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In Praise of Folk Music

Mark Fonder | December 2010

    The repertoire for young bands is huge and growing every year. Some pieces are truly worthy, but it takes time to find them among the many other works. I especially look for good arrangements of folk music because they are based on tunes that have for centuries appealed to many people. They often reflect different cultures and geography, and combine characteristic rhythms with distinctive accents and tempos. These are what make Russian music sound Russian and Irish music sound Irish.
    Another virtue of folk music is that it often combines simple rhythms and ranges. Often the musical difficulty exceeds the technical problems, which is precisely what makes these pieces provide such excellent teaching opportunities.
    Some purists will program only original band music, but my counter to this view is that some of the most beloved original works could not have been written without folk music. Milhaud’s Suite Française, Reed’s La Fiesta Mexicana, and Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy were all derived from folk music.
Here are three selections that I have found to be especially worthwhile.

In the Forest of the King: A Suite of Old French Songs
by Pierre LaPlante (Daehn), grade 3.
    Pierre LaPlante’s experience teaching elementary band in schools has given him remarkable skill arranging folk songs for young bands. This expressive suite introduces techniques that can help students develop musically. It should be considered grade 3 because of the range and technique required.
    In Movement I, Le Furet, the tempo is brisk, with one beat per measure. Directors can start out beating the measures in two, but as students become more comfortable with the music, gradually shift to a one pattern. This prepares students for difficult music in one, including the Alsaçe-Lorraine movement from Milhaud’s Suite Française.
    Fragments of the main theme appear in imitative counterpoint midway through the first movement, so directors should tell students the term and its definition.

    The second movement, The Laurel Grove, uses counterpoint as well, along with gorgeous chorale voicings. (ex. 2)

    The fanfares of the third movement, King Dagobert, recall the open fifth harmonies characteristic of natural or hunting horn writing. (ex. 4)

    Directors should point out how the 6/8 tempo (di la chasse) simulates the rhythm of a horse’s gallop, linking it to the historical use of brass instruments as military and hunting signals. This is also a good opportunity to discuss the natural overtone series of brass instruments and how composers wrote for brass before the advent of piston or rotary valves.

Korean Folk Song Medley by James Ployhar (Alfred), grade 1.
    In this arrangement, Ployhar combines three Korean folk songs into a continuous three-minute work rather than separating them into movements. Korean Folk Song Medley offers an excellent opportunity to discuss phrasing and breath support with young students. Each song uses four-measure phrases, but each has a different scheme that affects breathing and dynamic shaping.

    The melodies in the three Korean songs are based on the 5-note pentatonic scale. Directors should explain how it follows the same pattern as the black keys on the piano keyboard. A good student activity would be to improvise and compose short pieces based on the pentatonic scale in lessons or rehearsals.

Rhenish Folk Festival by Albert Oliver Davis (Ludwig), grade 2.
    Albert Oliver Davis has used folk music in several of his works, including Rhenish Folk Festival for grade 2 band. It teaches three important Central European folk styles: the waltz, the ballad, and the polka. Students will often encounter these styles because of their influence on classical music.
    The first movement, O du wunderschöner Rhein (Oh You Beautiful, Wonderful Rhein) is designated Tempo di Valse, meaning one beat per measure (as Davis suggests, half note = 60). Much like jazz, the correct waltz style is just as important as the right notes, so help students find the correct tempo and feel by playing a recording of the music and asking them to link arms and sway with each downbeat as if dancing the waltz.
    Tell students the legend behind the song in the second movement, Die Lorelei. Sailors on the Rhein often sing this tune when approaching the tall rock on the eastern bank near St. Goarshauden because it is said to protect them from mythical mermaids who lure sailors to their doom.
    The tune is set as an expressive chorale, and Davis separates the phrases into woodwind and brass choirs. Be aware there could be a range problem for the first trumpet, which reaches F5, and an occasional A5. Students should listen carefully for balance and blend. Try to build a pyramid of sound with the accompanying figures but always allow the melody to balance above the chords. In this movement especially the inner voices of the chorale are just as important as the tune.
    The final movement, Was bringen uns die Reben? (What Does the Grapevine Bring Us?), is a traditional polka, complete with a soaring euphonium line, parallel thirds in the clarinets and flutes, and an oom-pah bass. Keep the tempo from pushing ahead by subdividing sixteenth notes. One rehearsal suggestion is to divide the into two groups. One loudly subdivides the sixteenths, and the other plays the music. This will teach the disciplined feel of a steady German alla marcia.