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Peter_W.
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To all composers of band music: If you do not include parts for we treble clef euphoniums, we will hope that you rot in musical hell. That's it. We're pretty easy to please as long as you don't forget we're there.

Uhh no. True professional Euphonium players play in Bass Clef.

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I am not a performer of some of these instruments but here is from my experience:

Horns playing at the top of their range is fine if for short durations otherwise you will tire out the poor player. Also it is highly recommended you do not have a horn player start at the utmost top portion of the range as their will always be a slight adjustment in the intonation due to adjusting embrouchure. Horns are more alto tenor instruments with some beautiful mezzo soprano notes if used wisely.

Strings - the biggest problems I see is treating bow markings as phrase marks. Composers actually need to do "air violin" to get an idea of reasonable bowing - if you think you are running out of bow as you go in one direction you probably are. Trust me it does work. Another issues is pizz to arco always takes more time than arco to pizz. Going arco to pizz you can use the bow length to propel you to the pizz note, on the other hand when playing pizz you have to reposition your bow over the notes to be played arco. Harmonics - please be careful with artificial harmonics - touched 4th are the safest but you must realize some of them will barely sound due to the string's width. Double stops versus single tones - realized this recently, sometimes asking string players to play continuous double stops from pp to ff and back for too long a time is counterproductive. The fact they have two fingers to play two notes and adjust two fingers takes energy away from focusing on dynamics and tone after awhile. be sure to mix it up. Finally - wide arpeggios, quite exciting and many possibilities but please check the practicality of multiple stops.

Oboes - you can write at the topmost range but not for very long periods and leaping to their topmost range is tough. Oboe playing is very athletic and you need to give them more rest than clarinet and flute players.

Clarinets - basically they can do everything BUT continuous leaps from chamaleau to clarino (in other words over an octave) tires out both the listener and player.

Piccolo - be careful when you get to their topmost range you don't stay their too long - the overtones and intensity of the sound actually can have the player lose temporarily their ability to hear accurately thereby making the next pitches' intonation at risk for instability.

Piano - Many people write very unchallenging music for piano. We have pedals so you can have very low pedal notes held by the pedals. The one thing which is tiring and difficult is very fast broken octaves or alternating octaves. Thirds, sixths, fourths played very fast is very difficult. If you want large interval to sound together up to a minor ninth or octave is a sure thing - depends on the player. One thing too is tone decay - it happens very fast and the one trick in piano music to create the illusion of a tone lasting a long time (aside from pedaling) is how you support the long lines - faster more harmonically rich or wide intervals in the bass and tenor will support a long line much better than static chords. Also you can do an old trick from the Classical era - figuration, embellishments of a lone line.

Here are some examples of a long line creating in piano writing:

Very famous one - Chopin Prelude in E minor which should be studied more than just the harmony and voice leading - listen to how the pianist adds in all of these ralls and accel (some do it way too much - trick of the piece is to do just enough) and note that even Chopin speeds up the line with this expressive leap in eighth notes for a brief measure. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4tY0Dv1lh8&feature=fvsr

Rach Prelude in A flat major -

Rach Prelude in C minor -

Here is a good example with spare texture but note the tempo is Andantino and note the wide variety of intervals used, plus some judicious pedaling to create a two voice invention with top line predominant Ligeti - Etude for Irina -

Here the long line is in the tenor, excellent piano writing on many levels and challenging to voice - Debussy Reflections In the Water from Mirrors

Organ - Actually fast scales on the pedal board can be quite challenging as well as sudden shifts to different positions. ONe thing too is to consider time is needed for complex registration changes and adjustments to opening the boxes for more sound. Keyboard challenges are similar to piano except when considering changes manuals - need to allow a tiny bit of time to switch. Another thing that can be done is thumbing where the thumb plays the melody on one keyboard the other fingers play on another keyboard while the left hand plays its thumb on the same keyboard as the rh thumb bnut its other fingers play on the remaining manual. This is possible really on three manuals. Note though this happens in piano music where a melody in the tenor is played by alternating left and right thumbs. See the Liszt Consolations.

One very important thing about organ writing - what may sound a little thin on the piano will sound extremely full.

Here is an excellent example of how full organ writing sounds -

Also very pianist writing is difficult on the organ - eg legato of 4 note chords in each hand can be difficult - one of many reasons why the Vierne symphonies are challenging.

Double Basses - Top range can sound extremely thin on one instrument - but multiple double basses doing this in unisons will increase the sound hundred fold. Also you need time to allow the strings to speak - why do you think in jazz trios the bass lines are plucked a fair amount? It allows the instrument to speak more quickly but with the resonance of plucked dbass strings it still provides a stable bass line. Actually to tie this in to organ,. think of the pedalboard of an organ as a doublebass or cello.

