Re-evaluating Repertoire

“Stop using junk music that sounds like every other junk piece. There’s an awful lot of music out there called educational music, but it’s not really educational at all.” ~ The Instrumentalist, 1990

“What we need fewer of are the self-styled experts who think their opinions about programming and repertoire are better than anybody else’s and clutter the bad periodicals with pomposity and self promotion. Can’t they see that this is a matter of taste and not an absolute?” ~Sparke, Composer

“I really dislike that piece (Pigovat’s Hava Nagila) at the start, it made no sense. But as I practice it, I come to like it more and more.” ~Student paraphrased, 2015

Since the last article I wrote, “What is good band music”, I had the privilege to watch more Singapore band performances and felt it helpful to consider what repertoire selection in Singapore is like.

I concluded two motivating factors largely affect the choice of repertoire for bands in Singapore:

First, whether it is a piece accepted and used by the majority – in other words, do bands play it? Do they use it for competitions (eg SYF) and masterclasses? If yes, this suggests that the chosen piece is doable and performable.

Secondly, whether it is a well-liked piece. A piece that sounds nice, awesome, wonderful, beautiful and/or enjoyable will tend to remain in the band repertoire canon longer than others. These two logical considerations ensure that the music chosen is safe and enjoyable.

The philosophy of “safe and enjoyable” music suggests that unknown music is inaccessible. We erect barriers in our mind, assuming that any music not heard before is undoable. It also suggests that any music that doesn’t sound ‘nice’ and ‘awesome’ is rejected and will not be selected to be played.

This philosophy tends to give rise to some misunderstandings about what ‘quality’ band music is. This in turn makes the selection of good wind band music more difficult. Some of the common misunderstandings are:

Good band music is subjective

Advocates of this idea will say that there is no such thing as bad music. “If I like the music, then it is good music.”

Such an argument is biased. Simply ‘liking’ or ‘preferring’ the music cannot be an absolute indicator of its quality. Conductors like different music from the students. Moreover, do we always like music that is good? Not always. There is good music that I do not like or, at least, am immediately drawn to. Our listening abilities, and alongside these, our tastes and imaginative capacities mature and change with our increased exposure to art.

My first most hated classical piece was Bach’s two-part invention. I thought that it was difficult to listen to, and horrible to play. I quit piano because of it, and yet it haunted me still – I could not forget the feeling of that complex soundscape. Never did I expect that Bach’s compositions would become one of my greatest loves and inspirations today.

We should avoid programming music based only on our personal preferences.

Good band music is technically difficult

There is a kernel of truth in this misunderstanding. A good piece of music tends to be longer than 10 minutes in general because the ideas require the length to develop. A good piece of music tends to have more elaborate melodies and rhythms, which give life to these musical ideas. After all, it is hard to write a serious and substantial composition with only a long concert F.

However, there is still simple yet good band music. Like a children’s story, they have different hook that captivate. Sometimes, a witty three-note motif is all that is needed to spark off a short piece (Tichelli, December Snow) Sometimes, simple ideas expressed through dialogues make the piece interesting (Blackshaw, Whirlwind) . Other times, a percussive groove can set the background of a story (Bukvich, Electricity). There is also aleatoric music, graphic notation scores for young students to create a story (Broege, Streets and Inroads).

One similar trait in the music mentioned above is the unpredictability. They are all unique in telling their own story.

Good band music should sound complex

This is the converse of the first and second misunderstanding. Such a misunderstanding often arises from an academic culture of “good repertoire” books and seminars. A pursuit of excellent wind band repertory without discernment can become an intellectual exercise, where anything complex, esoteric and unheard is treasured by virtue of containing these qualities. The trend of writing and validating “authentic, original wind works” becomes so extreme that anything accessible is thrown out of the window. I have a few responses to this academic culture:

Firstly, there was no need to campaign for an excellent repertoire a few hundred years ago. The pursuit of excellent music had always been a naturally occurring phenomenon. Works of high quality remain often played, while any music which is unfavoured or unpublished (even by the likes of Mozart or Beethoven) would tend to disappear from the canon.

Secondly, good music is both original and authentic. Anybody can be original for the sake of being unique, but authenticity makes sense out of the unique ideas.

My 1 year old nephew says “ka” whenever he is hungry. That is original – I have never heard anyone saying “ka” when they are hungry. But what makes it authentic is his consistency and his conviction in saying “ka” whenever he wants to eat.

In the same way, one can be melodious and be quite original/authentic to his compositional intent, as much as one can write unintelligibly original sounds that make no musical sense, conviction, or sincerity, whatsoever.

Those who write complex music for the sake of complexity should stop. A chef does not throw italian herbs into a Ramen broth and call this a new original soup, unless it tastes awesome in a new way.

