Brian Balmages is an American composer, conductor, producer, and performer whose music for winds, brass, and orchestra is played around the world. His schedule of commissions and premieres includes groups ranging from elementary schools to professional ensembles. Check out Brian’s website to get a sense of the breadth of groups who have performed his music and have invited him to guest conduct. Brian has also served as an adjunct professor of instrumental conducting and acting symphonic band director at Towson University in Maryland, and is currently the director of instrumental publications for The FJH Music Company.
In our offices Brian is best known for his 75 compositions for band and orchestra found in SmartMusic, which are extremely popular with students and directors alike. Brian was kind enough to speak with me recently while simultaneously making final preparations to leave for Hawaii.
Scott Yoho: You have a unique gift to write music for student ensembles that sounds right – as if great music was the primary goal, and this great music just happens to be within the grasp of a younger ensemble. How does writing for a student ensemble compare with writing for professional groups, and how to you approach each?
Brian Balmages: People are often surprised by my answer to this question. My approach never changes, regardless of whether it is a student group, professional group, chamber group or large ensemble. One of my main issues concerns the words “restrictions” and “limitations.” We often use these words to characterize younger performing groups. However, when we discuss professional brass quintets, string quartets, etc., we never use these words. If you really think about it, a brass quintet has a TON of limitations and restrictions. They are all brass instruments so your timbres are limited. You only have 5 notes to work with, and on top of that, players need to rest at times so you wind up with 1-4 notes at a time. There are range restrictions. Often no percussion section. I could go on and on. Yet people never think these groups have restrictions – they simply perform literature within their medium, and do it at a high level.
Therefore, using this as a basis, I think it is fair to say that a beginning band or orchestra can be treated much the same. There are no limitations or restrictions. A composer just needs to write within the context of the group. A beginning group should be able to perform any literature “within their medium.” When I conceive a piece for younger players, I start small and work larger. This helps make a piece sound more complex than it may actually be. The danger is starting big and then placing “restrictions” on melodies, etc. That is when a piece can wind up sounding watered down.
When I write for professional groups, I still tend to start small and work larger. It helps to come up with a few ideas and let them germinate and develop. Some of my best works for professional groups are based on a small collection of themes and ideas that are developed throughout. This is a great way to have a sense of cohesion in a work. I believe Steve Bryant uses the term “economy of materials” or something similar. I like that idea – taking a single motif and seeing how much you can do with it while still compelling the performer and audience.
SY: I’m curious about your compositional process. Do you sketch things out or do an outline of a piece first? At what point do you work in Finale versus pencil and paper?
BB: I used to try and approach every piece the same way. Then I started running into roadblocks. Finally I realized that every piece is different, so it is okay if the approach for each piece is different as well. There are several ways I typically approach a piece. On those rare (and wonderful) occasions where the muse is sitting on my shoulder, I’m able to go straight to Finale right away and begin writing. Sometimes I sketch within Finale – writing melodies as I hear them in different instruments, rhythms, harmonies, etc. Then I go back and orchestrate. Other times the orchestration is so crucial to my ideas that I orchestrate as I compose. Again, this doesn’t always happen, but I welcome it when the ideas are flowing so freely.
There have also been quite a few pieces that simply would not work in Finale at first. In those cases, I go to paper and pencil. I find this process to be very intimate and organic. It is always nice to be able to get away from a computer for a while and just sit with pencil and paper outside and sketch ideas. When I do this, I typically write down as much as necessary to remember my thought process. It can sometimes be just a melody, or a melody with chord symbols. Other times, it may be up to 6 staves of music (a melody, counter melody, specific chord structures, percussion rhythms, etc.). Basically, I write things down much as someone would use notecards. In certain cases, you have to write bullet points for everything you want to talk about – however, at other points, you can just jot yourself a quick note and know exactly which direction you are going.
