We chatted with some of our new music reviewers to get their thoughts on evaluating music, finding the gems, and trends in publishing. Here are their thoughts.
What makes a composition stand out?
Mark Hosler: I am always on the lookout for unusual works that will appeal and be educational – something that will intrigue students enough to want to explore a composer, event, time period, or certain style of music they haven’t heard before. Some of most memorable pieces I’ve reviewed over the years are the ones in which the composer used a folk song as the central part of the work. Things like that lead to further exploration by the students.
Beth Peterson: One thing I like to do is put CDs of new band works on as background music. The best pieces will catch my attention and make me stop what I’m doing to listen. I am a big fan of melody, whether that melody is catchy, unpredictable, or just different. I once heard Frank Ticheli comment that a good piece of music has enough repetition that it gives unity, but not so much repetition that it becomes boring.
I do like that some composers are writing for unbalanced bands – for ensembles that lack perfect instrumentation. I have found some of that music to be extremely interesting.
Julie Carr: I like to see something that has some educational longevity. Students like music that sounds more difficult than it is. To them, something like that sounds phenomenal, and such a piece is something they’ll want to play every day.
Charles Groeling: I check the scoring. It is easy to give the first trumpet the melody all the time and double it with the flute. I like to see lower-grade pieces that take some risks by using a double reed sound or even an undoubled saxophone choir.
Jon James: It’s nice to see old jazz standards that haven’t been touched in a while come back with a fresh approach, whether that’s for a big band or as a combo piece.
What recent trends have you noticed in music that is being published?
Julie Carr: I see a lot of good music coming out for first- and second-year players. Frequently I mark the best of these as check rated or reviewer’s choice because they’re valuable teaching pieces. Another trend I see lately is that much of the music coming out can be used to teach a specific skill. This is a great way for directors to do more in rehearsals than just prepare for the next concert. The trend seems to be that more music is rehearsal-oriented than concert-oriented, and I think that’s a good trend.
Flexible scoring pieces are a phenomenal idea. I have some books that let me combine parts any way I want. I often put the first violins on the harmony part because frequently the harmony is more difficult than the melody. These books let you beef up a weak viola section with third violins, or, if the cellos are weak, violas can cover the cello part. Flexible scoring music is great for chamber music too, which is becoming more prevalent.
One thing I’d like to see more of is music for second- and third-year players. This is a difficult group to write for because there can be such a range of abilities, and a lot of music that’s meant for second- and third-year players may be more difficult than they can play. When I had a student tell me his music was too easy, I’d say, “Okay, play it in third position up the octave.” After I told the students to play up the octave a couple times they stopped asking and would just let me know when they were doing it. It’s good for their reading skills, and with strings it is easy to pull off.
A couple ideas for publishers are to include an additional part for advanced players or optional wind parts that are the same as the string parts. This gives the students for whom the music is too easy an opportunity to play with the full orchestra, plus it is good early training for orchestral winds, and the string students who are struggling have an extra part to listen to.
Kevin Schoenbach: I have been pleasantly surprised by how much good music there seems to be. It seems that more and more pieces have meat for everybody and good style.
James Lambert: I think demand for programmatic compositions is increasing. This is especially true in percussion ensemble music, which can easily go outside the boundaries of tonality, but should still be somewhat enjoyable to the audience. If the audience doesn’t like something, it’s not going to have any lasting effect.
John Thomson: It seems that band composers are writing parts for piano and English horn more frequently. In this day and age, piano parts are common enough that even some band organizations are starting to carry pianists. Although these instruments, along with soprano saxophone, are common in higher-grade music, I’ve seen grade 3 pieces with piano parts.
What are the first things you look at when you open a score?
Charles Groeling: I want to get an idea the difficulty level, and I look for factors that might differ from the publisher’s rating, such as note combinations students at that level may not have seen or solos for instruments that are not necessarily strong at that grade level. Usually, this might be an uncued horn, oboe, or bassoon solo.
John Thomson: I check for unusual instruments like a soprano sax and also whether such parts are essential or optional. I also check the percussion writing for any instrument I might not have, such as a log drum. After that I look for critical solos. I want to be sure I have the right player to handle such parts.
James Lambert: I look to see if general scoring is appropriate for the difficulty level the publisher has indicated. Sometimes a publisher will overrate, or in small instances underrate a work’s difficulty. Particularly I check whether percussion is used in a tasteful contemporary fashion or as support.
Mark Hosler: I always look at ranges. Trumpet is my primary instrument so I always look at those parts. Sometimes even a lower-grade piece can have a third trumpet part that is too difficult for a student at the listed level. There may be a reason that a student is playing the third part, such as a limited range or technical ability; this is true for all instruments that are scored in multiple parts. First trombone parts are sometimes surprisingly high compared to the rest of an ensemble.
Kevin Schoenbach: I make sure that everybody has some kind of challenge in their part. I want all students to have something to work on not just for the first couple rehearsals, but throughout the time we work on a piece. For example, I try to avoid jazz charts that give the saxophone section and lead brass players difficult parts and leave the trombones with easy background parts.
What makes a good grade 1 piece?
Jon James: Besides making sure the range is appropriate, the music should be something students will enjoy. Usually it’s the melody that grabs them; the pieces that students walk out of the band room humming are the best. Students never forget their favorite piece from the first year of band. Even as adults, they can sing the melody surprisingly well.
