Rob Wagner's World of Sight and Sound

PERFORMANCE GUIDES FOR CONCERT BAND


YOUNG WIZARDS (Bruce Fraser) by Rob Wagner

You don't always know if a piece of music is going to appeal to your students. Sometimes you can be very excited about that new work you've selected to put in the folders, only to find that the student's response can range from subdued compliance to outright hostility. At other times, you may present a piece that leaves you unsure of its potential and find it really captures the imagination of everyone in the concert band.

Young Wizards by Bruce Fraser is one of those pieces that my students responded to with great excitement. I have to admit that the work had been sitting in our band library for several years before I got around to rehearsing it. It's a three-movement composition inspired by the composer's reading of ‘Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone’. I wondered whether my Year 9 to 12 students would be put off by the title of "Young Wizards". Perhaps they might think from the title that this work would not be cool enough for them! I was wrong!

Many band directors will be familiar with the music of Bruce Fraser. This prolific composer, who hails from just outside of Edinburgh, has written and published many fine compositions for bands of all levels over the last 15 years. Bruce crafts his music carefully for younger musicians. As well as a composer, he is also teaching on a daily basis in secondary education, and knows the limitations of lesser-experienced instrumental students. Fraser’s first big "hit" was the hugely popular
King Across The Water, written for grade 3 level bands, and regularly heard at concerts, contests and festivals. Young Wizards is also a great three work. If you choose to program all three movements at a concert, the work is around eight minutes in duration.

One reason why my students really enjoyed this piece was because they loved the imaginative writing and creative use of instrumentation that helped to bring the work alive. It often brought smiles to their faces as well!
Movt 1 – Black Pointed Hats
Fraser has based the work on a tone row taken from the musical letters contained within the title.
Black Pointed Hats is the first movement, setting the scene in predominantly a D minor key. In the first five bars, the bass instruments play an accented form of the note row. Although the instruction for this movement is Allegro Misterioso, the opening 14 bars are quite dramatic in mood. All instruments are marked ff throughout the first five bars, raising issues of balance between sections. Once the dotted quaver - semiquaver fanfare is played in the upper brass and saxes, those instruments must stay out of the way during their long notes so that the low brass and woodwinds can be heard clearly with the opening announcement of the tone row. With flutes holding sustained trills over three bars, clarinets playing short accented notes, and a strong percussion section also marked ff, there is a real chance that the opening bars will sound noisy rather than musical. Control of dynamics and balance is the name of the game here.
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From bar 9, the upper brass and woodwinds begin some very effective note clusters and chromatic lines, helping to create the mysterious and dramatic nature of the opening movement. Here also, low brass and low woodwinds must observe the fp by concentrating more on the p and not making the crescendo too early during their six-beat notes. Accents in the trumpets and horns at bars 11 and 14 must be controlled and measured to f.

Suddenly at bar 15, all is subdued and this is where the opening
Misterioso really begins to take hold. Very light staccato chords in the flutes, punctuated by short fragmented semiquaver figures in other woodwinds, and two beat note movement in the bass instruments, create a spooky scene for the entrance of a new melody in the tenor sax, horns and euphonium at bar 19. These three instrument colours must be easily heard over the spooky background and musicians should not need to play the melody any louder than the marked mf. A sudden crescendo in bar 24 announces the next section.

The melody at bar 26 in the flutes and accompanied by the clarinets is chromatically treated throughout its eight bars. The problem here for our first flautists is to ensure that, as the melody reaches its upper range, it still remains at the
piano dynamic.
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A sudden return to the opening four bars of the movement occurs at 35. A semiquaver figure at bar 39 is broken up between first and second clarinets for two bars, alternating with first and second flutes for another two bars. This proved a little challenging at first for some of our more inexperienced players as they struggled to achieve clarity and balance between the two parts.

At 45, the low brass and low woodwinds have a one-bar rising and falling chromatic figure, enhanced with some glissandos from the trombones. This is answered by a one-bar repeated note figure in the trumpets, who will need to ensure that they can create enough dynamic contrast from
forte to piano in each bar. A little six-bar contrasting section from bar 51 casts the listener’s memory back to Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and we are left looking around the room for the appearance of Mickey Mouse!

At bar 57 there is a return of the melody from bar 19 featuring slightly different instrumentation and a rather dramatic rising chromatic line eight bars later. Again, at bar 72 our flute and clarinet chromatic melodies return from their earlier entrance at 26. The movement finishes with a very effective but difficult to control two-beat rising and falling figure. This is first announced at bar 80 in flutes, oboe and clarinets over warm, sustained chords in lower woodwinds and brass and then eight bars later in trumpets against sustained chords from the rest of the winds. From my band, the problems occurred in the last eight bars, as we endeavoured to ensure that everyone balanced the sustained chords against the melody of the trumpets. Soft and warmly controlled playing is demanded of every musician here.

