This spring I have begun to compose a work for band, and I have started to think of all the low and high points of the band/wind ensemble repertoire. I enjoy the band works of Grainger, Sousa and Husa. Even though I have become burned out onthe works of Sousa and Grainger I think they are some of the better works for that ensemble.  The low points, to me at least, are two-thirds of the music I played in high school band. (That may be a bit of an optimistic estimate.)

I am starting to enjoy my piece for band even though I have the most minimal of notes down on the page so far. (No, that does not make the piece a minimalist work.) It is a sort of concerto for band with the tentative title of Sinfonia.

I don’t recall ever seeing the topic of band music being discussed here, so let me know what you see as the highs and lows of the band repertoire.
Have you written for this ensemble? Why or why not?

27 Responses to “I’m with the band.”
  1. andrea says:

    check out david maslanka.

    i have only written for beginning band, which is a treat. i don’t bother writing for large ensembles. i like being able to get folks together and having my pieces played. the largest i’ve written for in the past five years is eight people, and even that was a hassle to schedule.

  2. Daniel says:

    How timely. I’m writing my first band piece, also. I can’t say I’m huge fan of the “band” sound, though there are composers out there, like Maslanka, who do it well. A guy my age named John Mackey writes a lot of band music, and does it very well.

    My piece is being commissioned by a high school.

    I’ve already decided that I will be doing a second draft after the first reading, so I’m not too worried about mistakes with voicing, doubling, difficulty, etc.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Check out the Hindemith symphony for wind band. Hindemith is kind of an acquired taste, of course, but his particular foibles work SO well with the ensemble. All those busy contrapuntal lines that turn into slurry when played on strings are suddenly clear as day, and the massive block chords just sound massier and blockier. If your only experience of Hindemith is that rather limp and dismal Mathis der Mahler, the band symphony might make a convert of you.

    The Schoenberg Theme and Variations is a cute little piece. Nothing earth-shattering, but you might find it helpful as a source for nifty instrumental combinations.

    John Corigliano’s big piece for band, Circus Maximus, is rather overstuffed – but quite a lot of the individual sections are brilliant.
    Especially the opening – dig those terror chords!

  4. I don’t write for band, but I perform with ‘professional’ ones and occasionally conduct them and also get to judge band contests every now and then. I also get to do promotional recordings for a large band music publisher every now and then. It seems that if you want performances, write for school bands. There are a lot more of them out there than professional orchestras, and they usually have a budget for new purchases every year. If it’s a contest piece, you’ll sell three times the extra scores. There are interesting works out there, but often times music educators only buy the names their students like, and already know how to play.

    The low points are easy to find, check the state contest lists for composers from Ohio who’s names start with “S” (you won’t normally find Sousa, Sibelius, Saariaho, Stenhammar, or Stravinsky, on these lists, especially since they aren’t from Ohio.)

    Some composers I enjoy for their skill and music are Persichetti, Gordon Jacob, John Barnes Chance, Frank Ticheli, and Michael Daugherty. Another composer who seems to get overlooked nowadays is Clifton Williams, who always seems to write stuff that sounds great, even if it does sound a lot like Howard Hanson. (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.) Ron Nelson has some pieces that I find interesting as well, especially “Fanfare for the Hour of Sunrise.”

    I think the biggest crutch in band music now is the use of over the top percussion scoring to create a false sense of excitement and to keep the marching percussionists busy during concert season. I think that Robert W. Smith and Steven Melillo may be the biggest culprits at this. I’ve had to play plenty of their pieces with brake drums, anvils, chains, marching machines, ocean drums, rainsticks, tom-toms, taiko drums, and other multi-cultural drums and sound effects. The pieces tend to become giant dog and pony shows that end up sounding like a “Pirates of the Carribean” or “Spiderman” medley. It’s pretty easy to write a loud chorale in augmentation over chugging drums percussion and get a standing ovation from moms and dads.

  5. Daniel says:

    I’m with you Mell…and you’re a percussionist! There are way too many swelling crescendos in today’s music.

    What makes a “contest piece”? Obviously the grade level, but anything else? Not that I’m trying to do that, but if I’m donig it already it would be nice to know.