Phew, that is quite a bit ... I definitely gotta start offering comp lessons to beginners.

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While I understand the technical demands of horn playing as well as any non-brass player can, I'm ambivalent about the comments that have been made about horns having to play for extended periods in their upper register.

When my 2nd and 3rd Symphonies (in authentic Classical style) were performed, I had trouble with the horn players on both occasions, even though I wrote perfectly idiomatic music for them that would have given an 18th Century natural horn player no trouble even without any benefit of the elaborate valve systems available today, which I'm sorry to say, I think have made modern horn players technically soft and lazy. I wrote the parts for horns in G and A as my predecessors would have been obliged to do even though I knew they would likely be played on modern horns in F, which involved the playing of notes that the players found inordinately difficult; and in my 3rd symphony, I cheerfully wrote a solo in the upper register - which would have been the only register an 18th Century player physically could have played a melodic solo in, and although the performer appreciated it, she could not play it reliably. Both performances were valiantly attempted, but riddled with hideous clams anytime the tessitura went above concert G on the staff.

This is, in a word, unacceptable.

How do modern horn players play stuff like Bach (Brandenburg #1), Mozart (Symphony #29 in A) or Beethoven (any of the orchestral or solo horn works) without being able to facilitate playing in the upper register?

The fact is, most who are worth their salt do play it, whether they want to or they have to, and do it without complaint.

It seems to me that students of the modern horn should work a little harder on their upper register, and even spend some time with a natural horn learning how it worked for your ancestors (they're available...borrow one), rather than complaining. All the music written before 1830 was written in ways you find uncomfortable - and a lot after 1830 was as well (even Brahms wrote for natural horns). Get used to it, and get to work, because I for one am not going to cater to technical deficiencies that were no issue for players who didn't have anything like the tools modern players have to work with.

I know this is going to seem a little harsh, but I say it with great respect. It's a tough instrument, I know. All the more reason to take it out to the woodshed.

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Piano - Many people write very unchallenging music for piano. We have pedals so you can have very low pedal notes held by the pedals. The one thing which is tiring and difficult is very fast broken octaves or alternating octaves. Thirds, sixths, fourths played very fast is very difficult. If you want large interval to sound together up to a minor ninth or octave is a sure thing - depends on the player. One thing too is tone decay - it happens very fast and the one trick in piano music to create the illusion of a tone lasting a long time (aside from pedaling) is how you support the long lines - faster more harmonically rich or wide intervals in the bass and tenor will support a long line much better than static chords. Also you can do an old trick from the Classical era - figuration, embellishments of a lone line.

Another important thing to remember is that pianists, even if they play an orchestral second instrument, are not by default used to playing in large ensembles. With a singer, a solo instrument or even a quintet, they can add rubato and take tiny amounts of extra time over hand movements. However when a piano is used as a tutti instrument within a band or orchestra many of the techniques idiomatic to the piano are difficult to play in exact time with the rest of the ensemble. The pianist cannot play figurations or wide leaps with the micro-deviations away from the metronomic pulse they would be able to use in solo playing. So when writing orchestral piano parts (not solo concerto parts, although it may also be relevant) this needs to be kept in mind. In fact, it is best to consider the piano as a percussion instrument in this role and avoid overly soloistic writing.

When my 2nd and 3rd Symphonies (in authentic Classical style) were performed, I had trouble with the horn players on both occasions, even though I wrote perfectly idiomatic music for them that would have given an 18th Century natural horn player no trouble even without any benefit of the elaborate valve systems available today, which I'm sorry to say, I think have made modern horn players technically soft and lazy. I wrote the parts for horns in G and A as my predecessors would have been obliged to do even though I knew they would likely be played on modern horns in F, which involved the playing of notes that the players found inordinately difficult; and in my 3rd symphony, I cheerfully wrote a solo in the upper register - which would have been the only register an 18th Century player physically could have played a melodic solo in, and although the performer appreciated it, she could not play it reliably. Both performances were valiantly attempted, but riddled with hideous clams anytime the tessitura went above concert G on the staff.

This is, in a word, unacceptable.

I respectfully disagree. Modern horn players have certainly not become technically lazy (I'd like to see an eighteenth-century player find the stamina and technique to tackle a Mahler symphony - and what about the plethora of extended techniques that are increasingly asked for in contemporary writing?). If you wrote your symphonies knowing they would be played by modern double horns in F it is no wonder the players couldn't reach the highest notes if they didn't possess crooked alto horns in G and A. This is akin to asking a violin part to be played on a viola: some, indeed all, of the notes may be theoretically playable, but the part will simply not fit the instrument as well. I also disagree with the notion that the addition of valves has made the horn any easier to play overall - if anything there is more for the player to have to control; a vastly increased range of available chromatic notes for a start. If you wanted to write 'authentic' parts you ought to have found horn players who possessed and were trained in the use of old instruments, not blame the players after having deliberately written difficult parts. If anything, difficulties come about because modern players are expected to produce a perfectly tuned and rounded tone throughout their range, not the hit-and-miss of natural instruments (even the best recordings of Brandenburg 1 still contain at least one split note even after editing). Of course, the horn section in question may just have been lazy or had poor technique, but I believe one of the golden rules of composition is to achieve the desired effect without making undue demands on your players.

