From an early age, many band students are drilled in the “Pyramid of Sound” model for achieving a properly balanced ensemble sound. This model was perhaps most prominently championed by the prominent band composer and conductor W. Francis McBeth (1933-2012) and is used by band conductors throughout the United States. When rightly applied, the Pyramid of Sound is an effective tool for balancing not just concert bands, but practically any type of ensemble. The concept is very simple: the lowest instruments and parts in the group should be loudest, forming a foundation upon which higher parts build, becoming progressively softer until the highest notes are played most softly. Because human beings tend to perceive high pitches more readily than low ones, ensembles that are balanced in this way tend to have pleasing sounds where all parts are easily heard.
So far, so good, but difficulties arise when students try to apply this concept in situations where it is not appropriate, such as in solo playing or even in soloistic passages in ensembles. Think about most melodies you know. The highest notes tend to be the climactic ones, so the best phrasing occurs when the lower notes at the beginning of the phrase are softer, then crescendo to the higher notes, and diminuendo again as the phrase concludes or resolves. Sometimes a slight increase in tempo is appropriate when moving higher, as well, and then a corresponding slight decrease in tempo to bring the phrase into balance metrically. While this might sound like common sense, low brass students that have had the Pyramid of Sound preached to them their entire musical lives will sometimes instinctively soften on the highest notes and then get louder on the lowest notes, even when good phrasing would dictate the opposite. Because of their supporting roles in most ensemble situations, low brass students just beginning applied study are often inexperienced at playing and interpreting melodies and simply bring the approach they have used in their bands to solo literature, phrasing studies, etc. The resulting interpretations are not just strange—they are exactly backwards!
Happily, through instruction, demonstration, and patient reassurance that it really is okay to forgo the Pyramid of Sound in the right situations, most students quickly figure out a better approach to shaping melodies. I will usually illustrate this to them by drawing the above Pyramid diagram and labeling it “for ensemble playing,” and then place another, much simpler diagram alongside it, labeled “for solo playing.” That diagram looks something like this. It is simple, but effective.
Many great bands and their directors are devotees of the Pyramid of Sound, and when rightly applied this approach leads to warm, beautiful, yet clear sounds. But accompanying material is one thing; melodic and soloistic lines are another. In those cases, the Pyramid must be abandoned in favor of the Line.
As a high school and undergraduate student, I made it a particular goal to “pass off” as many studies and etudes as possible in my trombone and euphonium lessons. I prepared as much material as I could each week, and took great delight in seeing my teachers write a new “X” or check mark next to a number. I even set a personal goal of working through all 120 Bordogni/Rochut etudes before finishing my bachelor’s degree, and did so, though I sometimes wondered if my teacher allowed me to sacrifice a bit of accuracy in the interest of covering a greater breadth of material.
When I was auditioning for graduate programs, I was able to observe the man who would be my next trombone teacher working with a student or two, and noticed that he was the kind of person who absolutely would not, if you will pardon the pun, “let things slide.” In time, I found him to be quite willing to spend an entire lesson on a single phrase or even a few notes. Despite my love for checkmarks, I knew this to be the kind of teacher that I needed at the time, and was glad when I was offered a teaching assistantship at that school. I later worked with the tuba-euphonium teacher there, as well, and found him to be somewhere between the two extremes represented by my other teachers. This is more or less where I have landed. My students typically move through instructional repertoire more slowly with me than they might have with my undergraduate teacher, but more quickly than they would have than my graduate trombone teacher. In fact, students who have had lessons with me and with any of my teachers have remarked that I remind them of the one they know. To hear from others that I am an average of my influences as a teacher is not surprising; I hope it means I am doing something right.
My thinking about this today was prompted by a student who asked a thoughtful question during his lesson yesterday. While he was appropriately respectful in his way of asking, he was bothered by the fact that we did not pass off material more quickly in our lessons, and wondered if he could—should he succeed in building a studio of his own one day—find a way to move faster. Of course, this depends largely on the student. Indeed, this particular student took longer to master new material at first; he is moving through repertoire more quickly this year than in the past. However, it also depends on one’s objective in working through etudes and study material. What are these materials for, anyway?
