Instrumental Style

This week we look at instrumental style – the importance of having respect for the character of the instruments we write for, not merely their range and capabilities. Ideally, we would not regard this as a separate aspect of our work since composers generally conceive in instrumental terms at the outset, unless they are re-arranging a piece, for example orchestrating a piano composition. (I spent quite some time writing for a radio orchestra that had everything but the kitchen sink – even an early synthesiser – but no brass.)

The book has a comprehensive section on instrumental characteristics. The following comments contain hints that are based more on common sense than knowledge.

Saxes are more fluid than brass. They are most at home playing expressive melodies (‘cantabile’) where the wide range of the full section can be exploited, together with its legato capabilities. Percussive, rhythmic playing can be achieved but without the projection and crispness offered by trumpets and trombones. Saxophonists have to work slightly harder to achieve precision and in lesser bands there will often be a machine gun effect across the section as the players strike a note. Staccato playing requires extra effort, too. Contrary to what many brass players think (the grass is always greener…) sax players do suffer fatigue but the section is more tireless than the brass due to the fact that the brass mouthpiece restricts blood supply, even when minimum pressure is used.

The weakest register of the clarinet is right in the middle, the ‘throat’ tones, and players have to work hard to provide an even transition through this area. Clarinets are surprisingly resonant right down to their lowest notes (blending well with the marimba) and can cut through anything in their upper register.

Rapid changes in dynamics are less appropriate for the oboe and English horn (which is an alto oboe). These instruments also honk a little on their bottom notes. It’s conceivable that someone, sometime, may wish to use this very effect for its own sake (the book often warns against dogma). The resulting music would be very spikey. You want spikey? Or paint a musical picture of three witches at a cauldron? Well that’s how you could do it.

The brass section has more presence than the saxes which is why, in the ensemble, we achieve the effect of brass ‘softened’ by saxes. Brass players can achieve a variety of attack styles, combining different markings (such as accents with a dash etc.) with more success. Staccato playing is more pointed and the overall sound of the brass will expose sloppy playing more ruthlessly. Trumpet players can use alternative fingering to maintain valve, rather than tongued, legato and trombone players must move from near to far positions of the slide without the expected time delay becoming apparent. Trombone legato can only be achieved with clever tongue work and with lip slurs up or down through the air chambers. Extremely rapid double and triple tonguing in the lower middle and low registers requires skill and hard work. A slide trombone player almost always needs both hands, so leave enough time for inserting mutes, if you use them with the trombone section (which I rarely do). In extreme cases trombonists have to hold the mute and support the instrument by holding the rim of the bell, both with the left hand, to win precious seconds inserting the mute. This makes accurate placement of the mouthpiece difficult and is visually bad, if not comical.

Obviously, the slide can be used to provide smears, the trombone equivalent of glissandi. Within certain limitations, the whole section can ‘gliss’ in harmony. The invaluable diagram in the book illustrates what can and can’t be done where this much misunderstood instrument is concerned. It also shows the notes produced in first position, where a player can hold the instrument with one hand on a sustained note.

All brass instruments require greatly increased physical effort to attain their top register. This brings with it the effect of tension and, at volume especially, a feeling of aggression and power. Because of this, it is out of character to write delicate or pretty music in the high register of the trumpet. Compare this with the violin, which is able to play delicately in any register. It is the instrumental characteristics, not the pitch, which produce the differences.

Sweet trombone playing in the high register requires great control and was never encountered before jazz and swing players showed us all how. Trombones were always the artillery of the orchestra. There is still a distinct difference between a tough-but-tender trombone and a flute in the same register.

The piano is a percussive instrument and, regardless of the articulation marks, always uses a hammer striking the strings to obtain the note. The felt pad that is inserted between the hammers and strings when the soft pedal is used furnishes another level of attacks. The piano has limited powers of sustaining notes, something our ears have developed a tolerance for. Long notes have to be broken up with fills, repetitive rhythms or tremolos. The sustain pedal, which keeps the dampers off the strings, helps a bit, but as soon as a note is struck on the piano, it immediately begins to decay. There is a distinct difference between piano and organ style, partly for this reason. Modern electronic keyboards are capable of a far wider variety of attack forms due to the synthesis of the ‘sound envelope’ which shapes the attack.