So what are the traits of good band music? 

I believe there are both artistic and technical traits in a good composition to consider. Battisti quoted Ostling’s thesis in his book “The Winds of Change” to talk about criteria for the selection of music for school band directors. It can serve as a useful template for our consideration. Here are the pointers (I removed some of the original elaboration for clarity):

  1. “Select music that is interesting, that is, music that is imaginative in development of some or all of its musical elements – melody, harmony, texture, rhythm, form, etc. The music should provide opportunities for teaching musical concepts about form and construction.”  
  1. “The individual parts should be as interesting as possible. Students like to play pieces that allow everyone to be “part of the action.” Tubas like to play melodies as well as bass lines; French horns like to play more than off-beats. Choose music that will help each student grow technically.” 
  1. “Select music that fits the instrumentation of the ensemble. However, if a conductor wants to perform an excellent work with students and a required instrument (or two) is lacking, substitute a reasonable alternate instrument and perform the piece. Make sure that this is done in a manner that preserves the musical integrity of the piece.” 
  1. “The technical and musical demands of the music selected should be compatible with the skills of the ensemble. Music that demands months of excessive drill should be avoided. Students need to play literature that allows them to approach the expressive character and nature of the music. Literature which makes excessive technical demands of the students denies them the opportunity to reach this expressive plateau of music making.” 
  1. “Music selected should encompass a variety of styles – contemporary, avant-garde, Renaissance, Baroque, Romantic, jazz, popular, etc. This makes possible the teaching of history, various musical styles and performance practices. Music with a variety of textures offers students opportunities to perform music ranging from delicately scored passages (solo and small group instrumentation) to fully scored tutti sections (employing the entire instrumentation of the ensemble.)” 
  1. “Another important consideration when selecting music is appropriateness. A piece that would be appropriate for one occasion and environment might be totally inappropriate for another. For example, the Wagner Trauersinfonie might not be appropriate for a Fourth of July concert but might be very appropriate for a concert of remembrance (Veteran Day)” 

Though pointer 1 and 6 is partially subjective, the large part of the criteria is logical and tangible. We can apply qualitatively and quantitatively in our selection of band music with these criterias. Here are some practical considerations for each qualitatively:

  1. Interesting and Imaginative. Does the music develop in a predictable manner, i.e. fast-slow-fast? Have I heard this melody before used in exactly the same way? Do I get confused between piece A and B because they sound too similar? Did I know that a piccolo and tuba can produce a new sound like this music?
  1. Interesting individual parts: When I flip through the conductor’s score, are all instruments playing in a ‘block’ all the time? (Not applicable for chorales) Are there only long notes and rests for lower winds? Is the use of percussion inventive? Is the articulation of woodwinds exciting and gestural?
  1. Instrumentation: Is this piece more suited for a large or small band? Do I have 18 clarinets for the melody to be loud enough? Will my brass overpower my woodwinds easily in this piece? Is the oboe and bassoon important or substitutable?
  1. Skills of the ensemble: In my concert, do I have only all grade 5-6, or all grade 2 music? Do my students hate the music because its too easy/hard? Am I practicing a simple piece for a year or a hard piece for a month? Are the students available to commit to working on different expressions and phrasings?
  1. Variety of styles: Do my band pieces all sound like melody-accompaniment-bass/snare +bass drum? (contemporary band) Do I play anime music only whole year round?  Variety of textures: does slurring or tonguing make any difference to the music? Is the music only made up of Bom-cha, Bom-cha style? Do woodwinds mingle with brass differently?
  1. Appropriateness: For example, consider the acronym CLEAR (Celebratory, Learning, Entertaining, Abstract, Reminiscing). Do I play only entertaining music whole year round? Have I explored abstract music together with my band and gotten lost together? Have I played hymn-like music that touches our hearts?

Quantitatively, we can make a numerical table for our own quick reference that may look like one below. For pointer 1 on artistic interest, do not be ashamed to put a 5/5 for something that captivates you and 0/5 for something that bores you artistically. However, always write a few words on why it is interesting or boring. That will keep us from being biased without reasons. (Our intuition needs to be informed and shaped too!)

TitleArtistic interestIndivInstru

(Small / Medium / Big)

GradeStyleCLEAR
How to train a dragon4/5 (Cool)5/5 (fanfare brass)M. More trombones needed3Medieval, Movie.C, E
Irish Tune4/5 (Beautiful but slow)3/5 (long tone practice)SMB4Modal, counterpoint, choralR!!

Choosing music through these categories helps us to plan a repertoire program more holistically. It shows us the different components that make a piece, which in turn reveal possible new found appreciation for it.

Through it, we may even observe some patterns related to our own preferences of music, which further help us to make intelligent/helpful/artistic/suitable choices of repertoire for performances.

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