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There are several things to consider here:

As siwi said, it is wrong to assume valve horns have made horn playing easier. They have made certain -specific- things easier, such as chromatic play, producing equal timbres for all notes, and greater flexibility in the lower range.

But you have to consider that a modern hornist on a double horn (while having a lot of tunings available via valves) is still mostly forced towards the lower tunings, as the vales only ever lower the base tuning.

This means that the high range on an ordinary double horn is always more problematic than on natural horns, which why most professional horn players, when playing baroque/classical music in high registers, will either:

1. be really good at the highest range.

2. Play it on a descant horn (high F) or a triple horn.

3. Play it on a natural horn. (I'm not sure how it is in the U.S. but over here most period music is played on natural horns anyways. Most hornists in the greater orchestras own a natural horn and can play it.)

4. Or even: leave it to people who are specialized in music of that time, and happily continue playing their Strauss :P

Playing baroque and some classical music on an ordinary double horn can be tough because of the common high range, and yes, it's often going to cause problems. (Both because modern horns are built wider, and because the natural tones in a high register on lower base tuning are so close together that you'll miss notes much more easily. And you often -have- to use such lower base tunings, because modern horns aren't really built for too elaborate stopping techniques, so you'll -have- to use your valves.)

While I don't own a natural horn (they're so expensive :() I've played them plenty of times and it's simply awesome how easy certain stuff is on them. (Plus, I absolutely love their sound.)

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@Siwi and Gardner: Consumed and understood, and I appreciate what you have to say.

It occurs to me now that perhaps my attitude was a little too strident in my earlier comment, which comes of having heard my work ruined to some degree on more than one occasion. Let me step back from that a bit and clarify some things.

Being primarily an 18th Century Historicist (Classical and Baroque), I actually conceive and score my music for period instruments - in this case, natural horns. However, this doesn't mean I'm going to turn down a performance by a modern orchestra, even if it wouldn't be my first choice; after all, modern orchestras play 18th Century music all the time. Even so, I don't approach my work on the assumption that only modern players will be performing it, as my preference would invariably be a performance on period instruments. I want to make that very clear.

Next, I should mention that I have been asked to make concessionary re-writes in my symphonic works to accommodate modern horn players, and these revisions I did make, however begrudgingly; yet despite these accommodations, there were still problems in performance that in my opinion should not have been an issue, because these same players would have performed similarly-scored music by Mozart or Haydn or Beethoven with as much technical prowess as they possessed, resulting in far fewer errors. I gave my horn players their parts well in advance of the first rehearsal, so they knew what they were in for. Why, then, was not the same effort and preparation put into my work as would have been put into that of the aforementioned masters, whose techniques I follow practically to the letter?

In light of this, the issue then becomes, for me, one of professional integrity and respect for the composer - and therefore, it's personal. Whether my work compares to the masters in quality is immaterial, particularly when I have gone to the trouble of re-writing a part I should not have had to re-write, for no other reason than to make the players' lives easier. Siwi's analogy that my horn writing is the equivalent of writing a violin part for the viola doesn't really apply here, because in fact, horn players can and do play this kind of music all the time, whether it's difficult or not. In my historicist work I operate as an 18th Century composer (were I to do otherwise, the authenticity I demand of myself would be compromised), and as I am in no way equivocal about this, I have every reasonable expectation of being interpreted as one.

As for possible solutions to the issue: if a player thinks that it would be easier to play something I've written on an instrument other than a modern horn in F (descant horn was mentioned), then more power to him. Whatever will solve the problem is fine with me, though I have yet to have someone even bother to suggest such a solution; the players I deal with seem to prefer complaining to solving the problem, which is ultimately theirs to solve. But I'm not going to change the way I score, which is exactly the way my models scored in their day, and their pieces are still played by what is in standard use today, regardless of what they were actually written for.

Do you see where I am coming from here?

Another thing I'd like to address, for what it's worth: while the parts written for natural horns and trumpets in the 18th Century may seem relatively undemanding compared to Mahler (to quote Siwi's example), let's not sell the musicians who had to play them short, nor underestimate their stamina. A fact that is not generally known is that horn and trumpet players were formerly trained on horseback, their primary purpose having been to serve as signal instruments for hunting and military use. Hence these players were rather overqualified for sitting comfortably in an orchestra, no matter what they were asked to play. In light of that, I don't think it's accurate to assume that they would not have been the equal of any modern player in sheer stamina. Quite the contrary, in fact, since I don't believe modern brass players are typically trained on galloping horses anymore.

