Choose your own adventure: Mood/Mode

You’re the star of the story! Choose from 40 possible endings reads the cover The Cave of Time, the first volume in Bantam Books’s Choose Your Own Adventure series. About two years ago, I thought it would be neat to make a piece of music which was guided by choice. Mood/Mode is the first fruit of that effort. The piece consists of an introduction followed by eight possible sections which each represent a mood, an emotion reflected in the music. Each section is based on a different musical mode, a set of notes forming a scale and the basis of the harmony for that section. As the piece progresses, soloists cue the next section by playing a cadenza based on the mode for the next mood. If a mood is repeated, new material is added. Once the final section is signaled, ending music (different for each of the eight moods) is played. There are more than 16.7 million possible sequences for a performance, but at the premiere, we did just two (recordings below).

Mood-Mode Cadenzas.jpg

Each student received two pages for their part--one contained the introduction, selectable sections, and endings, while the other showed the eight modes used and a sample cadenza for each. The sections were color-coded (and labeled with the mode name and measure number) to make it easier to see how they were paired (and find the right spot more easily in performance).

The band only had about two weeks to put the piece together from start to finish, and I was still revising up until a couple days before the premiere. The most challenging part of rehearsal was helping the students know what section of the piece was coming next. The soloists did an excellent job of playing confidently and within the mode, but it was tricky to make sure the band would be ready to start playing as soon as the cadenza ended. I found that it helped to give some visual cues to the band (and especially specific players who started a section) so that we stayed on track.

Take a listen and let me know what you think about the concept and the music.

Educationally, there were several valuable things about this piece. It was great to feature student soloists and allow them the opportunity for some improvisation. Keeping the band engaged in listening was also good (and somewhat difficult!). For the future, I would love to spend more time on the modes to help students hear them more quickly. Also, depending on the ensemble, I might want to spend more time discussing the relationship between the modes and moods. With my current Concert Band, we have already done a lot of discussion on this topic (including a seminar on Plato's thoughts on the ways music influences emotions). I picked the moods based on what I hear, but others may not hear as I do.

If you didn't see it on the image above, here are the modes used:

  1. Octatonic
  2. Slavic Dorian
  3. Locrian
  4. Minor Pentatonic
  5. Diminished Whole Tone
  6. Whole Tone
  7. Mixolydian
  8. Dominant Bebop

Warming Up vs Building Fundamentals

There can be a big difference between warming up in band and working on fundamentals, but many rehearsals I have seen treat them as identical. Both are necessary for the development of a school ensemble, but all too often the time spent on warming up and on fundamentals is ineffective and disliked (for good reason). Here is part one of my analysis of what needs to be done to warm up and work on fundamentals effectively--please share your thoughts.

Warming Up

We've all been there. The band director steps on the podium, (most of) the students put up their instruments, and the first sounds from the ensemble are remind you of a blender filled with marbles. Why are the trumpet players straining to play the G on top of the staff? How can the alto sax player get any sound at all with that dry, cracked reed? At least the flute players grimace, but you're not sure if it's because of the sound of the band or their own pitch problems. What has gone wrong? The players in the group are not warmed up.

It may seem obvious, but before playing anything technical for the day, musicians (especially students) must be warmed up in order to play well. While that concert B-flat scale is a simple and everyone can play it (except the trombone player who always plays A in third...), it is NOT a warmup. I'll write it again: A scale is not a warmup. What do the students need to play with a good sound, right away? Watch any athlete and it makes sense. As a batter is warming up before stepping up to home plate, he is stretching his arm and leg muscles, twisting his trunk, and thinking the whole time. A musician's warmup is similar. You need to limber up your face, arms, and fingers and help your mind become sharp and focused for the task at hand.


In addition to warming up, the early part of a rehearsal often focuses on helping students improve certain basic musical skills. Every director realizes that students need to get better at playing scales, tonguing, subdividing and pulse awareness, playing dynamics, music reading, and other skills. The more clean tonguing, for instance, becomes a habit, the less time has to be spent in rehearsal cleaning up passages that require very precise articulation. These habits do not happen in one rehearsal, or even in a week or a month. They take years to develop, and progress in them requires constant and consistent attention.

The Start of Rehearsal

So what is the start of rehearsal for? Can an ensemble warm up and work on fundamentals at the same time? Or are they stages to go through each day? Is it even possible for an ensemble to address warming up or working on fundamentals, or are they so individual that time spent as an ensemble is ineffective?

I'll spend time in my next post explaining what I think about these parts of rehearsal and how to deal with them effectively.

scale syllabus

When I was in high school, I didn't appreciate the resources available nearly enough. One such resource was the scale section in our jazz band method book. I can't imagine how much time it took our band director to put it together—it's handwritten for all four common transpositions in jazz band—and contains several patterns in all keys as well as the typical jazz scales.  While it probably isn't necessary to write out every the scale for every key of a given mode, I think it is helpful for some students to see everything written out. I decided to recreate (or at least imitate) it in Sibelius for my students last year, and I'll share it here in case it is useful to anyone else. If you use it, let me know how you like it (or not).

Download scale syllabus