One purpose of etude books is certainly to read and master as much material as possible in the lessons. Perhaps there would be some benefit to limiting our studies to fundamental exercises, scale and arpeggio patterns, and performance repertoire (solos and excerpts); we would be able to cover more solo repertoire, anyway. However, working through one or two—or even three or four—solo pieces in a semester would not expose students to the breadth of ideas and styles provided by a greater number of studies and etudes. Music majors in my studio typically have four method books assigned to them at any given time: one for technique, one for phrasing, one for clefs (trombone, euphonium) or low/valve register (tuba, bass trombone), and one for “synthesis.” In a good week, we get to two of these plus fundamental studies and a solo piece. Could we go faster? Possibly, but not without sacrificing accuracy and, more importantly, interpretation.
The best method books are more than mere technical studies. I do my best to select materials that offer at least some degree of musical depth in addition to the obvious technical requirements. While it would be easy to “check off” an etude played more-or-less accurately without “digging a little deeper,” exploring good music at greater depth is almost always worth the extra time, even if that means that in the end we don’t move through the repertoire as quickly.
So, what is the goal of method book study? Are we looking simply to “pass off” as much material as possible as quickly as possible, or are we more concerned about developing concepts and ideas than about “pass-offs.” In other words, are we more concerned with breadth or with depth? I’m still not sure I know the answer. I’ll admit that I get almost as much satisfaction marking a completed etude in a student’s book as I did from receiving such marks myself, but I would find it much less satisfying if I thought that important underlying concepts were left unaddressed, or if there were simply still too many wrong notes present.
I suppose I come down on the side of “concepts over checkmarks,” but I am happiest when a student gets both.
Every music teacher understands and emphasizes the importance of regular individual practice for students’ growth and development. There is a particular joy that comes from working with a student who is consistently well-prepared, demonstrating steady and sometimes rapid growth. Lessons with these students go quickly and feel effortless for the teacher, as the quality of playing seems to generate more ideas to promote further growth. On the other hand, there is a particular disappointment that comes from working with a student who is consistently unprepared. Here, the lessons are marked by frustration and repetition of previously unheeded suggestions, and time moves excruciatingly slowly for both teacher and student.
Even though those two types of lessons are polar opposites, they are both in one sense simple to teach and to evaluate. One has little difficulty figuring out how to best approach working with both well-prepared and ill-prepared students. The challenge comes from the student who claims to be practicing regularly—and perhaps can even prove this by means of practice logs or even recordings—but is not exhibiting the kind of improvement that such practice should engender. What does the teacher do to help this type of student?
Obviously, the first step is to make sure that the claimed amount of practice is actually occurring. Students sometimes overestimate the amount of practice that is taking place, or confuse “time in the practice room” with “productive time in the practice room.” In other cases, the practice is unproductive because of some kind of technical deficiency, perhaps from an incorrect fundamental approach or even failure to engage in daily and systematic practice of playing fundamentals. Such issues, once identified, are often simple (though not always easy) to address.
A very common issue with practicing-but-not-growing students is a lack of internal musical concept. I have sometimes called this concept “how it goes,” and wrote about this at some length several years ago. I’ll not repeat all of the material from that article here, but I will suggest a way to identify students who may be having difficulties in this area. Students who lack a solid internal musical concept will struggle when playing alone, as they engage in a constant “play and evaluate” process, always waiting until after the note sounds to determine whether or not it was correct. These same students, though, will show immediate improvement when playing along with the teacher—and not just because the teacher’s sound is covering theirs. Rather, these students have practiced enough that when the teacher is providing a musical concept for them to emulate, they can do so with relative success. Removal of that external concept usually leads to a partial or total relapse to the prior level of playing. Such students should be advised to follow a process like that outlined in the article linked above.
