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Distinguished Music for Band Grade One

by William L. Berz

This is the second in a series of articles evaluating literature for band. Recently, the Wind Ensemble and Symphony Band at Rutgers started a new recording project for Mark Custom Recording of repertoire for the developing band. With this task now well underway, I have been spending energy listening and evaluating music intended for school bands.

There has been increased interest and debate about elementary band literature. At the NJMEA Conference in 2001, leading authority, Thomas Dvorak, presented sessions on the subject. There are two new books (listed below) on the subject that should be a part of every elementary band director’s library. Oddly enough, Dvorak is a co-author of both books.

As I have written in a number of previous Tempo articles, the selection of music is one of the most important tasks for any music teacher. Band conductors should consider two primary factors when choosing music: pedagogical value and musical integrity. While elementary, middle school, high school, and college band conductors will consider each variable differently, all must constantly strive to find the highest quality literature that will best accomplish both goals. Elementary teachers may need to meet other goals such as relating the music to other cross-curricular requirements in the school. High school directors need to consider special requirements because of band festival participation. However in the end, all teachers must choose music first based on artistic considerations first and all others second.

Selecting music for the less technically advanced band may be even more demanding than for the experienced ensemble. First, much grade one music is simply written because of the need to be technically accessible. Sometimes these attractive works can sound less than beautiful when played by elementary performers. What may sound great when demonstrated by professional or college players might be less successful with performers having less developed control and tone quality. Instrumentation can also be a major factor for the young band where there is often a shortage of tenor and bass instruments. (Elementary band teachers are strongly encouraged to start and develop young trombone, euphonium, tuba, and bass clarinet players! However, that is a different topic.) Some of my favorite grade 1 pieces (Londonderry Air, All the Pretty Horses, Song for Friends) are particularly attractive because of their beautiful melodies. Young musicians will find the musical sophistication needed to perform these kinds of compositions challenging. As all teachers know, assessing “musical” difficulty is certainly subjective. Also, concert selections must relate in some manner to the method book that is used in the school.

Tom Dvorak further divides grade one music into 3 levels:

Introductory, Intermediate, and Advanced. I would refer readers to his books (see below) for additional information. The Manhattan Beach book is particularly valuable in that it lists instrumental ranges, this a vital factor in choosing music for young band. The book includes brief reviews of elementary method books as well. The GIA book provides considerable discussion on each work as well as essays on general topics related to elementary band teaching. In this article I have indicated if the specific composition is listed in either of the texts by listing the publisher. Like television and movie critics, I have assigned a rating for each work. While I consider each work listed to be valuable, I do consider some better than others.

My very subjective rating system is as follows:

1 baton = good
2 batons = excellent
3 batons = superb
4 batons = don’t pass this one up.

Sakura arranged by Mike Story

Berz rating = 4 batons (Manhattan Beach) (GIA)
Sakura features very creative use of percussion, calling for temple blocks and a gong in addition to the more conventional bass and snare drums, triangle, and bells. The clarinets do not go over the break. The highest note for trumpet is a C in the middle of the staff. Although not technically difficult, a certain delicate style is required. (Sakura is one of the least technically challenging works on this list.) It is a charming work, a terrific arrangement of this ancient Japanese children’s song.

Hotaru Koi arranged by Nancy Fairchild

Berz rating = 4 batons (Manhattan Beach) (GIA)
This piece is coordinated to Carl Fischer’s Sounds Spectacular elementary band method, playable after lesson 10 of book one with the exception of concert D-flat. Although technically very basic because of its educational level, it is very creative and offers teachers many options including having students sing the folk song. Like Sakura, the percussion writing is extremely creative. The piece is one of the most basic of all the works covered in this article. Only four notes are used: concert B-flat, D-flat, E-flat, and F. Rhythms are very basic and everything is block-scored. It is a great arrangement for the very young band.

Liturgical Fanfare by Robert W. Smith

Berz rating = 3 batons (GIA)
The work begins with a rhythmic motive of quarter-quarter-2 eighths-quarter. This pattern is repeated many times, both alone and as an ostinato pattern combined with a clever main melody. Forte-piano dynamics are very important both as a block dynamic and in a bell-tone pyramid figure that is found in several transitions. The clarinets do not go over the break. The highest note for trumpet is a C in the middle of the staff. It is a solid piece that should be easily played by most grade one bands.