  6. Don’t miss David Rakowski’s music for band. And I think Michael Gandolfi wrote a piece for band based on tango a few years ago.

  7. Daniel says:

    Vientos y Tangos is the piece by Gandolfi.

    By the way, the Klavier label produces quite a bit of band music performed by top notch college groups: IUPUI Wind Ensemble, UNLV, Cincinnati, etc.

  8. john m williams says:

    Vittorio Giannini wrote a truly great work for band. Not the 3rd Symphony, but the Variations & Fugue from 1965. A master a twork. Check it out.

  9. What makes a “contest piece?” Hmmm… I’m only half joking here…

    1.) Usually a large A-B-A structure (Fast Slow Fast)

    2.) Maestoso Introduction Brass Fanfare with cymbals and timpani. There are woodwinds here, but nobody will hear them.

    3.) Allegro statement of theme starting in the 1st clarinets or flutes with the woodwinds. Add the trumpets and brass for recurring statements etc.) Quite often you can use a snare drum ostinato based around grouping the 4/4 eighths as 3+3+2. This 3+3+2 has made many band composers rich. It’s ‘fun-ky’ to suburban middle school kids.

    4.) ritard over 8 bars to the B section which features a lyrical theme in the flute or oboe, maybe the alto saxophone or trumpet. Your choice of solo instrument here will determine which bands play your works. This is where you write the important solo moment for that one student who actually takes lessons or is a graduating senior who has been a polite student who’s mom has helped sell the most band fruit all these years. You can use suspended cymbal swells here and some triangle to demonstrate sensitive percussion color. You might even use a snare drum roll crescendo to a bass drum and cymbal crash for the tutti statement of this lyrical theme. Maybe use a chime note or two (not too many though)

    5.) a fast 4 or 8 bar percussion interlude back to the Allegro A theme featuring temple blocks (definitely the temple blocks, because although they’re not specifically pitched, decent drummers who can’t read mallet parts can figure out the important five notes over the 8 weeks the concert piece is rehearsed.) The snare drum should have more eighth-sixteenth patterns here. 1 bar of prominent tom-toms should be used as well.

    6.) The slightly reduced scale of this 2nd allegro builds to another statement of the Maestoso introduction. This is where you add the tam-tam.

    7.) a final coda of 8-16 bars marked Molto Vivace or even Presto for tutti ensemble ending with a strong authentic cadence leading to beat one. If not using an authentic cadence, try using a VIIb to I or maybe even a bIIMaj7 to I to prove that you’re willing to use “edgy” contemporary harmonies. (an aside: the last chord of the Persichetti Sixth Symphony has all twelve notes in it, but high school bands don’t play Persichetti anymore. Sadly, nobody plays Persichetti anymore.)

    This is your typical contest piece. There’s also the typical contemporary-style piece now which uses singing or humming in the band along with the mark tree and shakers. All harmonies are tonal, but relationships aren’t necessarily common practice. Try lots of open fifths or parallel intervals. If it’s for advanced band you might use a synthesizer or wine glasses.

  10. Oops, I almost forgot – don’t forget to add two gratuitous 7/8 bars (one in each A part) to show that your kids can play mixed meters and that the director can conduct it as well!

  11. Okay, time to toot my own horn:, for concert band, which you can hear here:

    It’s a smaller instrumentation, but I approached it like it was a large “big band.” Stan Kenton meets Zappa, if you will!

  12. Daniel says:

    Ah, 3+3+2, or as I like to call it the “Coldplay leitmotif”

  13. Jim Swearingen had that rhythm down in the late ’70′s. I believe that he chose the titles for many of his pieces from the streets in his subdivision. (Invicta, Denbridge Way).

  14. I remember playing some Swearingen works that were all about the sea.

    Does anyone else think that there might be a bit of snobbery toward writing for band? I think the band repertoire has an immense log of extremely boring or predictable works and that it is a wonderful ensemble neglected by too many composers.

  15. Tim Risher says:

    Yes, a bit of snobbery, but some of this can be put on many band directors as well, I believe. They want the pieces to conform to what they expect band music to sound like, well described by Mell Csicsila above, and this in turn affects what music the companies publish for the bands, resulting in a huge layer of glop with the real gems buried deep inside.

