when 12 of your 15 percussionists are sitting idle! Of course, this is a double-edged sword – extensive percussion can really make a piece and there is plenty of great percussion writing right now, however this is a difficult area if you’re lacking enough students or the needed equipment.
Does it sound modern/contemporary? – This really applies to new original pieces. Some of the most fun, contemporary sounding works are incorporating techniques used in modern film scores, and we all know from previewing music that there are arrangements that sound dated. Also, if the piece is supposed to be of the contemporary “edgy” variety, is there enough of a melody or rhythmic hook to hang your hat on? Just doing neat things with sound doesn’t cut it.
If the piece is in a style (or if it is an arrangement), is it authentic? – Nothing makes or breaks a piece for me like capturing the essence of a style. This includes characteristic sound and harmonies, rhythms, and use of instrumentation. There are many pieces that try to incorporate hints of a style, and mostly end up sounding cheesy. Why not introduce students to the most authentic editions available? This creates opportunities to work on rhythmic reading, articulation, phrasing, and musicianship beyond the legato wind band approach. Besides, we all have programmed super-watered pop arrangements designed to be rhythmically “accessible” by young groups, and had to tell students to play the page, not how the tune actually goes. To me this is an opportunity to do the opposite – allow students to use rhythms they already know aurally to learn how to read the notation.
Does the piece justify/live up (or down) to its title? – We’ve all heard the phrase, “never judge a book by its cover.” Aside from wanting the content of a piece to actually be represented by the title, there are numerous examples of decently titled pieces that are good in concept, but (let’s say) underwhelming in their execution. Likewise, there have been a number of pieces that I would personally skip listening to based on their cheesy titles, but since we listen to everything I wind up finding that some are really good, and just deserve a better title.
Will students have fun playing it? – In the last couple of years, I’ve adopted this approach from our Jazz Guy, Ben.
Beginning band music does not have to equal “baby band”. – Modern beginning band arrangements provide many opportunities to explore fun styles and interesting sounds all while staying true to the limitations of beginning instrumentalists. Through the use of interesting percussion, staggered rhythmic motion on basic rhythms, and passing tones, clusters, etc. interesting music can be written at this level. Need proof? Check out the entire FJH Starter Series, and beginning band pieces by Brian Balmages, Sean O’Loughlin, and Robert W. Smith.
What musical concepts/techniques can be taught or reinforced? – Or, put another way, what do your students need to be able to do to play the piece? This idea is integral to our young band promotional write-ups obviously for educational reasons, but also because most publisher descriptions avoid this altogether and instead focus primarily on programming if you’re lucky.
Attention Span! – This is another big one for me that I’ve begun focusing on in the last few years, especially on upper level concert pieces. Basically if I zone out as a trained musician who appreciates quality art for art’s sake, what will parents with limited to no musical experience get out of it? Also, if a piece loses our attention while listening to it, it’s possible that your students won’t be engaged while playing it either.
Lastly, how can the piece be programmed? – While listening, I’m not only thinking about the students learning and performing the music, but the experience of the audience, and how/when a director can find a specific piece useful. This relates to seasonal programming, but also to the type of performance/event and audience that a piece is appropriate for.
I hope you found these ideas insightful and helpful. Feel free to comment below on either our blog or Facebook page and share YOUR thoughts and ideas about evaluating new music.
About the Author:
Ken is a former band director, and has been with Stanton’s since 2004. He enjoys comic books, playing with his young son, and plays saxophone with Swing’s the Thing Big Band. You should check out their album Walk On Out the Door available on iTunes and Amazon.