The word ‘tremolo’ is used to indicate a rapid reiteration of the same note (or ‘notes’, where chords or harmonic intervals are played). It is often used to indicate vibrato which, to my mind, is incorrect. However, we do refer to ‘fingered tremolos’ in string playing which is similar to a trill but employing notes a minor 3rd or more apart (otherwise it’s called a trill on stringed instruments also). Singers may also sometimes use ‘tremolo’ to mean ‘vibrato’.

The guitar can only play legato within the span of the left hand (right hand with left-handed players) on one string at a time when plucked. Each time the hand position changes or another string is used the note must be plucked again. It is possible, especially with the bass guitar, to play single note melodies or bass lines without plucking by fingering the notes and allowing the ambient noise level to cause the strings to vibrate over the pick-ups. This style produces quite a smooth effect. I recently did a gig with a good bass guitarist who had lost the use of one arm. The human spirit is magnificent.

Drummers in a big band setting will often play a simpler style than small group players, eliminating some of the detailed embellishments which are lost in full ensembles. Players can have a hand free to change sticks or release snares etc. without too much disruption of the continuum.

Virtually everything a xylophone plays will be staccato, although different materials are used for the mallet heads, sometimes depending on whether the instrument uses synthetic or rosewood note bars. The illusion of sustain is achieved by the rapid reiteration of the notes (tremolo).

The prominent strike tone causes the xylophone to sound an octave higher so that it is usually regarded as being written down an octave, except in France, of course.

Conditions for the marimba and vibes are similar but the vibes can alter the nature of tremolo available with its variable fan speeds and the instrument also possesses a damper bar – plus soft or hard mallets.

The timpani will always ring on unless damped, another commonsense consideration. There are enough of them available to tune to every note in the chromatic scale but rapid melodic passages would be difficult to handle. Nevertheless, there is scope for some interesting effects, including chords.

Strings can be written in any style, but the most characteristic involves 3, 4 or 5 part open harmony with melodic movement in the parts and unessential notes of one kind or another. Because of the extra weight given to each voice by the large number of instruments on each part, smoothness in the voicings is important. Prolonged divisi writing in the ‘brass section’ style soon becomes tiresome and players will have to co-operate in smoothing out the sometimes clumsy effect of block scoring for strings. The book gives examples of string styles. The larger the string section the more luxurious it sounds. A small section can sound like a vaudeville band even with good players, but recording techniques can compensate to an extent. A solo instrument can be made to sound like 2 or more instruments playing in unison.

Personally, I don’t like pizzicato bass solos in jazz, but the players deserve a say, I suppose. There are some astounding players around. Strings are capable of fairly aggressive attacks when a vigorous down bow is used.

Writing for voices is similar in many ways with the added problem that some melodic intervals are more difficult to pitch than the equivalent instrumental parts. Or so they say. It really depends on how good the singers are and once more, jazz singers and writers have expanded the range of possibilities. You need the ears of a cat, I really admire these dudes. Nothing improves a horn player’s intonation more than singing the parts mentally. If you can’t conceive it you can’t play it.

The durability of the conventional orchestra, with its brass and wooden tubing and pipes, stretched skins, wooden boxes and taut strings, is truly amazing. It leans heavily on the adaptability of the human mind due to conditioning. If we lived in a world where the sky was green and the grass was blue, blue would have the same calming effect that green now has. The piano’s lack of sustain is an example.

We might have expected electronics to have taken over by now, but it isn’t happening and performing musicians are still in a job. With ‘performers’ music such as jazz, we have to achieve the minimum interruption between the mind and the fingers or hands, so musicians need to be able to interact with their instruments by blowing, bowing, plucking, fingering or striking. ‘Composers’ music, on the other hand, can benefit from computer origination, using synthesising and sampling techniques, which are becoming increasingly prevalent. Reasonable brass and saxophone sounds are now possible with expensive gear and many film scores never get to see the real thing. Even when an orchestra is provided, the composer will often present a home-made demo that is very close to the finished sound.


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