  16. John Mackey says:

    The snobbery is certainly real, and it’s partially due to the fact that several people have had tremendous success writing Mell’s half-joking assessment over and over again. Those pieces haven’t helped the medium. Now, though, with Corigliano’s work (which, to me, is one of his best works, particularly effective when heard live — as it incorporates huge masses of antiphonal players), in addition to great band works from Bright Sheng, (some) Daugherty, Rakowski, and others, and with upcoming works from Kernis and Rouse to name a few, the medium is much less all about 4/4 and Bb. In fact, the more against that cliche’ a work is, the more enthusiastically it’s embraced by the truly great bands in the US, like those at Michigan, Florida State, USC, U Texas @ Austin, Arizona State, Eastman…

    I’ve had a lot of luck with band music (thanks for the above shout-out, Daniel), and my music, while certainly not as dense (or interesting) as Rakowski’s, is not in 4/4 — or 7/8. You can get a tremendous number of performances with a piece that takes off. My first band “hit” was originally an orchestra work for the Brooklyn Phil. The orchestra version has received eight performances since 2003. The band transcription of the same work has received over 130 performances in two years. (The piece is called “Redline Tango,” and it’s on my website — — if you’re curious to hear both the orchestra and band versions.) I originally didn’t want to transcribe it for band because I thought what a lot of composers think — that band music is second-class crap in Bb that has to be marchable. Redline Tango is in E, and it’s rhythmically pretty tricky, but those challenges have made the piece more appealing to conductors rather than less. Yes, it’s A-B-A, but not everything is original. ;)

    My big thing is to write for band the same level of music I’d write for any other medium. That is, I don’t ever let myself think, “this is a band piece,” because if I do, I’ll write garbage. (You might argue that I’m writing garbage anyway; it wouldn’t be the first time I’d have heard that.) My goal, though, is just to write something for that instrumentation, which, yes, has a lot of percussion, and has saxophones, and way too many clarinets. But write music that deals with those challenges creatively, and never let yourself write “down” to band, or you’ll end up writing like Swearingen or Reed or Robert Smith. There’s plenty — rather, more than enough — of that already.

    There are really two kinds of band music — the music that Mell described (Swearingen, etc.), which is really deemed “educational music,” and then there’s just “music.” It doesn’t mean that the straight-forward “music” isn’t also good for education, of course; it just might require college-level players to be successfully performed. Don’t worry about that; there are many dozens of incredible college bands in the US alone, not to mention the bands in Japan. Get a hit with those groups, and you’ll get “trickle-down” performances from lower-level colleges and high school bands. Only those first two-dozen performances will be very good, but they WILL be VERY good. Besides, as for the sucky performances, any performance is a good performance — as long as you’re not there to hear it.

  17. Eric Lin says:

    Oh god…Swearingen’s music is so bad…

  18. Eric Lin says:

    Ironically, it’s also what got me started composing…

  19. I like to think I compose because there is so much bad music in the world that I have to do my part to counteract it.

  20. andrea says:

    some other band works i really enjoyed playing in college:

    ross lee finney — skating on the cheyenne (gorgeous! i’ve always wanted to know more about this guy because of this piece, but haven’t taken the time to dig anything up. suggestions are welcome…)
    ingolf dahl — sinfonietta
    robert russell bennett — he’s got a couple pieces and i think a lot of folks might find them cheezy (he really rides the line), but i find the orchestration fabulous.
    cindy mc tee — circuits (an arrangement of her orchestra piece. very cool. my friend used a set of cast iron pans in the percussion part because we didn’t have almglocken.)

    i may or may not think of more…

  21. Jay Batzner says:

    My dissertation was for band and one piece that I listened to a lot was Symphonic Excursions by Robert Patterson. A really cool work that, to me, doesn’t sound like a Band piece.

    I only bring it up because nobody has mentioned it yet. If anyone wants to hear my piece, just find me a band with a bass sax and tell them to play it.

  22. John Mackey says:

    I just received an email about a band funding opportunity. If you’ve been considering writing a band piece and you’re under 35 or currently in school, here’s a way to potentially get paid for the piece. (Now let’s see if html formatting is permitted here…)

    The band directors of the Atlantic Coast Conference are pleased to announce the creation of a funding opportunity in support of new compositions for band.

