Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Your Band Will Shine

My experiences as a music arranging person have been varied, and anywhere from deeply personally and professionally satisfying to “glad I could help” to just plain fun.

Via being in the right place at the right time, or talking with the right person, or word-of-mouth publicity, or out of necessity, I’ve had opportunities to write for a wide variety of groups of singers or instruments. By that I don’t just mean band, chorus, orchestra, jazz band … I mean “band with no trombones”, “choir with very few tenors” … “piano, French horn, banjo and drum set” (my personal all-time favorite “whaaaat?” ensemble) …

At one time, I was really interested in getting some of my arrangements published. Charitably, a couple of pretty important teachers of mine suggested, “hey, you should send this or this or this item to some publishers, see if they’ll put it out.” Not only was this a dangerous thing to say to a relatively young ego, it was said by people who knew music and knew their business. And, well, heck, if these trustworthy and honest people (which they were) are telling me this, I need to believe it!! … Sadly, I never did follow up on this idea very strongly, for weal or for woe. It was more procrastination and alleged other priorities that got in the way than it was lack of interest, but the end result was kinda the same, I guess.

 

Back in the ninth grade, when I stole (sorry! –borrowed) one of my high-school band director’s demo records (yes – a 33 rpm LP double-album. Vinyl. Scratches ‘n’ all), the first musical arrangers I really took note of were John Higgins and Jay Bocook. (Doesn’t everyone play Bocook’s stuff at some point in their band lives?) Messrs. Higgins and Bocook were writing for Jenson Publications, a Wisconsin-based company that then was the beast of the industry but eventually was bought up by the Hal Leonard Corporation. I played and re-played their arrangements of current pop tunes and their adaptations of drum corps tunes – they were great charts! (It didn’t hurt that the demo recordings were played either by rather massive college bands, so the tunes were unrealistically huge-sounding – or by a band full of professional studio musicians who could play anything at any time – but the company probably thought that was fine. The better they sound, the better they sell.)

What I didn’t realize, in 1981, at age 15, was that at that time the publishers were offering adaptations of drum corps tunes (“Your band will shine with this electrifying arrangement of the Blue Devils’ ‘New York Fantasy’!”) featuring trumpet lines so high that only DCI sopranos, or those studio pros, could have played them. A few years later, some of the publishers did begin to market arrangements that could actually be performed decently by humans in cold weather. Sometimes that meant that the tunes didn’t quite have the same air of daring or drum-corps peel-my-face-off screamitude, but the companies were probably responding to the feedback of band directors who logically didn’t want to invest money in charts that were out-of-reach of their bands. Do ya want to stay in business, or what?

That, really, has been the underlying theme of my arranging experience (if it has one): while writers of literature are often admonished, “write what you know,” and “don’t write what you don’t know”, I have done a lot of work under the philosophy “write for what you have, toward the strengths and away from the weaknesses.” Mostly because it was necessary. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was a jackass when his answer to a question about military planning was “you go to war with the army you have, not with the one you wish you had” – but that, paraphrased, is the gospel truth for arrangers: if the band has no screamer trumpets, it’s a bad plan to write notes above the staff. (If the band has no screamers, and you write for them anyway, the band director will probably not hire you again. Survival of the smartest.)

I’ve had the opportunity to write for a number of college marching bands that DO have all the right instruments, and plenty of each kind. Only half-jokingly do I declare that it’s a thrill to write for bands that actually have second-trombones! But other than that, I haven’t done a lot of writing for strictly-standard instrumentation that I could submit to publishers.

The first high school band I ever directed had the following instrumentation: two flutes, one clarinet, one trumpet, one tenor sax, one bass player, four percussionists, and one keyboard player who was just starting piano lessons. And, guaranteed, nobody publishes music for that collection of instruments. … So “Seventy-Six Trombones” was probably out. So? My tenor sax guy was my low brass section; my clarinetist very often was my midrange, and I don’t even remember what I did with four percussionists, but they all reported having a good time that year, so…!

It’s not that I don’t have the experience, or the desire, or the musical imagination, to write charts for ensembles like: “double choir (SSAATTBB)” or “standard jazz ensemble also with two flutes and two French horns and a tuba” … but for the most part, that hasn’t been what’s been in front of me … and frankly, it’s just as much fun to write an arrangement of a tune that makes a group sound full even when they aren’t.

