Steve Chatterton
Will Write for Food
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Know Your Gig & Don’t Write Yourself Out of It

December 19th, 2013 by Steve

Johann Sebastian BachBach’s Brandenburg Concertos “are widely regarded as some of the best orchestral compositions of the Baroque era,” but did you know they were completely ignored during the composer’s lifetime?

It’s true, and it’s all because Bach wrote what he heard in his head without regard for the ensemble that would be asked to play the actual music.

Bach gave the concertos to Christian Ludwig, margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, in 1721, most likely in hopes of getting a job as his court composer. According to Christoph Wolff, Bach used the “widest spectrum of orchestral instruments … in daring combinations,” but the margrave didn’t have enough musicians in his ensemble to play the pieces as written. So, the score gathered dust in his library, and after a while it was sold off in an estate sale. The concertos were only discovered and recognized for what they were in 1849, 99 years after the gifted composer had taken his last bow.

Last year, I had yet to learn from Bach’s mistake, and I wrote a jazz big band chart with no one in mind but my own inner ear. I was pretty happy with it, but when I tried to get it played I got some humbling feedback. I had written a pretty much unplayable chart.

I had written sectional parts that sounded great voiced as piano chords, but I was asking woodwind and brass players to play very close intervals with their neighbours. Ask two trombone players to sit side-by-side and play notes a semitone apart – it’ not going to be pretty. And I was essentially asking them to do just that on almost every chord. I had forgotten all of Sammy Nestico’s golden rules for voicing chords for horns.

Suffice to say, I do everything I can now to prevent that mistake ever happening again. Now, every time I write for someone I go through a whole laundry list of concerns, like…

  • Instruments to write for
    Don’t write a tuba part if a tuba player isn’t part of the ensemble
  • Possible instrument doubling
    Asking a sax player to switch to flute in the middle of a song doesn’t work if the player doesn’t actually double on flute
  • Special range considerations
    Do you have brass players who need really high parts to show off? Or are you writing for a student ensemble who would sound better with a more confined range?
  • Preferred soloists
    If trumpet 1 is the star player, it might be wise to stop giving solos to trumpet 4.

The list goes on & on and changes for every gig, but be aware of is that the list is always there, and it’s the job of the arranger to communicate with the ensemble director to sort it all out before before the writing begins. This will save time, money and hassles by preventing rewrites, and if you’re writing for a recording gig where session musicians will be playing your parts “cold” (without prior rehearsal) while the “tape is rolling” it might actually save your neck.

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