Too Many Rests

I have a 12 CD collection of band music from J.W.Pepper. Each track starts with an enthusiastic Dick Clark-ish announcer saying things like “You won’t want to miss this harbinger of a piece” or “Your students will LOVE this new work by …” or “From the hear-pounding introduction to the sublime conclusion, you’ll find this work …” After that, a professional sounding band accurately plays the piece for you to audition.

And I’ve always wondered, why do most of the band pieces in these 12 CDs sound the same?  Not with the same melodies or same beats, but with the same sound?

I used to blame the clarinets. If there was ever a section worth blaming, it seemed like it would be the sea of clarinets that every band has. They always seemed like a poor substitute for the violins.

But I’ve since decided differently. After all, the Prescott High School Wind Ensemble has one of the sweetest sounding clarinet sections I’ve come across. When they play in unison, it is like a warm (and in tune!) breath of summer breeze. And when they play harmony and counterpoint … Wow! I would be happy writing for that section alone.

Instead, I’ve uncovered what I believe to be the source of this “sameness” from the feedback forms of the students in the band. Several times during the residency, I handed out feedback forms for the students to fill out. Did you like the piece? (Generally, “Yes.”) Is anything out of your range or too hard? (“The meters are tricky, but that’s easily solved with practice.”) Are there any parts of the piece you don’t like? (“I don’t like rests.”)

And there lies the crux of the matter. Wherever I chose to work in a particular color of the band for a while, those with rests or long sustained notes would complain. (At least one student said, “I don’t like the long notes, but I understand why you put them there.”)

What? I like to have the contrast between the various sections. I like to hear the clarity and beauty of the solo instrument. I like to save the full band effect for climactic moments. And following my “likes” generates a bunch of rests for everybody else. Hence, the complaints.

I can’t help but wonder if many band composers attempt to either (a) please all the students by avoiding too many rests; (b) double everything so that no solos are at risk of being lost by a weak player; or (c) all of the above.

If everybody is always playing at the same time, or even most of the time,  doesn’t the tone color remain pretty much the same? I liken it to taking all of the crayons out of the box and using them all at once, creating … uh … black?

Perhaps my conclusion is not so accurate. Instead, maybe I’ve simply uncovered a common yet irrelevant complaint among band students that your typical band composer does not get to hear, or doesn’t worry about, and hence, does not heed. (Band pieces don’t typically come with feedback forms, do they?) Perhaps the real cause of the “sameness” with your average band piece is something else, and maybe when I hear the final rendition of my piece, I’ll disappointingly conclude, “Hey, it all sounds the same….”  (Hopefully not.)

So, what did I do? Well, I didn’t fill in everybody’s rests. I did give just about every section an opportunity to take the melody, including the low brass. I did double a number of solos (I didn’t want an absent person to leave a gaping hole!). And, I think, I did a pretty good job with this band piece (even if the clarinets thought that their part was a bit too easy).

I get to hear the piece on Monday, after about a week of practicing. I’m pretty excited, and I hope those with too many rests enjoy the opportunity to sit and listen.

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