Welcome to the Top 3 by Three, a series that promotes great band repertoire. Each
segment features three excellent band directors and three of their favorite pieces to teach and perform. Choosing great music can be a challenging task, but it is such an integral part of educating, engaging, and motivating your students. Top 3 by Three aims to help you choose music that your students' will love and learn from. Veteran teachers Dr. Arris Golden - Michigan State University, Tiffany Hitz - Carson Middle School, and Greg Scapillato - Northbrook Junior High School, share their favorites for middle school band.
Tiffany Hitz, Carson Middle School - Herndon, VA
Title: Moscow, 1941
Composer: Brian Balmages
Moscow, 1941, by Brian Balmages, tells the story of the Red Army’s (the Russian National Military Forces) unlikely, yet successful, defense of Moscow against German invasion during the Battle of Moscow (October 1941-January 1942). Balmages based the piece on the popular Russian song Meadowlands, but also incorporated original material to craft a complete story.
This piece is full of the emotion and drama one would expect from a depiction of war. The piece begins with distant percussion that leads to a unison clarinet line scored in their lowest register, masterfully setting the stage for the story by creating a desolate backdrop with ominous undertones. As the texture thickens, tension is developed through the manipulation of the tempo (accelerando/ritardando) accompanied by dynamic changes that move between voices, until the opening section winds down much as it started. The second half of the piece portrays the elements of war - bass drum and timpani serving as bombs dropping; alto and horn glissandi creating warning sirens; brass “fanfares” highlighting the battle action. The hopelessness of the opening is replaced by the determination of the fight, then ultimately replaced by triumph.
Because of the compositional quality and dramatic nature of this piece, it is my “go-to piece” in many different musical settings. While the individual parts are accessible, each section is provided an opportunity to shine. As a whole, the parts create an almost magical musical experience that is emotional, exciting, and transformative for the players and audience alike. The opening section alone may be my most favorite music among all pieces at this level.
I would suggest accessing Chris Gleason’s CMP Teaching Plan for this piece, as it has exceptional ideas to help students connect the action, intent, and history behind this piece with the realities of their communities and the world around them.
While the opening section is slow, there is a 3-measure accelerando that leads to a 1-measure ritardando. This 4-measure tempo change contains nearly constant 8th notes that are passed between upper woodwind voices. It is important to execute smooth pass-offs and proper note lengths throughout these tempo fluctuations to ensure the musical line is maintained and the tempi are accurately executed (accelerando = shortened note durations, ritardano = stretched note lengths). There are two additional ritardani in the opening section, which should be similarly addressed in order to reach the desired dramatic effect. I have had success addressing this issue by providing students a practice exercise that combines the major rhythmic movement of these measures into one part. In rehearsing with this exercise, students develop better awareness of where their line comes from and where it goes, and are able to develop the ensemble skills necessary to meet this musical challenge.
The second half of the piece is marked q=144-152. To create the needed musical intensity, this tempo must be consistently maintained. However, players tend to lose time as they pass lines off between voices, play syncopated rhythms that include rests, or as they play repeated figures.
Loud, extended phrases are found throughout the second half of the piece, and are especially challenging for the brass section from “Triumphant!” through the end. Students will need guidance to select the best spots to take a breath and in developing the endurance to sustain the lines while maintaining great sound and blend.
Title: A Tallis Prelude
Composer: Douglas Akey
Publisher: Queenwood (Kjos)
A Tallis Prelude is an original composition based on Why Fum'th in Fight (The Gentiles Spite), a Thomas Tallis psalm melody. This is the same melody used by Ralph Vaughan Williams as the basis for Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and by Fisher Tull as the basis for Sketches on a Tudor Psalm. While lasting only 3 minutes and 30 seconds, A Tallis Prelude offers many teaching opportunities. The piece is musically complex beyond its technical difficulty, allowing students to be stretched (grow!) by the more sophisticated treatment of things that “look” familiar.
I have had a fondness for this piece since the first time I heard it, but I waited many years to work on it with a group, wanting to make sure the students and I were both ready to do it justice. My students loved it from their first read, and I remember them saying that they loved playing “real music.” We really dug into this piece, as it lends itself to in-depth study.
I would suggest listening to performances of the original choral settings, other Tallis pieces, and the Vaughan Williams and Tull compositions to give students an idea of the sounds we are attempting to emulate in performance. I would also suggest viewing 16th century art and discussing Tallis’ background and his position with the English monarchies. These efforts with my students helped us all deeply connect to the work, and helped me realize a valuable model that I have followed with other pieces.
While the key signature may suggest Concert Bb Major throughout the piece, each iteration of the Tallis theme (including the low brass and woodwind opening) is in the phrygian mode.
Accidentals are used to provide tonal shifts, including cadences in D Major with Picardy thirds. Many of these accidentals are found in the middle and lower voices within sections, adding unique responsibility not always present for these players.
Intonation challenges are pervasive, starting right away with the unison opening across 5-6 instrument parts (and many actual players!) I have found great improvement in intonation by having the entire ensemble sing the melody as well as learn it on their instruments to rehearse with a drone.