Put yet another way: if 18th Century composers' experience of brass players had been that they were not capable of playing the music they wrote for them, would they have continued writing it that way? Probably not. But the fact is, they did continue in the same vein (though music got less demanding for trumpeters as clarino technique went out of favour), and in the case of Beethoven and his contemporaries, the music written for the natural horn in particular only got more challenging. It's therefore logical to assume that the players were more than capable of accurately executing what was written for them most of the time. These same parts are played by modern players today with a reasonable degree of accuracy, difficult or not. Therefore, why should I be obliged to operate any differently than my models did in this regard? As I see it, the answer is: there is no defensible reason why I should, and I won't.

All this notwithstanding, in light of my real-world experience, if I were ever asked to write a Classical piece specifically to be played by a modern orchestra, I might think twice before doing so in any key higher than F; but that is the only concession I am inclined to make.

I hope that clarifies my position somewhat.

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Oh, I do hear you. I never meant to imply you were wrong for writing the way you did. If you write music that seeks to emulate the music of the 18th century, then writing in a way appropriate for instruments of the 18th century is perfectly adequate. I'm not saying you must write music that is comfortable and easy to play on a modern horn.

I just wanted to explain where the problems might have come from (since this thread is about peculiarities of certain instruments, after all, and not deficiencies in the performers).

We all have to decide again and again how many compromises we are willing to make in order to guarantee a satisfying performance. There are groups of composers who are extremely pragmatically oriented and only write things that will produce the maximum effect with minimum rehearsal time. And there are more idealistically inclined ones who may often write things that are problematic, hard to play, and which may surely "fail" during a performance. Most composers tend to find themselves somewhere in the middle there, both not wanting to compromise their musical ideas too much, yet still wanting a reasonably successful performance.

Personally I'm all for encouraging people to dare being a bit on the idealistic side there. Writing things of which you don't know for sure whether they'll "work". Writing things that may stretch the limits of what your performers expect and are used to. Writing things that may actually require more rehearsal time than your performers will likely be putting in. I say this because I believe it is a good thing when there's challenge in music. There's already way too much comfort, relaxation, and routine in the musical scene. Yet, of course, I'm aware that this comes at a high price. Namely, unsatisfying performances. I don't think there's any composer who hasn't witnessed them, in varying degrees.

Now, you also raise another point: That the very same performers would have performed a Mozart piece with the same difficulty much, much better. This is sadly true as well. I think the primary reason for this is a form of personal vanity: If people hear a Mozart piece badly played, they'll immediately blame the performers. They know that Mozart "is supposed to be a master", so it couldn't have been his fault, so anything that sounds bad falls back on the performers. This gets even more pronounced if we're talking about a popular piece that many people know, which they have heard performed by other musicians, which they know from CD etc. This creates a certain pressure on the musicians to practice hard, because they are competing with all the other performances of the same music.

The same kind of pressure doesn't exist when musicians play music of a less famous composer. Nobody knows the music, so people won't compare it with other performances. And since the composer isn't already famous as a "master", people will be more likely to hear weaknesses in the performance as errors on the composer's part, rather than the performer's. That is a problem every contemporary composer faces, but it depends of course a lot on the work ethics of the performers. There are luckily also plenty of musicians who take their job seriously enough to put in their best efforts regardless and present even an unknown composer's pieces as well as they possibly can. At least, if financial management decisions don't totally cut away all rehearsal time...

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Graham -

Actually your points are great and point to a whole different discussion which SSC has brought up: One of the challenges of writing music today is the competition of printed and recorded music of the past. Especially when some of the patrons of performing arts organizations can show astounding music illiteracy (I recall overhearing a donor on tour of the Juilliard School a few years ago he says - Wow a library! - obviously surprised music school have a library).

I will say there are areas where the envelope is being pushed - City Opera in NYC put on a program of One Act operas: one written ion 2000 by Zorn, another by Feldman (not sure of the date), and Etwartung by Schoenberg (19019). It was a wonderful program and well performed and well staged.

I think the problem is compounded by being a composer/historicist. Avant garde can at least hold the promise of a new technique or style a performer can be the first to learn and master. But for your case Graham, performers sometimes may think - why bother, there are a ton of Classical style symphonies to perform. Very tough situation and all I can say is find some of the Baroque period ensembles to do your work. There IS hope. Hueglas Ensemble has commissioned composers to write based on Renaissance form and style choral pieces (see their album 40 voixs which features a polychoral work by a contemporary composer) - the results are rather cool - you hear some more modern treatment yet the sound is rather unique due to the Renaissance influence.

