Band Together: Part 1 - Returning Home

Over the next few days, I will be posting about my trip to clinic my latest commission, Band Together, with the Northstar Middle School 8th grade band. The premiere will take place at Northstar's cafetorium on Thursday evening, April 21st. 
Part 1 - Returning Home

This is my commissioner, Laurie Francis, and I after a concert 
in 2010 in which several seniors returned to play with her 8th 
grade band - we had no idea even then that we would ever be 
collaborating on an original piece for her final concert! 

This commission holds a special place in my heart, because the commissioner, Laurie Francis, was my middle school band director about ten years ago. She was one of the first important musical influences in my life, and to be writing a piece to celebrate her retirement is really a special honor for me. We met late last summer to talk over the details of what the piece needed to do, and this last week (March 13th-18th) was our first chance to really work on the piece with the students. It is rare for a middle school to premiere a new work, let alone have the composer actually visit the school and work with them for an entire week. Before meeting with the students, however, there was a lot of details to go over with the commissioner to ensure the best experience for everyone involved.

My commissioner and I met at my home on Sunday evening to talk over some trouble spots she noticed just having the kids read through the music the previous week. While she hadn’t really encountered a lot of the aleatory in the score (since it’s rare to find any such notation for the age group she teaches), she had an absolute knowledge of what her students would struggle with and what they would be confused by. I hadn’t realized how much two years of graduate school at the Jacobs School had removed me from working with amateur players; it was a major reality check talking with her about what the students would be able and willing to learn in a month.

Opening section of Band Together. The notation here is "aleatoric," meaning the students will play without having individual
beats conducted. In this way, they are able to simulate a very complex texture without learning difficult rhythms. Most music students do not encounter this kind of notation until later in high school or even college.
Especially difficult to navigate was the scheduling – because band (and really, music in general) had constantly been de-prioritized in the district, she had to work around a schedule in which the band didn’t actually rehearse together or even in set sectionals. One section of eighth grade students had mostly brass, but included a single flute and a few stray saxes (while also missing a few members of the brass section proper). While the percussion was able to rehearse together, the band itself only rehearses about four times before a concert, giving the percussion very little time to adjust to hearing actual music with their parts. Also, this week was going to be especially tricky, as there were two days of school-wide variety shows, a National History Day event, a few sporting events, and some absent (“early spring break start”) students throughout the week. While she was able to convince administration to give the band a full rehearsal on Wednesday, we would be missing about 15 students from the group. With all of these activities, rehearsal time was more limited than ever, and a few sacrifices needed to be made in order to make this particular performance a success.

While the score itself wouldn’t need to change, necessarily, for future performances, we had to barrel through the piece over the course of two hours to find fast fixes for difficult sections, notes, and rhythms. In the end, we only needed to reprint four parts, and make “pencil-in” adjustments throughout the piece. I learned that holding notes for a long time makes it very difficult for them to count if they need to end or change independently; even if entrances are doubled, coming in on an offbeat is still really tricky for them; so many things would require a cue, making it difficult for the director to really help anyone. While some of these things might be able to be worked on under normal circumstances (over the course of a semester or year, with at least once-weekly group rehearsals), they were rather insurmountable in a month with all of the scheduling problems—especially given that we were losing a week due to their spring break, and middle school students are much less likely to practice at home and outside rehearsal.

We left the meeting, however, with a game plan. It was going to be a long week, but at the end of it we knew we will either have made great strides with the ensemble, or great changes to the score.
Every composer has their own version of
Composer Fuel - mine is hot cocoa!