by Chuck Israels

Lesson 18 - Writing for The Whole Band

Overall Instrumentation Considerations


Most school bands will have at least 5 saxophones (2 altos, 2 tenors, and a baritone), 4 trumpets (some of whom may own flugelhorns), and 3 or 4 trombones (bass trombone is often also available). Woodwind doubles are usually available in the saxophone sections of professional bands, but it is not safe to assume that this will be true of school bands. However, schools often have flute and clarinet players who may be happy to make themselves available to fill in those parts. Saxophone players will often have soprano saxophones and be able to double on them. If you find that a tuba and/or horns are available, and your musical concept includes those sounds, use them. Find out before you begin, and write for the forces you have. Doing this is a long-standing composer’s tradition.


Most bands will have a pianist (electric keyboards are a poor substitute and are a different kind of instrument – do not write for them as if they were a piano), a bassist (again, an electric bass is not any kind of substitute for a string bass and should be written for as a different instrument, suitable for music with intentionally dominating bass parts only), and a drum set with snare, bass drum, 2 tom-toms, high hat cymbals, and one or two ride cymbals.Guitarists are ubiquitous, but good arch-top jazz guitars are not, so it is a good idea to know what is available. Solid body guitars, designed for the high volumes of rock music, can be used (carefully) in jazz bands, but they are unsuited for playing rhythm section parts in the style of Freddie Green.

Vibraphone and extra percussion are often available in school bands.

Maintain ideals of instrumentation, but write for what you have.


Open a big band template (included with this material), stare at the empty screen for a while and work up a good case of writer’s block. This is the first step for most people. Here are some ways to get over it and get on with your work. Assuming you have a piece in mind, a good place to start your band arrangement is with a lead sheet version that includes the melody and basic harmony. Enter that in an extra staff created on the bottom of your big band template. If your screen doesn’t have enough room to see the whole instrumentation when you are in scroll view at a decent viewing percentage, you can create staff sets that will allow you to see enough of the score to orchestrate the music. Obvious sets might be, reeds, brass, rhythm section, and various sub-sets like trumpets, trombones, and any of the above combined with the rhythm section and the lead sheet staff.

Once the screen view is comfortably set up, make the basic decisions: what will be the tempo and rhythmic feel of the piece and in what key will it start? Enter a tempo marking in the score. (This should be placed above the time signature on the first page with a staff list selected that shows it only in that position on the score but prints it on the top staff of each extracted part.) Don’t worry if the idea for the beginning of the piece doesn’t occur immediately. Start the piece at a point where you know what you want to do. you can always go back and add measures at the beginning for introductory material after more of the piece is written. It is a reliable phenomenon that though ideas for a beginning can be elusive as the work on the arrangement begins, they often occur easily when the emotional pressure is relieved by the confidence that comes when the body of the work has been written.
(I wonder if Shakespeare wrote the verse, “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble,” as he started work on the 4th act of Macbeth, or if it might have occurred to him later as he considered how to set a scene for which he had already written dialog for the main characters. Does it matter? As composer/arrangers [and as playwrights], we get to control the audience’s future while we work in non-consecutive order, if it suits our creative needs.)
The question of key will be best answered after a decision about the choice of lead instrument for the melody. For instance, if it is to be in the “singing” register of the trombone, the highest note should be between a G above the bass clef (G above middle C) and the Bb above that for most players. That key range might also suit a tenor saxophone in its rich middle register, though the trombone will have more intensity on the high notes than the tenor sax. Understanding instrument ranges and how they sound in each register is an acquired skill. Garritan JABB playback can help somewhat in this respect; the samples will not play beyond normal instrument ranges but, since the sounds are being played by a machine rather than by a human body, the differences in timbre and physical effort are not well represented by the samples. The piano keyboard is equally deceptive in this respect. There is no substitute for the experience to be gained from memorizing instrumental ranges and registers.

It’s useful to remember that all the saxophones have the same written range, and that the registers are also similar. However, the last two or three low notes on the soprano and alto are harder to control than those same notes played on the baritone or tenor. Experience and critical listening will inspire confident choices.

Considerations of form should be another early step. Is this to be a conventional piece with an introduction, head, solo choruses, a final chorus, and a coda; or will there be interludes, tempo changes, meter changes, key changes, rubatos, or other large formal divisions? Even if ideas about such things change in the process, it’s helpful to start with a plan. Larger structural ideas help pull details into focus.


There are a number of ways to make use of the whole band, and one of the most obvious is also rather underused; that is having the entire wind section (and sometimes even the piano and bass), in octave/unison. Full band unison can be a good choice. There is nothing stronger.

