Even Tanglewood has a band

(note: This post was written in 2005, when I was much more of a sexist asshole. Much of the humor here does not hold up…)

Newman emailed me last night to tell me about this year’s Tanglewood schedule, which he’d picked up over the weekend. One part of Tanglewood is the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, a training program for younger musicians. We’re not sure if this is the first year they’re doing it, but this year, Tanglewood has a band. And they got the master, H. Robert Reynolds, to conduct it. This feels like quite a major stamp of approval from the titan of summer music festivals — and of “shi-shi-la-la Art” in general. As Newman said, “What’s next? The Concertgebouw Marching Cadets?”Band just gets bigger and bigger. Or maybe it’s losing weight, in the superficial sense.

If you’re a composer who grew up wanting to write orchestra music, and you listened to Barber rather than Grainger, you probably start with the attitude that you should be writing orchestra music, and band somehow isn’t the goal. So, you marry Orchestra. Orchestra is hot. Okay, maybe not hot, but at least she’s the kind of hot that you know you should like. At the very least, she’s very pretty. And she’s really, really smart, and speaks, like, seven languages, and she knew everybody (but she only ever wants to talk about Beethoven). But you quickly realize that Orchestra thinks she’s better than you, and she acts like every minute she spends with you is come kind of charity work. You get her gifts, and shower her with attention, but you soon realize that she doesn’t appreciate you at all, and she’s neglectful, and at worst, abusive.

And then one day, you meet Band at a party.

“What do you do?” she asks. “Um, I’m a composer,” you reply, expecting little reaction, but Band lights up and exclaims, “oh my God, that’s HOT! Do you have any music I can play? The newer, the better! Let me get you a drink!”

Band is loud. She’s not quite as pretty as Orchestra, and she’s a bit, shall we say, bigger-boned, but she has that truly “hot” aspect to her that Orchestra never had. And most importantly, Band loves what you do. Whereas it was like pulling teeth to get Orchestra to look at your new music (and if she looked, she was generally not impressed, often comparing you unfavorably to one of her many ex’s — like Dvorak), Band thinks it’s awesome. Band tells you things like “you’re special and perfect and I’ll appreciate you and your music like Orchestra never has, and never will.”

What is Composer supposed to do?! Did I mention how loud and boisterous Band is? (Let’s say she’s a screamer. Totally your type.) You have a blast when you’re with her, and your friends agree that she’s a lot cooler than Orchestra, and they see how she treats you much, much better. How can Composer not be expected to stray?

Luckily for Composer, he figured this out around the age of 30, and not much, much later. He just feels bad for all of the other Composers who haven’t yet caught on and left their dysfuncional, abusive relationships.


Kevin Howlett says

Best. Post. Ever.

Nikk Pilato says

John, you are my hero.

Cellist Caroline says

At least Band doesn't string you along. (ha ha ha ha!! I kill me!)

Martin Seggelke says

This post made my day. Conductor here experienced a very similar thing. Today, conductor happily engages in polygamy with both - and would not want to miss either. Cheers!

marc mumcian says

awesome post! im string bass in LBSU wind symphony and i want to say your piece "turbine" is rad! yay bartok pizz!

Michael says

Oh my goodness- That's Amazing! I have to show that to everyone in my band; they'll all love it!

kaci says

I heard this on 101.1
and it made my day.
I'm a nerd.
but strange humors was my favorite song in the tmea program.
(I played xylophone and whatnot.)

Ria says

Love this! In my opinion though, if composers spend that much time with Band, she can become as pretty as Orchestra... maybe even Orchestra's equal as an art medium in half a century or so. :)

Mark S. says

Orchestra can be absurd sometimes.

Bartok: "Let's see what random crap I can put together and still have a tonal sense"

Stravinsky: "I want this to have no tonal center and cause riots"

Bernstein: "I want to write fake jazz; be the modern Gershwin!"

Copland: "Screw music theory; I'll wirte how I want, and still make it pretty."

Shostakovich: "Stalin hates me. I'll wirte a symphony about it..."

John Adams: "hmmmm....I think this sub-sub-sub-sub-counter melody needs another countermelody..."

Gustav Mahler: "Are you crazy? If I write my 9th symphony I'll die! But if I do write it, I'll be sure to add cowbells."

as opposed to

Ticheli: Hmm....I think a vibraphone will work in this part..."

Persichetti: " You will need 15 different sized snare drums"

John Barnes Chance: "I think I'll have to Flutes trill on C# till the end of the piece."

Balmages: "Hmmm...Fast section followed by a slow section and then....I've got it! Let's have them play the beginning again!"

Robert W. Smith: "I think I'll use the bass line from my 15 other works....Never gets old."

