This summer, I had the privilege of teaching at two summer band camps.
The first one was in Guatemala and was a mission trip. We went there to share the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the foundation of my life, and teach music to about 50 kids. It was a great trip. The second one was this past week for Stafford Middle School, where I teach private woodwind lessons during the school year. I directed the jazz ensemble and led saxophone sectionals.
These experiences taught me a lot as a composer and arranger. I thought I would share this wisdom with anyone who is interested in arranging or composing for middle school or high school groups. Here are 3 things I learned about writing good music for younger bands:
1. REPETITION IS YOUR FRIEND
With less experienced groups, I've discovered that the more repetitive the rhythms are, the better they are able to pick up on it and play it. At that age, you want to give them music that they can play confidently so that they can sound good and celebrate their accomplishment of putting together a cool piece of music and playing it well. If you give them too many diverse passages and rhythmic phrases, they might have a hard time getting it together. Try and utilize a few key rhythmic patterns that keep coming back.
2. THE USE OF UNISON LINES ARE ESSENTIAL
In more advanced music, we often write ideas for "one on a part." Flute 1 and 2 could have totally separate parts from each other. The bassoons might play something completely different than tenor sax. Well, in the best middle school charts I saw this summer, there were just two or three parts doubled in lots of instruments, and that's it. Example: flute, clarinet, and alto sax might have the melody all in unison. Tenor sax, trombone, bassoon, and euphonium might all have a simple counterline. Tuba, bass clarinet, and bari sax might have a simple bass line with the timpani outlining the accented notes. Then percussion provides the textural complexity. In all, that's just THREE parts doubled in multiple instruments. Very simple, and it allows for a bigger sound where the experienced players can help the younger players fill out the sound.
3. IT HAS TO BE FUN
At Music Camp Guatemala, I arranged a piece for the clarinet chamber group. It consisted of a solo part and harmonized background parts in quarter notes. It was slow and simple. BIG MISTAKE. I wanted to write something simple and beautiful, but it was TOO simple. There wasn't enough material to keep the kids engaged in the piece. The harmony parts were too independent and the music was too easy for the older kids. In other words, IT JUST WASN'T FUN for them to play. The best songs for that age HAVE to have a catchy melody. They HAVE to be interesting for them, which means giving them a blend of simple rhythms and active lines that they consider fun. Think back to when you were that age: you liked the ones with a little more action, right?
I learned a lot this summer about arranging for these groups. I hope to get the opportunity to continue that kind of writing, because it's awesome to see the kids get excited about what they're playing. That's the reason I'm still in the music business: because I got hooked on music in middle school band playing fun pieces that I liked. I still remember falling in love with "Night In Tunisia" by Dizzy Gillespie and "Chameleon" by Herbie Hancock. Both tunes are catchy and infectious. Maybe YOU will write the next "Night In Tunisia..."
is a saxophonist/composer residing in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex.