The one thing a band can’t do.

I’m in the process of writing my 2nd Symphony right now.  It’s going surprisingly well.  What I’ve discovered is that I wrote many of the sections some years ago, but for a different medium.  There are two parts in particular.  The entire finale of the symphony and the end of the 1st part (I hesitate to call it the 1st movement, as the whole symphony is one long, continuous work).  What I’m basically doing is cannibalizing two earlier works (Hy Brasil and my Symphonic Poem for Tenor Bassoon and Orchestra).

Herein lies the problem.  Both of these works have extensive parts for strings.  Hy Brasil, in particular, has over 10 minutes of etherial, floating undulations in the upper strings.  At a pianississimo dynamic, this is almost impossible to transcribe for winds.


Here’s where the mega-ensemble comes into play.  I’ll walk you through some of my thoughts on how to do it.  There are only a few instruments capable of playing the notes I wanted: flutes, oboes, upper clarinets, and upper saxes.  Oboes and saxes are out.  Their strident tone cannot give the needed effect.  Clarinets might work, but their sound is too pure.  I need complex overtones.  Here’s where having 8 flutes is handy.  I’m able to divide the four string parts (Violin 1, Violin 2, Viola, and Cello) among the 8 flutes, one on a part, but alternating between the players so that only 4 musicians are playing at any one time.  By trading off, I can also have the musicians switch instruments to give them the most comfortable playing register and to change up the sound.  Flutes 1 and 2 go between C Flute and Piccolo frequently.  Flutes 5 and 6 go between C Flute and Alto Flutes with the same regularity.  The trading off also gives the players a few measures of rest to regain their breath.

In addition to the 8 flutes, I also have 4 recorders doubling the parts at pitch.  The four players are using Sopranino, Soprano, Alto, and Tenor Recorders.  With only four players, I cannot give them the same breath pauses that the flutes get.  However, I have personally played through all the parts and can manage them with ease on the specified instruments.

The combined effect of 8 flutes and 4 recorders gives a more complex tone than just the flutes alone.  It won’t have the complexity of an entire string section, but the similarities are there.

To give more complexity to the sound, I then added 4 saxophones (E-flat Alto, C Tenor, B-flat Tenor, and Baritone) playing the chordal structure of the flute/recorder parts.  The saxophones are all playing in their upper most (non-altissimo) register.  The saxophone sound will give the complex overtone series of the stings.  Because they are in their highest register, their sound can be more easily controlled at the pianississimo dynamic.

For these passages, all other parts are exactly like in their orchestral counterpart.  So what is simple in an orchestra, takes 8 flutes, 4 recorders, and 4 saxophones, to approximate with the same sense of feeling in a wind group.  For me, light delicate, ethereal textures are the absolute hardest thing a wind band can play.  However, if done properly, their effect is magical.


The Vibraphone is a curious instrument.  It is essentially a large metal Marimba.  The key difference between the Vibraphone and the Marimba are the rotating fans places in each of the Vibraphone’s resonators.  These fans, controlled by a variable speed motor, produce a vibrato effect not heard on any other percussion instrument.  This instrument was immediately popular in jazz.  In classical music, it had a cooler entry.

The Vibrato

The curious thing about the Vibraphone is that most times the characteristic vibrato is turned off in concert works.  In fact, many of the Vibraphones I’ve worked with before have had their motors disabled.  When writing for the Vibraphone, use of the motor must always be indicated.  As most Vibraphones will have a variable speed motor, it is also important to request the speed of the motor – slow, medium, fast.  I once wrote a piece where I indicated two separate Vibraphones.  One has the motor on the highest speed while the second had the motor turned down one notch from high.  This would produce a cross-vibrato effect where the instruments are slightly out of sync.  Another thing to think of here, Vibraphones from different manufacturers will have motors that rotate at different speeds.  The motor can be changed and turned on or off during a performance.  The best instruments will have a silent motor.

The Range

Traditionally, the range of the Vibraphone has only been 3 octaves from F3 to F6, but increasingly, makers are now making instruments with a four octave range from C3 to C7.  I find it odd that it took so long for the Vibraphone to have its range extended when the Marimba constantly undergoes range extensions.  I prefer the 4 octave instrument.  The extra bass notes really add a new sound to the instrument.

