Band Together: Part 2 - Monday, Monday

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 2 - Monday, Monday

First day at the school - view
from the band office. I played on
those timpani TEN YEARS AGO!
The band, while mostly eighth-graders, has a few seventh-graders who join the band to help fill out some of the sections. Today, I met with two groups of these seventh graders, as well as the woodwind sections of the eighth grade band.

The first group I worked with was actually just two students – a flautist and an alto saxophonist. Getting to start with two students was helpful for me, as the more intimate setting helped me hear more clearly what tendencies they had when encountering the aleatory for the first time (thus helping me anticipate problems that would arise in the larger groups). Both of them were actually pretty strong players, and while they were hesitant at first to try the aleatory (and more than a little weirded out by how it sounded), by the end of our time together they were really eager to play with the whole band to hear what it would sound like. They understood pretty quickly that it would make a lot more sense with more people, so it was nice to work with such open minds.

The second group I worked with was a little larger, and was comprised of a flute, a clarinet, a tenor and alto sax, and two horns (still seventh graders). While at first I was worried about how different the parts were from one another, it actually turned out to be extremely useful when I began teaching them the aleatory, since almost every type was represented (trills, feathered beams, and low glisses). While there was one chatty student, they were all pretty focused and well-behaved. I hadn’t anticipated the fact the horns had never put their hand in their bell to bend the pitch (which was an oh duh moment when I realized why it was new to them), but it was so awesome to see their reactions when they learned something new. Both of the hornists, having never done this before, completely freaked out at the feeling of the instrument vibrating on their hand. One of them even had to wrap their hand in their sweater so they could keep playing without giggling at the sensation. As a former percussionist, I'm use to feeling the membranes of drum heads or the edges of cymbals vibrate against my hands all the time, so it was kind of unique to see someone experience a similar feeling for the first time.

The last group I worked with was Mrs. Francis's eighth grade wind sectional - mostly flutes, clarinets, saxes, and a few stray percussionists and brass players. While at first I imagined it would go as smoothly as the first two groups, I quickly realized that having a larger group made it much trickier to work on the aleatory with them in much detail. While the flutes and saxes had similar aleatoric ideas, the clarinets and brass instruments had completely different types - while in a smaller group this isn't much of a problem, in a classroom setting it eats up time. This is especially true when the students are so excited about the piece and want to start trying the new stuff right away - even if you're not done explaining it yet! While at first a few of them seemed a little skeptical about what I was asking them to do, however, having the larger group seemed to help them feel more comfortable about trying things out since everyone had to do them. 

While these parts appear at different times in the score, this view allows us to
see that the flutes, oboes, and high saxes all have similar ideas, while the
clarinets and low saxes share a different idea.
It was also useful to know, while I had written pretty wide dynamic envelopes (see examples on the right), in the context of the ensemble these dynamics didn't really translate - since they're all overlapping at different times, the overall dynamic would inherently be whatever the loudest dynamic written the score was. It seems obvious, but pp to mf spread across individual parts in a 50+ person ensemble ranges anywhere from mf to ff when done in practice. This is especially true of younger players, who have a more difficult time playing quietly. While I didn't anticipate this particular facet with the dynamics, I did find that taking Dr. Dzubay's suggestion to vary the boxes between parts was very wise! If you look carefully at each stave in the left-hand column, you'll notice that each box: 1) has a slightly different number of iterations, 2) varies in pitch order, even if some of the same pitches are the same, and 3) each box per stave has a different dynamic profile. In this way, even if one student decides to play the same exact rhythm over and over again, it will be less obvious because so many students are ready slightly different boxes from one another. This was less of a concern with the tremolos (right-hand side column), because students all vary on how fast or slow they feel comfortable trilling. 

In this rehearsal, the director also decided to assign a box to each student - while this eliminates the element of choice from possible variety, it also allows for the students to keep their heads out of the music, which is crucial to advancing from one rehearsal to the next as ensemble (since Mrs. Francis can't very well go on shouting numbers out during the concert). In a way, this made the piece even more pedagogical, in that now the students are able to learn that their written music doesn't have all the answers. The earlier any musician can learn that, the better.