Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Putting It Together

[Optional accompaniment for this blog post may be found here, or here.]

Dear Diary,

Well, that was exciting.

I’ve always thought that it would be kind of a big deal for a real band to play my stuff, and said so. And, as it turns out, yes it is.

A fellow can sit at a desk and put notes on paper, look at them and (thanks to worthy advice from trusted arranger friends) get a sense that those notes are [a] correct, and [b] organized such that all the instruments are playing notes that are not outside their playing ranges, and [c] organized such that the melody stands out properly even when lots of other things are going on.

You can even sit down at your musical instrument of choice and bang out some of the lines, just to make sure an instrument with no biased ear, no emotional dog in that fight, can confirm that at least the actual notes are in a position to make an ensemble sound at least all right.

But until you hear a real band play those notes, which is to say, a group full of humans, you’re not entirely sure you’ve succeeded.

Because an ensemble full of humans can do what machines can’t: they can take a bunch of spots and strokes on a page and they can not merely reproduce them as music notation intended they sound … but they can make them sound like more than just hieroglyphics. They can make them sound like art … like emotional expressions … like fun.

The arrangement I’m referring to, of course, wasn’t created solely out of my own head. A trusted colleague had the original idea, laid out the structure of the production … truly, it was a collaboration. In a sense, I was painting by numbers – my colleague drew a set of lines, and I painted inside them. But in another sense, I was given license to decide what colors to use, what intensities, whether to leave some areas blank and fill others full of artistic ideas that maybe my colleague hadn’t considered. Happily, after observing my painting-inside-the-lines, my colleague seemed pleased. And so did the people playing the instruments.

(How’s that for a tortured metaphor?)

Add to all that … this was a collaboration in another sense. Musical theater producers experience this; sports teams do too. I was a member of a group of creative people, each of whom contributed something to the final product.

People involved with musicals include dramatic directors, musical accompanists, choreographers, lighting and costume designers … and that list is incomplete. Sports teams have offensive and defensive coordinators, pitching and hitting coaches, et cetera, who all work independently at crafting solutions to their particular challenges, and in successful teams, all that work meshes together. And the average person looks at the company, or the team, and doesn’t think ‘wow, all those individual parts and all those separate rehearsal or practice sessions came together to create this singular effort’ … she or he just claps and says ‘yay’.

And so, in this little corner of my world, which seems pretty big at this moment, that collaborative spirit is in place. Ensemble director sends the basic instructions to the wind arranger; once those arrangements are done, the percussion arranger writes the work that will allow the bang-and-crash brigade to accent and highlight and accompany the winds, but also contribute their own presence to the ensemble sound … and then, once those sound ideas have come together, the visual designers set to work. Someone has to figure out where on the football field to put the marchers, and how to have them move during the song, in order that the music is presented understandably (no sense having the big important melody players on the back sideline while the accompaniment wind voices are up front). And, since we’re working in three dimensions here, and because American audiences have been conditioned to expect audiovisual entertainment, important to have people who can invent cool things for people to do who are holding flags and rifles and other implements of destruction.

And in this recent case, I’m on a team that has some very creative people doing all that.

Such that, I will admit, as I saw the production happen – the end of a rehearsal, in front of a smattering of friends and family, not even the uniformed performance in front of screaming band appreciators (or disinterested football fans with a few die-hard band nerds scattered amongst) – I got not a little worked up. I marveled that I got to be part of the group that dreamed that craziness up. I got to experience how much cooler it is to hear my stuff presented by a group of dedicated and enthusiastic humans, than it is to hear my stuff merely rattle around inside my own head – no matter how good I am at imagining the wild applause at the appropriate junctures.

Horn tilt! Company front! Big blast of sound! Cool coordinated sound and picture moments!

All there. All true. A very rewarding feeling; and also a sense of pleasure that the people performing the production appear to enjoy it, too.

Well, that’s all for now. More later, once I’ve seen the thing at halftime, in uniforms and such, from up high in the stands.”


Now, pop quiz question: did I write that diary entry to describe [a] the aftermath of my time spent with South Hadley High School’s band, and their field show full of Irish-inflected music, at their pre-season band camp a couple of weeks ago … or [b] my experience contributing to the UMass band’s production of “Bandstand Boogie” – my first chance to hear the wind arrangement I wrote for my alma mater’s thunderous marching band, the Power and Class of New England, exactly twenty-five years ago this week?

Answer: … yes.

August 30, 2015 - Posted by | arranging, band, marching band, music, UMMB | , , , , , , ,

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