Movt 2 - Spells

The slower second movement, entitled
Spells, begins eerily with a continuous running quaver pattern in contrary motion between first flute and first clarinet, supported in the background by soft mallets on the xylophone. Against this opening mood, muted trumpets and saxophones play a short fragmented phrase along with two one-bar solos in the bass clarinet (cued in the euphonium and tuba). Suddenly, the entire band picks up this running quaver figure for three beats beginning after the third beat in bar 10. The whole ensemble is also marked piano and getting everyone to play very softly is quite a challenge - just the sheer weight of numbers will cause this figure to come out louder than intended unless careful attention is given to the dynamics.

At 13, the euphonium is given a lovely, angular melody (cued in the tenor saxophone) while second and third clarinets alternate three-beat trills from
p rising to mf.
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I found it necessary to encourage the clarinets to exaggerate the mf dynamic in order to be heard down in that lower register. The running quaver line from the flutes and first clarinets suddenly finish at bar 20 and the euphonium takes over with a new melodic idea. This particular solo is not cued. On one occasion when my euphonium player will ill, I rewrote the line for tenor saxophone, which worked fine. The preference, however, is for the melody to be heard on euphonium (or a spare trombone!!).

The writing for much of this movement is quite sparse, adding to the evocative nature of the work. At bar 24, the tone row appears again in a new form with semiquaver fragments scattered between the alto saxophone, first clarinet, and flutes in a kind of echo dialogue, supported by the woodblock with soft beaters. In these few bars, clean tonguing and precision is really important from the woodwinds. Perhaps you could have them listen to the sound of the woodblock to ensure that they mimic the short precise notes played by that particular percussion instrument. Out of these semiquaver fragments comes a more flowing angular melody. As more instruments join in, the volume starts to increase from the
mp marking given at 24. Indeed, at bar 32 the composer requests a crescendo to forte in 34. However, I found it effective to pull back the volume again in bar 33 and recommence the crescendo as the notes rise in pitch leading to 34. In bar 35, watch for those clarinet players who feel the need to jump in before the dotted-minim beginning on the second beat.
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At bar 36, watch the balance between the clarinets and brass - the brass will need to work hard to ensure that they don't blow louder than the clarinets in this piano section. You may even find it more successful to have your brass deliver this phrase with just one player per part over those four bars. The contrapuntal running quaver figure in flutes and clarinets returns at 41, but now includes the alto saxophones. However, at bar 46 just a solo flute continues the quaver figure, with slow sustained lines in brass and saxophones. The composer has marked the solo as optional, but I’d definitely go with it if you have a good flutist with a strong tone. It also encourages the rest of the band to play even more mutedly and the result is very effective. The rall. in the second last bar needs to be carefully executed, otherwise the last few beats will arrive too quickly. Take your time in concluding this second movement.

Movt 3 – Flying Broomsticks
For the musicians in my band, the third movement very quickly became their favourite. Here the composer evokes the image of young wizards flying around on broomsticks, using chromatic runs and various accented sections where the flying is not so smooth. Just under two minutes long,
Flying Broomsticks also has several little technical challenges. Its first two bars have a similar character to the first four bars of the first movement. However from bar 3, four bar phrases are broken up between first clarinet and first alto sax then thrown over to first flute and first trumpet. Coordination of tongue and fingers will require some practice to get these light staccato fragments clean and precise, particularly at the marked Allegro Energico tempo of a minim = 84+.

From bar 13, the melody is taken up by the trumpets for two bars and answered in the flutes, oboe and clarinets with a rising and falling chromatic line. At 21, the low woodwinds and low brass play an emphatic melody, again taken from the tone row first introduced in bar 1 of
Black Pointed Hats. The trap here for musicians is that they will tend to hurry this melody unless they watch the conductor carefully and feel the strong steady pulse in ‘two’.
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At bar 38, a new lilting four bar melody is introduced in the first flutes, which is then taken up by the oboe, second clarinet, alto saxophones, and first trumpet. Between bars 38 and 55 the band will need to be mindful of the dynamic contrasts required throughout this section. By 56, three melodic ideas are all working together. The conductor will need to listen carefully while checking that all the ideas are being heard with equal clarity and emphasis. From here on in, its forte all the way to the end of the piece with the exception of a sudden momentary return of the lilting flute melody from bar 38.

Great care must be exercised on the final chord of this work. There is a tendency to over-blow this accented
forte note, resulting in a harsh and brittle tone from the band. Encourage all musicians to listen down to the basses, particularly your flutes and first clarinets. Indeed, the balance of that last chord can be effectively set up by playing the notes on the first beat of bars 79, 80 and 81 with the same type of balance that you want to hear in the final fermata bar.
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As well as being interesting music that uses highly imaginative orchestration at the grade 3 level, this work has some good technical challenges for young musicians. It will give your band a reason to revise their chromatic scales, to observe carefully the multitude of dynamic and articulation contrasts that occur throughout each movement, and to listen more carefully to each other to ensure that the musical story is accurately told to the audience.

If you haven't perform this work before, I encourage you to take a look at
Young Wizards. Good luck with your performance!

Young Wizards by Bruce Fraser is published by G & M Brand Publications (UK)

This Performance Guide was first published in the Autumn edition (Vol 11, No. 1) of the
Interlude journal.

This guide is not to be reproduced without the expressed written permission of the author.