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I gave my horn players their parts well in advance of the first rehearsal, so they knew what they were in for. Why, then, was not the same effort and preparation put into my work as would have been put into that of the aforementioned masters, whose techniques I follow practically to the letter?

Well yes, sadly this is an attitude that many of us have encountered, one that can spoil the privilege of having our pieces performed. (Although I'm not sure it should be solely a privilege for the composer - players and conductors should consider themselves fortunate that you trust them with your work and have given them the privilege of presenting it). In your case, the fact that you write in a style originating from a long-abandoned period of culture must have thrown sceptical players from one assumption to another: having found they would not be playing 'squeaky-gate' music, they switched to assuming that your historicist work was to be a feeble pastiche of the canonical greats, whose unwavering perfection, as has been pointed out, is not for debate. Either prejudice engenders a 'jobsworth' attitude; viz. 'the music's next to worthless so I won't bother working too hard on it, and anyway all composers are arrogant agitators (apart from the dead ones) so whilst he's here I'll make very clear to this one what I like and don't like to do.' You will appreciate, of course, that there are many musicians of all ages and abilities who do not entertain this mentality and are willing, even excited, to play new works whatever their style.

What can we do about these people? I am not convinced that capitulating to write 'safe' and unchallenging parts helps anyone. On the other hand, I have little time for those who set out to make things intentionally difficult with no good reason (thus I have little patience with the 'New Complexity' school and its disciples Finnisey and Ferneyhough whose music is not just described as 'unplayable', it is literally and intentionally unplayable). I think the key is whether a particular decision is artistically justified (and putting horn players on horseback very well could be!). This means that it must be the most effective - practical and aesthetic - way of achieving a particular result, a criterion which is practically unassailable. By this standard, your parts are fully justified.

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I know it's been a while since someone has posted on this one, but besides all the very apt points already listed, there is one major one I think has been overlooked: PAGETURNS. A lot of composers forget this very important bit, especially (for example) when a string section carries on through six or seven pages without respite. Unless the composer intended those crucial sections to die down since half the players need to frantically switch to the next section while the other half try desperately to remember what is on the next page.

String sections have the biggest culprits, methinks, mostly because there are more stand partners and most people use them as the main focus for melodies and structure.... (And yes, I'm guilty of it too)

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sidheman - excellent point. That is true too of pianist. The worst thing you could do is say have a page turn in the middle of a broken octave at Presto section or some extremely complicated and dense contrapuntal writing broken up by a page turn. In general bad page turns happen when you have it breaking up a very complicated or technically difficult texture.

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On the other hand, I have little time for those who set out to make things intentionally difficult with no good reason (thus I have little patience with the 'New Complexity' school and its disciples Finnisey and Ferneyhough whose music is not just described as 'unplayable', it is literally and intentionally unplayable).

Personally, I consider it common courtesy to give all composers the benefit of the doubt to assume that they do have good reasons for whatever they're doing. Whether you agree with their reasoning is another question, but I find it a little cheeky to accuse someone like Ferneyhough of doing what he does just for random lolz.

In general bad page turns happen when you have it breaking up a very complicated or technically difficult texture.

Or, sometimes, in the exact opposite situation: A general pause. That happened to me once in an orchestral piece. I thought I was clever by setting a page turn right after such a general pause, thinking "well, nobody has to play here, so it's no problem".

Well, what I hadn't considered was the actual performative effect of this. Imagine the whole orchestra coming to a sudden, dramatical halt in the music, a moment of silence. And then everyone turns their pages, possibly with a little noise, completely destroying the pause. Similar problems arise when the performers have to perform other actions during such a pause: Putting on mutes, for instance. A whole string section putting on mutes will create some noise, and even if it doesn't, it will be a visual distraction, so better lay out your music in a way that they can put on their mutes when it's being hidden by other things going on at the same time.

Since we're talking about orchestral setups here, let's add some considerations for orchestral percussion writing to this:

Unless you are writing for a very limited set of percussion instruments, the setup of your percussion instruments is something a composer must be very aware of. You can't just write for 20 different percussion instruments for one percussionist and expect them to be able to switch around between them without delay. You need to actually consider how they can be placed, what paths the percussionist(s) need to take to get from one to the other at a given point in your music, what kind of sticks/mallets the percussionist(s) will have at each moment in each hand, etc. For instance, if you have a timpani tremolo followed by a bass drum hit, the percussionist may be able to play both with the same sticks in his hands. But if you follow it up with a triangle hit, that's a lot more problematic, since the player has to pick up a triangle stick first.

So consider what your percussionists are doing at every moment. Where do they walk, what do they have in their hands, how do they move around. It's very likely that in the end, the percussionists will do it totally different than you thought and find different solutions for everything. But at least, your thinking will guarantee that there -is- a working solution to playing your piece.

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With Percussion:

* Make notation consistent and logical. If you use treble space e for the suspended cymbal, do so for the entire piece.

