Grade 3 = difficult

I’m chugging away on a new piece — a piece for young bands (like, middle school band).  In “the biz” (I’ve always wanted to use the wonderfully-pretentious term “the biz”), this level of music is called a “Grade 3.”  There are either five or six grade levels — depending on whom you ask — that indicate level of difficulty.  A Grade 1 piece would be for players who can play a Bb (I don’t mean they can play in Bb, I mean they can play a Bb); a Grade 6 would be something like “Turbine.”  (After hearing Steve Bryant’s new “Concerto for Wind Ensemble” — perhaps the most difficult work I’ve ever heard for winds — I think somebody is going to have to allow a new Grade 7 ranking.)

I tried writing a Grade 3 piece about a year ago, and I failed miserably.  I put it in an awful key (A minor), and even though it was all in 4/4, there was so much dissonance that I think it was pretty much impossible to ever get a middle school band to play the thing in tune.  (I don’t know for sure; I’ve never actually heard a recording of the piece, and I probably never will, as I won’t be releasing the piece.)  The whole thing ended up sounding like a dirge — and writing it was a real slog, so it’s not surprising that the end result ended up as such a downer.

Well, I’m at it again.  The new piece (like most of my music) comes from an idea of AEJ’s.  She thought it would be an exciting revelation for a percussionist when they first realize that they aren’t limited to playing snare drum and bass drum and cymbals.  At some point, they’ll actually be expected to find non-traditional instruments, too.  Why not write a piece for young players that’s designed to introduce percussionists to that reality?  A piece with lots of “found” percussion.

Initially, I was going to be specific about what I wanted the players to find, but a few weeks ago, I read about an old piece by Magnus Lindberg.  Lindberg, in his orchestra piece, “Kraft,” describes sounds that the percussionists must produce, but doesn’t tell the players exactly how to make those sounds.  The players are directed to find materials (often at a junk yard), and every performance of the piece will sound a little different because the instruments will be different.

I’m going to go kind of midway on that.  I’m going to describe what kinds of sounds I want (“a metallic ‘clang,’ with quick decay”), but I’ll also give a specific example of an “instrument” that might produce the sound I’m after (“such as a brake drum with a heavy piece of metal on top”).  Hopefully the players will be creative enough to try to find alternatives, but if creativity isn’t their thing, they can use my example.

The result, so far, sounds like a simpler version of “Asphalt Cocktail” (perhaps a “Virgin Cocktail?”), but as performed in a machine shop.  It’s HVAC duct parts, pans, a box cheese grater (or a guiro, if you must), and steel rails and pipes, all with power chords on top.  It can be played by anywhere from 8-12 percussionists.

The biggest challenge in writing music for young bands is writing music that easy, but it doesn’t sound simplistic or dorky.  It still needs to sound like I wrote it, but it needs to sound like the piece just happened to be technically easy — as if it happened by accident.   (“Oops!  I accidentally wrote an easy piece!  How did that happen?”)  I think it’s turning out pretty well this time around, but we’ll see how difficult the piece turns out once it’s done.  So far, it’s all in 4/4, just about entirely diatonic in G Minor (looks like Bb major!), and with nothing faster than an 8th-note.

On Facebook this morning, I mentioned the difficulty associated with writing “easy” music.  (It’s appropriate that I’m discussing the process on Facebook, since I funded this entire commission via a consortium organized through a Facebook post.)  In response to my post, fellow-composer Bruce Richardson wrote the following response:

Easy music is a trap, because it’s the hardest to play. There isn’t really even any such thing as easy music. That’s why most times a decent high school band will sound semi-good playing upper grade literature, and will utterly fold on something like Elsa’s Procession.

Basic craft aside, getting one’s voice on paper requires a suspension of consideration for the player. The player must also suspend a certain amount of consideration for the score, because a true player expresses only himself, through the vehicle of a piece.

When you’re dealing with people who write well, and play well, this synergy results in the uplifting of both player and composer. The composer hears his idea taking birth, that is, developing a life of its own he could not have conceived. The player is programmed at a basic level by the composition, but then enters the realm of performance and risk, and makes split second decisions along the way that result in performances we call “inspired,” that is, transcending what anyone, including the player, could have intended.

So, when you’re applying an artificial construct (in this case, music education) to that composer/player agreement, it changes everything. That’s where things get trite, because it makes the composer’s job different. Do you write a pure piece that might be hard, and pixelate it in a manner of speaking? Certainly that’s how orchestral reductions are handled at times, and it works to a degree.

