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! :)

Picking Music for Contest

Judges have often commented to me that they appreciated my music selection. Perhaps it's just something they say to everyone, but I take it as a sincere compliment when it happens regularly for adjudicated performances for both concert and jazz bands. Here are my basic guidelines and then a couple great sample programs for contest.

Be respectful of the given time and style guidelines

If there is a required music list, choose from it. If a ballad is asked for, play one. These things seem obvious, but listening to other groups at events we have attended tells me that not everyone thinks of this.

Choose music that makes your group sound as good as possible

Sometimes we directors are used to having a certain level of group, but it may not always be possible to sustain playing that level of music. While I agree that it is good to make a group stretch, music selection for a contest needs to be within the reach of the ensemble. The feedback a group receives can be uplifting or devastating based on the difficult of the music, and the students should not be penalized for a director's poor choice of music. [As an aside, if you realize too late that something is too hard, own up to it! Let the students know your own failings.]

Value variety

Your selections should provide as much contrast as possible with each other. Possible areas include: key center and tonality, tempo, style, time signature, time period, cultural influence, weight, length, and more

Sample Programming

Here are two sample programs and my considerations in picking each.

Jazz Band at a Competitive Jazz Festival

Punta del Soul
Together Houses
Better Get Hit In Your Soul

With these three tunes, we fit the requirements of the festival really well. A Latin chart, a ballad, and a 3/4 gospel swing gave us three contrasting styles. All three tunes stretched the band in different ways, but none was out of reach. Punta del Soul required a level of timing and execution (and some woodwind doublings) beyond anything they had previously played, but they really liked it and worked for it. I knew that Punta and Together gave us a strong 1-2 in the program, so I looked specifically for a closer. Better Get Hit was exactly what I wanted--energetic from beginning to end, and the 3/4 swing feel worked great with the straight eighths in 4/4 from the previous tunes.

Concert Band at State-Sponsored Contest

Prospect - Pierre La Plante
Symphony No. 4 - Andrew Boysen

I think it is really important to play a good ballad at contest. Sometimes an inner movement of a longer work will be sufficient, but I didn't think the slow movement of the Boysen Symphony would be enough for this program. Adding Prospect made the program 15 minutes long, though, and so I chose not to include a third piece! [If I had, I it would have been a march--we were working on Sousa's The Gladiator March around that time.] At this particular festival, each group has only 30 minutes to set up, perform, and receive a critique from a judge, so it seemed worthwhile to keep the program shorter to allow for a little more face time in our critique.

The Boysen Symphony was a fun work for students to dig into. Though it was technically not as difficult as some other music we worked on, it happened to fit the instrumentation of the group well and made them sound great at contest. The contrast of Prospect's simple calm and the rage and chaos of the Symphony was a big part of the program's success.

If you have a particularly successful program, send it my way! I'm right in the middle of looking at new repertoire for next year.