Close this search box.

Finding High-Quality Music

Steve Rhodes | September 2013

    A major responsibility of band and orchestra directors is finding good music for their ensembles. Such a search consists of both keeping up to date with recently published works and becoming familiar with the standard, established repertoire. This is a big task for new teachers still learning how to find and evaluate repertoire, but veteran teachers should work to stay current as well. The following are some suggestions for building an instrumental library that will stand the test of time.

Music Evaluation
    Before beginning, determine your criteria for music selection. Whether choosing music for contest or looking for lighter music to fill a concert, the standards for high-quality music should be applied to both. Also take time to evaluate your listening habits. In addition to knowing contemporary literature it is important to be familiar with all style periods, from Medieval and Renaissance pieces to the most modern works.

    When listening, pay attention to form. It is natural to expect an identifiable form, even if it is as simple as verse and a chorus. In addition there is an innate desire for variety within a piece, often produced by moving between similarity (repetition) and contrast. Programmatic music, in addition to describing a non-musical idea, may be through-composed, but still held together by motivic ideas that provide a sense of unity to the music. Even minimalism draws listeners from the constant repetition of the same idea to the subtle changes in melody, rhythm, and timbre that gradually evolve over time. Be wary of pieces with a descriptive title that are little more than a series of flashy sounds cobbled together. Also assess the smoothness of transitions from one section to the next.

    A melody should be engaging. Identify who has the melody at various points in the piece, a well as who has the countermelody if there is one. Ideally all sections of the ensemble should have an interesting line at some point in the music; this is especially true for lower wind and string parts in grades 1, 2, and 3. If these students are going to progress, they must play challenging parts. If a melody and countermelody are used simultaneously, rate the effectiveness. As an example, the two melodies at the conclusion of the third movement of Holst’s Suite in Eb play off each other exceptionally well.

    Good literature will avoid overusing ostinato patterns. Look for opportunities to explore mixed and asymmetric meters. This potentially raises the interest level and opens doors to a wide range folk music that uses such meters. Once students learn that the quarter note doesn’t always get the beat and become familiar with how groups of two and three eighth notes can play off each other, many wonderful musical opportunities become available.

    Take time to consider whether students will grow as musicians from having rehearsed and performed a piece. Evaluate the effectiveness of scoring for individual parts. There should be consistency in the overall difficulty of each part in the music, and each part should reflect the particular strengths of each instrument. Percussion parts should be creative and intelligent, especially considering the vast array of tonal colors available. They should complement the winds and strings but not be overused.
    The scoring between different sections of the ensemble should also be studied. Individual lines and exposed parts provide good contrast from tutti sections, as well as giving players an opportunity to grow in maturity. Conversely, be aware of how much doubling of parts occurs, because when done to excess the music can sound overly dense. This is not to say that doubling is always bad. If an ensemble has limited instrumentation, doubled parts can be a godsend. Also, doubled parts, particularly in marches, provide the opportunity to teach players to listen across the ensemble and work toward better balance, intonation, and consistency in style.

    In the end, you have to trust your gut feeling about whether a piece works. The music should be more than just a series of neat compositional techniques; look for a quality in the music that suggests there will be something new to find each time you approach the music. Try to identify something compelling in the piece. Some pieces may not seem noteworthy on an initial perusal, but repeated hearings can win you over. Sometimes these are the pieces with the most substance.
    Finally, evaluate whether the piece is too difficult for your players. There can be a fine line between a piece that helps students grow musically and one that is beyond their current ability. However, do not automatically dismiss a piece if the first run-through is somewhat rocky. Often when students find a piece particularly engaging they will be motivated to rise to the occasion.

External Factors
    Be cognizant of how much you allow external factors to influence the choice of repertoire. While considering what students and audience prefer, remember the importance of educating both groups on the merits of listening and performing good music. This should primarily happen in rehearsals. For example, providing insight into the music of the Baroque Period, as well as the life of J.S. Bach, will help students understand a Bach transcription. Do not try to sell students on a piece in which you do not believe, but if you feel strongly about a composition, then students will likely come to appreciate it as well.

Becoming an Expert
    It is paramount that conductors take the time to become an expert on the repertoire for their bands or orchestras. The following suggestions will help.
    Commit time every year to staying current. The search for high-quality literature is not only a rewarding part of your job, but also indispensible to a teacher’s success. Become familiar with as many publishers as you can, and do not neglect international music publishers. Most publishers provide online recordings of their publications, and some also provide online scores for perusal. If no recording is available on the publisher’s site, then check on the internet; there may be a decent recording on YouTube.
    Rather than ignoring older music in favor of the new flavor of the day, familiarize yourself with the literature from past decades by studying one composer at a time. Such study will make it easy to find good music from all periods at the appropriate difficulty level. This is especially important for bands because a greater percentage of band literature is more contemporary than that of the orchestra. The string orchestra music of Corelli is worth pursuing; his work during the Baroque period influenced the development of the string section of the Classical orchestra. As another example, Clifton Williams’s compositions were extremely important to school ensembles during the 1950s and 1960s and are still relevant today. With this in mind, take note when publishers advertise a piece that they have recently put back in print.
    Search online for various state music lists and look into any unfamiliar pieces. Also seek the expertise of nearby veteran teachers. They will know which pieces work well for a particular age group and which don’t, as well as why.

