Writing for the Euphonium (or tuba, or É)
by Neal Corwell
Although Dr. Corwell makes his living primarily as a performer, he also has had over 50 of his musical compositions published, most of them for his instrument of choice: the euphonium. He feels strongly that his compositional activities have made him a better soloist, and therefore encourages his fellow performers to take up the pen, as well as the horn.
I highly recommend that all performers try their hand at composition at some point in their career. Even if the final product of the compositional effort is not deemed a musical success by creator or peers, some valuable lessons will have been learned. For one thing, a healthy respect for composers will have been gained, along with a deeper understanding of the complexity of their chosen task. However, more importantly, I believe the experience will make one a better performer, because seeing an entire composition project through, from beginning to end, is a learning experience hard to re-create simply by studying music textbooks and scores.
If you take part in such a project, you will experience the process of conceiving a musically expressive idea in your head, followed by the next obligatory step, which is the stripping away of much of the original flow and nuance from that idea so that it may be documented in standard music notation, the universal written language of musicians.
Because much of the nuance and subtlety of music is inexpressible with words or symbols, the notes on the page represent a mere skeleton of the composer’s original idea, a skeleton that must be brought back to life by the performer. After engaging in a composition project, you will understand this concept more fully, and you will see why, when reading music, it is not enough to merely re-create the notes, rhythms, and dynamic markings found on the page. You will see the need to envision the original creative idea of the composer, with all its subtleties, and recreate it for your audience. You will understand why, to be a true vessel of the creator of the music you are performing, you must learn to think like a composer, and take up with instrument in hand the musical ideas presented in a composition and make them your own.
In addition to stimulating a more creative and inspired performance, another benefit to the adoption of this approach is that it can help free the performer’s mind from distracting extraneous thoughts and instead help them to focus clearly and exclusively on the task at hand: making music.
Placing the spotlight on the music itself instead of the performer’s personal ego is likely to result in a performance sincere in its message and relaxed in its execution. When one’s attention is directed only on the music, thoughts of “I” and “me” tend to disappear from the performer’s mental chatter. Thoughts like “everyone’s watching me” and “I hope I don’t make a mistake” are pushed aside and replaced with a flow of wordless musical ideas. The performer’s only concern can become “is the message of the music conveyed to the audience?” This attitude is conducive to good performances, satisfying for both audience and performer.
If you decide to delve into composition, I would advise you to follow the example of our counterparts in the literary world and “write about what you know.” In other words, if you are a euphonium player, why not start out by writing a solo for unaccompanied euphonium? You already understand the instrument’s strengths and capabilities, and you can easily fine-tune the work-in-progress by playing through it yourself. You can also, if you wish, have the satisfaction of performing the premiere of your own composition. Then, as your knowledge grows and ambitions expand, you can explore other mediums. My first published piece was for unaccompanied euphonium, and when I later developed an interest in synthesizers, I decided to combine these two loves by writing works for solo with recorded accompaniment. I’ve since been given opportunities to write for chamber groups and large ensembles and have found these endeavors quite satisfying. However, because euphonium is my favorite instrument, and the one I know better than any other, I find myself always coming back to it.
As a budding young composer, I encourage you to trust your instincts and not get too caught up in the “rules and regulations” you learned during your years of music theory classes. Search for your own unique voice, and although constructive criticism can be put to good use for fine-tuning your compositions, don’t put all your faith in the opinions of others. I was always interested in composition but wasted many years trying to write pieces that I thought would win for me the accolades of academia. It was only when I began writing for myself, writing music that I wanted to hear and perform, that I began to create compositions with which I felt truly satisfied.
I don’t regard writing for the euphonium as being significantly different than writing for any other instrument. However, when it comes to orchestration of a euphonium solo, there are some unique challenges presented. Because the euphonium is a mid-range voice, dark in color, and rich in harmonics, it can easily be lost within the overall texture of an ensemble. Having the supporting ensemble play softly is not the only alternative. The euphonium may also be heard clearly, even during a loud ensemble passage, if an open space is created for it within the mid-frequency range. That isn’t to say that no instruments may occupy the same general range as the soloist. Those with contrasting timbres, such as the bassoon, may be voiced in the same register as the euphonium, and the two instruments will not compete but instead will compliment one another.
