Let’s try that again…

I’m returning to a recent post entitled ‘Physician heal thyself’ in which the underlying thread was self-doubt. Now, I don’t want to depress younger composers here but the truth is that we never lose this uncertainty. At least, I never have. This isn’t a bad thing because humility is an essential part of progression, both as human beings and as musicians.

A particular problem was the fact that I was writing for a band staffed by musicians less than half my age. ‘Eye of Newt’ was well received and sight-read very well. It’s one of those pieces that spells disaster if musicians don’t count the rest bars like mad. This is because of the multi-metric forms used.

To expand on the uncertainty principle (not Heisenberg’s), and despite everything I said before, I eventually dug out the sax section feature I’d rejected and… finished it! I’ll present it along with ‘Lady Of The Lake’ and another piece I wrote a few years ago entitled ‘Flameout’. This was originally written for ten brass but is playable with four trombones. The band frequently uses five trumpets anyway.

We all carry with us the influence of good teachers and it was my art teacher at grammar school who once advised me to ensure I always finished something I was working on. It was one of the best pieces of advice I ever received. It will be interesting to hear the band’s response, although there’s little chance of the piece being performed regularly. It depends on programming, which is another interesting point.

The entire process of composition starts with the composer and continues through to its performance. But it doesn’t end there. During the arrangement of titles throughout a performance, consideration will be given to light and shade – loud followed by soft, fast followed by slow, etc. The reception of a piece can actually be influenced by these considerations. Too many slow pieces might provoke someone at the back of the hall to shout ‘Pep it up a bit, will ya!’ during the performance of something you’ve sweated buckets over. So there might be room for my ‘experimental’ piece, after all.

In the 60’s (now I’m giving my age away) Stan Kenton decided to start all concerts with slow, quiet arrangements, building to the louder stuff later on. Yes, this band could play quietly, with superb control of tone quality and articulation, all of which tend to suffer in the hands of inexperienced brass players. This was especially impressive because regular high, loud playing tends to stiffen the chops, causing great difficulty when guys are faced with the task of dropping down a few decibels. Another advantage of Stan’s policy was that initial exposure to the full force of his brass section always came as a bit of a shock, no matter how often one heard it. I heard the band every time it came over. I would have crawled to the concerts on hands and knees. 

As a matter of interest, human beings vary considerably in their physical suitability to brass playing and, in a world where young players start where we older players leave off, a musician needs to have everything going for him, or her. There are individual differences in the ability to build muscle, and skin texture varies enormously.

While I’m on the subject of life from the brass player’s point of view, I’d like to ask arrangers to bear in mind the fact that trombonists almost always need both hands, which means that a reasonable amount of time must be allowed for the insertion of mutes. If a note can be played with the slide closed, and these notes vary according to whether or not one of the triggers is used, the horn can be held with one hand on a sustained note, as the other reaches for the mute. (Conventionally, nowadays, most tenor trombone players use a single trigger horn, except those specializing in high lead playing. Most, but not all, bass trombones use two triggers.)

I played an arrangement recently, written by one of the most respected brass band composers around, which required me to have both cup and straight mutes on my knees to win precious seconds. Visually, this is disastrous. And I still maintain that, with a full brass section (in the big band) there’s rarely any need to use mutes with trombones, anyway.

I’m curious to hear the response to my recent compositional efforts.

Watch this space! 


I do like going ‘abroad’

Christine and I have just spent an enjoyable week with our friends at their cottage in Ventnor, Isle of Wight. This fascinating island is situated off England’s south coast and conditions there always remind me of life in Britain around twenty years ago. The pace of life is much more relaxed in fact, during my three visits to the island, I’ve never witnessed a single incidence of ‘road rage’, which has become increasingly common on the mainland as more and more vehicles pour onto the roads, many of which were designed for horses and carriages.

The terrain is surprisingly varied, with superb beaches and limestone cliffs, elevated moorland and woods full of rare wildlife, including the indigenous red squirrel. The rise in the invading grey squirrel population on the mainland has almost wiped them out.

Some of the best asparagus and garlic you will find is produced on the island and there are one or two excellent breweries and vineyards.

We chose to use the Lymington to Yarmouth ferry, partly because the trip to the port takes us through the New Forest, a beautiful area famous for its wild horses and ponies which tamely approach visitors, to the delight of children and adults alike. Unfortunately, the area is also renowned for vipers (some people call them ‘adders’), although these timid creatures only bite if they feel threatened by careless feet. Most people just become ill from a bite but there have been a few fatalities among those susceptible to the adverse effects of the poison.

