Leveling Up, Part 2: Making the Grade
The leveling system provides a shortcut for educators who are looking for new pieces. It has also helped create a set of standards. There is basic agreement between the various publishers and the state lists about what the grade levels mean, but there is also overlap between the levels.
My goal when I started writing these posts on leveled band music was to create clearly defined boundaries for each of the grade levels. I was constantly frustrated, and remain so, about the nebulous nature of what each level means.
For instance, I would ask my conductor and composer friends, “What is a Grade 2 piece for band?” and would receive multiple answers. The most aggravating aspect to the answers was that each one started with a variation of, “It’s hard to define.”
The leveling system was created by publishers as a way to sort music by difficulty and complexity. It provides a shortcut for educators who are looking for new pieces. Some state music education organizations started creating curated lists of pieces for festivals and competitions that also took advantage of the leveling system. This has allowed bands from different districts to compete in juried festivals and competitions on equal footing.
The leveling system has also helped create a set of standards. We can expect students who have been studying their instrument and performing in ensembles for a given number of years to have competency at the corresponding grade level.
There is basic agreement between the various publishers and the state lists about what the grade levels mean, but there is also overlap between the levels. One publisher’s Grade 2 is another’s Grade 3. If a composer is asked to write a Grade 4 piece, how will he or she know if they’re on the mark? It depends on the specific ensemble and knowledge based on experience. The best teacher of what music should look like at a particular grade level is, of course, to study the scores of other pieces at the grade level you are aiming to hit.
In my last post we looked at the business of sheet music and how educational instrumental sheet music has sales in the neighborhood of $100,000,000 annually. It’s a big business. This post looks at the various levels and provides some general characteristics of each.
The Big Picture
Composers interested in writing for bands should start by asking two important questions:
- Given the age and experience of the students in the group, what is possible?
- Are the challenging portions of the music I am writing providing teaching opportunities or are they barriers to performance?
When asked to write for an educational ensemble, many composers begin with the limitations of the players—instrumentation, ranges, etc. This is important information! However, we also need to think about what the students CAN do. So, if you’re asked to write a Grade 2 piece you can begin by wondering what a middle school band and the students who are in it are capable of.
Most middle school band students have been playing for 2–3 years. They can play at least two octaves worth of notes. They are comfortable with a range of key signatures (mostly between 0–4 flats). Sixteenth notes, dotted rhythms, and simple triplet passages are all within reach. They can also do a lot of things your music engraving software won’t play back (and it’s why so many of us forget these are available), such as noise making, singing, speaking into their instruments, playing with a breathy and unfocused sound (actually, this might be lack of skill development, but you can still take advantage of it!), and more.
I will never forget performing my first P. D. Q. Bach piece as a student. It required me to remove the mouthpiece of my clarinet from the instrument and blow into it. The result was one of the worst duck calls I’ve ever heard. I’m pretty sure the piece was P. D. Q. Bach’s Grand Serenade for an Awful Lot of Winds and Percussion (check out this performance, especially from 3:20–3:50). Not only did Peter Schickele (P. D. Q. Bach’s real name) use extended techniques, but he also introduced us to non-standard notation. More than that, it was fun and exciting! Do you remember when you first encountered the use of noise and extended techniques as a student?
If you performed in an instrumental ensemble as a child, your director may have used one of the many core method books made available by publishers. These method books walk a beginning ensemble from their very first notes to performances of compositions. Pedagogues have spent decades refining the books and carefully selecting which skills are presented when. The books are coordinated so each member of the ensemble, no matter which instrument they play, is working on the same skills and music simultaneously. You can see some of the most popular methods here.
Studying these method books is a great way to learn what’s possible for the ensemble you’re composing for. If a director says the ensemble has recently finished book two of a particular method series, that means something. That method book is now a resource for what’s possible and what ground has been covered in terms of range, key, rhythm, tempo, and articulation. Coupled with a good conversation with a competent director or the commissioning ensemble, it will also provide you a way forward so you can craft a musically satisfying piece that appropriately challenges the ensemble.
In a recent interview for The Portfolio Composer podcast, I was speaking with band director Aaron Given and he gave this great piece of advice:
As you’re thinking about how hard you’re going to make [your piece] and what you need to do to make it sound the way you want it so you’re not artistically compromising yourself, think about teaching opportunities versus performance barriers.
As composers writing for younger players, we need to ask ourselves if challenging passages require increased effort from the student or if we’re actually asking students to do something that’s developmentally inappropriate. Aaron gives the example of a few measures of fast scale passages versus asking the trumpets to hit a high Bb.