Here is the unison ensemble chorus from David Berger’s Monkey Business shown in a condensed, concert pitch, score. With the exception of one note that exceeds the normal range of the alto and baritone saxophones by one half step (a common extension easily within the comfort zone of experienced players), everything fits within the range of the instruments and takes advantage of that range to express the emotional contour of the line. In order to perform this passage well, the players must not play too loudly and must exaggerate the expression of the dynamic nuances that are implied by the line. If this is done successfully, the music will communicate all its mercurial humor and rhythmic vitality.

Score References & Musical Examples Using JABB:

Click on Play Button below to Play from the Score

Used by Permission from David Berger

In David Berger’s music for the Harlem Nutcracker, there is a rapid unison passage that starts in the high trumpets, swoops down through the band to the lowest notes of the baritone saxophone, goes back up to the high trumpets, and ends with another swoop down and up to the middle register. It is a moment that generates tremendous excitement, and even a good recording misses the spatial effect that comes from hearing the sound move through the band in three dimensions.

In this passage, the first two trumpet players are reserved for the high notes, and the remaining instruments are used through their entire range. Each instrument group enters on the highest practical note as it becomes available in the line and continues the line as long as the range of that instrument will allow.

Entrances of new instruments can create friction, so these are placed on offbeat pickups in order to minimize the interruption in the line. Exits are less obtrusive. They occur more often on downbeats. The desired effect is one of a continuous line that changes color as it travels smoothly through the entire range of the band, with the players handing off the line to the entering section, as racers hand off the baton in a relay. This is a unison passage and it swings accordingly. Thickening the rapidly moving line with harmony would be likely to detract from its effect. As a contrast to that linear activity, the passage ends with percussive chords in the high brass (particularly high in the trombones – for professional use only) and a rich, rangy saxophone texture.

The charm and excitement of the music are contained in its speed and range, and the impression of energy it creates is stronger than would be made by a louder passage with less movement and athletic fluidity.

Here is an analysis of the passage in a concert sketch followed by a condensed transposed score.

Score References & Musical Examples Using JABB:

Click on Play Button below to Play from the Score

Used by Permission from David Berger

Example 10-3 (score only)

Here is the opening chorus of Kevin Woods’ “Levitt or Leave It”, written in homage to the music of Rod Levitt. It captures Rod’s special use of effects in extreme ranges and wide intervals and demonstrates how the whole sections of the band can be used in unisons and simple two-part harmony and the result can still sound complex and interesting because of the orchestration and varied rhythms.
(It’s worth comparing Kevin’s use of the interval of a tritone as a motive with David Berger’s use of it in the theme for “Monkey Business” ex. 5-7.)

Score References & Musical Examples Using JABB:

Click on Play Button below to Play from the Score


The full band tutti, in which there are 4, 5, or more real parts distributed across the winds, is another texture that is nearly as powerful as a full band unison, and it has the extra dimension of adding harmonic color to the line. Ellington’s music has passages that demonstrate effective ways to do this, and David Berger is another expert in the use of this technique.

The standard (and sometimes most appropriate) technique for accomplishing this texture is to voice the brass first, often with the trombone parts duplicating the trumpet voicing down one octave, and then to use the saxophone section to fatten the middle register. David Berger uses this kind of texture in different ways. Here’s an example of a subdued tutti passage, where the lead trumpet part remains below a written Bb above the staff, allowing the baritone saxophone to double the lead an octave below without exceeding the upper limit of its range (concert Ab above middle C). The trumpets are voiced in close position harmony, and the trombone parts double those voices one octave lower. The rest of the saxophones double the lower trumpet parts in unison. In the case of this example, the first alto saxophone is omitted, since it had just finished a solo in this arrangement.

(A note on notational style: David Berger writes off beat anticipations as quarter notes, and all quarters are assumed to be played short unless otherwise marked. This is in contrast to the notation of most of the examples in this book, in which short anticipations are notated as eighth notes, and quarter notes are full value unless otherwise marked.)

Score References & Musical Examples Using JABB:

Click on Play Button below to Play from the Score

Used by Permission from David Berger

When the tutti passage needs more power, the lead trumpet needs to remain in a higher register, substantially above the staff. In this instance, the brass voicing remains the same, but the lead alto saxophone doubles the lead trumpet one octave lower, the rest of the saxophone section is arrayed below that, doubling trombone parts, and the baritone saxophone doubles the lead trumpet two octaves lower. If the rest of the arrangement is in a key that is unsuitable for a passage using this texture, this can provide a good reason and opportunity to use a modulation!

Here is an example of this texture.

Score References & Musical Examples Using JABB:

Click on Play Button below to Play from the Score

Used by Permission from David Berger

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Coming Next Lesson: Lesson 19 - Writing for the Whole Band (Cont.)