I like to keep physically fit to balance the effects of sustained mental effort so Ventnor, with its steep hills and bracing winds, is the ideal place to be. Years ago a fine sanatorium for Tuberculosis victims was established on the cliffs overlooking the town.

The airport in nearby Bembridge was a fighter command base during WW2 and the radar station was frequently targeted by the Luftwaffe. I know from personal experience (I spent my childhood living next to an armaments factory)  they weren’t very good shots, so some bombs fell on the town, killing a number of people.

People in Britain occasionally joke about going ‘abroad’ when they visit the island but when only the rich could afford air travel the Isle of Wight was an attractive alternative. At least you can buy a decent pint of beer and that means English ale, not lager. 

The jazz rhythm section

In an earlier blog I described ways of elevating the rhythm section from its typically subordinate role and included tips on incorporating less orthodox (by jazz standards) percussion instruments. This time I’d like to share what I’ve learned over the years about the conventional rhythm section. The book looks at all these features in detail


With drum parts, the trick is to stay out of the way much of the time and write more detailed parts where essential instrumental cues and special effects are needed. Excessively busy drum writing, especially during jazz solos, will distract drummers from their role of providing sympathetic support. With my nine piece band, which had a fairly stable personnel, I often used to write ‘play eight bars’…etc. It’s OK to write bar after bar of repeat symbols if that is all that’s needed. Some drummers can become too obtrusive at times, anyway, perhaps believing the spotlight is permanently turned on them. 

With these repeat symbols, it’s OK to double up on the number of bars to a line. I generally try to use four bars per line but drum parts can easily become huge things to wrestle with in extended arrangements, especially in cut time. We can use the multiple-bar repeat symbol over which we can write ‘4’, ‘8’ or ’16’ but computer programs lose the bar numbering sequence. It has to be custom made as a graphic in my program using the line tool (two parallel lines) and large full points (periods). The bar numbering can be faked with a little ingenuity (see below).

All rhythm section parts can appear featureless on paper so it’s a good plan to write ‘sax soli’ ‘trumpet solo’ ‘ensemble’ etc. to give the music a few landmarks and to prime the players to loosen up or play as written, as the case may be. It also helps them if they get lost.

Less conventional ‘straight’ writing may require much more detailed parts. Some of the rock and pop music magazines run on-going clinics where notational drum kit examples are examined in detail. The ones I’ve seen have been very well presented. I haven’t seen a copy of Down Beat for a while but they, too, have featured transcripts of recorded drum solos.


The bass in the jazz rhythm section is unique. It is harmonic, rhythmic and melodic all at the same time and nothing annoys the bass player more than a written part that doesn’t flow. The harmonic aspects of bass writing are reaffirmed where stresses of one kind or another occur – the first and third beats in four to the bar signatures, for example. This is where we’re likely to find the roots and 5ths. Unessential notes, using the prevailing tonality (which keeps shifting in the tonal cell type of sequences), are used to give relief from arpeggiated and root/fifth writing. Chromatic unessential notes are tonally neutral.

It will occasionally be necessary to write the bass in with the ensemble to ensure harmonic support. Clarity will suffer at the bottom end of the orchestra if two parts are nearly the same but not quite, especially if separated by an interval smaller than a perfect 5th.

So make sure the bass part has a rudimentary tunefulness of its own, whilst at the same time ending up where it needs to be at clearly defined points. Scalic forms will be even more prevalent at faster tempos. Parallel movement with the melody induces a smooth-flowing feeling and contrary motion is good for emphasizing a crescendo. A leap upwards is perceived to require energy, so a series of leaps in close succession will have the effect of slowing the music down. Take care how you deal with the tritone (flattened 5th), which can sound like a wrong note down here if approached by a leap. It’s usually better to approach the b5th note by step.

Good players will insert idiomatic flair into the bare bones of the bass part using various devices such as the dotted quaver ‘skips’ which are typical of the walking bass style. During an instrumental solo it’s OK to just write chord symbols, occasionally cuing in essential notes.

Take care using the traditional rhythm section bass part in contrapuntal writing. It will have to play a formal role as one of the voices which can conflict with its role as described above. It’s usually best to leave the rhythm section out of contrapuntal writing.

