Banding Together: BCM International

What is a Wind Band?

FJO: Let’s talk some nuts and bolts, practical issues for writing for wind band. For starters, what exactly is a symphonic wind band? What is the official instrumentation?

Eric: There are two different things. Wind ensemble is generally one on a part and that’s liberating to write for because at least you know that you have relatively standard orchestration. Concert band or symphonic band or symphonic winds can mean anything and it generally does. You can show up and there could be one clarinet on a part or there could be twelve clarinets on a part. Oftentimes the trumpets outnumber the flutes or the clarinets. There could be twelve to fifteen trumpets. There could be two bassoons; there could be six bassoons.

Jim: There could be no bassoons.

Jonathan: I’ve seen twelve alto saxes.

Eric: Obviously, because it’s mostly educational or community bands that are performing these things, even in colleges, it’s rare that there’s a standard orchestration. So, you see the obvious problems.

FJO: So when you write these pieces on your software programs or your manuscript paper, what exactly are you putting down on the page?

Jonathan: Flute, oboe, piccolo, several clarinet parts, bass clarinet and an alto clarinet part, but that’s generally being phased out.

Eric: You can write an Eb clarinet part…

Jonathan: Not just one clarinet part, but many: clarinet 1, clarinet 2, clarinet 3…

FJO: Whereas you’d write only one part for the others?

Jonathan: You could have two or three flutes; one or two oboes but you can’t always count on them being heard or being there. One or two bassoons, then you’re in the trumpet and horn category…

Steve: He jumped right over the saxes…

Jonathan: I’m sorry. I did jump over the saxes; I’m in denial over the saxes. Two alto sax parts generally, tenor sax, bari sax, and all the doublings that can happen there.

FJO: No soprano sax?

Jonathan: You can have soprano sax.

Jim: You can ask for it.

Steve: I’d consider it two altos, tenor and baritone…

Jonathan: The doublings are easy enough that if you knew you had a tenor player who could play soprano, you could get that. Then you get the brass. For some reason, the trumpets are written above the horns in the score. How did that start? I don’t know.

Eric: There’s a trumpet part and a cornet part. These are actually two different families of instruments. I’ve sort of standardized my list to only have trumpets: three trumpet parts.

FJO: Now when you say the trumpet is written above the horn parts, you have to write these scores a certain way for band conductors.

Jonathan: It’s a sort of standard. I’ve seen where all the basses are together. Or you can do it by reed families. The wind area is not as standardized as I would like, but the brass seems to be standardized.

Steve: Trumpets, horns, trombones, euphoniums, tuba. Three trombone parts…

Jonathan: I’ve gotta say, when writing orchestra music, I miss the euphoniums a little bit ’cause that’s a beautiful sound you can do wonderful color things with. It’s very lyrical and it’s a nice round sound that I would love to have standardized in orchestra music.

FJO: You said sometimes there’s no flute. Sometimes you might be missing something else. So do you write with a lot of doublings?

Steve: We’re talking about basically two different cultures here. On the college level, they do aspire to the literature. And then there’s the educational level in the high schools and the junior high schools and elementary schools. That is a different world musically and functionally. The way we approach it depends on what it’s for. And for an educational environment like that, you double it, triple it, quadruple it… For a commission, you kind of know what you’re getting into. For the wider market, you don’t make oboes or any double reeds crucial… It’s a guessing game for me every time. I don’t know that I nail it. I think that sometimes groups would like to do a piece and they don’t have the instruments to do it and then you’re stuck. Sometimes they do it anyway.

Jonathan: Creative and colorful orchestration can get challenging because it gets very difficult for ensembles if you have an oboe part that you actually need to hear, and that’s crucial to the line and crucial to the harmony and color. If it’s not played, then you’re out of luck.