Valley Concert Winds

So far, my big musical project this summer has been starting a community band. It's called the Valley Concert Winds, and we are almost to our first performance. I am co-directing the group with fellow teacher Kyle Manley. It is pretty nice to have the chance both to play and conduct!

We weren't sure what sort of response we would get to the group. There are quite a few community bands in Minnesota, but the far east metro seemed like it could use a group. We had over 50 people register for the band with a great balance of instruments! I was also really pleased to have a wide range of ages represented in the group. It is neat to have intergenerational interaction. After four rehearsals, we have read a lot of music and are planning our first program, "A Taste of America," with the following works:

  • America the Beautiful – arr. Carmen Dragon
  • American Riversongs – Pierre La Plante
  • Fantasy on Yankee Doodle – Mark Williams
  • Black Granite III – James L. Hosay
  • On a Hymnsong of Philip Bliss – David Holsinger
  • Sweet Like That – Christopher Theofanidis
  • The Gladiator – John Philip Sousa
  • The Incredibles – arr. Jay Bocook

If you can make it, we'd love to see you at our first performance on July 13. Assuming the weather is good, we'll play at 6:30 pm on the terrace of the Stillwater Library. There's still time to sign up and join us for the second half of the summer, too! :)

Favorite pieces: Allegretto from Beethoven Symphony #7

I'm not usually a big fan of dumbing down the classics just so that students can play them, but once in a while I really appreciate someone's arrangement for a student-level ensemble. One such arrangement is Douglas Court's grade 1 version of Beethoven's Allegretto from Symphony No. 7. I have used in several times in the past 10 years with my 6th-grade band (a group of second-year players) and continue to find it valuable as a powerful piece of music and a vehicle for teaching important concepts.

[If you're not familiar with Beethoven's Symphony no. 7, go listen to it and read about it now before you go read on].

Court's arrangement is simple. After the opening minor chord, the middle and low voices begin the ostinato rhythm which continues through most of the work. The melody trades off between trumpets, clarinets, and flutes/oboes. Clarinet and Trumpet 2, along with horn and alto, take the counter melody, and though the low winds never get the melody themselves, getting to play eighth notes in the ostinato pattern along with some other rhythmic patterns keeps them engaged. The flutes have a long rest (about 16 bars) before coming in after the first chord, so this piece may be a nice break from having to carry a lot of the piece themselves.

My favorite section of the piece is a 12 measure long crescendo. Starting from piano, the ensemble builds to a powerful climax, sustains full volume for eight bars, and then fades out over the final eight bars. It is in this section that I most challenge students to play longer phrases and hide their breaths.

Two other important concepts to address in the Allegretto are chromatic pitches (of which every instrument has some) and the contrast between tenuto and staccato articulation. Every player must listen to to match and play the right note lengths.

The percussion parts are not that complicated. They are not original to the piece, so they can be safely omitted. The mallet part doubles the flute line. The timpani plays only the tonic and dominant with no tuning changes. Snare drum and bass drum add a little oomph to the louder sections, and suspended cymbal and triangle parts are a tasteful addition if you have plenty of percussionists. Bonus--I haven't used it, but there is a piano accompaniment if you find yourself in need of it.

In the end, I have used this piece frequently not just because of the musical concepts it teaches, but because it has the power to connect well with students and audiences alike. Many have heard it before, and it is a great piece to push students to play with more emotion. Usually I take one rehearsal to talk about and listen to the original, and I love seeing how it unlocks something special in the way students play. 

Cover tiny file look inside Allegretto from Symphony No. 7 Grade 1 - Score and Parts. Composed by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Arranged by Douglas Court. Curnow Music Concert Band. Hal Leonard #014897. Published by Hal Leonard (HL.44000440).

Running over squirrels

Though it sometimes makes students uneasy, I like to compare missing notes to running over squirrels.

It usually comes up after I hear a student performance spiral downward as they let one mistake spin the whole piece out of control. When they stop, I ask the student to imagine being in the car with their parents.

“As your mom or dad are driving, you see a squirrel race out into the street, directly in front of your car! Which would you prefer your parent do? Try to swerve out of the way of the squirrel and cause a collision, or run over the squirrel and preserve the lives of everyone in the car?”

While some students take a long time to think, the right choice is obvious—if you have to decide between running over a squirrel and and getting in a car accident, every sane person will choose preserving the lives of the people in the car.

I then tell the student to treat missed notes or any other mistakes like running over a squirrel. You can’t change the squirrel. If it runs in front of your car, all you can control is your own reaction. When a musician makes a mistake, there is no way to go back and change it. Instead, you have to keep on playing as if nothing has gone wrong. Otherwise, the original mistake may be compounded. Rather than simply running over a squirrel, you jump the curb and crash into a tree. Playing an F natural instead of a sharp is painful, but not as painful as playing out of time for the next 10 bars because you dwell on the mistake.

If you like the analogy, feel free to use it. And if you don’t, let me know a better one! :)