The Kittantinny Marching Band
The Kittatinny Marching Band (Newton, NJ)

Update: I uploaded a sample marching band arrangement that demonstrates the tips mentioned. You can also email me if you are looking for an arranger or consultant. -Jon

Arranging for marching band or any large-ensemble can be intimidating. You might wonder “how the can I write for all these instruments??” I know I felt that anxiety when I wrote my first orchestral piece back in college. But after years of composing and learning from Hollywood’s best composers and orchestrators (and geniuses like Stravinsky), these tips can help you write or select great marching band arrangements.

First, let’s describe the music roles of each section (brass, woodwinds, battery, and pit) and how they create the marching band sound.

Brass – In marching band, the brass plays the same role as the string section in an orchestra. They both feature the important ideas of a piece, like melody. If a marching band had to perform with just the brass, the audience would still hear the main musical ideas. Drum corps are a great example and most will agree that the brass is the main ingredient on the marching field.

Woodwinds – Though the brass are the meat and potatoes, woodwinds give us the seasoning and can add an important texture to the music. Flourishes and glisses can add an exclamation to a brass hit while scales, trills and repeating figures can add a secondary texture and add depth.  When doubling the brass or featuring the section, woodwinds can also soften the sound and make everything more intimate.

Battery – The battery is what separates a concert band from a marching band.  The rhythmic complexity featured in the battery adds excitement in a supporting or featured role.

Pit – Like woodwinds, the pit can accent the brass or add texture by using a variety of pitched and non-pitched percussion. As the arranger, this is where you can introduce new sounds and make your arrangements more original.

Here are some orchestration tips for arranging for marching band.

  1. Start with the brass – Starting with the brass ensures that the important “stuff” (melody, harmony, rhythm) gets featured properly.
  2. Have the woodwinds and pit do something else – Doubling the brass with woodwinds only softens the overall sound. This can be counter-intuitive if you think more instruments means a bigger sound. Instead of doubling, give the woodwinds and pit secondary ideas that adds depth and gives the listener more to listen to.
  3. Think gestures before notes – Skim through Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring and notice all the flourishes, accents, and other cool effects he used to orchestrate. I guarantee that he thought of splats, rips, and hits before he knew which scale or chord was going to be used to play them. If you think of gestures while arranging, the notes will come and you’ll have a much more exciting arrangement.
  4. Don’t be afraid of rests – Don’t feel obligated to have every instrument constantly playing.  In addition to fatiguing musicians, it tires out the listeners’ ears as well. Try passing around ideas to different instruments and save the tutti moments for climatic points in the show.
  5. Divisi doesn’t mean louder – Dividing an instrument into two or more parts takes focus away from the top line. If you want a part to cut through the band, have an instrument play in unison (and preferably in the upper-register). Use the woodwinds, pit and other secondary instruments as an alternative way to imply harmony.
  6. Bone placement – Trombones and baritones placed below middle c (first line above the staff in bass clef) fill out the bottom end and create a symphonic sound. Above middle c is more common for jazz arrangements or solos.
  7. Sax doublings – Arrangers have a hard time figuring what to do with saxes, so they double altos with mellophones, tenors with baritones, and baris with tubas. While pairing baris with tubas is good 99-percent of the time, altos and tenors should only double if the mellophones or low-brass are thin. Why? Because woodwinds soften the brass. Altos and tenors are better utilized supporting woodwind textures. If there’s a sax feature, have the altos and tenors play in unison like in jazz band and consider adding the baris 8vb.
  8. Sketch percussion ideas for the drum arranger – It’s important to have pit and battery parts support what’s happening in the winds. Sketching ideas and notes for the drum arranger will glue everything together.  Also, experiment with sounds in the pit and consult with the drum arranger about making sure everything is physically playable by the number of musicians in the pit.

Update: I uploaded a marching band arrangement that I originally composed for wind ensemble called “Western Frontier.” The last 90-seconds of the piece features the main concept of the brass playing the theme and the woodwinds doing something else. The percussion writing is from the original wind ensemble version and can be treated as a detailed sketch for the percussion arranger.

BONUS: You can also hear a 90-second orchestral demo of “Western Frontier,” which applies the same arranging principles as above, but with orchestral instruments.


What about you?
If you already arrange for marching band, what are some of your tricks that make your arrangements stand out?  If you’re a band director, what do you look for when selecting arrangements?

 Jon Manness is an LA-based composer, 8-year drum corps member including Jersey Surf and CrossmenPlease contact Jon if you would like him to arrange for your marching band.

MITO Orchestra Sinfonica RAI

MITO Orchestra Sinfonica RAI
In addition to helping musicians prepare for orchestra auditions, studying orchestral excerpts can also help composers with their orchestrations. These links include excerpts from actual parts as well as accompanying recordings. This is a work in progress! Please contact me if there’s a site I should add.

