Last month I wrote about the American Composers Forum’s BandQuest program and composer Michael Colgrass’s thoughts about what he learned in participating in this groundbreaking project. Since a poster to these pages last week mentioned him and his advocacy work for composing for young players, I thought I’d use this week’s post to give a summary of his “don’ts” to consider when composing for bands at this level. (See Chatter 6.5.2006 for his list of “dos”):
1) Don’t fall into the trap of excessive doubling that makes all middle school band music sound the same. The more doubling you use the more “grey” the sound will be. Find alternative ways to strengthen a passage and to give the kids a feeling of confidence playing as a group without necessarily having them play the same notes. For example, clusters give as much support to a line as same-note doubling and kids like them (when the music is appropriate for that effect of course). Also kids like aleatoric effects. These are easy to play and create an ensemble effect, so that, again, they all feel like they are somehow playing together.
2) Further to the question of orchestration in band writing, avoid the dangers of writing too thickly in the middle zone of the band, i.e., saxophones, horns, euphoniums, bassoons. This especially is what gives the band that thick heavy sound.
3) Don’t dumb down. You can write a conceptually sophisticated piece that is technically easy to play and creates a mood that is special. The whole idea of getting serious composers to write for kids is that you don’t want to write that cookie-cutter type of music that publishers usually churn out and send to band directors every fall. Write something imaginative. Think like a kid! What kind of a piece would you have liked to play when you were in a band as a kid?
4) Don’t depend on virtuosity to make your piece good. Young players are very limited and the things they can do beyond what they think they can do they are rarely confident enough to try to do. That said, you can still create some fascinating stuff without having to use the kind of pyrotechnics we composers often depend on to create pieces when writing for “mature” musicians. Take it as a challenge to see what you can think up that fits within the limitations available to you. Your imagination is more challenged here than anywhere else I can think of as a composer.
5) Don’t be over-confident and think that writing for kids will be easy. Otherwise you are liable to fall into the same traps most of the people who write for kids fall into. The challenge is to write a piece you can be proud of and that even has some emotional power. Think about how you could accomplish that within the parameters of young players’ musical development.