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Subtle and Overlooked Factors Change the Difficulty of Music

Charles Groeling | April 2011

   Most directors at some time have heard another band play a piece and decided that it would work with their group. Only later did they discover that the score contained hidden and often insurmountable problems. It is easy to forget the important rule of musical performances that a good ensemble can make every piece sound easy. Correspondingly when a piece sounds difficult it is generally too difficult for the ensemble. Certainly groups should work on challenging music but without programming it on a concert. 
   An experienced and savvy high school band director with whom I worked during my early days at Niles West High School had a rule that if a band cannot sightread a piece, never consider programming it. Some passages will take extra work, but the essence of a work should be evident on the first reading or it is beyond the grasp of an ensemble. I believe it is better to introduce students to a wide array of music and not spend inordinate time to develop an arduous composition or to teach by rote. If students are stuck on one piece for an extended time, the repetitive work will drain their enthusiasm and they will not experience the joy of playing a work so well that they can add subtle nuances to it. I limit the difficulty level of the literature by following the principle that students will improve with a large amount of sightreading. When they have experienced the satisfaction of creating good music I find that they become motivated to practice more at home. John Lockhart Mursell advocates regular sightreading of music that is one grade level below what a group can play. In determining the difficulty of music most experienced directors rely on their judgment rather than what publishers suggest.
   The Gordon Music Aptitude Profile and the Watkins-Farnum Performance Scale are points of reference to correlate the ability of a group with music difficulty ratings. After reviewing band music for many years using the six basic difficulty levels adopted by The Instrumentalist years ago, I have developed standards to measure the difficulty level of music. Some compositions are particularly difficult to rate. Gunther Schuller’s Meditation is extremely challenging although no passages pose great technical challenges and the dynamic level does not exceed mezzo-forte. The difficulty in performing the piece is that it has many subtleties to interpret.
   In evaluating the difficulty level of music I consider a number of specific aspects including the ranges, harmonic structure, and technical problems. Rhythm is often a major obstacle because many students have not developed a viable system of counting, having spent much time learning by rote or on repetitive drills. I give extra weight to difficult rhythms in any work. Technical problems are the next area I check in a new composition. The scoring also affects the difficulty of a work, as when there are solos or groups of instruments that play in unison; parts may move together or in contrasting ways. If uncommon instruments are called for, this is important for smaller bands.I also consider the harmonic elements of a piece, including key selection, which may pose formidable technical problems and affect the range of parts for beginning and intermediate groups. Intonation problems can result from the tendency of students to play the third and seventh (leading) tones of the major scale sharp, which is exacerbated in the keys of C, G, and D. Extended harmonies, non-chord tones, and dissonances also pose intonation challenges.

   Grade-1 literature has quarter, half, and whole notes in 2/4, 3/4, or 4/4. At grade 2 there are more eighth notes, some simple syncopation, occasional dotted eighth-sixteenth rhythms, and even some 6/8 meters. If there are many eighth and sixteenth notes at faster tempos, the music is for grade-3 ensembles. These works may use more complex syncopations, notes tied across bar lines, frequent meter changes, and 5/4, 5/8, and 3/8 meters. At grade 4 the rhythms include mixed meters, polyrhythms, as well as jazz, pop, and rock rhythms. Grade 5 includes improvisation, some chance music, and time signatures in which 8th, 16th, and 32nd notes receive one beat, as well as triplets, quadruplets, and quintuplets in the space of one or two beats, while grade-6 pieces contain irregular rhythms, improvisation, and aleatoric elements.