When sketching by hand, I often sketch an entire piece before going to Finale. In fact, I often know exactly how many measures a piece will be when I sketch by hand. I enjoy this process because it allows me to separate composition and orchestration. Since orchestration is such a big part of what I do, it’s nice to have the composition aspect put aside so I can focus purely on orchestration. These sketches also help me get a good overall picture of the form and arch of the work before I begin orchestrating.
SY: What did you use before Finale, and what was your first introduction to Finale?
BB: I have always used Finale. My father was an elementary music teacher and he bought the 2nd or 3rd version of Finale (I still remember us installing it off of floppy disks!). He would use it for school projects, but we also used it to input piano parts for trumpet sonatas. I was a very serious trumpet player at the time and my father would add piano parts from trumpet sonatas into Finale so I could play along with them at home. At one point, we had an entire library of tunes that he programmed. We had a nice Roland digital piano, so the playback sounded pretty decent!
I personally did not begin using Finale much until high school, and not seriously until college. Prior to that, I was more involved with sequencing and trumpet performance. Once in college, I started writing for ensembles that I was playing in, and things kept progressing from there.
SY: What do you like about Finale?
BB: There are so many things. For me personally, I like how it allows me to customize a lot. I like my music to have its own look, so it is nice to be able to customize fonts, articulation placement, beaming rules, etc. Also, I finally started to use the built-in Garritan sounds. (Up until 2012 or so, I was using the same little midi module to check for wrong notes, but it did not serve much greater a purpose than that.) As I find myself traveling a lot more, it has been handy to have the Garritan sounds on my home computer and laptop. The footprint for these sounds is small enough that I can fit them on a regular laptop without having to do a ton of expansion. And for the first time ever, I can hear my music on the road exactly the same as I can at home. For some people, this is normal. For me, it took over 12 years before I finally discovered this!
SY: Have any Finale tips to share?
BB: I like to program certain shortcuts and keep them consistent across all of my projects. Being able to just hit a key to go between the articulation tool and the expression tool for example – you lose a ton of time if you add up each time you move your mouse to the selection palette and back. Also, I like to use both an Apple Magic Trackpad and a Kensington Slimblade Trackball. The trackball lets me fly all over the screen without having to move my hand much, and I’m able to program things like double-clicks and screen redraws right on the mouse. The magic trackpad is great to navigate through the score, so the combination of the two is ideal for me.
SY: Have any advice for composers in general or specifically for those interested in composing for student ensembles?
BB: For young composers, I always suggest that they listen to a lot of music and look at a ton of scores. If a piece fascinates you (whether it is something you are playing in school or something you heard in a concert), get a recording and a score. I always like to listen with a score in hand and circle places in the score that really catch my ear. When I’m finished listening, I’ll go back and look specifically at the places I circled. What made them so special? Was it a harmonic device, orchestration, special effect, or something with the form? Once I’ve figured it out, I add it to my “bag of tricks” so I can use it in my own music if the need arises.
Another comment deals with a lot of residencies I have done at schools throughout the country. It may seem silly, but I encourage composers to view as much of the score on screen as they can. Often, I can tell when a composer is orchestrating directly in Finale (on a smaller screen) because I always see block scoring. All the woodwinds playing together. Then all the brass. Then the percussion. Then back to the brass, etc. Very often, young composers only orchestrate what they can see on the screen. So I encourage composers to either work on larger screens, or take time to look at the bigger picture and make sure they are being creative with their orchestration.
SY: What projects (compositionally AND otherwise) are you working on now?
BB: Right now I am finishing up a band piece for a school in Canada that will be having its grand opening this fall. I also leave for Hawaii later this week to rehearse a group for a premiere that will occur later this summer. The premise of the piece is one of the coolest things I have ever done – so much so that I can’t even get into much detail until after the premiere in July. Other projects include putting the final touches on a string method that I am writing with some incredible co-authors. I feel I have learned a ton from this project, and my writing for strings is only going to improve as a result. Very exciting!
I’d like to thank Brian for taking the time to share his insights with us. Please share your insights too, by clicking on “Comments” below.