Amusingly, this concept bears a passing similarity to the “Think System” promoted by the fictional conman Harold Hill in the musical The Music Man. In the musical, the “Professor” aims to defraud the citizens of River City, Iowa, of their money under the pretense of forming a boys’ band, and goes so far as to order instruments for them. However, having no musical training whatsoever, Hill does not hold rehearsals but rather encourages the boys to “think” the Minuet in G, and plans to skip town with the money before the first concert. I’ll leave it to the reader to watch and find out what happens. Suffice it to say that while the “Think System” absolutely cannot work as a standalone approach to learning music, even the most diligent and systematic technical practice will not yield satisfactory results until one “thinks” about “how it goes.”
Today I am reposting, for the tenth year, one of the more popular articles on this blog. With high school students preparing for auditions for all-state groups and similar ensembles around this time of year, posting this article every fall seems appropriate.
Let me also remind Mississippi band students that I have created a series of videos specifically related to preparing low brass players to audition for the Mississippi Lions All-State Band, which appear in the YouTube playlist below. I began creating these videos over nine years ago now, and while I have recently begun updating and replacing some of the older videos there is a mix of very recent recordings and older ones. All of the information remains relevant to the current audition format; the newer videos simply have a somewhat higher recording quality.
While some of the material below repeats information covered in these videos, the ideas here are intended to be more broadly applicable, both to students that play other instruments and to those taking auditions in other states. Teachers, please feel free to share these ideas with your students if you think they will be helpful.
1. Keep your instrument in optimum working condition. This should be obvious, but often a student’s playing is hindered by a slide that doesn’t move well, frozen piston valves, noisy rotary valves, etc. If your instrument has a problem of some kind, have your band director or private teacher check it. Perhaps all that is needed is a thorough cleaning, or a minute adjustment. If your teacher is unable to resolve the problem, take your instrument to be serviced by a qualified technician.
When your instrument is in good working order, make sure to clean and lubricate it regularly. Often mechanical problems that can “make or break” an audition are the result of a lack of proper care and maintenance, and these always seem to occur at the most inopportune times. Regular maintenance will not only prevent damage, but will make your instrument easier and more fun to play, help your practice sessions to be more productive, and very likely lead to success in the audition.
2. Practice. Every day. When you’re not practicing, one of your competitors is. The students that earn the top chairs in all-state auditions have a disciplined and consistent approach to practice, often practicing for 10 to 15 hours per week (or about 1.5 to 2 hours per day), if not more. I recommend conceiving of your practice time in terms of a weekly schedule rather than a daily one, as this has the advantage of allowing you to plan for days that you might not be able to practice as much (because of band festivals, extra homework, church activities, etc.) and compensate by practicing more on the days when you have more time available. Do make sure that you do at least some practicing every day, though. Even 10-20 minutes on an extremely busy day is better than nothing.
3. Begin each day with a thorough warm-up/maintenance routine. Some time each day should be spent on playing fundamentals, including breathing exercises, mouthpiece buzzing exercises, long tones, articulation exercises, lip slurs, and range extension exercises. Make sure that you have some way of systematically addressing each of these areas every day, seeking to both maintain and extend your fundamental playing skills. Some routines that I have constructed for this purpose can be found here.
4. Spend 20-50% of your practice time on playing fundamentals. Continuing with the previous thought, the ideal “warm-up” routine contains much more material than the body needs to be ready to play a band rehearsal or even give a concert. Rather, successful players spend a significant portion of their practice time working on fundamental skills like those mentioned above. In my own playing I have found that the more time I spend on developing fundamental playing skills, the less time I need to spend in order to prepare actual repertoire for performance or auditions. And, since these fundamental skills apply to essentially every piece of music, I do not have to “reinvent the wheel” every time I learn a new piece. Instead, I am able to quickly discern what skills and techniques are needed for a given piece and immediately apply them, thus greatly reducing the amount of practice needed to learn and master a new piece of music. This means that I am able to cover a very large amount of music in each practice session.
When you are preparing for an important audition or performance, aim for spending at least 20% of your practice time (approximately 12 minutes of a one-hour practice day or 24 minutes of a two-hour practice day) on fundamentals. If you have nothing “big” coming up, consider spending as much as 50% of your practice time on fundamentals. This can seem repetitive at times, but it pays huge dividends for your playing in the future!