Centuries ago it was commonplace to use a harpsichord in chamber music to punctuate contrapuntal styles with a sequence of short, block chords, both to centre the intonation (where amateur players were involved) and to render the music to be more acceptable to the average audience.


The greatest danger in the four piece rhythm section is that the guitar and piano will attempt to fight each other and both play chord comping at the same time. I had a look that could kill at twenty paces if my rhythm section did this. It’s also unsuccessful because the guitar, which is tuned mainly in 4ths, is limited in the chord shapes it can execute. Many of the close position four part block chords in the surrounding orchestration are impossible on the guitar, especially in quick succession. Good players establish complementary roles which are best learned by listening to recorded examples with these guidelines in mind. Guitar comping has, in any case, fallen out of favour in today’s bands with their lighter swing style.

Writing for today’s big bands requires a lot of fully notated parts. Guitar rhythm chords (the guitar is written an octave higher than it sounds*) are actually pitched in the same register as the middle harmony parts of the ensemble, so they must precisely emulate the section voices the guitar comes into contact with, even if it becomes necessary to omit notes because of fingering difficulties. Failure in this respect will result in a lack of clarity. I know that some of the great bands broke this ‘rule’ but I just have to say I really didn’t like the mushy effect created.

Make a life-sized fretboard diagram out of card to test feasibility but allow for the fact that a guitarist’s fingers will be more compliant. I found it useful to colour middle c in red on the five lower strings, as an aid to navigation. Obviously, the top e string is already higher than middle c.

I’ve found that that even experienced players are stopped in their tracks by parts written according to these guidelines which often use less orthodox chord shapes.


*Confusingly, at the top of the guitar range, an arranger might take the part down an octave, to avoid too many ledger lines, and write ‘8va’ even though, at this point, the part is actually written as it sounds.



The piano part can also become large and awkward to use. Much of the time, a single stave with chord symbols reinforced by essential rhythmic cues is all that is needed – or chords with cued-in melody in a vocal arrangement. Rhythm-head notation can be used for instrumental cues, or you can write the lead note of the chords to indicate the precise inversions you desire. Some colouristic writing (single note piano with woodwind etc.) will also require one stave only. Chords written in full notation will usually need two staves. The way to mix single and double staves on one part with computers is to print the part in its one and two stave sections and then assemble the components with a glue stick and do a final photocopy. Press down on the top of the machine to eliminate shadow lines. It may be necessary to turn down the toner density control a touch also.

The computer bar numbering can be maintained so that if, for example, a two stave section begins on bar 41, you will have to create forty blank two-stave bars in front. These bars can be very narrow indeed to save on the paper you’ll trim off and throw away (OK. Recycle). It’s a good plan to limit the amount of cutting and pasting that has to be done by planning the flow of the bars on computer in readiness. Businesslike parts encourage a band to take your arrangement seriously.

With both the guitar and piano there must be no attempt, particularly at faster tempos, to cue in every passing chord in a voiced section. Use the basic sequence only. Faster tempos tend to have simpler chord sequences because rapid chord changes also slow the music down (check out two old tunes Limehouse Blues and Lover). Very slow ballads may occasionally feature a chord change on every beat. If you overdo rhythmic cues you’ll detract from the rhythm section’s conventional role of laying down a straight-ahead continuum. This means indicating distinctive ensemble or section rhythms only, and not heeding every instance of a tied-over or syncopated note in the phrasing.



¡Guitarra!: A Musical Journey Through Spain (you can call this a review or whatever you think it is)

One of the hardest – working bloggers around, Derek touches on one or two points here that interest me.


The beauty of music is that the story of its inception is as intriguing as the final, aural product. This idea is one that permeates the thoughts of those studying Ethnomusicology, and in the case of the film I selected to review, always remained in my mind while exploring the rich history of the guitar in Spain. ¡Guitarra!: A Musical Journey Through Spain chronicles the evolution of guitar music in Spain, as told through the eyes of English Classical guitar virtuoso Julian Bream. Lasting three hours and twenty-five minutes, ¡Guitarra!: A Musical Journey Through Spain is the most thorough account of Spanish music ,and the overall influence that Spaniards have had on the music of the guitar , that I have ever encountered.

The film is divided into eight parts, beginning with “Part 1: Golden Century.” This section chronicles the music of the guitar and its relative the vihuela, popular…

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