“In eighth grade I was full of energy and itching to escape from the conservative pieces we usually played in band,” says composer Michael Colgrass. “As a percussionist I would have preferred a piece featuring the percussion – one that pulled out all the stops and went for broke. With this in mind, I wrote Gotta Make Noise, a concerto for middle-school band and percussion ensemble.” The Longmeadow Educational Excellence Foundation commissioned the work for the Longmeadow (Massachusetts) Public Schools; the music is now published by Carl Fischer.
Gotta Make Noise is scored for seven percussionists, who should be in front of the band for each performance with soloists in the middle of the percussion line. Although the piece was written for middle school band, it could be a showcase for high school or college percussionists by increasing the tempo from quarter note = 156 to 168 or higher.
Colgrass suggests assigning experienced players to the snare drum, tom-toms, conga drum, and timpani parts. Nonpercussionists may be used for suspended cymbal, bass drum and cymbals, and cowbell and bells (in that order), if necessary. The work is based on the 12-bar blues form, influenced by Colgrass’s experiences as a jazz drummer, so the eighth-note rhythms should be played with a swing feel.
Unison Drums and Cymbal Crashes
The music gets off to a rousing start with the drums playing unison rhythms complemented by cymbal crashes, which is instrumentation that reoccurs multiple times throughout the work. Percussionists need to listen to the entire section, the ensemble, and themselves at all times. They have to be aware of which instrument is driving the tempo by keeping the quarter-note or eighth-note pulse. It is absolutely crucial that the drums play together or the sound will be a big wash.
Tutti passages should be practiced repeatedly with a metronome to be certain everyone is playing together and in time, but I never rely on the metronome as a crutch. It should be used only as a tool to help students understand tendencies with tempo; it is better to have the percussion section members learn to rely on their inner pulse and listening skills.
The woodwind and brass players yell in the beginning, which is Colgrass’s idea to cheer on the percussion. For the effect to work, you may need to encourage students to yell to the maximum as they would at sporting events. Because Longmeadow is close to Boston and a number of Red Sox fans are in band, I told them to close their eyes and imagine that they were at Fenway Park cheering on their team. To promote some solid yelling I asked a student leader known for her energy and leadership talent to direct the group in the opening shouting measures. The effect was incredible.
Any nonmusical sounds, like the shouting and the rhythmic whispering later in the piece, are just as important as instrumental sounds and have to be taken just as seriously. The shouts and whispering have to be in time and produced with clarity so that audiences understand what is said. Colgrass wants these sounds to recreate the exuberant and playful atmosphere of youth, which makes it important to carefully perform them with energy and conviction.
The woodwinds and brass play their instruments for the first time in measure 9, sounding a G minor tonality at a ff dynamic. As with any other musical work, such concepts as correct tone production, intonation, tempo, and blend have to be addressed and reviewed. Given the nature of the piece, students may think they can be haphazard with tone production or pay less attention to important musical details, but this is not the case.
A Critical Transition
After a short percussion break in measures 13-14, a potential troublesome spot arrives in measure 15. This is a critical transition point that leads to the first major phrase in the work. Each instrumental group enters on successive beats moving from low to high registers. I have found it helpful to have students write in which beat they enter on – one, two, three, or four – and then count quietly to themselves during the two measures of rest before measure 15 to be certain of the beat. They also need to highlight the contrast between the p and ff change in that measure. Clarinets and alto and tenor saxophones have to carefully anticipate measure 16 because they enter stating the theme at a p dynamic.
The main theme begins at measure 16 with the rhythm played exactly as if saying, “Ya Gotta Make Noise.” Clarinets will have to work at comfortably going over the break from A4 to C5, and saxophones need to work at playing E4 at a p dynamic.
At the same time, players on cowbell and suspended cymbal have an ostinato over solo fills by the conga and tom-tom players. The snare drummer needs to push the time with the notated quarter notes, playing in the traditional jazz wire-brush style with the left hand moving back and forth in a half circular motion on the drumhead.
Snare drum, conga, and tom-tom have a quick change from playing with sticks in measure 16 to brushes in measure 17. To exchange sticks quickly, quietly, and in time, each of these players should have a music stand nearby draped in a towel to muffle extraneous sound. It is imperative that everyone come in together on the downbeat of measure 17.