Rob Grice: "As long as it has cabasa, it will work."

Jon Bash says

Ahaha. It's so nice to see such an increasing number of talented composers writing band music these days. Thank you dearly!

I'm playing xylo/vibes on "Undertow" at Western Washington University's symphonic band, and man, is it exciting.

Matt "The Shoe" says

Don't forget about Chamber, that dirty little whore. Chamber is a blitzkrieg quickie that operates under the radar. Just don't let Orchestra or Band see you with Chamber glitter all over. Jealousy will surely ensue.

Gussie Bargeron says

This is amazing.. I love the way you set that up!

This might not be the best place to put this but I can't figure out where else to post this for you...

I wanted to ask if you might help me, but I feel like I should preface with this because while I'm commenting on your blog, I need to tell you this!

I played Kingfishers Catch Fire under Kevin Sedatole at Interlochen Center for the Arts this summer and I can't stop listening to it. It is simply unbelievable. I also got to play Strange Humors at my All-Sate festival. I just feel like your music has become a part of my life and the source of some of my favorite memories :) I've been scoping your site and listening to all of the great music and I'm having a blast!

Now, what I wanted to tell you about or ask, was this: I am part of a trio at my school, we put it together ourselves, it is Flute, Viola and Euphonium, we get together every week and we write our own music. I am currently writing a new piece and I'm stumped! I feel like I'm having trouble developing the sound because it is so sparse with 3 instruments. I always want more and I can't make it happen. I was wondering if you had any sage advice for the young composer :)

Thank you,

JWT says

Great post, John!

Liam says

To post 12

Search very hard right now for either a nice brass player at least one or two and/or ....... dependent on the style of music adding in a pianist to that group could give you a lot to work with, maybe too much.

There's talented musicians almost everywhere dying to play and you have no idea, go snag a few of them!

Megan says

I think I'm just a little late reading this post but I love it! Um... good job. Yeah.

Megan says

I think I'm just a little late reading this post but I love it! Um... Good job.

Megan says

Oops I didn't mean to say that twice I thought it didn't go through. Can't blame me oboe players are idiots

Allison says

For being someone who plays both violin and french horn, all I can say is this is both funny and true.

Love it!

Nadia says

Love it! Thanks for posting that - made my day!

I agree with post 8. That's the aim, isn't it? :-)

Band does have a reputation for being loud, and fast, and extroverted. She just needs to be calmed down a bit, sometimes, (I like the loud and fast - I play piccolo!) so that we can all see her quiet, shy, intimate side a little more often.

Kristina says

I love you :)

Pat Brumbaugh says

LOVE IT!!!!! I've never heard it said better:) Bravo!!!

Phil says


Nieves V. says

Without a doubt, the best comparison between orchestra and band that I have ever heard. Thanks for this description as I couldn't have said it better.

Cornelius Young says

Hi John,

I enjoyed this entry in your blog. I just saw it this morning and I totally agree. Your analogy fits the bill completely. What's amazing is that I asked you this question yesterday at Eastern Michigan University. I love the answer from yesterday too. I have to say that you are remarkably talented. Please continue to write for the band medium. Your music is "HOT"!

Steaksauce67 says

win. this description is just as awesome as when you described writing Undertow at Best of the West (Mesa State, Dec. 2010)

big fan (and fellow Zelda player),


Nicolas Farmer says

Piano is a pretty girl but very moody. Yesterday she was jumping up and down like mad (some idiot nurse injected Liszt into her) and today she wouldn't even laugh at larry the cable guy! (Larry would probably bang on the piano, laugh, and then make a crude joke about what he did) (Piano and I saw some show with him in it, I was too drunk to pay attention to the title) I have a feeling that tomorrow some murderer will come along with scissors and cut he strings, saying,"Screw that classical crap! Rock RULEZ!"

I created the content above as I was writing it. Please don't criticize me if the humor (if any) is stupid.

BTW, any advice for writing a symphony with pencil and paper from blank manuscript paper? I don't believe in composing on a computer. Blank manuscript paper and pencil (quill pen back then) was how it was done.

Steve Davis says


These words, spoken consistently, and with great fervor, as you know, are changing the minds of people, one by one. When composers such as Corigliano, Beaser, Rouse, Chen Yi, Adams, Bolcom, Daugherty, Mobberley, Ticheli, Hartke, and YOU, just to name a few, are all saying the SAME things, perhaps we have garnered much deserved respect.

I pray that each one of us continue down this path, over and over, so that our canon increases in quantity and quality.

THANK YOU for this post. I hope that everyone reads it.

