The Flute in the Band
As I alluded to in the subsection on the C Flute, the flute family as a whole is alone in the band world. As we only use the small members of the family, and the larger members are weak and powerless, we have an oddball situation on our hands. Traditionally, orchestral woodwinds have been seen as thus:
But, this arrangement really belies the instruments’ true capabilities. If we were to really look at what their roles are it would be something like this:
Notice in this arrangement, the flue is move up one level to sopranino/treble and all other instruments shift up one spot. Part of this is due to the flutes role. Like the Basses doubling the Cellos at the octave lower, the flute is best at doubling the soprano voice at the octave higher. This reserves the oboe, and not the flute as the true soprano of the woodwind section. The flute now becomes the icing on the cake and not the cake itself. Bands have yet to figure this out. The C Flute is not your primary melody instrument. It is best at countermelodies, descant lines, and octave doublings. These roles allow for their part to also become more florid and embellished.
The Piccolo is yet another extreme. It doubles the soprano, not at the octave, but at the double octave! Less is more here. The less you use the Piccolo, the more effective it becomes. You do not have to have every single player playing in every single bar. In fact, this is one of the great crimes of band music in general.
This leads me to a very curious example of orchestral efficiency. It is Mahler’s Symphony 8, the “Symphony of a Thousand.” No one in their right mind, you say, would call a symphony that is known for using 1,000 performers efficient, but I am making that case. Mahler may use an exorbitant amount of players, but he uses them in a very selective manner. The entire symphony is well over an hour long, and for one beat, only one single beat, does the entire ensemble play together. This occurs just as the final moment comes crashing down, as the three choirs sing their final note and the brass band begins their triumphant paean. Only by holding everything back until that moment, does this one moment of triumph have its dramatic impact. Remember this in your own writing.
(By the way, there is a stunning Piccolo part in the last movement of Mahler’s 8th that bears looking into. It is one of the very quiet moments, just before the Chorus Mysticus, where a solo Piccolo is accompanied by of all things a Harmonium and a Piano. The result is magical! The gentle Piccolo at its finest.)
The above performance starts at the Piccolo solo and culminates in the grand finale. It is also of special note that all of the orchestral musicians are children!
I am going to lay out a very typical high school flute section. I will make the assumption that there are roughly eight players in the section. This is an average number for an average sized band. The typical band music will have three parts for these eight players.
- Piccolo (player 1)
- Flute 1 (players 2-4)
- Flute 2 (players 5-8)
To me, this is a rather inefficient system. Players 3, 4, 6, 7, and 8 are pretty much pointless. They are there to beef up the sound of players 2 and 5. A creative bandestrator can come up with some clever ideas. Why not eight individual parts? As I said in the subsection on the Alto Flute, many high schools I know now possess an Alto. Why not have player 8 play the Alto? In doing this we would even out the numbers of Flute 1 and Flute 2 to three players on each part instead of three on one and four on the other. Flute 1 and Flute 2 can now be further subdivided. Not necessarily into Flutes 3-6, but more along the lines of desks in a string section. Use the term “one on a part” liberally. Quiet sections greatly benefit from reduction of the clutter (and it helps with the overall intonation of the band).
With this new arrangement we have now three tone colors, four parts, and subtle gradations of two of those parts. We have gone from three colors in our crayon box to six.
We can get even more colors if we have doubling. Every flute, of any size, plays approximately the same as the C Flute. Every flute player should be able to play the Piccolo. Think of the terrific sound of eight Piccolos playing either together, or more horrific still, eight individual, contrapuntal lines! What a wondrous sound that could be.
Next we could bring in our rare species of flutes. The Tenor Flute is the first choice as it is by far the most common, but if you are assured of some of the rare species, by all means, plunder your riches. The rare flutes should really be thought of as double instruments. There is no reason in the world to have a Bass Flute playing when the full band is at fortissimo. Reserve these rare flutes for quiet moments to reap the most rewards.
With just eight players, we really can have a whole palate of sound. But remember, the flute family is only one flavor of sound; the ear needs more than just flute to survive. If I had the option of eight players, all of whom can double on various instruments, I would probably choose an arrangement like this:
Player 1 – Piccolo, C Flute
Player 2 – Piccolo, C Flute
Player 3 – Piccolo, C Flute
Player 4 – Piccolo, C Flute
Player 5 – C Flute, Alto Flute
Player 6 – C Flute, Alto Flute
Player 7 – C Flute, Tenor Flute
Player 8 – C Flute, Bass Flute
This is of course a pie-in-the-sky scenario, but let’s think of the possibilities. All eight players play multiple instruments. At any one time we can have eight C Flute playing between one and eight different parts. For forte sections, four first and four seconds would give the most impact. Also at any one time we can have four Piccolos. This scenario is useful for loud, bombastic, and terrifying passages. (Think how much more terrifying this would be if all eight players switched to Piccolo!) At the bottom end, we could see ourselves with a soft, low quartet of two Altos, a Tenor, and a Bass. Would could have two Piccolos and six C Flutes; two Piccolos, four C Flutes, and two Alto Flutes. The combinations are immense and exciting!
Here is what a full choir of flutes can do.