Establishing the “time” - From the opening, Akey establishes his use of time signature and bar lines as a means to organize the music, but not necessarily to represent the phrase structure. For example, the opening melody starts on beat 2 and falls into a 3-beat structure, though it is organized by a 4/4 time signature.
During the 3/4 Allegro Ritmico, measures of 8th notes are grouped to be felt in 6/8, creating frequent rhythmic shifts despite maintaining the time signature, exploiting the hemiola/rhythmic relationship between the two meters.
Allegro ritmico melodic entrances occur on the "+" of 2, often starting after rests. Students will need to practice taking a breath in time for a precise ensemble entrance, or they will likely breathe too late/slow and miss this entrance or lose tempo.
5/4 and 2/4 time signatures are used in addition to 4/4 and 3/4.
Ensemble Issues of Particular Note:
The opening unison line needs to be played as one timbre. Additionally, players need to match the phrasing, shaping, and articulations of others, while working to completely blend sounds. Having the entire group learn the opening melody, as mentioned above for intonation purposes, will also assist in establishing this.
Articulations are intentional not only to create contrasts in style, but to change the feel of some measures. Making up sentences/phrases and speaking the rhythms in selected measures can help establish ensemble precision.
Ensuring the Tallis theme is heard whenever present will be an important task, as it can easily be covered especially when played by the low voices. Students will need to recognize when they have the theme and to further identify when it is present in diminution or augmentation.
Title: The Cave You Fear
Composer: Michael Markowski
Publisher: Michael Markowski/Markowski Creative
Michael Markowski’s The Cave You Fear is a programmatic work inspired by the Joseph Campbell quote, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” Markowski’s background as a film composer is on full display, as he has crafted a piece infused with suspense, drama, adventure, peril, and triumph. It is a sophisticated work that plays like a complete movie soundtrack, inviting performers and audience members in, and keeping them hooked until the end.
In The Cave You Fear, Markowski invites the performer and audience to experience “The Hero’s Journey,” to contemplate their own journey as the hero of their own story, and to possibly even consider making a detour that takes them to somewhere unexpected or unanticipated as a part of that journey. He explains that this piece came about as an expression of his own realization of a need for adventure and a desire to overcome a fear of the unknown. He writes:
“According to Campbell, each of our adventures are already out there, waiting for us. That's not the problem. For him, "the big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty 'yes' to your adventure."
I share these program notes with students and audiences at every performance, as there cannot be a better message to send to middle school students and families who are soon embarking on their high school adventure. The piece, and the message, universally resounds with the students and audience.
In my opinion, this is one of the most compelling pieces available at this grade level. Like no other piece in the repertoire, The Cave You Fear gives students the opportunity to “live (play) on the edge” (Markowski). This piece creates a musical space for students to explore their developing musicianship, their sound quality and dynamic range, and at times it might feel a little too fast (or too slow!), but the music compels you to move forward. To me, the perfection of this piece is not what results from precise playing, it’s what results from the experience of creating and sharing a great musical journey.
While the score provides explanations of how to create the special instrumental effects: saxophone multiphonic, amplified lion’s roar, superball mallets on timpani and tam-tam, Markowski’s website includes video recordings of students who were involved in the piece’s commission demonstrating these techniques. Additional techniques that may need special instruction are woodwind key falls, brass lip falls, trombone glissandi (including preferred slide positions), trumpet flutter tonguing, and woodblock (m. 59).
The piece is written without a key signature, so careful instruction and attention will need to be given to the written accidentals, especially in the application of the accidental carries rule!
The active accidental use and corresponding key shifts are coupled with abrupt changes in style and dramatic dynamic contrasts that create energy and intrigue from the moment the piece begins. It is imperative that players carefully execute the composer’s indications as they are notated in each part and not simply follow what they hear from across and within the ensemble. At times, dynamics are in contrary motion between voices and articulations are varied from part to part. These details are critical to executing the drama that exists within the score.
At the beginning, the woodwinds tend to relax into a tempo slower than what is written (opening tempi is q=120 and there is a subito change to q=144 at m. 17). Reminding students to feel the rhythm in their fingers when slurring and to utilize firm and deliberate fingers throughout can assist in obtaining precise execution.
Six percussion parts are included, but these parts encompass 13 instruments, including some of the special effects. Independent playing is required for all parts, but careful attention should be made in selecting the players for Percussion 4 (which includes hi-hat) and Percussion 5 (snare drum), as these two instruments provide musical energy and drive throughout much of the piece.
Balance and blend should be carefully addressed throughout this piece. Guiding student listening during rehearsals will be absolutely necessary. It will also be helpful to share sections of the score with students to help them understand the other elements that occur in time with theirs, and to help them recognize which of these lines should be the most prominent at any given time. In my experience, this is of particular concern at m. 96 when the low brass need to break through the ensemble texture, but are often in competition with the forte dynamic of the woodwind line.
Missed Part 1? Read about Dr. Arris Golden's favorite pieces for middle school band.
How about Part 2? Read about Greg Scapillato's favorite pieces for middle school band.