5. Play everything with the best sound you can produce. Ambitious high school students tend to place a lot of emphasis on range and speed; to use a common expression, playing “higher, faster, and louder.” This tendency is not altogether bad, as one of the purposes of activities like all-state auditions is to push students to extend their technical capabilities on their instruments. However, it is easy to forget that none of these things really matter if one plays with a poor or uncharacteristic tone.
I often illustrate this concept to my students by playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” on the trombone. By most accounts, this is a difficult technical feat. The first time I play it, I play with a good, characteristic trombone sound, and students are usually quite impressed. But then I play it a second time, this time with an extremely poor sound. I’m playing just as quickly, double-tonguing just as much, and moving the slide just as accurately, and yet students usually find this second performance to be rather unimpressive. Nobody cares how “high, fast, and loud” you can play if your sound is poor.
Make a concerted effort to play everything with the best sound you can produce. Even scales can sound great, and since scales are usually the first things played in an audition, you can set a positive tone (sorry) for the entire audition by playing them with a good sound. Then maintain that great sound through the prepared pieces and sight reading. This will certainly improve your score for the entire audition.
6. Memorize your scales, and practice them at least once per day. They have to be automatic! Scales are a big part of every all-state audition, and yet they are so often played poorly. Successful students memorize all of their scales (this is required in most states, including Mississippi, but some states allow the use of a scale sheet during the audition, unfortunately). If you don’t have your scales memorized yet, make this a priority—you don’t want to enter the audition room still unsure about one or more of the required scales.
When the audition is several weeks or even months away, it is helpful to practice your scales slowly, in order to foster playing with a great tone quality (see above), and playing in tune. As you increase in proficiency, keep working to play faster, but if intonation or tone quality begin to suffer, return to practicing slowly. The goal is to play fast, AND in tune, AND with a good sound.
Most band students are more familiar with the “flat” scales than with the “sharp” scales. This makes sense, as most band music is written in “flat keys” (at least when referring to concert pitch). If you are having trouble with certain keys, then practice those scales twice as much as the ones with which you are more familiar. When you walk into the audition room, you want to be equally comfortable—or at least sound like you are equally comfortable—with every scale.
Regarding range, in some states all students play each scale in the same prescribed range. In others (including Mississippi), students are rewarded for pursuing extra octaves. If yours is a “prescribed range” state, then make sure you can play all of the scales in the prescribed range. Playing less than that will result in a huge deduction from your score. If your state rewards extra octaves, then play as many octaves as you can in the allotted time, but do not attempt range that you cannot play well every time. Hearing a student “nail” a “high R-sharp” is always impressive, and that student will earn a high score. However, the student that strains and reaches for that “R-sharp” might have scored better had he stuck with a range he could play well.
7. Know the definitions of all of the musical terms in your etudes. Musical instructions are usually written in Italian, sometimes in German, and sometimes in French. Rarely are these instructions written in English. And yet, those listening to your playing will expect you to know what the terms in at least your prepared pieces mean, and to observe them in your performance. There is no excuse for ignoring these terms, and yet I have listened to auditions in which 70% or more of the students completely ignored one or more terms, and as a result gave performances that were wildly “off the mark.” If you want to earn a high score, follow the instructions, regardless of the language in which those instructions are written. To do even better, try to memorize a large number of common terms, so that you can also correctly observe any markings in the sight reading part of the audition.
By the way, “in the old days” we had to purchase music dictionaries in order to look up the meanings of musical terms, and sometimes we had to refer to Italian-English dictionaries, for example, in order to find more obscure terms. Today, you can quickly and easily find the definition of any term simply by “Googling it.” In short, there is no excuse. Know what terms mean, and do what they say!
8. Use a metronome, and practice your scales and etudes both slower and faster than the prescribed tempos. These days, there is no excuse for not owning and using a metronome in one’s daily practice. Not only can simple metronomes be purchased inexpensively at most music stores, but also cheap or free metronome programs can be found to work with computers, smartphones, or tablets. I recommend using the metronome not only to foster correct rhythm and timing when practicing scales and etudes at the prescribed tempos, but also to enable systematic practice at both slower and faster tempos. The process I use is as follows:
First, practice materials at 50% of the indicated tempo. This is for the purpose of working out fingerings, articulations, and tone quality without the pressures created by playing faster. For etudes that are already slow, practicing at half tempo will foster better phrasing. Try to phrase in the same way and breathe in the same places as you would when playing at tempo. You will then have a much easier time making your phrases when you resume playing faster.