The Bow

An interesting effect is to take a cello or bass bow and actually bow the edge of the bar instead of striking it with a mallet.  This is a very slow technique.  Changing from the top row to the bottom row (black keys to white keys) take a considerable amount of movement.  In the piece I mentioned above, I had one of the Vibraphone players play only the top row while the other only played the bottom row to lessen the movement of the players.

The Ring and the Pedal

Because the instrument’s bars are metal, they will have a very long ring after they are sounded.  The larger bars will ring longer than the smaller ones.  Because of this, the Vibraphone is equipped with a pedal exactly like the sustain pedal on a Piano.  Pedal markings should be included in parts for exact clarity.  Otherwise, the performer will pedal the part at their discretion.  If the pedal is not depressed, the Vibraphone will have a dry staccato sound.

Mallet technique

Vibraphones will use either two or four mallets.  Two-mallet passages will generally be single lines while four-mallet passages will contain chords.  In chords it is best to keep notes spacing to about an octave between mallets held in one hand.  Check with a competent player for limitations of four-mallet technique.  Six-mallet technique is known, but extremely rare.

Pitch bending

A rarely used technique involves bending the pitch.  This is done by sticking the bar with one mallet and then dragging a second mallet across the bar.  See video below for how technique is done.

Vibraphone technique

4-octave Vibraphone playing a Bach Cello Suite (no vibrato)

4-octave Vibraphone playing Debussy’s Sunken Cathedral (no vibrato)

Gary Burton talking about the Vibraphone.  Watch the whole series of videos here!

A piece for bowed Vibraphone.  Note, it takes four players on one instrument to play this piece.

Pitch bending technique

Staff Bells

Staff Bells are one of the most underutilized percussion instruments in existence.  They are essentially suspended handbells stuck with mallets.  Staff Bells were originally used in the early 1900s as a novelty act in vaudville shows.  The Deagan Company (who worked to develop the Marimba, Vibraphone, and the unsuccessful Nabimba) marketed these for several years.  The only composer who seemed to latch onto them was Percy Grainger.  Grainger used them extensively in The Warriors, In a Nutshell Suite, and in the finale of Lincolnshire Posy.

If a suitable rack can be built, any set of handbells can be turned into Staff Bells easily.  Usually the clappers are removed from Staff Bells.  Depending on the size of the bell, the mallet can be hard rubber, plastic, or yarn/cord.  Hard mallets can damage the larger bells.  Soft mallets will not produce an audible sound on the small bells.  If a large range is expected, it is best to split the Staff Bells up among 2-3 players.  Grainger almost always uses 3.

Range is conceivably 7 octaves depending on the maker of handbells.  Schulmerich makes a range from C2 to C( (sounding an octave higher).  The C9 (really C10) is one of the highest musical instruments in existence an octave higher than the Piano’s highest note. Four to five octaves is the standard (C3-C7).

Demonstration of Staff Bells in preparation for Grainger’s The Warriors.

A rehearsal for Grainger’s Gumsucker’s March where you can see the whole percussion section including the Staff Bells.

Bell Plates

Bell Plates are one of the many attempts to recreate the sound of massive, deep church bells.  The result isn’t a perfect simulacrum, but they are an interesting and useful sound in and of themselves.

Depending on the maker, Bell Plates will come in many different sizes.  Chromatic sets are preferred.  I have seen them advertised in up to four-octave sets going down to C2 (the C below the bass clef).

The sound of Bell Plates will last a long time after they are struck (up to a minute or more).  Care should be taken to notate the exact duration of the ring.

Different mallets can be used from a rawhide Chimes beater, to a timpani stick, to a bass drum/gong beater, to yarn mallets.  Each will produce a strikingly different result.

Crotales and Antique Cymbals

One of my favorite percussion instruments are the Crotales.  Crotales are tuned metal disks usually stuck with hard mallets (plastic or metal) that sound similar to a Glockenspiel.  Crotales will only ever have a 2-octave range (top two octaves of the piano).  Only rare experiments have extended the range beyond this.