James Lambert: The most pleasant grade 1 compositions I have heard are in minor keys or dorian mode. A key signature of two flats with a tonal center on C is perfectly suitable for beginners.
Beth Peterson: For that level the ideal piece will be something that beginning students find interesting, which could be playing the melody, a fun rhythm, or an interesting color. This can be difficult to find for students who only know six notes and three different rhythms, but some of the best grade 1 pieces I have found are multi-movement works. The movements are short, but everybody gets to play something interesting at some point, and every movement has students making different kinds of sounds and creating different styles or moods.
Charles Groeling: I have tried writing grade 1 band works several times, and there are note combinations and part distribution that often take the inner parts out of the realm of possibility for the level of students that play them. I have a great respect for people who can write grade 1 and 2 music and make it sound good. It takes a lot of discipline on the part of the composer to do this.
What factors make one piece more difficult than another if both are the same grade?
Mark Hosler: Dynamic levels can add to the difficulty of a lower-level piece. If most of a piece is loud, students are going to get tired and struggle with tone production and intonation. Long phrases can add to the difficulty as well; students may struggle to play everything in one breath.
Bruce Moss: Instrumentation adds to difficulty. A work with essential parts for such instruments as Eb clarinet, string bass, or uncommon percussion instruments is more difficult than one that does not require these just because of the assumption that these instruments will not only be available, but played by strong players.
John Thomson: Risky scoring, with many exposed solos and solis and thinner textures and colors takes better players. Range also affects difficulty. You might find a piece that in every way would be a grade 3, except that the first clarinet part has a lot of altissimo. Grade 3 clarinet parts rarely have ledger lines, so from a consumer’s standpoint you have to know that you have clarinets who can handle that.
Jon James: When considering range, it isn’t just how high do brass and woodwinds have to play, but how long do they have to stay in extreme ranges. Endurance is a factor, but extreme high ranges can create technical difficulties for woodwinds with some difficult fingering patterns.
Julie Carr: In string music it would be altered fingerings, difficult bowing articulations, flat keys, and keys with too many sharps. The most difficult keys for string players are those with no notes played on open strings, which are needed to help find whether fingered notes are in tune. Students from beginners through high school still need some pitch reference, and that’s what the open strings do. Young violists have difficulty with C# on the G string, which is rarely taught before the end of their second or third year of playing. It is a difficult note to play.
What are your thoughts on the scoring for percussion instruments?
Beth Peterson: I like the pieces where percussion is treated as its own color or voice equal to woodwinds and brass rather than just complementing them. Vincent Persichetti and John Mackey write percussion parts well. Percussionists should add something to the piece, whether it’s rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic, and not just beat time.
James Lambert: I think vibraphone is an under-used instrument. It is extremely resonant and blends better and has more presence than the marimba. Marimba is a great solo instrument, but in the band it seems to get covered up in the percussion.
John Thomson: I like it when there is more than one mallet part for a piece, especially in grade 2 and 3 music. Young percussionists these days start with percussion kits that include both a snare drum and bells, and they learn to read at least treble clef during the first year of band. Richard Saucedo and David Holsinger write very adventurous percussion parts, and I would love to see more of that for younger students.
Kevin Schoenbach: Some of my favorite pieces are those in which everybody in the percussion section is responsible for multiple instruments. As an audience member it looks nice when you see the timpanist move to the chimes and then back to the timpani, where a suspended cymbal is also set up. Meanwhile, the snare drum player is also covering suspended cymbal and has a gong as well. I think every grade 4 and above piece should have at least 5 or 6 percussion parts.
Would you make any changes to the grading system if you could?
James Lambert: I would include a separate level for beginning band, easier than grade 1. Students who have been playing for just a few months may not be ready for some grade 1 music.
Kevin Schoenbach: It is difficult to know how to assign a piece that is rhythmically simple but has a first trumpet part that goes up to D6. I lean toward giving such pieces a lower grade; as long as there is one good player who can hit that note everything else is playable at the lower level. I try to make a note of such things when writing reviews, but maybe the pieces at the more difficult end of a level should have an X.5 rating – instead of giving a piece a grade 4 for just a few high notes it could be a 3.5.
Beth Peterson: There is much variation in each grade level and different sources grade music differently. Directors really need to listen carefully in order to decide what is appropriate for their own ensemble. There will be something that works for everyone.
Charles Groeling teaches at Triton Community College and was previously professor of music at Roosevelt University in Chicago.
Bruce Moss is director of bands at Bowling Green State University (Ohio) and music director of the Wheaton (Illinois) Municipal Band.
Julie Carr teaches string education majors at Ithaca College. She previously taught junior and senior high strings in Cortland, New York, for 27 years.
Beth Peterson is an associate professor of music education and conductor of the symphonic band at Ithaca College. She taught in public schools in Ohio and Illinois.
Jon James has been director of bands at Polo (Illinois) schools since 1992. He is also director of the Sterling Municipal Band.
Mark Hosler is an associate professor of music at Clemson University in South Carolina, where he currently teaches music history and appreciation classes.
John Thomson was director of bands at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, for many years and is currently an adjunct professor at Roosevelt University.
Kevin Schoenbach is associate director of bands at Oswego (Illinois) High School and teaches private low brass and jazz lessons.
James Lambert is chairman of the department of music and professor of percussion at Cam-eron University in Lawton, Oklahoma.