The 2012 March Book Project, and Stuff I Learned from it

Today I released The 2012 March Book Project in its entirety (score and parts), marking the end of this fun, engaging project I've been working on since April. I've published videos of the scores and basic piano mixdowns here and here. The distribution of the actual full document with scores and parts is being kept limited for now. And as a side note, yes - I am totally citing this as my excuse for not posting or updating for so long. The nature of the project has been a bit specific, so I chose not to write about it until it was all done; but now that it's been uploaded, printed, and given out to all the folks who either asked for it or should otherwise get a copy, I figure I can talk about it a bit now, and some of the lessons it taught me about more complex orchestration.

"March Book" refers to a format and style of writing which is in wide use in 'brass and reed' marching bands of the Canadian Cadet Movement. It's not my invention; the three original march books for Air, Army and Sea cadets respectively came out from roughly 1995 to 1997; and they've enjoyed plenty of use for the last 15 years or so.

The key to it is simplicity and ease of use. An officer who is assigned to head a cadet band may not necessarily be, themselves, a musician - and that means that they cannot be presumed to know how to transpose, or read music. And, since having a band is completely optional, the instrumentation and skill level of any one ensemble varies from unit to unit, and can fluctuate constantly as cadet join or leave for various reasons. The march book format takes this into consideration, and, makes it much easier for a non-musician to use it.

Here's how it works: each piece is written in four parts, not to be confused with four-part harmony. It is rather a four part texture, were each part has been written for musicians of a different experience level, assigning them appropriately matched functions in the ensemble. The parts are labeled A, B, C, and D (and percussion, which is written on one staff for bass drum, snare, and crash cymbals all together). The A part is melody. The B part can either complement the A part as close harmony, or contribute to chords (or other textural elements) found in the C part. The C part is the simplest part, intended for inexperienced musicians, and can serve as part of the middle harmony, or a simplified bass line. The D part is the 'complex bass line', ideally what the whole low-end of the ensemble should be playing in unison.

Every instrument, from piccolo right down to tuba, is provided a copy of all four parts, each transposed and range-checked for their instrument. This means that any player in the ensemble can choose which part they are most comfortable with, based on their skill level - melody (advanced), close harmony (intermediate), simple harmony or bass (easy), or regular bass line (intermediate, lower instruments). It means that a group with a constantly fluctuating instrumentation can still perform the music, so long as all four parts are represented somehow. And, if the Band Officer is a non-musician, they just need to know that advanced players get Part A, intermediate get part B, beginners get part C, and intermediate low-end instruments get part D.

Those of you who have followed me for a while may remember that I once had some trouble getting an orchestrated march performed by cadet ensembles, and part of that was because no two cadet bands can be assumed to have the same instrumentation. Writing in March Book format ensures that the essential elements of a piece will be represented in performance no matter what- and what it lacks in choice of timbre, the format makes up for in clarity, simplicity, strength, flexibility and just plain 'performability'.

Now, to be clear, I wouldn't think of striding into an orchestration class and bragging about this format. A piece written in March Book does not allow for the melody (or any other element for that matter) to switch between sets of instruments throughout the piece, for one thing; if you give the A part to the lead trumpet, flute and alto sax, the melody will be played by those instruments, from the start of the piece until the end. And the idea of writing music in a four part format which doesn't use four-part harmony and even seeks to apply a sort of 'copy & paste' procedure to orchestration? I'm sure it wouldn't go over well with any professor trying to teach their students to study each instrument intimately and individually - a very . But how could a young orchestrator learn from a clunky-looking system for youth bands? Well, consider this system, or a modification thereof, being used as one of several tools in your compositional toolkit. It's much easier, in my opinion, to construct a simple passage by writing out the melody, harmonizing it down by a third or a sixth, putting in a bass line, and maybe a line just above it to fill in any gaps in the harmony (listen to the opening passage of Leo Delibes' ballet "Sylvie" and see if you can replicate it on Sibelius using that process- I bet you don't even need the 'middle harmony' part ) and then assign those elements en masse to the appropriate set of instruments being used in that passage. Voila! You've got an easy way to construct a simple, clear, and likely full-sounding passage. Don't wear it out, but feel free to take advantage of this process on both large-scale mass instrumentations, or intimate ones.

Speaking of clarity, here's why this system is a nice trainer for a young orchestrator: it forces you to keep a small maximum number of elements in each passage, ensuring clarity. It's very easy for the young orchestrator to look at an orchestral score, with all its variety of instruments, and feel the need to write a unique part for every single one; or to keep layering on textural elements until the overlap one another and sound muddy. Writing in a 4-part system which gives each part a specific function in the overall mix, forces the composer not to write more than four elements, and gives them a great 'at-a-glance' view of whether any elements are too closely spaced to one another. It's also flexible - the 'C' part meant for simple harmony doesn't have to retain the march book's "one voice only" function when being used to write for an orchestra; it can be given chords which need to be voiced to a whole set of instruments together - and again, the composer can see right away whether these chords overlap other elements like the melody. Combine that with how easy it is to construct a simple passage in this way, and then copy and paste each element into its assigned instrument, and you've got a powerful tool for basic composition and orchestration.

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All Written Material © 2009-2017 by Elliot Wright. All rights reserved.