Second, practice at 75% of the indicated tempo. This provides a convenient “halfway point” between the slower tempo you practiced before and the tempo for which you are striving.
Third, practice at the indicated tempo. Having followed the two steps indicated above, you will find that playing at tempo will be much easier for you than if you had begun by practicing this quickly. Continue using the metronome to ensure that you are counting and keeping time accurately.
Fourth, practice at 125% of the indicated tempo. This is especially helpful for the scales and faster etudes. This tempo will feel extremely fast, and even frantic, but still attempt it, even if you are never able to make your playing as clean as you would like at this tempo.
Finally, return to the indicated tempo. Having worked out notes, fingerings, tone, tuning, and phrasing at slower tempos, and then at least tried to master the necessary technique at faster tempos, playing at tempo will feel balanced, even, and relatively relaxed. Alternate playing with and without the metronome for this step.
Not all of these steps need to be completed each day, particularly as you become more proficient at playing your scales and etudes, but these are necessary when first beginning work on your audition materials, and later on are still useful for occasional “refreshers.”
9. Mark your breaths. One helpful practice that is neglected by many students is that of planning and marking breaths. While you will be playing your scales from memory, go ahead and practice breathing at the same place(s) every time you play a given scale.
In the prepared pieces, make a clear mark at the places where you know you will breathe, and then some smaller markings in parentheses in places where you can breathe “if you have to.” By planning your breaths and then breathing in the same places every time you practice your scales and etudes, you will deliver a more consistent and pleasing musical result, and will also take an important step toward mitigating the effects of nervousness. Because you will have practiced breathing—deeply—in the same places each time, when you are in the audition room you will be likely to continue breathing deeply in those places, rather than taking unplanned and shallow breaths as people tend to do when they are “on edge.”
In order to determine where to breathe, sit down with your prepared pieces and a pencil, without your instrument. Note the places where musical phrases end (look for the ends of phrase markings or slurred lines in particular), and mark breaths in those places, as well as during any rests. In short, figure out where the music itself indicates pauses, and plan to breathe in those places. If this yields too few breaths, or if you are afraid you might need some “extra,” mark additional possible breaths in parentheses. Because you are using pencil, you can always erase and adjust your planned breathing if necessary, but by planning breaths without your instrument you are allowing the music to determine where you breathe, rather than your subjective “felt need” for air. This will yield a very mature and pleasing performance.
10. Don’t practice something until you get it right once. Practice it until you can’t get it wrong! As an applied lesson teacher, I can easily tell when a student has not practiced, but I can also tell when a student has practiced something until he “got it right once.” This student will play with a good tone quality and pretty good technique that are indicative of regular practice, but when playing scales, etudes, and solo literature he will make interesting mistakes. When questioned, he will say that he made that same mistake repeatedly when practicing. Immediately, I am aware that the student practiced that etude at least three times each day, making the mistake twice, and “getting it right” the third time. What’s the problem with this? The student has practiced playing incorrectly twice as many times as he has practiced playing correctly!
When preparing for the audition, don’t run through troublesome passages until you play them correctly one time—repeat those passages until you get them right five or even ten times successively. By doing this, you will make a habit of playing these passages correctly, instead of having to address the same mistakes each time you practice.
11. Sight read something every day. The sight reading portion of the audition is the scariest part for many students, largely because it is the most “unknown” element of the audition. While it would be impossible to prepare for the specific piece that you will encounter during the sight reading portion of a given audition, you can greatly improve your chances of succeeding at this part simply by sight reading something each day. There are a number of books available with short etudes designed for sight reading practice, and I have even recommended a few of them, but the main thing is that you find unfamiliar music of a variety of styles, time signatures, key signatures, tempos, and levels of difficulty, and sight read as much of it as you can. This will make you more familiar and comfortable with the process. Make sure also that you have a teacher or some other knowledgeable individual listen to your sight reading from time to time, to make sure that you aren’t making any unnoticed mistakes.