Scores and Parts

IMSLP (THE place for public domain music)

NY Phil Digital Archives (See the markings of scores and parts from when Leonard Bernstein conducted the orchestra…amazing resource!)

Woodwinds

[Flute, oboe, & clarinet missing…send me links!]

Bassoon http://www.orchestralbassoon.com/excerpt-list/

Bassoon http://www.people.vcu.edu/~bhammel/main/bassoon/excerpts.htm (sheet music only)

Brass

Horn http://www.hornexcerpts.org/

Trumpet http://www.trumpetexcerpts.org/ (Great web design…what inspired me to write this post!)

Trombone http://www.tromboneexcerpts.org/ (Thanks to Karim Elmahmoudi for the link!)

[Tuba missing…send me links!]

Brass http://brassmusician.com/excerpt-library/ (Excerpts for all brass instruments. Work in progress.)

Percussion

[Missing Harp, timpani, snare, and other percussion…send me links!]

Strings

Violin http://www.violinexcerpts.com/orchestral-violin-excerpts-list/

Viola http://violaexcerpts.com/orchestral-viola-excerpts-list/

Cello http://celloexcerpts.com/ (under construction)

[Cello and bass missing…send me links!]

Cheese Soup Recipe by Brian Kelley
Cheese Soup Recipe by Brian Kelley
Cheese Soup Recipe by Brian Kelley

In their book, Rework, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson use chefs as an example of entrepreneurs who share what made them successful. As chefs, they share recipes through cookbooks and cooking shows. Fried and Hansson, who founded web-company 37signals, wrote Rework to share their business secrets.

Here are four ways to share your musical secrets:

1. Share music production tips. 

Did you use a cool music production technique or plugin to create a specific sound? Write a tutorial so that music makers can experiment. Educating will create a loyal audience and keep ’em coming back to learn more.

2. Share sheet music and tabs. 

While musicians with good ears can figure out the chords of a song, you can help the casual musician by creating a lead-sheet or guitar tabs. Since popular songs end up on guitar tab websites anyway, why not beat them to the punch and share them yourself?

3. Let fans remix your music. 

Film composer and NIN frontman Trent Reznor lets his fans remix his music and share their mixes among the NIN community. In order to protect your music, consider adding a Creative Commons license and registering users before downloading audio files.

4. Reveal the process and inspiration behind a song.

Videos and interviews can provide great insight into how and why you wrote the music. Film composer Nathan Johnson created several videos about how he scored the film Looper. The videos were informative and insightful, without being too technical. They also promoted him as a film composer, his soundtrack, and the film all at once.

How about you?

What secrets do you share when promoting your music?

Positioning

Three years ago, I moved to LA to start my film scoring career. For the first two years, landing gigs seemed to be pure luck. Either I knew the right guy to get the gig, or someone randomly reviewed my email submission and checked out my music.

If I was going to survive as a freelance composer, I had to act more like Katniss in The Hunger Games and put “the odds in my favor.” This meant more than just knowing how to compose; it meant understanding people. If I knew what others were thinking or what they were looking for, I could pitch better ideas and improve my chances.

This ability to understand others is called having good interpersonal skills, social skills, or people skills. If you’re like me, having people skills does not come naturally…

Fortunately, there are many books about connecting and communicating with others. These three were recommended by Family Guy composer Ron Jones, who has spent years figuring out how successful leaders got to where they are and how we composers can implement them. [Look for future “Ron Jones Compose Yourself” workshops by visiting http://www.academyofscoringarts.org and “liking” their facebook page.]

Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind (Al Ries and Jack Trout)As a film composer, how does one end up on top of a client’s list? Positioning explains how to promote your strengths and go around bigger competition in order to stand out in the client’s mind. For example, instead of just positioning myself as a “film composer,” I specified my position (or repositioned my brand) as “a new, old-school composer for film & media.” In addition to the tagline, my website features such classic aesthetics as a penciled font, sketch of me conducting an orchestra, as well as orchestral and acoustic music. While the sketch and music represent the old-school, my age and tech-savvy website represent the new. Now when a potential client is looking for a fresh composer who can deliver an orchestral score, my chances of being considered are much better than if I just positioned myself only as a “film composer.”

How to Win Friends & Influence People (Dale Carnegie) & How to Instantly Connect with Anyone (Leil Lowndes)On the personal side, these books taught me to be a better person and not think just about myself. On the professional side, they shifted my thinking from “why you should hire me” to “why hiring me will help you.” I try and apply Carnegie and Lowndes’ concepts at networking events and in emails and phone calls, and my professional relationships have been much more meaningful and consistent.

This is a very small sample of how these books can help composers develop people skills. After reading, figure out how to implement them online and in person. Also think about past opportunities and how people skills played a part in landing the gig.