Variations of the Theme
The next two sections, measures 28-35 and 36-46, present the theme and variations of the theme played in unison first by saxophones and brass followed by all the woodwinds. The percussion play fills throughout these two sections, led by the snare drum, conga, and tom-tom. Be careful here because it is crucial to perform with a consistent tempo; woodwind and brass players tend to delay entrances after the multiple rests that are during the percussion fills. Ask the percussion section to push the tempo throughout these two sections.
A contrasting section, measures 46-52, takes place in between two ff sections that give listeners and the ensemble a respite. Here the bell player has the melody. Colgrass suggests using plastic mallets for a fuller sound while the woodwinds play at a delicate p dynamic to contrast with the surrounding sections. Brass mallets are too crass for this delicate section.
A buildup to the shout chorus begins in measure 53 where all instruments have a p dynamic. This may be difficult for the trumpets because they start this phrase in the middle register and gradually get louder as the melodic line climbs toward the high register. The climax of the shout chorus, measures 61-63, has full, accented unison figures immediately followed by big loud shouts to cheer on the busy percussion section. Here, each percussion instrument should sound through, clearly and distinctly, so audiences hear the multiple entries and exits scored in the music. There is a tendency to drag the tempo in this portion of the composition, so players and conductor alike should be ready to push the tempo.
An Improvised Section
Measure 74 contributes to making this composition special because it is improvisational in nature. Colgrass divides the measure into different sections giving each wind section instructions to “blast on different notes,” “squawk on any notes,” and “moan and groan like a wounded animal,” letting students know that distorted sounds are welcome and are not wrong.
Students ad lib simultaneously for 10-12 seconds in the first part of the measure. If you decide not to include the improvisation, the music should continue with little space between measures 74 and 75. At the cut off in measure 74, all sounds cease to make an effective and smooth transition to measure 75.
If you would like to feature some percussionists, measure 74a has an open bar for up to 30 seconds of improvisation. Players may trade twos or fours, going back and forth and building in intensity while the other auxiliary players inject sounds as well. With planning and good execution, this is the place where your percussion section can perform a mini-composition for percussion ensemble.
An optional roll-off cue is included to let the wind players know when to start. Measure 75 returns to regular time. Wind players will have to work on consistent intonation here, while playing a diminuendo from f to p through four beats.
Another interesting part of the piece is the rhythmic whispering section at measure 79. Here, the snare drum, timpani, and tom-tom trade twos with the woodwinds as percussionists play on their drum rims for a timbral change.
Next, the winds tongue chick ti-ka syllables in unison and in a whisper. Colgrass says you may change the actual syllables to something easier for your students to articulate as long as they achieve the desired effect. The sounds should be as loud as possible as well as clear and distinct so audiences can discern the syllables.
Few middle school students will have had experience performing this type of articulation with their mouths, so many will need practice. Work should begin with the first four notes in measure 81. The idea is to use a great deal of breath without exerting a huge amount of effort with the tongue. It should be light. This is probably one of the most fun sections of the piece.
Players will have to be alert as measure 93 approaches because the ff downbeat requires the entire band and there is no break between rhythmic whispering and playing. In measures 97-98 have students listen to the balance of the notes in the Eb major-seventh chord with the third in the bass. Next, percussionists play a section similar to measures 17-20 with some slight rhythmic differences. The winds have eighth notes and quarter notes at a p dynamic. The percussionists should strive for rhythmic clarity as well as steady time.
In measures 103-111, the coda of the piece, winds make the shh sound for four beats that gradually become quiet. The sound should be forceful at the onset but diminuendo dramatically. A percussionist interjects a small rhythmic figure after each shh answered by the flutes and clarinets playing the “Ya Gotta Make Noise” motif. After one last shh there is a grand pause and complete silence. An explosive “Ya Gotta Make Noise” brings the wild ride to an end.
Middle school percussionists who are used to playing traditional parts will enjoy the contemporary techniques and challenging rhythms of Gotta Make Noise. It also highlights the percussion section, front and center. The work will give your band a chance to learn about the jazz idiom as student soloists have their first experiences with improvisation. Most of all, everyone will enjoy making music created by a talented composer.