The Tempest by Robert W. Smith

Berz rating = 3 batons (GIA)
Smith describes this piece as “written as a concert/festival work for the developing band. It serves as a musical vehicle to teach the concepts of phrasing, articulation, key modifications (accidentals), and musical texture.” I would add dynamics to the list, especially as they relate to phrasing. The work begins with a very legato theme, which is quickly contrasted with a very marcato second. Like his Liturgical Fanfare, ostinato patterns play a predominate role. The work really requires either a bass clarinet or bassoon (or both) to make the opening successful. The clarinets do not go over the break. The highest note for trumpet is a fourth-space E.

All the Pretty Little Horses arranged by Anne McGinty

Berz rating = 4 batons
Although listed as grade 1, this beautiful setting would be appropriate for more advanced groups as well. It is both more technically and musically challenging than many of the discussed works in this article. The piece begins with an exposed clarinet melody that does go over the break. There is a vitally important bell part. Otherwise, the percussion writing is very thinly scored and not difficult. The first trumpet goes to a fourth-line D. It is truly a wonderful piece, but might be a bit of a musical challenge for many grade one bands.

African Folk Trilogy by Anne McGinty

Berz rating = 4 batons (GIA)
This wonderful work features three authentic children’s songs. The first, Benuwa, is from West Africa; the second, Dithotsammele is from South Africa; the third, SansaKroma is from Ghana. McGinty provides some basic information about the songs in the score. It begins with a basic melody played by the cowbell accompanied by foot stomping. Different percussion ostinati are gradually added featuring a number of different instruments including claves and cabasa. The percussion instrumentation could certainly be expanded. The clarinets do not go above the break. The highest note for trumpet is C. Students need to be comfortable with dotted-quarters and ties, as there is a fair amount of syncopation in the third section. The piece holds terrific potential not only to teach about the social aspects of the tunes, but also about musical structure.

Clouds by Anne McGinty

Berz rating = 3 batons (Manhattan Beach) (GIA)
Highly programmatic, this original work is composed in three sections, each representing a different kind of cloud. The first, cirrus, is represented by a legato melody in 3/4 meter. The middle, thundercloud section, begins with marcato quarters and culminates in a storm freely played by the percussion. Calm returns for the final part, cumulus. The clarinets do not go over the break. The highest note for the trumpet is C, but the range is generally low. Students should find this very accessible work very engaging.

Atlantis by Anne McGinty

Berz rating = 2 batons
Part of the Hal Leonard Discovery Series, Atlantis is one of the easier works on this list. Unlike All the Pretty Little Horses, most of the writing incorporates block scoring with ample doubling. There are but a few places were only a single section is featured, the alto saxophones and trumpets for example. The percussion parts have many sixteenth-note figures, but most are pattern based. The first clarinet part does go over the break. The first trumpet goes up to C, the seconds to B-flat. Unfortunately, Atlantis does sound like typical grade one band music.

Phantom Ship by Elliot Del Borgo

Berz rating = 3 batons
Elliot Del Borgo is yet another very popular and prolific composer of band music. In this score he provides the following performance note. “From out of the dense, shifting fog, the faint outlines of a large ship begin to appear. As it draws closer, the size and power of the vessel become more distinct.” As the tempo increases, the majesty of the ship is pitted against wind and waves. This well crafted piece might be on the more difficult side of grade one. The clarinet parts do go over the break. D is the highest note for the trumpets.

Distant Horizons by Michael Sweeney

Berz rating = 4 batons
This is an absolutely terrific work that explores some unusual – although not too unusual – compositional techniques for the young band. The piece begins with a very thinly scored introduction featuring long unisons moving between different sections against percussion interjections (quarter = 96). Sweeney introduces a series of very accessible dissonant harmonies by expanding melodies away from unison in a pyramid-like fashion. Young students will have no problem playing these patterns and will begin to learn to hear structures that are not purely triadic. This technique continues in the second section that is considerably faster (quarter = 144). Although not difficult, there are some slightly tricky rhythms that will require students to concentrate. For example, there are a number of rests on the downbeat of a measure when absolutely no one plays. The first clarinet part goes over the break; the second does not. The highest note for the first trumpet is E, C for the seconds. This piece should be an excellent vehicle for teaching thematic development, basic rhythmic counting, and harmonization, all of which goes beyond the norm for grade one music. Still, the work should be readily accessible for young band.

City Life by Brian West

Berz rating = 3 batons
Written by Australian composer Brian West, this is a relatively simple piece based on a rather simple but clever idea of portraying the bustle of city life with musical dissonance, and is an accessible way to have students hear major seconds. The work might not be the norm for grade one level music, this both an advantage and disadvantage. On the positive side, it does not have the typical “grade one” feel so commonly heard in this level of music. However, there are some knotty problems that might cause concern. One example is the many E-natural – D-sharp combinations in the trumpet parts; this fingering pattern can be problematic for young players. There are more accidentals than found in many young band pieces. The trumpet parts are quite low and the clarinets do not go over the break.