Bringing a specific euphonium voice to the forefront within a work for tuba-euphonium ensemble can be particularly challenging because all the voices share not only the same general range but also a common tone color. When writing The Furies , an 8-part tuba-euphonium ensemble piece, I used several means to help one particular melodic voice stand above the rest of the group for key moments of the piece. One was to place a lot of frequency-range distance between the solo voice and the ensemble, by giving low groveling sustained tones to the supporting group as the soloist soared above. I also used contrasting rhythms and articulations to help one voice stand out above the others. The ear tends to be more drawn to a rhythmically active and distinctly articulated melodic line than it is to a slow-moving inactive one, especially if the latter is a repetitive pattern. My euphonium solo, In the Cathedral , presented even more difficulties in this regard because the supporting ensemble was comprised entirely of euphoniums. One technique I used in this piece in addition to those already mentioned was the muting of the ensemble for select passages to create a tone color that would contrast distinctly from that of the soloist.
During the last few decades, there has been a surge of interest in writing and arranging for tuba-euphonium ensemble, and the repertoire for this type of ensemble has grown substantially. However, another performance medium, one which I think has enormous potential as a source of new recital material and has much to offer composers, performers, and audiences, continues to go neglected despite the recent technological advances that have made it accessible to so many. I am speaking of the performance medium of solo euphonium with recorded accompaniment.
Having written numerous works in this genre, perhaps sharing some of what I’ve learned from these projects will be of some value and offer some encouragement to those who may wish to begin writing or arranging works for this unique performance medium.
One of the advantages of the electronic medium is its nearly limitless choice of instruments, tone colors, textures, and digital effects. Ironically, this advantage is also one of the biggest obstacles to good electronic orchestration. With so many options available, it is easy to get carried away and insert a multitude of varied sounds and effects into a single composition. The result is, at best, a barrage of varied sounds that, although they may be interesting unto themselves, do not help form a unified whole. At worst, the result is mayhem. This is clearly a situation where the old adage, “Less is more”, rings true. A few well-chosen “instruments,” perhaps subtly varied during the unfolding of a composition, will usually be more effective at capturing, and keeping, the listener’s interest, than an endless procession of varied sounds. (I use the word “instrument” not in the traditional sense, but in reference to any electronically generated sound, patch, or program.)
My recommendation is that you should, at the start of the composition process, choose a moderate-sized electronic “ensemble” that you believe will meet the aesthetic needs of the work. You will then have the opportunity of beginning your compositional efforts with a clear vision of the instruments at your disposal, and you will be able to explore the unique musical possibilities offered by each instrument’s given parameters, in the same way that a traditional composer explores the individual instruments, and possible instrumental combinations, of an acoustic ensemble such as an orchestra or wind quintet.
Some of the advantages offered by an electronic ensemble, as opposed to an acoustic one, are that you are not limited to “real” instruments when creating your ensemble, any instruments you wish to use are always available for your performance, the difficulty level of the parts is never an issue of concern, and you may add, subtract, or substitute instruments at any time during the composition process.
Sometimes electronic ensembles can sound mechanical and lifeless, but there are ways to avoid this criticism being made of your recorded accompaniment. I would first recommend that you not use the “step-entry” method for entering parts into a sequencer, and that you avoid strict “quantization” of all rhythms. A sequencer’s quantization tool will shift the attacks of all notes to the absolute beginning of the nearest chosen rhythmic value, and the step-entry method of entering notes also places all attacks precisely on the downbeat of the chosen subdivision. Both of these procedures result in a rhythmic accuracy that is simply too perfect, the kind of machine-like accuracy that would not be produced by a human performer. And this absolute perfection is precisely the problem. Good musicians do, of course, strive for precision, but it is the subtle deviations from exact rhythmic precision that make a performance sound “human,” and therefore give it life. It is best, if at all possible, to manually play parts into a sequencer in real-time, keeping in mind that you may make this task easier by slowing the speed of the sequence below performance tempo for this procedure. If your keyboard technique is very weak, and/or you are “rhythmically challenged” to the point that the beat is unacceptably inconsistent, perhaps the restrained application of only a moderate amount of quantization will suffice for correction of the problem. Most sequencers offer varying degrees of quantization strictness, plus other tools, sometimes called “humanizers,” that vary the precision of rhythms and other parameters by using randomization procedures. Another technique I use to add a human element to a sequenced or recorded part involves, on rare occasions, intentionally allowing performance errors to go uncorrected.