I would speculate that perhaps the most useful Grade 3 pieces would be written in such a way that they “hook” the technical and emotional ability of the player of that age, so that with the tools he has, he can perform the music the same way a professional does…by taking his current toolset, and plunging into the act of musicmaking.

That’s why I’m always a little sad to hear some superhuman middle school band playing the Persichetti symphony, or Lincolnshire Posy. To borrow a phrase, it doesn’t smell like teen spirit.

So, there’s the challenge: taking the “current toolset” a young player possesses, and giving them material that allows the player to make actual music.  Jeez, good luck.  I don’t know if I’ll reach that lofty goal, but whatever happens, we’ll know around December 1.  That’s my deadline.

Staying on deadline will be tough.  We discovered “Dexter” about a week ago, and have already watched two full seasons.  Season 3 comes via Netflix tomorrow.  I’d better get back to writing before the mail comes…


Mitch says

so great that a wonderful composer is targeting young players in this way--if anyone can do this, its you. looking forward to hearing what you come up with!

Y says

S and I just rented Season 1 of Dexter about ten minutes ago. Weird. This is after working our way through the first 2 seasons of Breaking Bad this past week. If it wasn't for TV on DVD, I'd probably have a PhD by now.

Steven Bryant says

Other obstacles I've encountered in writing "Grade 3" music:

1) part independence
2) thin scoring
3) lack of physical stamina to produce true "ppp" and "fff" dynamics with control, which limits the sort of drama in music that you and I both gravitate toward.

I think 1) and 2) scare the directors more than the players, and are the reasons my "Grade 3" works (Dusk, Marbled Midnight Mile, etc.) are labeled grade 4.

I hope you don't water down your signature rhythmic vitality, though - I think young players can grasp rhythm quickly and intuitively. Given the percussion focus of this (which is a fantastic idea, btw), I say go to town rhythmically. Just don't write 30+ high C's for the Horn section...

Matt Schoendorff says

I've always felt that writing so-called "easy" music is not only one of the most difficult jobs for a composer, but also a true test of a composer's skill. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to do this on a yearly basis, which really honed my writing chops. I'm currently in the middle of writing yet another middle school band piece, so I feel your pain, John.

But writing for young ensembles can also be a great proving ground for compositional ideas. I often use middle school pieces as a way to test out a compositional idea or train of thought before I apply it to a more difficult piece. If I can make it work in a Grade 2 or Grade 3 piece, then I know it's a viable idea.

I'd also like to echo Steve's comments. He's spot-on with his list of obstacles. The percussion focus IS a fantastic idea, though. In fact, that's the direction I was heading with my current project, but it sounds like you beat me to it. Oh well, time for Plan B, I guess.....

Ken Thompson says

Steve- as always, correct!

John, related to your comment on FB about why there's so much crap band music at this level: it is very simple, actually. Name a composer that churns out garbage music at the "lower" grade levels and I 'll show you a bad composer. The problem is that the market for this type of music is slick and unsophisticated because all that is needed is a.) dorian mode b.) syncopation, and c.) a lengthy program note.

That becomes the beginning and end of the compositional craft. It makes it easy for some teachers - they don't have to deal with teaching music - and it makes it fun without much effort for students - which is a positive for them in the short term. That's why the stuff sells so well.

One of the reason you guys (and I define that as you, Steve, John, Jim, and anyone else that fits the bill) have been very successful is because you did not learn to compose music by cranking out crap grade 2 pieces that are based more on programatic elements rather than viable compositional craft. You guys became great composers AND THEN (as several have commented) decided to tackle the issue of creating a work of substantial quality with specific technical limitations. I wrote in an article a while back that there is most definitely a difference between great music that happens to be technically simple and music that initially sets out to be "easy."

The reason why your "grade 3" (whatever THAT is) will be good? Because you can write a "good" grade 6. The composer that specialize in grade 3 music that write a grade's the same crap music but with 16th notes and an extra octave.


Ken Thompson

College of Musical Arts
Bowling Green State University
Detroit Symphony Orchestra Civic Ensembles
Toledo Symphony Youth Orchestras

Jim Colonna says

I find writing grade 3 extremely challenging for all of the reason's stated above. My only Grade 3 is a 4 for sure. I find this is difficult because your creative mind whirls with sound and have to find a way for those sounds to translate to a technically easier notation.

I have been slammed at times by critics because most of my works called Grade 3 are usually commissioned by middle level high- school bands.