Technical Challenges 
   At grade 1 there are few technical problems as music is often written in B-flat or F or with few chromatic intervals. Grade 1 uses simple articulations and restricted ranges. Grade-2 works use a greater range, perhaps 1 ½ octaves and more chromatic intervals. Pieces include varied articulation, some syncopation, and an occasional E-flat key or modulations into the relative minors of B-flat, F, or E-flat. By grade 3 the music uses a much broader range of each instrument and expands into the keys of A-flat, D-flat, and C. Parts include trills, tremolos, rapid scale-driven passages, and require good tone control and smooth phrasing. At grade 4 the second and third parts are independent of the first, and the music is written in the keys of D-flat, G-flat, and D. Whole-tone and pentatonic scales also appear in grade-4 works. Grade-5 pieces will call for fluency and control in all major and minor keys, difficult passages in extreme registers, modes, and manufactured scales. Grade-6 works are the most difficult works.

    The scoring of a work often affects the difficulty of playing it. Grade-1 works generally group instruments by playing range rather than in choirs or sections with hardly any independent parts. Flutes and trumpets often have the melody with sustained backgrounds, and bass parts are given to trombone, tenor saxophone, baritone, and tuba players. There may be interludes for the drums, and a piano part may be included to fill out the arrangement. In grade 2 however, the ensemble is divided into choirs with second and third parts written for some sections. Saxes, clarinets, trombones, and some percussion instruments have solos. Grade-3 music will include parts for third clarinet, second alto saxophone, third and fourth French horn, second oboe, second bassoon, and third trombone. The third parts diverge moderately from the first part, but the most difficult playing is still given to flutes, clarinets, and trumpets. By grade 4 the second and third parts are almost as difficult as the first parts. Horns, saxes, oboes, and bassoons have difficult music, but key ensemble roles will have cues in other parts in the event of missing instrumentation. Literature for grade-5 groups has fewer cued parts, requires great attention to ensemble balance because of the use of the extreme ranges of many instruments, and contains special timbre and color effects realized through obscure voicings. The scoring for grade 6 is exceptionally difficult and intended for advanced college and professional players.

Form and Structure
   Another important but more subtle element in determining the difficulty level is the form and structure of a work. Beyond the simple songs used for grade 1, some are expanded into abbreviated three-part overtures or marches with two contrasting sections. Grade-2 pieces have contrasting tempos and meters. The overtures are expanded to include introductions, codas, and simple rondos. Baroque suites, classical-style overtures, solo features, theme and variations, medley, and adaptations of folk songs are written for grade 3, but more complex fugues, expanded rondos, classic overtures, traditional marches, and fantasies with complex transitional passages push the level up to grade 4. Students at grade 5 can play complete transcriptions of symphonies, concerti in original form, themes and variations, and fugues and toccatas. Grade 6 contains all forms appropriate to the modern orchestra.

