Thank you for reading Top 3 by Three, a series promoting great band repertoire. The
series features three outstanding band directors and three of their favorite band works. Choosing great music can be a challenging task, but it is such an integral part of educating and engaging your students. Top 3 by Three aims to help you choose music that your students' will love and learn from. Veteran teachers Chip De Stefano, Chris Gleason, and Stacey Larson Dolan, share three of their favorite works for middle school band.
Part I: Chip De Stefano, McCracken Middle School - Skokie, Illinois
Title: Symphony No. 4 for Winds and Percussion
Composer: Andrew Boysen, Jr.
Publisher: Neil A. Kjos Music Company
Andy Boysen and I have been friends since we were both students at Northwestern University in the late 1990s. I remember being blown away when first hearing his compositions and marching band arrangements when he arrived on campus as a graduate student. When we started a commissioning project at McCracken, I knew Andy would be one of the first composers we’d try to secure. The timing worked out even better than both of us could have imagined as we were able to premier Symphony No. 4 for Winds and Percussion at the 2004 Illinois Music Education Conference with the composer conducting, and give the first performance of the published work at the 2006 Midwest Clinic.
Andrew Boysen, Jr.’s Symphony No. 4 is a four movement work using the octatonic scale as the melodic and harmonic source. Two four note motives provide the basis for much of the thematic material throughout the work. The first, C-Db-G-E, is initially stated in the opening measure by the bells. The second, D-C#-D-B, is presented by the horns and euphonium towards the end of the exposition of the first movement. Both these motives permeate the entire work. The frequent use of the minor second in both motives creates a great deal of tension and release that really resonates with students and audiences alike.
The “test of time” is perhaps the greatest indicator of the quality of a piece of music. Boysen’s Symphony No. 4 sounds as fresh and innovative as the day the manuscript arrived in my mailbox fifteen years ago. There is still not another piece like it. It’s a substantial, significant work for young players...one that makes room for their technical considerations without compromising in its musical and expressiveness demands.
While often listed as a grade 3+ or 4, the most difficult aspect of the work is it’s length. Many of the individual movements work well performed on their own which allows them to be programmed separately or to use the complete symphony as a project piece throughout the year.
In spite of the tremendous amount of percussion writing, careful instrument placement and mallet choices that can be used on more than one instrument (bells and tom-toms for example), it is very playable with five percussionists each receiving their own multiple percussion setup.
Don’t let the contemporary techniques (unmetered/timed measures, singing, aleatoric boxed notation, feathered beaming, bowed mallets, and polyrhythmic time signatures) required to perform Symphony No. 4 scare you away from the piece. Each of them are all approached in a way that makes them accessible and understandable for students.
Included with the published score is a short analysis of each of the movements of the work done by the composer.
I try to make it a habit to only recommend works that I have prepared and performed with my own students (* McCracken Middle School, + University of Chicago). Other favorite works by Andrew Boysen, Jr.:
+ Three Folk Settings for Band (Poor Wayfaring Stranger, All the Pretty Little Horses, Scarborough Fair) - Grade 4+, Alfred
* Havener Fanfare - Grade 3, Kjos
+ Kirkpatrick Fanfare - Grade 4, Wingert-Jones
+ A Song for Lyndsay - Grade 3, Masters Music
* + Song for My Children - Grade 3+, self-published
+ Star-Crossed - Grade 4, self-published
* Unraveling - Grade 3, Kjos
* Tricycle - Grade 2+, Kjos
Title: Celtic Air and Dance
Composer: Michael Sweeney
Publisher: Hal Leonard
Without a doubt, Celtic Air and Dance is one of my favorite go to pieces. It works great as a long term project for less experienced groups and plays down without problems for older ensembles and honor bands that need to prepare something fun, but not trite, quickly. Even after working on Celtic Air and Dance with a wide variety of groups over a dozen times, I still look forward to rehearsing it each time it’s been programmed.
Both folk songs are solidly scored and work well with a limited instrumentation. The Celtic Air is the well known folk song The Parting Glass. It’s set in a gorgeous chorale style with smaller choirs setting up the full ensemble moments, with every instrument getting at least a portion of the melody at some point. The Celtic Dance, Tha Mi Sgith (A Fairy's Love Song), is very dance like throughout and is about as catchy a melody as it can get. While somewhat repetitive, Sweeney provides contrast by keeping the scoring sparse at the start and adding on with each repetition. A tempo bump after a short “drum break” pushes the piece to a very rousing finish.
While not over the top difficult, the percussion writing does require a little greater independence than the average work at this level.
Don’t be afraid to pull back where marked and at the cadence points to add to the drama of the slow section.
Tha Mi Sgith is all about style. The challenge is keeping everything light, especially as it starts to build and get louder towards the end.
Other favorite works by Michael Sweeney (all published by Hal Leonard)
Ancient Voices - Grade 2
Celtic Air and Dance No. 2 - Grade 2
Equinox - Grade 2
Gates of Orion - Grade 2
Greensleeves (arr. Sweeney) - Grade 1
Music from Wicked (arr. Sweeney) - Grade 3-
The Phantom of the Opera (arr. Sweeney) - Grade 2
A Simple Song (arr. Sweeney) - Grade 3+
Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (arr. Sweeney) - Grade 1
Ye Banks and Braes O’ Bonnie Dune (arr. Sweeney) - Grade 1
Title: Midnight Sky
Composer: Brian Balmages
Publisher: FJH Music
Midnight Sky is the second movement of Brian Balmages’s Midnight Suite, of which each movement is published separately. As part of FJH Music Company’s Starter Series, it utilizes only the first six notes of the Bb major scale (Concert F major for horn and tenor saxophone, although it does dip down to concert Eb in one measure) and a limited rhythmic palette of whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, and two eighth notes. In spite of these limitations, although the work is so well crafted one might argue because of the limitations, Balmages has seemingly done the impossible. He created a piece with grade .5 technical difficulty, but with a grade 4ish musical difficulty, all while clearly staying in his voice. In the right circumstances, Midnight Sky feels at home in the earliest of beginner band concerts as well as in the programs of your advanced middle school groups. Pairing the work with Midnight Mission (another one of my very favorites at this level) and Midnight Madness creates one of the few multi-movement works at this grade level and gives the students an opportunity to explore a wide variety of tone colors and styles.
There’s a lot to love about Midnight Sky. Perhaps the biggest is the opportunity to focus on tone and pitch (even in some dissonances, rare for this grade level) instead of just worrying about notes and rhythms all the time.
Careful attention to balances require the kids to be actively listening throughout the piece since the melody gets passed around the ensemble. The introduction of an imitative counterline in measure 9 requires students to make adjustments to their long notes in order for there to be enough transparency for the moving lines to always be heard.
The resulting tension from the use of a pedal point in measure 17 creates a goosebump raising moment at the resolution in measure 21. Don’t be afraid to really pull back and make the audience wait for that moment!
Other favorite works by Brian Balmages (all published by FJH)
* Majestica - Grade 1
* Midnight Mission - Grade .5
* Moscow, 1941 - Grade 2+
* Starsplitter Fanfare - Grade .5
* Summer Dances - Grade 4