56 trumpets, 27 bones, tubas, OH MY!

One of my most enjoyable annual gigs is arranging a couple of tunes for the Penn State Blue Band.  They're big, they sound great, their drumline rocks, and they're a ton of fun.

By the numbers, I think we're looking at about 56 Trumpets, 27 Trombones, a couple dozen each of Tubas, Mellos, alto & tenor saxes, Baritone Horns, Clarinets & Piccolos. (Pragmatic director Dick Bundy realized some time ago that flutes are wasted bodies when you're playing for 110,000 football fans at a time — so it's piccolo only).

Here's our process: some time in June Dr. Bundy gives me a ring and floats a few possible tunes by me, to test my interest.  As a matter of course, I'm interested in arranging whatever he wants.  Later in the summer he sends me two recordings of each tune I'm to arrange: (1) the full-length recording and (2) a rough edit that he GarageBands to give me a general idea for the flow and shape.  He also indicates where each song fits in a program, whether it's an opener, closer, or dance number (i.e. "park and bark"), and an approximate duration.

One of my favorite challenges over the years has been to arrange Stairway to Heaven (LISTEN)—and keep it at about 2:30.  The woodwinds & altos even get to play the first 8 of Jimmy Page's solo.  Oh, yeah.

My process: Here are the steps I generally follow when writing a Blue Band chart

. Play along with the recording on piano, poking out the melody, bass lines, and chords.

. Try it in a couple of band-friendly keys

. Think about who I want playing the melody

. Mess around with the overall flow and form.  A nice plus for me is that Dr. Bundy has a really good arranger's mind for structure and flow, so I usually stick fairly closely to his rough cuts.

. After I get a handle on the big picture of the chart, I choose what seems to be the best key for passing the melody around as decided earlier.

. At this point, there's a bit of paint-by-numbers.  There is a significant utilitarian element to be mindful of when arranging music for a Big-10 Half-Time show.  So, the orchestral nuance one might use in concert music can actually weaken an arrangement for this venue.

. When I have good notes on orchestration, structure, etc., I start plugging things into Finale. Finale's playback helps me a lot in catching mis-orchestrated spots (too busy—or not busy enough).

. This whole process usually takes me somewhere in the 10-12 hours/chart ballpark, spread out over a few days.


Then comes the really fun part

Whenever possible, I bring my kids along to the Friday afternoon Blue Band rehearsal right before game-day when they're gonna play one of my arrangements.  The kids and I scale the directors' scaffolding and get serenaded by 300+ totally rockin' collegiate marching bandos!


For this season, I just completed an adaptation of the Bobby Darin version of That's All. And as soon as I sign off here I get to work on Brian Setzer's Drive Like Lightning (Crash Like Thunder).

Posted on September 7, 2011 and filed under Arranging & Composing, News & Performances.