Jim LeBon
Southport Middle School

Since many of us are adept at using notation software, it is often worth the time to take the wind and mallet parts of a score and drop it into the computer to examine how the piece is constructed.  Input the parts and look at the score in the concert key.  Write a three-line sketch and examine the music. 

Examine the harmonic structure.  Check to see that the chord tones lead well from one chord to another.  Check to see that the sevenths and leading tones resolve correctly. Check to see that ninths and thirteenths are used correctly.  A balance of chord tones that will be heard when the piece is played outside is important.  Are there thirds in the chords or are the harmonies implied in sections of open fifth writing?  This is very common practice in drum corps and competitive writing but can be a nightmare to balance and tune, especially with younger players.  Many pop tunes that are based on guitar writing use this idea too, and the smart band director needs to consider the experience of their group in choosing materials of this nature.

Take a good look at the rhythms and voicings of the low brass.  It is simplistic to think that four whole notes tied together will be easy to teach and play, while in practice it is a huge opportunity for dropped phrasing and a real bore to play for an entire season.  Look at the bass line and the melody and see if the harmony of the piece is implied between the two. Play them together on the piano or have the computer playback the pair so you can examine their interplay.  A good writer spends time creating a bass line that is harmonically and rhythmically interesting because that element will go far in creating musical interest and drive in the music.  Look at the spacing between the bass line and the tenor voicings.  Spacings between the bass line and the tenor voices that are too close together; i.e. fifths, will sound muddy and will be hard to tune and to get a good brass choir tone. Doubling the bass line at the octave is middle school writing.  Spacings of up to a tenth between the bass line and the tenor voices will work much better in practice and sound better on the field.

Look at the use of counter-melody when the melody is static.  A lot of pop and competitive writing does not take advantage of this technique and loses a chance to enhance the material being arranged.  Horns and trombones are often used to create counter-melodies and these players would need to be strong enough to hold down an independent line. Good writers use melody, bass line, and counter melody to frame their work and create their unique take on the music being presented.  They use these elements along with the harmonies of the piece to build to climax points that grab the attention of the audience while fostering an aesthetic experience for the performing musicians.

Examine the use of the woodwind choir.  Flutes doubling the trumpet melody at the octave is a very common voicing technique as are clarinets playing the second and third trumpet parts at the octave.  Alto sax is a good double for horn and tenor sax is useful in doubling the baritone part or the horn part.  Tenor sax is a very useful woodwind voice for doubling in the marching band voice palette.  It blends well and its range is useful.  These woodwind ideas are handy if you need to reinforce weak brass players who are not projecting their parts on the field.  They will usually not be strong enough to be independent lines but will go far in reinforcing brass parts.

Take a look at the percussion parts and see if they are in the ability level of your students to play and for you to teach.  Pit and battery parts are often very extensive in competitive writing and carry a lot of important material.  Consider your instrumentation and the experience level of your students before you make a purchase rather than trying to cover things you were unaware of when the music arrives.  Consider your need for a separate percussion instructor and where that falls in your budget and staff choices for the season. 

Examine the interplay of the brass, woodwind, percussion, and melodic percussion groups.  Good writing uses these choirs separately and together for a variety of sounds and to project well on the field. Decide if the arrangements that you are looking at fits your band’s needs and level of maturity. 

Consider how you might modify the arrangement for a better presentation.  Decide if the investment in time and cost is worth your purchase of the music.

Do not be afraid to edit parts to fit your situation.  Adapt your show to fit your group as you would get a new suit tailored to fit you correctly after purchase.  Change rhythms that do not work for rhythms that you can teach and that your students can play.  Students will often change the printed rhythms in a pop tune to fit their perception of the original song.  This can lead to a ragged performance and it is better to change things before you give a piece out than after you have been rehearsing it for a couple of weeks.

If you are going to make changes, take the time to put the edits into the computer and generate new parts.  This takes time and effort but pays dividends when you are polishing for competition or FBA MPA performances.  One kid with the wrong music can bring a rehearsal to a screeching halt while a frustrated director searches for a mistake that is really in the parts.

The music that you will perform will drive your curriculum and create your public image.  Choose your music wisely and insist on quality writing for your band.  Don’t be afraid to fix issues in the music.  If your inner musical voice is warning you that your music has issues, listen to yourself and make corrections earlier rather than later.  You and your students will have a better experience as a result and you might find you have a musical skill that you weren’t aware of.  Enjoy yourself and make music!!!