    Digging through the wealth of available literature is time consuming, but finding high-quality pieces provides students with better learning opportunities, which in turn equips them with a more discerning taste as they progress as musicians. Eventually they will leave your ensemble, and it is ideal for them to become performers and consumers of good music throughout their lives.
Enjoy the hunt.

Neglected Great Band Works

    There are many older pieces that are less familiar than they once were but certainly worth revisiting or getting to know. Here are a few I would recommend:

Komm, Süsser Tod (Come Sweet Death) by Johann Sebastian Bach, transcribed by Eric Leidzén (1936, Carl Fischer)
    This beautiful melody provides the opportunity to experience one of the classic chorales written by J.S. Bach. Leidzén penned many wonderful transcriptions during the early to middle 20th century, and this one, simple in scope but well crafted, certainly does not disappoint. The chorale, played twice, features a dynamic contrast and expressive interplay between voices that creates a profound musical statement. It appears to be out of print, but copies undoubtedly can be found in older libraries.

The Earle of Oxford’s March by William Byrd, transcribed by Gordon Jacob (1924, Boosey and Hawkes)
    The early 20th century was a period of renewed interest in Great Britain for music of the Elizabethan Era (1558–1603), including that of
William Byrd. Taken from his Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, the “Earle of Oxford’s Marche” is the first of six movements found in Gordon Jacob’s William Byrd Suite. Jacob’s rendition, which begins quietly and gradually builds to a glorious ending, captures a noble yet martial sound while maintaining the integrity of the original keyboard piece.

Fantasies on a Theme by Haydn by Norman Dello Joio (1968, Edward B. Marks Music Corporation, Hal Leonard)
    Inspired by a simple keyboard piece written by Franz Joseph Haydn, Norman Dello Joio took the opportunity to transform a melody from the Classical Era into the musical language of the 20th century. The outer fantasies are whimsical in nature, and their bubbly rendition is in direct contrast to the emotional and lyrical style of the middle. The entire piece – theme and three fantasies – is a wonderful exercise in motivic development that will be evident to both performers and listeners alike.

Ye Banks And Braes O’Bonnie Doon by Percy Grainger (1936, Schott & Co., G. Schirmer, Inc., Hal Leonard)
    It is difficult to mention Percy Grainger’s name without thinking of folk songs. For those who lack the forces to play Lincolnshire Posy, this selection provides the opportunity to experience Grainger’s scoring with a simple Scottish folk song. The meter is a slow 68 that adds to the charm. Also, Grainger’s very specific musical notes aid in replicating the expressive nuance of a folk singer.

Pageant by Vincent Persichetti (1953, 1954, Carl Fischer, Inc.)
    One of the standards of the band repertoire composed during the 1950s, Pageant is an engaging exercise in motivic development. In the opening section the motive is introduced by the solo horn before transforming into an expressive interplay of all the wind sections, beginning with the clarinets. A drum cadence opens the second parade-style section prior to introducing the original motive in inversion. That motive plus another are tossed around through the various sections of the ensemble in a lively manner creating a compelling interplay between the various tone colors of the band.

Kaddish by W. Francis McBeth (1977, Southern Music Co.)
    McBeth’s Kaddish (a Jewish prayer for the dead) is a powerful and emotionally moving piece. Dedicated to Howard Dunn and the Richardson (Texas) High School Band, it was also a memorial and tribute to Clifton Williams, a beloved mentor and teacher of McBeth. Perhaps the most compelling element of this work is the heartbeat, a rhythmic quote from Williams’s Caccia and Chorale, played by the timpani and bass drum.

Medieval Suite by Ron Nelson (1983, Boosey & Hawkes)
    Nelson is quite adept at scoring for band, and the suite does not disappoint as it features a large menagerie of percussion color as well as compelling groupings of winds. These are not transcriptions, but rather attempts to draw from some of the stylistic characteristics of music from that time, including repetitive rhythmic patterns or modes, modules of sound, use of octaves, fourths and fifths, syncopation, and pedal points. Each of the suite’s three movements (“Homage to Leonin,” “Homage to Perotin,” and “Homage to Machaut”) can be played separately as a stand-alone piece.

Elegy for a Young American by Ronald Lo Presti (1967, Theodore Presser)
    This work was written in 1964 and dedicated to the memory of John F. Kennedy. As the piece progresses, the music reflects a wide range of human emotions, not unlike those felt across American society following the Kennedy’s assassination. The piece does not appear to be too difficult at first glance, but careful work with balance and intonation will be necessary for a successful performance.

A Festival Prelude by Alfred Reed (1962, Marks Music Corporation)
    Written in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Tri-State Music Festival in Enid, Oklahoma, this effective concert opener is built from one main theme and two fanfares that occur throughout the score. Reed was a prolific composer whose music has been played throughout the world, and this is one of the pieces that helped establish him at the beginning of a long and successful career as a band composer.

Incidental Suite by Claude T. Smith (1966, Wingert-Jones Music, Inc.)
    Claude T. Smith was adept at writing engaging music with interesting parts for all sections of the band. This work was enormously popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Set in three movements, the music provides a wonderful contrast from solo passages to full band. Smith also included his signature 7/8 measure, which was somewhat novel for that time.

Fanfare and Allegro
by Clifton Williams (1956, Summy Publ. Co.)
    Beginning in the 1950s, Clifton Williams established himself as a significant composer of high-quality band literature who was also playable by high school groups. He influenced the sound of band literature for a number of years to follow. This piece is noble and energetic, with engaging contrapuntal lines and effective use of ostinato patterns without becoming trite.