One example may be found in my Quiet Mountain , a work for brass duo with CD accompaniment. The central climax of the piece is preceded by, among other things, a series of piano chords, steadily growing in volume. In my excitement, while pounding away at these chords, one finger slipped and I briefly hit a few extra keys. This error, made during the note entry process, could easily have been corrected with a single click of the computer mouse, but, instead, I decided to let the mistake remain. The error is audible to an attentive listener, but I’ve never regretted my decision to allow it to go uncorrected. It clearly adds a touch of humanity to the recording that is, in my view, totally desirable.
The machine-like consistency in tone quality of some electronically generated sounds, particularly if they are samples of acoustic instruments, can also detract from a recording. A series of drum hits, for example, will vary slightly, one from another, when performed by a live musician on a real drum. This is because even slight changes in stick velocity or movement of the point of contact on the drumhead will result in a variation in the volume and/or timbre of the sound. In contrast, a sampled drum hit never varies. By the same token, a sustained note performed by a wind instrument can evolve and grow in a way that is difficult to emulate with a sampler. The problem may be addressed to some degree by playing parts manually into the sequencer and using volume changes (keyboard velocity changes) to add drive and direction to rhythms and melodies. Another option is to incorporate acoustic instruments into the fabric of the recorded accompaniment. A few acoustic instruments, when blended with electronic voices, can add much life and vibrancy to an accompaniment. Almost all of my accompaniments include at least a few acoustic instruments, and I would recommend you listen to the film music of Mark Isham, in particular his sound track for “Never Cry Wolf,” if searching for a prime example of masterful use of this blending technique.
One may also choose to use acoustic instruments exclusively. After all, there is no rule stating that a recorded accompaniment must be electronic in origin. My version of House of the Rising Sun , for example, utilizes acoustic brass and guitar almost exclusively (there is a brief appearance by a synthesized bass), and, during my 2AM , all you will hear in the accompaniment is a steel-string guitar and a few hushed vocal interjections.
When writing for solo euphonium with recorded accompaniment, the challenges with voicing and their solutions are similar to those faced when writing for an acoustic ensemble. You still need to create room for the soloist and choose voices that will complement, and not compete, with the soloist. An emphasis on sounds higher and lower than the euphonium will, of course, help in the effort to keep from covering the solo voice. For those instances where it is crucial that a mid-range part be heard alongside the solo, you should choose timbres that contrast with the rich, dark sound of the euphonium.
In my arrangement of the finale from J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, the euphonium’s solo line could easily have been buried in the density of the work’s many contrapuntal lines. I avoided this by assigning the middle-range parts to the harpsichord, a contrasting tone color that easily co-existed with the euphonium. Because you, the composer or arranger, create the final stereo mix of the accompaniment, you have control over where instruments are placed within the stereo field. Therefore, you have yet another arranging tool at your disposal. Assuming the soloist is standing center-stage and flanked by the two speakers, one on either side, you can place instruments to left or right of center as you desire, thereby creating room in a genuinely spatial sense of the word, for the soloist.
You should bear in mind that this stereo placement of instruments, called “panning,” does not have to be static. Instruments may move left to right during different parts of a composition, and even while sustaining a pitch. This amount of control and flexibility, with regard to spatial placement of instruments, is not available when writing for acoustic ensembles, so when recording an accompaniment, you should seek creative ways to take advantage of this edge.
ithin this article, I have touched on only a few issues concerning the creation of recorded accompaniments. For more information related to this subject, please see the chapter titled “Music for Euphonium with Electronic Media” within the soon to-be-published Euphonium Source Book. During the introduction to that chapter, I provide performance advice and other general information concerning solos with recorded accompaniments.
Hopefully my words have encouraged at least a few readers to take a stab at composition and/or arranging. I promise you will have nothing to lose by doing so, and much to gain!
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