Appropriate challenges, such as asking the players to woodshed their scales, are often welcome and necessary for the continued development of the players and ensemble. However, asking them to make a jump in skill that does not represent a good next step is a performance barrier. An ensemble director can and will work into the rehearsal the drill and practice necessary to improve the skills called for in a piece. These are the teaching opportunities. However, as Aaron said with regards to the high trumpet Bb, a performance barrier would require him to work every day with the trumpets on overtone series exercises and embouchure control to the detriment and neglect of the rest of the ensemble in order to ready the section for performance. The long term consequence is that your piece will not be performed.
Almost all of my early pieces for concert band and wind ensemble made this mistake. If, on the whole, the piece could fit comfortably as a Grade 3, I would also include problematic passages where one section’s part was suddenly a Grade 4.5–5. It created incredible rehearsal challenges for the director and did not provide appropriate teaching opportunities.
One final word of advice: do not look at the key signatures associated with the grade levels and limit yourself to those major or minor keys. Instead, consider the key signatures as representative of pitch collections. All of the modes, pentatonic scales, and (in moderation) even some non-tonal scales can be used.
Most high school bands playing Grade 3–4 literature are comfortable with up to four, sometimes five, flats and even one sharp. Though the music should still be pitch centered, and for the most part tonal, brief whole tone, octatonic, and other synthetic scale passages can still be worked in. Treat those passages with care and use them briefly, but know that not every piece for band has to be in the key of Bb major. Moments of Debussy-like planing, Ivesian bitonality, Stravinskian stratification and juxtaposition, and Hindemithian counterpoint can have their place in educational music. But remember: Are you including those passages for teaching opportunities? Or will they become stumbling blocks for performance?
Below are brief descriptions for grade levels 1-6. Some systems stop at Grade 5. In order to accommodate pieces that are too challenging for one level, but not quite as difficult for the following level, publishers often use a half-point system, i.e., 2.5, 3, 3.5, etc.
I compiled these descriptions from personal experience. Depending on which source you are looking at you may find some disagreement. Keep in mind that these are descriptions are not designed to be definitive. The lines between the grade levels are fuzzy and this serves only as a rough guideline. When composing for a specific ensemble, you need to discuss with the director what that ensemble is capable of, knowing that the group may or may not fit into one of these categories nicely.
Grade 1—Very Easy (1 year of playing experience)
- First-year bands
- Basic rhythms, with a uniformity of rhythms throughout the ensemble
- Simple meters
- Limited ranges
- Limited technique
- No exposed passages or solo work
- Key signature: 1–2 flats (not C major*)
- Length: 1–3 minutes
*A brief word about key signatures. Woodwind and brass instruments tend to favor flat keys because several instruments in the ensemble are transposed. For the transposed instruments (the most common being Bb clarinet, all saxophones, trumpet, and French horn), the first scale learned is often the written F or C major scale. However, due to the transposing nature of the instrument, the sounding key is typically Bb, Eb, Ab, or Db. As young wind instrument players increase their knowledge of chromatic notes and key signatures the expansion is often to add more flats. This is in stark contrast to young string players who, due to the nature of the open strings, learn sharp keys first and typically increase their knowledge by adding sharps.
Grade 2—Easy (2 years of playing experience)
- Middle school bands, small-program high schools
- Introduction of easy compound meters
- Intermediate rhythms with some syncopation, dotted notes, and triplets
- Key signature: up to 2–3 flats
- Length: 2–5 minutes
Grade 3—Medium (3–4 years playing experience)
- Advanced middle school bands, most high schools
- Challenging rhythms
- Easy changing and asymmetrical meters
- Some solo and soli (sectional) writing, beginning of part independence
- Slight use of extreme ranges
- Advanced technique
- Key signature: up to 4 flats
- Length: 3–7 minutes
Grade 4—Medium Advanced (5–6 years playing experience)
- Advanced high schools, colleges, and small-program universities
- Challenging rhythms with a free use of syncopation
- Frequent changing and some asymmetrical meters
- Solo writing with much part independence
- Key signature: 1 sharp to 5 flats
- Length: 6+ minutes and multiple movements
Grade 5—Advanced (7–9 years playing experience)
- Advanced high schools, universities
- Very challenging rhythms
- Changing and asymmetrical meters
- Full range
- Virtuosic writing
- Key signature: All
- Length: Any
Grade 6—Professional (10+ years playing experience)
- Most universities
- Very difficult in all facets