In terms of sound, I tend to think of Crotales as having a more oboe-like sound while the Glockenspiel will have a more clarinet-like sound.  This has to do with the complex series of overtones produced on the Crotales.  Think of them as twinkling lights in the night sky.

Technique on the Crotales will be the slowest of all the mallet percussion instruments due to the shape of the discs.  Bowing the discs will give a pure, if not eerie sound that is highly effective.  Bowing technique is only for extremely slow passages (half and whole notes at most).  The ring time is the longest of any of the traditional mallet percussion instruments.

New Age demonstration of Crotales (bowed and struck)

Antique Cymbals

Antique Cymbals are the exact same instrument as Crotales only played in a completely different manner.  Like their name implies, pairs of them are struck together like cymbals.  These are some of the oldest pitched percussion instrument that we know of.  Berlioz remarks that several were found in Roman ruins (hence the name “antique”).  Famous examples of Antique Cymbals are found in “The Queen Mab Scherzo” from Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, and The Rite of Spring.

Queen Mab Scherzo


Another rarely used tuned percussion instrument are the Almglocken.  Almglocken are tuned Swiss cowbells.  They usually come in sets ranging from 2 to 4 octaves.  Almglocken have had their clappers removed, so to sound them they are stuck with mallets (yarn or rubber) like most other tuned percussion instruments.  There are three ways Almglocken can be mounted.

1. Fixed on a rack, unmoveable, most common

2. Lying flat on a table, produces a dampening effect

3. suspended from a rack, free swinging, can produce a “vibrato” effect

If not specified, the first option is the most common.

The dull plunk has little sustain, and the intonation is not 100% accurate.  I find it best to use Almglocken by themselves and not part of a larger percussion ensemble.  I’ve written for the instrument once as an accompaniment line in a quiet section of my Bassoon Concerto.

Introduction to Almglocken

Suspended Almglocken

The most well-known work that scores for Almglocken is Messiaen’s Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum.  This work uses 4 octaves of Almglocken divided among three players.

The Chiapas Marimba and the Nabimba

The modern Marimba is a long way from its ancestor.  The original Marimba still exists, but is almost unheard of in concert music.  I’m referring to the Chiapas Marimba, an ethnic instrument from the state of Chiapas in Mexico.  (Yes, I’m aware that the Marimba has earlier origins in Africa, but that will delve too deep into ethnomusicology for the purposes of orchestration).

The Chiapas Marimba differs from the concert Marimba in that the resonators (almost always made of dried gourds) are equipped with buzzing membranes that give the instrument a reedy, almost saxophone-like sound.  The range is often times must larger as well.  A few years ago, 5-octave Marimbas were rarities (though this has now changed), but Chiapas Marimbas have always had 5-6 octaves.  The 6 octave instruments are larger than any current Marimba in production.  These instruments will usually have a half-octave added on to the normal 5-octave range (F1 – F7).

The sound can be used in completely different ways than the normal Marimba, especially in the lower register.  A roll on the low notes will become almost seamless and will add to an overall bass.  Arpeggios will have a richer quality to them without the harsh attack of the Marimba.

Example of a 5.5 octave Chiapas Marimba

A 5 octave instrument

Note: nearly all the time, the Chiapas Marimba is played by multiple people (2-3).  These instruments are so large (up to 10.5 feet in length) that accommodating more than one person is easy.

Surprisingly, the first American-made Marimbas made were much closer to the design of these Chiapas instruments.  The Deagan company basically invented the modern Marimba.  Their first instruments were called “Nabimbas.” Only a handful of these instruments were made.  Outwardly, they look like a modern Marimba, but the buzzing resonators give a sound almost identical to the Chiapas instruments.  Only a single work in the literature calls for a Nabimba, Percy Grainger’s In a Nutshell Suite from 1912, which incidentally is also the very first composition to ever score for a Marimba as well.  Deagan offered these instruments up to a 5-octave range.

A Deagan Nabimba

These two instruments, while outwardly different, are virtually the same.  It can add a completely new color to the percussion section, and can easily blend with the reed instruments.