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Writing for Big Band?

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In the fall, the Big dig! Band will roll out its second season, and once again, we’re inviting anyone in the community to try their hand at composing/arranging. It’s a big deal to feel your musical imagination expressed by seventeen or eighteen professional musicians! Getting those ideas translated and organized for that large an ensemble can pose some challenges, so here’s a few tips:

  • Think of the rhythm section as a small band within the big band. The big band sounds best when the small band is allowed to improvise more and isn’t made to be as specific and detailed as the horns. For example, when you write out the bass line, the bass player is compelled to continually repeat the same notes, which invites boredom. It’s best to write out chord changes the bass player can use to create the bass line—unless there’s something very specific you want him to do at certain times.
  • You want the drummer to be as free as he can be, but you also want the drummer and lead trumpeter to connect, so you’re aiming for a combination of specific freedoms. If you have a melody in the lead trumpet, you want the drummer to play all the accents of that melody.
  • There’s another ensemble within the band that’s more like a traditional jazz octet or nonet. The second trumpet, second trombone, first tenor sax, first alto sax, and sometimes the bari are your soloists, so think of them—with the rhythm section—as the heart of your big band.
  • The saxophones are the face of the band. The brass is the underscore. Quite often, the saxophones will get the melody first, or they’ll get the sweet greeting and ensemble playing, then when it gets really emotional, the melody gets passed off to the trumpets.
  • When orchestrating, think of the melody like a sparkling jewel that’s constantly changing colours when you turn it in the light. Each section of instruments is like a different coloured light, so you give your jewel four bars of saxophone light, four bars of trombone light, or combine trombone and saxophone, or trumpet and trombone, then maybe just piano, or piano and guitar. Try to change the colour every four to eight bars—not only will it be fun to listen to, but it will also be very satisfying to experience.
  • Musical ideas tend to come in fragments, and basically once is not enough for a fragment, but twice is too many times. So basically your aim is to have continuity, but also to make variations. See how long you can keep an idea alive without it going stale.
  • When writing an arrangement, it’s good to have a soli section, which is when a large section or even the whole orchestra plays together. Often this is an idea that comes as an inspiration from listening to all your other ideas. When that soli section emerges, it can have a dramatic impact, because your idea is more developed, and because a large part of the band is stating it together.

The topic of wiring for big band has filled volumes of books—I probably have thirty on my shelf! But hopefully these tips will inspire you to get started on a new work, or revisit a tune you never quite developed. When you feel ready to share what you’re writing, email me (steve.kirby@umanitoba.ca) or Derrick Gardner (derrick.gardner@umanitoba.ca), and we’ll work out the logistics. We looking forward to hearing more and more writing from local composers as season two of the Big dig! Band unfolds.


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