    The ACC Band Directors Association “Grant for Young and Emerging Wind Band Composers” will provide grants in variable amounts ($2000 to $5000) to up and coming talent for writing new music for wind band.

    The grant is unique in several aspects…

    1) It is directed to young and emerging composers. Applicants must be EITHER 35 years of age or younger, OR enrolled in a graduate composition program (MM, DMA, or PhD).

    2) There is no limit on the number of awards to be given per year.

    3) Composers need NOT submit a finished piece. A sketch or even a piano reduction will be accepted for consideration.

    Interested students may also visit this website for complete information…

    It’s worth checking out!

  23. Jeff Jordan says:

    Great comments from everyone and it’s wonderful to see input from Mr. Mackey, whose work is contributing so much to our repertoire. In response to your original question, Everette, there are many terrific possibilities for the band/wind ensemble. I would suggest checking out Volumes 1-3 of Composers on Composing for Band, edited by Mark Camphouse (who is himself a very successful name in the band world). Mark presents a set of questions to many of today’s major figures who write for band. These questions, posed to composers such as Eric Whitacre, Jack Stamp, David Holsinger, et al cover influences, works, thoughts on the creative process and the future of the wind band. It is highy enjoyable and informative reading.

    I would also second Mell and Andrea’s lists above of composers and suggest that anyone interested in the band medium check out, amongst many others, the works of Eric Whitacre, Donald Grantham, Jack Stamp and Joseph Schwantner. Schwantner, in particular, changed many a mind as to the possibilites of the contemporary wind ensemble with his ground-breaking work, and the the mountains rising nowhere.

  24. Jeffrey Quick says:

    Jeez, Mell, tell us how you really think! ;-)

    Re: works for band…nobody’s bloody mentioned *Hammersmith* by Holst. The Suites are worth attention too, but they’re pretty fluffy in comparison. The Schoenberg is a marvelous piece, but not one I’d take as a guide necessarily. Warning: he does the European baritone vs euphonium split, leading to baritone parts that stay in the stratosphere and euph parts that are in unison with the tubas, in the hardest register of the instrument to tune. Arnold Rosner’s _Eclipse_ merits a look, esp. for brass writing. Timothy Broege can really score, though I’m not as sold on the content.

    Andrea: re Ross Lee Finney. I just missed him at Michigan though of course one always saw him at concerts and heard a lot of his music. The concerto for sax and winds is worthwhile, and the 6th quartet.

    I’ve written a couple pieces for band, which I’ve just started peddling to publishers. The hardest thing about writing for school bands is that you can’t always rely on a complete instrumentation, so you can’t fully exploit the color possibilities. I just heard a reading of a piece for grade 1 band that I did several years back. It turned out to be surprisingly easy to write, though I don’t think it sounds a lot like me. At least it’s not a happy-talk band piece.

    Re Schwantner ATMRN…it got a lot of exposure, maybe overexposure at Michigan, to the point where I’d fantasize about smuggling a pellet gun in and taking out the musical glasses. And one of my percussionist buddies got pranked when somebody put goldfish in the water gong. Call out PETA…

  25. Daniel says:

    Any tips for writing for “generic high school” band? Not the orchestration textbook stuff, but maybe some real life situations.

  26. Jeff Jordan says:


    Frank Erickson’s Arranging for the Concert Band is a terrific and practical guide to scoring for an “average” band instrumentation. The Art of Writing Music by John Cacavas is also a good text for getting started.
    I second Jeffrey’s choice on Hammersmith, a compelling and unusual work with fascinating performance history.

  27. Geir Sundbo says:

    In Norway, we have many highly competent community bands, and at contests they play Maslanka, Camphouse, Ticheli, Hesketh, Gorb etc. They also commision works from norwegian composers, (like myself), for the national championship. These works are often exciting pieces and very far away from the “educational” repertoire. Sadly, it`s very difficult to get these works published, (I guess it`s a well-known problem in many countries, arrangements of pop/film music are easier to sell…). Maybe we should exchange our works for band, and promote them to the bands in our area ?