* 4 mallet-writing: Play the part on the piano, using your pinkies and thumbs of each hand. If you can do it, then it probably works for us range wise. Remember that although on piano you can play something in your right hand like Eb with an A above it rather easily, for us we have to move our entire arm. So alternating rapidly between something like Eb/A and E/Bb in one hand does not work.

* Instrument changes: Give us at least a measure to change instruments. Longer if we're changing mallets.

* Timpani - pick 4 pitches that you need and stick there. Then if you need to change pitches, have us change one drum at a time. The exception should be re-tuning drums - it shouldn't be that often.

* Part divisions - Try to assign each percussionist one or two instruments that they always play. Something like Bass Drum usually has to be shared, so try to keep one person on that if it is a substantial enough part.

* Number of instruments: if we have to get out 11 instruments, please have us play all 11 instruments. Nothing is worse than getting out 6 tom-toms for one measure.

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  • 1 month later...
I think the problem is compounded by being a composer/historicist. Avant garde can at least hold the promise of a new technique or style a performer can be the first to learn and master. But for your case Graham, performers sometimes may think - why bother, there are a ton of Classical style symphonies to perform. Very tough situation and all I can say is find some of the Baroque period ensembles to do your work. There IS hope. Hueglas Ensemble has commissioned composers to write based on Renaissance form and style choral pieces (see their album 40 voixs which features a polychoral work by a contemporary composer) - the results are rather cool - you hear some more modern treatment yet the sound is rather unique due to the Renaissance influence.

Yeah, that "why bother" thing is the ultimate in unprofessional, IMHO. If someone hires you to play a piece, it's your job to learn it and play it to the very best of your abilities, and if I happen to know you can play Horn I in Beethoven's "Eroica," you'd better not f*ck up my part. Simple. And yes, ensembles are starting to embrace historicist works, sometimes wholeheartedly. I'm trying to get in contact with Musica Angelica to see if I can coax (or buy) a performance or recording from them. We'll see. Might be too rich for my blood.

@Jamie: YES! I'm actually really glad to see this list here. I'm not a big percussion guy, but I recently had to re-arrange a Frank Zappa piece for live performance, and somehow I innately knew that some of these things had to be observed, even if Frank hadn't been concerned with them - though there are a couple of points here that I hadn't thought of that are quite useful. I was actually pretty proud of the way I redistributed complex music originally written for 2 percussionists for 3 players; it made a lot more sense if I do say so.

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Apropos to my horn playing complaint, check this out:

J.N. Hummel (1778-1837): Wind Serenade in F - Finale (excerpt)

Pretty tricky couple of licks, huh? That's a modern horn player struggling with that part, but it was written for NATURAL horn. And they couldn't hire Giovanni Punto (look him up) for every gig, so I have to surmise this was composed for a capable, run-of-the-mill Viennese horn player, not a virtuoso. Lest there be any doubt that period horn players were bad-donkey. ;)

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Personally, I consider it common courtesy to give all composers the benefit of the doubt to assume that they do have good reasons for whatever they're doing. Whether you agree with their reasoning is another question, but I find it a little cheeky to accuse someone like Ferneyhough of doing what he does just for random lolz.

You misunderstand me. I am certainly not slamming the New Complexity school for 'random lolz', but rather because its aesthetic seems a futile and hubristic scheme to intentionally write music that is unplayable, and then have the interest in performance come from hearing the performer try to get as much of the music as right as they can, knowing that they can never fully succeed. This does a disservice to highly skilled players and begs the question of why the composers do not use some kind of technology to achieve what humans cannot. Otherwise, the successful and complete realisation of the music actually becomes an artistic failure. I realise an underlying assumption here is that quality in musical composition and performance in part consists of appropriate writing for an instrument's technical abilities, and in realising the writing as accurately as possible, but this is an aesthetical concept that is overwhelmingly present in human society and culture.

Another point about page turns is to never put a string divisi over a page turn, otherwise you will lose the part played by whichever side of the desk is turning the page. And it's better to have too few notes on a page than too many.

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An addition for timpani:

Watch how many notes you have at the same time, in the same register. I have experienced having to tune a timpani between to eighths because the composer wanted the notes Eb-D-F (all bebeath the bass clef) after each other. Only the two lowest timpani (29" and 32") can play those notes, making it impossible to do properly. (The Armed Man by Karl Jenkins)

Also, while I dont mind tuning the timpani in the music, please dont make me do it all the loving time. A brass band piece called Whitsun Wakes had me tuning at least one timpani, often two, after almost every bar of playing.