12. Get a private teacher. Even the best band director has too many obligations, too little time, and not enough expertise on every instrument to effectively coach all of his or her students for all-state auditions. If at all possible, arrange for regular lessons with a private teacher that is knowledgeable about your instrument and the audition process. This person will help you to put the ideas listed here as well as other helpful concepts into practice, and will (provided that you follow his or her instructions) greatly increase your chances of playing a successful audition. Ask your band director for names and contact information of qualified teachers in your area. You might also look for professors and students at nearby universities and community colleges, and perhaps even professional players if you live near a large city.
An added benefit of private instruction is that your teacher’s ideas will apply not only to the immediate goal of making the all-state band, but to making you a better player overall. If you want to continue playing in college—and particularly if you want to major in music—this extra help might literally “pay off” in the form of higher band scholarship offers.
13. Dress for the occasion. One change in the culture of auditions that I have observed over the past fifteen years or so is the increasing informality of dress among students auditioning. When I was a high school student, it was not unusual for young men to wear a shirt and tie and perhaps a sport coat for auditions and for young women to wear a blouse and skirt or even a dress. In recent years, I have noticed more and more students auditioning wearing jeans and t-shirts—and not even their “good” jeans and t-shirts! This is not a positive development, in my opinion.
The way that you dress communicates something about the seriousness with which you take a given endeavor. When you make an effort to “dress up” for an occasion, you communicate to others (and yourself) that you believe you are doing something important. When I serve as an audition judge, a student that walks into the room smartly dressed communicates to me that he takes his playing seriously, and before the first note is played, I have unconsciously begun to form positive expectations about how that student will perform. Conversely, a student with a slovenly appearance communicates a negative image, and my expectations are likewise negative. That might not seem fair, but judges are human, and will inevitably form first impressions of some kind. Make sure you the impression you make is a good one!
By the way, this counsel even applies in the case of blind auditions (those in which the judges cannot see the student auditioning). While it might seem absurd to dress up when those evaluating your playing will not be able to see you, there is something to be said for how your dress affects your own self-perception and carriage. By dressing well for the audition, you are mentally preparing yourself for the important task at hand, and you will be more likely to conduct yourself throughout the process in a manner most conducive to playing a great audition.
14. Be confident. Part of playing a successful audition is carrying yourself and then playing in a confident manner. If you have prepared diligently for the audition, you have no reason not to be sure about yourself and your playing, and your entire presentation, from the way you dress (see above) to the way you play each of the required items should communicate confidence and poise. While this may not directly impact your score, self-assured students to tend to play better, which does have a direct impact on the final score.
Perhaps you are like me, and inevitably have a greater or lesser degree of “butterflies in your stomach” every time you play a high-stakes audition or performance. In such situations, you feel anything but confident! If this describes you, you might find it helpful to “fake it.” Put on an air of confidence, even though you don’t feel that way at all. Not only will your judges view your playing in a more positive light, but you might find that by feigning self-confidence you “psych yourself in” to actually being more confident, and thus playing better.
15. Have FUN!!! Auditions are nerve-racking experiences, and the entire process—from practice and preparation to the audition day itself—can become anything but fun. In such situations, it is easy to forget that one of the main reasons we took up playing our instruments in the first place was the enjoyment that our playing provides to ourselves and others. Make sure that you include something “fun” in your practice time each day, and as you prepare the “hard stuff,” keep the end goal of the audition in mind. Performing great music at a high level with students that take music seriously is an exciting and fun experience afforded to relatively few high school band members. The hard work required to get there is worth it!
I have been arranging solo and chamber music for low brass instruments for almost my entire teaching career. As is true of just about everything I do as a teacher, my reasons for doing this have been mostly practical. The typical scenario is that I see a need for a particular piece or type of piece either for my own performances or for my students, I search for an already-existing publication that fulfils that need, and when I fail to find something suitable, I set about creating an arrangement myself. I’ve become fairly adept at this, and currently have over 30 arrangements in print. Most of these have been published by Cimarron Music Press, but I also have published with Potenza Music and TAP Music. While publication has always been a secondary goal for my arranging work and yields an extremely small amount of extra income, it has provided an extra “feather in my cap” when applying for promotion and tenure. I also like to think that others have found my work useful over the years.