A Quiet Rain by Walter Cummings

Berz rating = 3 batons (GIA)
This piece is a true musical gem that might be somewhat problematic from a performance standpoint because of its length and musical subtlety. (It might be added that Cummings classifies the piece as grade 1 1/2.) At over five minutes, the duration alone might prove to be a bit of a challenge for a very young band. The work starts with a series of ostinati, reflective of a quiet rain beginning. To this wonderfully calm pattern, Cummings adds a simple but beautiful melody first heard in the trumpets and alto saxophones. The general trumpet tessitura is just a little higher than many grade one pieces, however the highest note is only a D. The clarinet parts do go over the break.

Song for Friends by Larry Daehn

Berz rating = 4 batons (Manhattan Beach) (GIA)
This is a terrific piece to teach phrasing and lyrical playing. The emphasis is on one primary melody that is simple yet very engaging. The clarinet parts are quite low, going down to low F, and never go over the break. The trumpet parts too are low, although they do reach C within an arch-shaped melody a couple of times. There is one key signature change midway through. The challenges presented in this work are not technical; the task would be to make music, and beautiful music it would be.

Nottingham Castle by Larry Daehn

Berz rating = 4 batons (Manhattan Beach) (GIA)
This march-like composition (quarter = 88) features two alternating themes, the first legato and understated, the second separated and loud. The ideas are so clear that students should have no trouble hearing and thereby learning about these contrasts. The clarinets do not go over the break. The first trumpet part reaches a D, the second a B-natural. The parts are not particularly independent and the scoring is blocked in large measure. This should make the work fairly accessible. One negative is that there are many repeats; many require students to play second time only. This might make for confusion on the early readings but should not be a significant concern. Another criticism is that the percussion parts do not seem particularly inspired; although there are a few sixteenths, the parts are based on patterns.

Ballet of Spring by Tom O’Connor

Berz rating = 2 batons
Another march-like composition (quarter = 108), the block scoring should make this piece very easy to put together. The primary feature of Ballet of Spring is the alternating of instrumental sections. First, all play; then just the upper woodwinds and bells; then just the brass, saxophones, and membrane percussion; then the woodwinds again, and so on. Although I do not find this piece particularly inspired, it should prove to be a good teaching tool and should not present technical challenges. There is one key signature change midway through. Neither clarinet part goes over the break. The highest note for first trumpet is D; the highest note for second is B-flat.

Anasazi by John Edmondson

Berz rating = 3 batons (GIA)
This composition is named to honor the ancient tribe of Indians who lived in the Four Corners area of the American Southwest. It is dedicated to the 1986-87 Anasazi Elementary School Band in Scottsdale, Arizona. This piece, composed in arch form (ABCBA) features some very creative, yet not difficult, percussion writing. The parts are largely pattern based. The percussionists are required to count rests carefully, as there are large gaps when they do not play. Relatively slow (quarter = 72), the primary challenge is to shape the phrase correctly paying careful attention to the indicated dynamics. As with all slow pieces, tone quality and intonation will be large concerns. One specific performance problem might be the mixing of concert E-flat and E-natural in the melody. The clarinets do not go over the break. The highest note for trumpet is C. It is a charming piece for the young band.

Emerald Bay by Greg Gruner

Berz rating = 2 batons
This is not a particularly difficult piece – assuming that the band has a decent trombone section, because the middle section of the work features trombones in a series of glissandi. There is a brief percussion interlude in the middle of the work that is poorly conceived. It has very basic rhythms but with an important snare drum roll, sometimes a challenge for the young percussionist. Directors who choose to perform this might consider writing an expanded version of this interlude. It could become a student project. The clarinets do not go over the break. The highest note for trumpet is C. The trombone glissandi make this easy, block-scored composition engaging.

Londonderry Air by John Kinyon

Berz rating = 4 batons (Manhattan Beach)
There must be hundreds of band compositions and arrangements by John Kinyon. His music is really terrific for the young band, and is unfortunately seemingly neglected. Many authorities consider his music out-of-date, partly because of the block scoring and traditional percussion parts. I would encourage young teachers to look at Kinyon’s arrangements. Londonderry Air is one of his best. This most famous melody is arranged to feature the clarinet section and it does not go over the break. The highest note for first trumpet is E; the highest not for second is A. Not unexpectedly, the percussion writing is very thin. In many ways, the arrangement can be seen as a simplification of Grainger’s famous setting of the same tune.