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You misunderstand me. I am certainly not slamming the New Complexity school for 'random lolz', but rather because its aesthetic seems a futile and hubristic scheme to intentionally write music that is unplayable, and then have the interest in performance come from hearing the performer try to get as much of the music as right as they can, knowing that they can never fully succeed. This does a disservice to highly skilled players and begs the question of why the composers do not use some kind of technology to achieve what humans cannot. Otherwise, the successful and complete realisation of the music actually becomes an artistic failure. I realise an underlying assumption here is that quality in musical composition and performance in part consists of appropriate writing for an instrument's technical abilities, and in realising the writing as accurately as possible, but this is an aesthetical concept that is overwhelmingly present in human society and culture.

Another point about page turns is to never put a string divisi over a page turn, otherwise you will lose the part played by whichever side of the desk is turning the page. And it's better to have too few notes on a page than too many.

Music by the so-called "New Complexity school", by which I'll assume you're referring to Ferneyhough, is written with extreme attention to the instruments technical abilities. I doubt there is any piece, at least any mature piece, which is remotely possible on another instrument. The structure of his, many of his, pieces are so intimately tied to the specific timbres involved that it's impossible to re-arrange them without fundamentally altering the piece.

You also bring up another point, when you claim the pieces are "impossible"... ...Ferneyhough's music is no more impossible than a "completely accurate" representative of a bar of even eighth notes on a single pitch. The very physical nature of sound production on an instrument makes it impossible to play completely evenly in time, and completely evenly in pitch.

Performers attempt to perform Ferneyhough's music as accurately as possible, as they would any piece. There is no ideal "perfect" realization of any music, only many variations and interpretations. I think the fact that many of the world's top ensembles are attracted to performing Ferneyhough's music speaks to how it is very appealing to top players, rather than disrespectful. And anyone who listens to these performances, really listens (closely, you have to), can understand the value of such richly detailed music.

I mean really:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGUvn_OkSfw&feature=related

The quality of that recording is questionable though.

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  • 2 months later...

Imma try to bring this back on topic, and I haven't heard the oboe addressed well, yet.

Range REALLY affects the oboe's timbre, as it does almost any wind instrument, but I feel like the oboe is especially affected.

Oboe does not play a true pianissimo below about a low D. We try our best but the tone down in the lowest register requires a lot of air and pinching the airflow, an important techniques to produce a soft dynamic since changing air speed does crazy things to tuning, will result in the note not speaking at all. Be careful when writing for the oboe in a soft passage. For me as a general rule, higher notes are easier to control softly. I would much rather be playing a pp high G (like, double high G) than a p low Bb.

The oboe has an insane number of register breaks. C-Db inside the treble clef staff transitions from low register to half-hole (the first register key is not pressed down, instead the left hand's pointer finger slides to half-open that key). Eb (D#) to E above that transitions to the first register key. It's a break that is not difficult, mostly because we practice it all the time, but it does make rapid alternation between, say D# to E, difficult. In fact, that D# to E transition is one of the most difficult half-steps on the instrument until you get up above high C.

G# to A (first ledger line) switches to the second register key (Note, the switch happens from G to Ab on english horn, which is the only fingering difference I know of between the two instruments, though I haven't played english horn much at all). This is also not usually something to worry about, but again rapid transition between G# and A are not fun. It's a trill that's never really in tune. I would never write it.

High C to Db is about equivalent to the same break on a clarinet. Meaning, try not to overdo it.

High F to high F# is ANOTHER break, and not a fun one at all.

Really high notes on the oboe-more than two octaves above middle C (which we call "low" C btw)

Yes, it's perfectly fine to write for oboe above high E. I just graduated high school and I can reliably play a high G, and a good professional can probably reliably hit a high A. I've seen fingerings for Db above that (but please don't get any ideas unless, say, you personally know Eugene Izotov :toothygrin: ). Tuning might be an issue but the player can figure that out.

Now, just so you know, the fingerings above high C royally suck. They're really complicated and a half-step slur could necessitate the movement of four or five fingers, or use of alternate fingerings that are almost certainly out of tune (exceptions: High Db-D, high E-F, which only move one finger). DO NOT write extended sixteenth note passages above high D. Only someone like John Mack could play it and sound halfway decent. Endurance/stamina is really a problem in this register as well; I wouldn't keep your oboist there for very long.

Endurance/stamina

I feel like an oboist has less endurance than most wind instruments. This is simply my personal experience, from "losing my embrochure" in band rehearsal before my peers, or playing Mozart's Concerto and knowing that I have all the technique down if I can just sustain my air and embrochure through the entire movement (I'm still working on some technique in the 3rd movement). Try not to keep us above the treble clef staff for forever, although we can sustain it for a good while. Please don't keep us in the highest register for very long; it requires a lot of control and stamina to sustain those tones for very long at all.

To get a feel for the endurance of a good oboist, look at the first movement of Mozart's concerto (there are public domain copies floating around the web, and I even have one on my computer :toothygrin: ). Notice where Mozart gives the soloist a break, and try not to write passages of continuous playing for much longer than that.