I am speaking entirely of arranging—taking already existing music and adapting it to the medium of my choice—as opposed to composition, which is creating an entirely new work. I have yet to try my hand at the latter in any serious way, but maybe one day. One potential obstacle when one decides to engage in arranging is copyright, as works composed after 1924 (why that is the year is a very long story) are generally still under copyright protection and their composers (or the present copyright owners) entitled to royalties for each copy sold. While many composers, songwriters, and publishers are happy to grant permission to create new arrangements of their works, they do demand appropriate fees, and with the already razor-thin margins in music publication, publishers are often unwilling to publish arrangements when they will be responsible for paying royalties to copyright holders in addition to the arranger. To avoid all this, I have thus far chosen to limit my arranging work to pieces no longer under copyright protection.
Some of my favorite older pieces to appropriate for low brass are from the Baroque era. This introduces a peculiar difficulty: figured bass realization. Figured bass is a sort of shorthand used by composers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when composing accompanying parts for keyboard or sometimes plucked string instruments. The practice was to write the bass line only, and then to include indications regarding how the rest of the chord should be realized by providing numbers and symbols indicating the intervals to be played above the bass notes. In some respects, this was not unlike the chord changes seen in jazz and other improvisatory idioms today, and indeed well-known composers and keyboard players such as J.S. Bach (1685-1750) were widely regarded as skilled improvisers.
While figured bass is typically studied in college and university music theory courses, reading and interpreting these markings in real time during performances is a skill that has largely fallen by the wayside. Therefore, modern publications of these works even for their originally intended instruments typically include a complete keyboard part with the figured bass realized by an arranger or editor. Those preparing to arrange Baroque music for low brass instruments should be aware that while the pieces themselves are in the public domain, the figured bass realizations in more recent editions are not. To avoid running afoul of copyright law, a new figured bass realization must be created as part of the arranging process. Even without the legalities involved, this is usually still a good idea so that one can ensure that the accompanying part is most suitable for the new instrumentation.
Of course, it is one thing to correctly realize figured bass. It is another thing entirely to interestingly realize figured bass. My own skills in this area have certainly grown over the past 15 years or so. My very first published arrangement of a Baroque solo piece was a G.P. Telemann (1681-1767) bassoon sonata that is commonly performed in its original key by trombone and euphonium players. I thought moving it into a different key would make the fingering more amenable to CC tuba, and created a tuba arrangement in that key. This has been a successful arrangement and is still in print, but the keyboard part (which does not include the figures) is rather simplistic, though functional. I’m sure good pianists embellish this one a bit, which is entirely appropriate.
Fast-forward 6-7 years, and we come to this example from my setting of the J.E. Galliard (1687-1747) bassoon sonatas for bass trombone or tuba. Here the figures are included, and the right-hand keyboard part has more melodic interest.
My current project is creating a new bass trombone/tuba edition of the Benedetto Marcello (1686-1769) cello sonatas. The right-hand piano parts are still more inventive. While their function is primarily harmonic, there are little countermelodies and other motives to create interest.
While it is correct to say that my figured bass realization has improved due to having more experience with it, as I reflect on this evolution over the past fifteen years, I can identify a key difference in my approach to this task. In my early efforts I was thinking of the music almost entirely vertically, worrying only about writing the “right chords” over each marking. At some point, I began thinking more horizontally, imagining in greater detail the interplay between the solo and accompanying lines. At its best, the writing process has come to feel a bit like “improvisation in slow motion.” This has led to more interesting and, I hope, more idiomatic parts for the keyboard player in these arrangements, as well as a more enjoyable experience for me both writing and performing.
One of the dangers of formal music study is that we can become so concerned about things like technical execution and chordal analysis that they forget to simply “make music.” While accuracy is important, flow and direction are important also. This is obviously true in performance, but I have discovered that it is true in writing and arranging, as well.