My mind however dreams that it is the MSU/UM/UT ensemble and then suffer with finding ways to write what the mind's ear wants and then how to notate this and teach that concept to both the students and school directors.

This has lead me to write out clusters rather than temporal notation, carefully place meters changes, be attune to ranges and woodwinds going quickly over the break etc. Have I succeeded? In my opinion yes, however my oldest Grade 3 gets more play than any other work. It was composed in a more traditional style.

I think you should write what you hear just keep in mind what a 7th grader needs to experience success. Dissonance should not be a problem, its not hard to execute, its hard to sell to this age of student. Their emotional level and life experience do not lend well to certain concepts. BUT This can be achieved with the right person swinging the stick and how much collaboration they have with YOU.

Remember not every work in certain band series at a grade 3 is a hit and some are frankly disappointing.

The commissioning party wants a Mackey, because they love your other music and want to share it with younger students. That in itself is a great compliment!!

I applaud and echo Ken Thompson's comments. He is quite insightful.

Roger says

John you should talk (and I'm sure you already have) to some middle school band directors, ask them to tell you some of their favorite grade 2 and 3 tunes, and get some scores and recordings. Even some of those guys who churn them out by the bucketload have some diamonds in the rough- I would use Michael Sweeney's "Beyond the Seven Hills" or "Ancient Voices" and Elliot Del Borgo's "Chant Rituals" as examples. I think that any time you are struggling with something, part of the solution is usually to go ahead and learn from the masters. Maybe you can pick up a scoring or motivic or some other idea from Pierre La Plante, Brian Balmages, or one of those guys. As a middle school band director at a school where grade 3 is out of our reach many years, I can tell you that I have a very eclectic list of pieces I really think are very musical and do a fantastic job of handling young players' needs. I would send you first to Timothy Broege's "Train Heading West." That piece is more genuine and musical than a lot of college band music I hear these days, and is no harder than a solid grade 2.

Robyn says

I'm not a composer, director, or music educator, so I don't have any technical or professional advice to share. However, it would seem to me that one important aspect of writing successful music for kids playing at this level is to respect and honor what they *can* do with their instruments rather than focusing on what they can't do.

Another thing I've noticed about kids and music is that they're so focused on technique (How do I finger this note? Did I tongue it just right? Am I going the right speed? Good lord--that sounds like my first boyfriend!) that they have no musicality whatsoever. But every once in awhile a piece will speak to them so viscerally with a simple emotion (Joy! Sadness! Anger!) that they're able to overcome the technicalities and play the MUSIC. It's a miracle when that happens. John, your music does this for players and listeners alike, so I think you've got a good shot at a successful piece.

Mary Ann Evans says

My name is Mary Ann Evans.
I'm in the Willow Wood Honor Band at Willow Wood Junior High.
Your writing the piece for our concert :)
I play bassoon (first chair... I'm not bragging).
I am making a suggestion. It would be soo amazing if you could put a bassoon solo in the piece, because I play amazingly loud with an amazing tone and amazing quality (not bragging just telling). I just want to be heard from the audience and have an "important part" for once. But of course I'm just suggesting.
Thank You for writing a piece for my band.

Your Awesome :),
Mary Ann Evans :P

Scott Pender says

I feel so much better after reading your "Dexter" comment. Why is it that, as soon as I have a compositional deadline to meet, I discover some new series on Netflix or a new cuisine that I've just got to master? Right now, as I should be working on this vocal quartet, I'm ordering MORE remastered Star Trek Original Series episodes on Netflix, knowing that it only means more 3am worknights at some point to get the piece done. Maybe without the procrastination, the piece wouldn't be as good. (I like to think so.) Good luck with the new piece!

brandon says

Percy Grainger is one composer who definitely figured out how to write like that (and he just did it naturally, without having to "dumb himself down" as it were). Shepherd's Hey and Colonial Song are both some of the greatest pieces ever and are borderline Grade 3/Grade 4 in difficulty.

Fisher Tull is another good example....but I think a more familiar name of someone who's amazing at this is Frank Ticheli. If he'd just made American Elegy a little shorter I'll bet it could have passed as a Grade 3 on the UIL PML. American Elegy is more musically fulfilling than most Grade 5/6s.

I think it's all about finding a really simple, catchy motif and trying to develop it further in context, and not milk the crap out of it like some composers have ("Tempered Steel" comes to mind here....though I LOVE me some Tempered Steel).

Chris says

when will the audio for this song be released (on the website)?

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