Trills/alternations not to write: Low Bb to B. This is just impossible. It's a really awkward slide of the left pinky. A higher Bb to B is possible, BUT it's also an awkward hand position, so add a rest at the end, not ornaments. G# (Ab) to A is possible but not very well in tune. Low C to low Db trill is supposed to be possible with an extra low C key but it requires an awkward finger position on a key that usually has a GIANT hole in it. I still can't reach the key without partially uncovering the hole (and then nothing speaks!). Repeated A to C or G to Bb is annoying. That's about it.

A final interesting note that's vital for any general music teacher working with an ensemble that contains oboists: The double reeds are the ONLY wind instruments that DO NOT have any sort of tuning mechanism to physically adjust on their instrument. The oboe is designed to be played with all body pieces, and the reed, pushed all the way in. Never tell an oboist to adjust the position of their reed. They have to adjust their embrochure or get a better reed.

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*applauds* this is all true, I played the oboe, though I haven't really kept it up, so it kinda sounds... weird now :P But I know all this. I really like oboes, as you can tell by my name, so I always have lots of oboes so I can keep it going for a long time :)

A few viola things:

Yes we can go above high C (2 octaves above Middle C). I wouldn't recommend it for orchestral works for extended periods of time, but in solo pieces, you can go as high as an A or sometimes even a C (I've played both) They have a unique sound, so don't be afraid of treble clef in the viola!

F sharp major is okay, as long as nobody has to run all over the place like a chicken without a head.

double stops are FUN!

We like the C string. a lot.

:)

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Adding to the percussion tips, your notation must be clear and consistent. I gave a seminar on writing for percussion once, and the mnemonic I came up with is "Hit what, with what, move to what." In other words, for any note, you should label the instrument being played, what it is being played with, and to what instrument the player will move to next. Many common instruments will have a "default" beater (such as sticks for snare drum or bass beater for bass drum), and as such the second step isn't always necessary, but even for instruments like glockenspiel, suspended cymbal, and marimba, you should specify the mallet you want used. The caveat to this is that most percussionists have spent years in band class playing music written by mediocre composers that had no idea what they were doing when it came to percussion, and have developed the skill known as "figure out how to make vague, impossible stuff work," so if you forget to say that the suspended cymbal part should be played with medium yarn mallets, the player will generally try a few things out and go with what he or she feels works best.

Speaking of cymbals reminds me, you should err on the side of specificity. One of the most annoying things is to see some whole note in the middle of the staff with "cymbal" written over it, because I have no idea what type of cymbal, what mallet I should be playing it with, whether I'm supposed to sustain it for a whole note or hit it once, whether I should let it ring or choke it, etc. etc. Be clear with what you write.

Score for players, not instruments. I've seen scores that were half percussion staves, because the composer wrote separate staves for wood block, triangle, cymbal, bass drum, snare drum, etc. even though, in performance, those parts had to be recombined into two or three players. Sort out the parts by person, give each just one staff, and notate instrument changes with words (e.g. "to wood block"). This removes the superfluous logistics step of laying out all the parts, then re-writing them for the performing forces available.

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  • 9 months later...

Adding to the percussion tips, your notation must be clear and consistent. I gave a seminar on writing for percussion once, and the mnemonic I came up with is "Hit what, with what, move to what." In other words, for any note, you should label the instrument being played, what it is being played with, and to what instrument the player will move to next. Many common instruments will have a "default" beater (such as sticks for snare drum or bass beater for bass drum), and as such the second step isn't always necessary, but even for instruments like glockenspiel, suspended cymbal, and marimba, you should specify the mallet you want used. The caveat to this is that most percussionists have spent years in band class playing music written by mediocre composers that had no idea what they were doing when it came to percussion, and have developed the skill known as "figure out how to make vague, impossible stuff work," so if you forget to say that the suspended cymbal part should be played with medium yarn mallets, the player will generally try a few things out and go with what he or she feels works best.

Speaking of cymbals reminds me, you should err on the side of specificity. One of the most annoying things is to see some whole note in the middle of the staff with "cymbal" written over it, because I have no idea what type of cymbal, what mallet I should be playing it with, whether I'm supposed to sustain it for a whole note or hit it once, whether I should let it ring or choke it, etc. etc. Be clear with what you write.

Score for players, not instruments. I've seen scores that were half percussion staves, because the composer wrote separate staves for wood block, triangle, cymbal, bass drum, snare drum, etc. even though, in performance, those parts had to be recombined into two or three players. Sort out the parts by person, give each just one staff, and notate instrument changes with words (e.g. "to wood block"). This removes the superfluous logistics step of laying out all the parts, then re-writing them for the performing forces available.

THANK YOU! You have no idea how helpful this is!

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