   Grade-1 works use primary chords and are written in B-flat and F, but by grade 2 there are accidentals, chromatic parts, simple modulations, suspensions and non-chord tones. Some works include modal and minor harmonies. In grade-3 music the extended harmonies of 7th and 9th chords are common, as are polytonal combinations, works based on quartal relationships, and the keys of A-flat and G. The harmonic palette of grade-4 works includes all major and minor keys, modal and layered harmonies, chromatic dissonance, and jazz harmonies. At grade 5 there is dissonance, polytonality, and chromaticism that stems from serial techniques, whole-tone and pentatonic compositions. Grade-6 works abound in dissonance and unrestricted combinations of tones and layered chords.
   While this list is largely the result of my experiences as a reviewer of band literature, it is subjective and by no means represents the full spectrum of band music.
   Beyond the six characteristics I have discussed, others are less obvious and can misdirect grade assignment. Several well known works for band hide these characteristics and consequently appear simpler than they are.
   Novice and experienced teachers alike may encounter unanticipated problems in these works. One of the more common traps is an unusual key center that generates difficult intervals or irregular harmonies. On first glance, the Overture for Winds by Mendelssohn appears to be a relatively manageable grade-4 work, but the choice of C major places B-flat instruments in an underdeveloped and virtually unexplored key center. This inhibits smoothness of technique, accurate tuning, and resonant performance of solo passages, making this piece instead a grade 5. Likewise, Stargazing by Donald Erb (Presser) appears at first to be a grade-3 work but is really grade-4 due to soloistic writing, irregular harmonies, and fragmented entrances that create formidable obstacles to accurate performance. The same is true for Estampe by Vaclav Nelhybel (Frank) which contains soloistic writing and an irregular form that is easily overlooked when a director scans through the score.
   Another pitfall in rating music is that some material can be far more difficult than it appears at first glance. In works such as Chorale Prelude: So Pure the Star by Vincent Persichetti (Elkan-Vogel), Walking Tune by Percy Grainger (Schirmer) and Antiphon by Fisher Tull (Boosey & Hawkes) what appear to be simple melodies and chord progressions are complicated by instrumentation, balance problems between melody and accompaniment, or difficulty of keeping accurate pitch and characteristic tone. With phrases far more difficult than technical challenges, Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral by Wagner has woodwinds playing in the extreme upper register in a thinly scored, slow work, and similarly Grainger’s Irish Tune from County Derry is a slow work with thin scoring and high French horn parts. Only a mature ensemble can play the Nimrod variation of Elgar’s Enigma Variations with the rubato that this romantic movement should have. These works are often given a lower grade because they are technically easy, but are very difficult to play well. 
    On occasion scoring can create surprisingly difficult voice leading and part connections that do not jump out. Joseph Wilcox Jenkins’ Charles County Overture (Bourne) appears to be a grade-4 work, but hides scoring difficulties worthy of a grade 5 or 6. Also when scoring combines unlikely instruments to create unusual timbres, dynamics and balance become more important issues. Unusual tone colors in the context of relatively simple notation can be found in Elliot Del Borgo’s Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night (Shawnee), which should be graded as a 5, not a 4.
    Instrumentation can also create hidden performance obstacles. Although the notation of a piece may appear conventional and playable, vital roles in the score may be assigned to weaker sections of the ensemble. Prime examples of this category include Spoon River by Percy Grainger (Schirmer) which contains difficult parts for bari sax, piano, and the mallet percussion (misgraded as a 4, rather than 5), and Marche Caprice by Delius/Boyd (Galaxy) that calls upon the second chair players to perform cameo duets with their section leaders, and therefore should rate a grade 5 rather than a 4.
   With these traps in mind as well as the guidelines I have outlined, rate the grade level of a work by assigning a grade level to each of the six categories (including weights). Add the 6 grade levels, divide the total by 6, and round out the decimal. The resulting number is the grade level of the piece.
   As part of a comprehensive music program, appropriate grading guidelines match music to ensembles in a way that maintains student interest and enthusiasm.

Characteristics of Grade Levels
Grade 1
   Music for beginners, primarily written in quarter, half, and whole notes in 4/4, 3/4, 2,4. Simple melodies and articulations in the keys of B-flat, F, and E-flat. Ahort ABA forms with unison rhythms, sustained harmonies.
Grade 2
   For second- and third-year players; more eighth and sixteenth notes, basic syncopation. Some staccato, accidentals, and trills. Range of 1 1/2 octaves, some pieces in A-flat. Pieces have introductions, codas, contrasting moods, and dissonance.
Grade 3
   For intermediate students in junior and senior high. Fast 16th notes, 5/4, 5/8, 3/8, changing meters, key of D-flat. Fast articulations, scale patterns, varied scoring within sections. Multi-sectional pieces, simple counterpoint, polytonal and dissonant harmonies, 7th and 9th chords. Theme variation, overtures, traditional marches.
Grade 4
   For good high school musicians; fast technical passages, polyrhythms, music in D-flat, G-flat, and D. Orchestral transcriptions, jazz elements, complex suites, tone poems, and tocattas; more modulations, minor harmonies.
Grade 5
   Difficult music for college or very advanced high school players. Irregular rhythms, changing meters, wide intervals, extended ranges. Improvisation, 12-tone compositions, all major and minor keys. Complete symphonies, impressionistic works, preludes and fugues.
Grade 6
   Aleatoric rhythms and soloistic writing for all parts. Tone clusters, irregular forms, large orchestral works, virtuoso pieces for advanced college and professional players.