Poly-technical arranging for your ensemble

Dr. Jim Coyle

“Most of my students love playing this chart, but three of them get bored because it is too easy and four more struggle to get their fingers around the notes.”

If this sounds familiar, a poly-technical arrangement or composition maybe what you need. Poly-technicality encourages musicians of differing levels of technical ability to make musically meaningful contributions to the same piece of music.  

General principles for arranging a poly-technical chart, particularly focusing on the easier parts

  • Don't worry about simplifying syncopated rhythms. Even the most elementary students can play syncopated rhythms if they are taught aurally; it is reading syncopated notations they find difficult.
  • Short notes tend to sound better than long notes for beginners. Elementary string players have no problem repeating the same pitch in fairly fast rhythms.
  • If you choose the key of your arrangement carefully, it is possible to create string parts that are largely or entirely dependent on open strings.
  • Consider writing double stops for strings with one note being an open string. Try to make this work in a musical context, because there is a reasonably good chance you will get these double stops even if you do not ask for them.
  • Don't feel obliged to have all of your instruments playing all the time; but eight bars is a reasonable maximum length of rest for an elementary player.
  • In the very early stages, dynamics on many instruments are a matter of wishful thinking. Therefore, bear in mind that elementary saxophones and brass instruments are likely to be loud.
  • Treat percussion instruments seriously. They are an important and integral part of an arrangement and not an afterthought.
  • Bear in mind obvious obstacles to pitch range, such as the break in a clarinet’s register.
  • With woodwind and brass instruments at a beginner level, the three or four easiest notes to learn first are not necessarily the first notes they are expected to learn in a band method book. Talk to instrumental specialists about the best notes to use for arrangements with beginners.

If you apply these elementary principles, it is possible to add meaningful parts for beginners to an arrangement; or, even better, to create an original piece that has these elementary parts built in as an integral component. This does require careful thought and management, and the needs of the more advanced players must be borne in mind as well.  

Arranging/composing with poly-technicality in mind

With my own compositions, I will often write 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th violin parts for string ensembles, with 3rd violins using only first position and 4th violins using open strings only. Naturally, this has an impact on the choice of keys available to me. Some of this poly-technical string music is available at https://australianautumnmusic.com.au 

When writing for the concert band, I make sure there are easier parts for the most popular instruments, namely flute, clarinet, alto saxophone, trumpet, trombone and percussion. I call these parts rookie parts, which makes them more palatable for the less experienced or less able musicians. 

I have also taken the opposite approach to poly-technicality by creating a series of short concertos, each of which gives a featured solo part to that one student of exceptional ability. These also have rookie parts for the popular instruments mentioned above, as well as a full band score over technical level in between these two. These are the spotlight concertos and are available from https://mattklohs.com/collections/print-music 

There are also a number of techniques that may be used to create poly-technical choral music, but these are matters for another time. 

What is poly-technicality?

Poly-technicality is not a new idea, although the term is new. We find examples in composers such as Vivaldi, Haydn and Mozart. However, it was Benjamin Britten in the 20th century whose music saw the first full flowering of this technique, particularly in the pageant Noye’s Fludde (1958). Britten’s contribution to the development of poly-technical music is explored in depth in my doctoral thesis. 

Dr. Jim Coyle is a music educator and composerHe lectures in music education at Sydney Conservatorium of Music. He is sought after as a leader of professional learning for music teachers, as a mentor to young composers and as a conductor of young bands, orchestras and choirs. Find out more about Jim's work here: www.jimcoylemusic.com

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