Steve Davis

Matthew Muters says

HEY I laughed so much at this it makes me wish I was a composer just so I could meet my own band at a party but I would probably end up in the corner with the Glee Club trying to come up with a good MashUp of some 80's songs to impress the judges at the next competition. PEACE OUT!

Matthew Harper says

This is beyond true, it's the lifestyle I live everyday as a trumpet player.

You are amazing, John

Evan B. says

Wonderfully said! Couldn't agree more! The more time we composers spend on Band, the more quality literature she'll have to flaunt in front of orchestra!

Conor Safbom says

It sounds like you are just making the point that band music is incredibly easy to write and that composers shouldn't deal with orchestra because it is too nuanced. I don't see why you are trying to divide the music universe in half. Besides, bands in schools receive a lot more notoriety than orchestra kids. If anything, orchestra is the pretty girl in the corner of the bar who is all alone, and band is the harlot in the middle of a pack of interested composers.

Shine says

I like your post. I like music but don't know much about it. But I find your article interesting and funny. :)

Smitty says

Awesome post! I'm a saxophone player primarily. Orchestra won't even let me in.

George says

Frank Battisti was the Founder and Music Director of the Tanglewood Institute’s Young Artists Wind Ensemble from 2000 - 2004.

Jami Hockensmith says

Just made my evening. I'm a percussionist... so orchestra either ignores me all together or gives me tiny little statements every now and then, for fear that if I get a bigger say, I'll stomp all over the piece. *sigh*

Louis T. says

i don't like this at all (yes i am and orchestra person) but i don't understand how orchestra doesn't accept the dude, and i don't understand how band does? if anything both groups should accept the dude. i mean seriously wheres the equality in this? I DO NOT UNDERSTAND WHY THERE HAS TO B A BIG LINE DIVIDING THE 2 GROUPS.

Bob says

That's Awesome! Probably the best way I can think of to explain that. Right on! Unless, you can go with both... that's the hottest of all!

Tom H. says

Indeed, Band may not be the prettiest girl at the ball...but she's got it where it counts. I play the bari sax with a community concert band and have been doing so for the past 10 years and will continue to do so for as long as I can. There's one thing I haven't seen yet...community orchestra. I guess Orchestra thinks she's too good for that sort of thing. ;)

Right now I get the privilege of playing Xerxes with the band and it is just awesome! I just love the groove of the bass line. I've shared with my conductor more of your works for concert band and sure do hope to perform them someday.

Rebecca says

As both a band and orchestral player, I have to say I agree! The only thing better than the wind section of an orchestra is a band itself. Orchestra just doesn't get that intense power that band does! We have a little more fun too I believe ;)

Elizabeth de Brito says

Thank you John Mackey for vocalising in a perfect analogy what everyone who plays in a band thinks. I'm a clarinet player, I've played in several bands and orchestras and Bands are way cooler.

Not that I don't appreciate orchestral music but generally woodwind and brass parts in orchestra, especially clarinet, are very limited. Bands offer so much more scope for wind players, more potential and better demonstration of the skills and the various timbres the wind section can create. We can also play quietly on occasion in between being loud and boisterous.

I started writing a blog about wind band music 2 weeks ago, promoting it because not nearly enough people know about it, it's almost completely ignored in Britain and near impossible to find recordings, so I'm making a project to create a definitive, fun database of pieces, composers and resources to find wind band music. The address is: http://windbandwonderland.wordpress.com

I'd be honoured to hear your thoughts

I would love to put this quote on one of my main pages if you wouldn't mind. I've heard your Kingfisher's Catch Fire piece, it's incredible. Until I read the program notes I thought the 2nd movement sounded like lots of kingfishers flying above the water, trying to catch fish. I love it and I'm writing a post about the piece right now. It's the first piece of yours I've listened to, I plan to find more very soon. Thanks again for that analogy :)

Joseph Talleda says

Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears...

It's easy to poke fun at the majority-mindedness of band, and yet the band score has really come into its own in recent years, as witness the work of Maslanka, Ticheli, and other composers. Scholars have drawn attention to the entrance into the repertoire of symphonies for band, and it is unsound, I think, to ignore the phenomenon.

One might, then, echo a remark often attributed to the French mathematician Fontenelle in saying: "Que me veux-tu, orchestre d'harmonie?"

Rick Harrison says

The only thing I hold against the genre of band music is that when I was in school, we didn't have an orchestra- I was a hopeful young violinist, and when it came time for middle school, I was disappointed that there was no string orchestra or similar outlet for string players. I was forced to learn the saxophone to play in the band, which don't get me wrong, was fun. I still play today, but I wish that schools nowadays would provide orchestra so that those who wish to learn a string instrument (or those who DO play a string instrument) could have a medium to perform through without having to find a youth orchestra or something similar.

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