 

I may have written briefly about this before: my very first arranging moment was at the Charles River Creative Arts Program, a summer day camp doing business on the grounds of the Charles River School in Dover, Massachusetts. The program had established the completely ridiculous tradition of putting up a complete children’s musical (on average, 90 minutes long and fully costumed, staged and choreographed) during each of its two four-week sessions. It was a classic case of “nobody told us we couldn’t do it, so we did it”. On top of that, most of the shows were original – the July show was often written by staff members over the preceding winter, and the August show was commonly written by the July session Playwriting class. Talk about writing on a deadline! And, miraculously, the August shows were very often very, very good.

The gentleman who was the music director for the show that was going up during my first session on staff, Jack Megan, looked at me with about a week to go before opening night and said, “I’m not going to have time to arrange this one tune for the pit orchestra. Can you do it?” And of course, being the wide-eyed enthusiast (and also wanting to come through in the clutch), I said, why sure! The pit orchestras for our shows were usually made up of staff members, and not all of them members of the music department staff. So some players were conservatory-trained; others were decidedly not; at least we all enjoyed laughing, which we did a lot. For my first arrangement, I wrote for piano, bass, drums and alto sax (me).  One ensuing summer, we had a pit that included piccolo, flute, clarinet, alto and bari saxes, trumpet and flugelhorn, and piano/bass/drums. Usually we landed somewhere in the middle, and not always with classic instrument balance, top-to-bottom. So, for six glorious summers, it was like a game show: “you have an occasional-flute, a decent trumpet, a violin, a pianist, a great drummer, and probably a bassist but we’re not sure; and we need something that sounds like a classic Broadway overture. You have 24 hours. Go.”

It was a blast. When the tunes were great tunes, the object was to write arrangements that supported the tunes but stayed largely out of the way, the better to not screw them up. On the occasions when a particular song wasn’t up to CRCAP’s usual standards, it was kinda neat to dress the thing up in fancy (pit) clothes and see if anyone noticed.

 

When I got to my high school gig, the goal was to make the band sound like a band, even if it did lack certain important instruments … or a lot of people … or both. This band hadn’t even existed on a regular basis before I was hired, so for a while I was kinda making my own decisions, hopefully wise ones, about what to do to make the group sound bigger and better than it really was. Before we went outside to play pep tunes at football games, we decided to re-start the athletic-band side of our existence by playing at boys’ and girls’ basketball games. For openers, in an acoustically-live gym, nine horns and a decent rhythm section can sound like Michigan State if you play your cards right. (Also we didn’t have to worry about the weather.) Throw a lot of melody lines into instruments, let the rhythm section take the chord content (i.e. don’t dilute the wind sound!) and you can convince a lot of people that you got every instrument covered. If the crowd doesn’t think “hey, not bad for a pep band” – in fact, if the crowd doesn’t think AT ALL, but instead gets up and grooves with you…? We have a winner. And let’s be honest: certain tunes that get athletic crowds up and dancing are not exactly the most complex musical compositions ever written anyhow. No countermelodies or flat-13 chords to distract from the pep! “Land of a Thousand Dances” wasn’t exactly Tchaikovsky to start with, after all.

So when the coach of the opposing team came by at the end of halftime, one night, and said to me, “we’re going to take all our timeouts this half no matter what, just so we can listen to you guys play!” … well, that was kind of a comforting moment. (And that is an absolutely true story. I turned to the kids and said, “did you just hear that?” and they nodded, a bit stunned. “Good,” I said. “And get ready to play a lot.”)

 

So would I rather have THAT experience, or would I rather pick up a check for a buck or two every time a publisher sells my version of some tune or other? (“Your band will shine with this arrangement of ‘Zombie Nation’!”)

Not that I wouldn’t want just one published hit, on the scale of Tom Wallace’s “Hey Baby”. Just one! I’m not asking much…

Money is nice. Musicians (young or otherwise) feeling like a million bucks because they can play the tunes they like, in a way that makes them feel likeable? You can’t pay the heating bill with that … but it’ll keep you warm anyway.

Advertisements

January 30, 2012 - Posted by | arranging, band, choir, CRCAP, drum corps, Hoop Band, marching band, music, SUMC, Thom Hannum, UDMB, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. I love your way with words. “Peel-your-face-off screamitude” is exactly right!

    As for “write for what you have, toward the strengths and away from the weaknesses”, that’s what I do every time I write a legal brief. (The weaknesses are acknowledged in how I set it up, just like your arranging, too.)

    LOVE IT!

    Comment by Holly B. Anderson | January 31, 2012 | Reply

  2. HEY MAMBO!

    Comment by Baz | January 31, 2012 | Reply


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: