Arranging: Writing for Student Ensembles

Good Times.

This past Sunday, my band at The Urban School of San Francisco gave our Spring concert, and it was, by all accounts, a crashing success.  The group I direct there is the beginning group, dubbed the “Lab Band” – the idea is that students develop their skills in my band before graduating to the Advanced Band, led by Urban’s head jazz director, Scott Foster.  This kind of hierarchical setup works really well, both in motivating students to improve, so that they can move up, and allowing those who are just starting out on their instruments not to feel overwhelmed in the early goings.

And believe me, we have a LOT of students who are just starting out on their instruments.  A good number of kids arrive at Urban with musical training, but most of them play rhythm section instruments – guitar, piano, drums, or bass.  In order to keep our jazz program functioning, it’s necessary to get kids to switch to horns – brass is in the highest demand, but sax is also cool.  Scott is really good at convincing the students to switch – once they’re on new instruments, my challenge is to keep then engaged on the new axe long enough to get a hang of playing it.  We’ve been doing a good job of retaining students each year, and as a result, our program’s depth belies the small size of our student body.

I’ve found that the best way to get the most out of everyone is to do my own arrangements for the group for each performance.  This is made all the more necessary by the fact that my group is increasingly filled out by non-standard instrumentation (this year, we’ve got marimba, violin, flute, and harmonica).  By using a few tricks to keep the parts accessible, as well as writing to the strengths of each individual musician, I’ve had great success leading the group through performances of challenging, exciting repertoire that, without the creative re-arrangements, we’d never have been able to play.

I thought I’d share a few basic concepts and tricks that I use.

1. Write to Your Players’ Strengths

This one maybe goes without saying, but the most important thing in arranging for student groups is to get familiar with the skill level of each of your players and write to that level.  It worked for Duke, right?  In my band this year, I have a really strong sax section, particularly my lead alto player, while my brass section are all in their first or second years on the instruments.  The trick was to write challenging material for the saxes while giving the brass just enough to keep them engaged and improving, but to focus their material on pads and long tones so that they could get better at playing in tune.  For example – in our winter concert, I put together an arrangement of “In A Mellow Tone” that featured a notey, tricky sax soli, accompanied by punchy brass hits and pads.  It went off without a hitch.

2. Don’t Be Afraid of Unison

The high school set’s most-adored minor blues.

Last year, we performed Yoko Kano’s “Tank!”, the opening song from the anime series Cowboy Bebop.  That tune is burning fast, and features some really fast-fingering from the reeds.  The band pulled it off with aplomb, and a big reason was the amount of unison in the arrangement.  When arranging for a professional big band, I would usually use a good deal more complex and cross-sectional voicings, even on a tune as harmonically simple as “Tank!”. For the Lab Band, however, I found that by putting the lower voicings in unison with the lead, we got a pretty massive sound on the melody, and the less well-seasoned players could hear their parts played throughout the band by the lead players.

3. Only Feature Your Strongest Soloists

There is a tendency in jazz band to want to feature everyone – I try to stay away from that, featuring only my best soloists, players who have been on their instruments for a long time and feel comfortable getting up and improvising.  The end result of this is that our performance never drags, and the younger players don’t have to feel stressed, nervous, or forced to solo.  What’s more, new instrumentalists have something to shoot for, someone to listen to and emulate, and can feel confident in tackling their role in the performance.  Rehearsal is a totally different story – that’s when it’s good to get kids improvising and letting lose, but on stage, I tend to leave it to the players who are actually comfortable being in the spotlight.

4. Gradually Increase Brass Ranges Over Time


One potential pitfall inherent in writing for individual players is that they’re never challenged.  That is to say, the upside of this technique is that they always sound good, but the downside is that the material is never something that they have to reach for, or work hard to be able to perform.  This is something that I’m addressing slowly, and really trying to get a handle on – I’m in my fifth year directing at Urban, and am only now getting a feel for the progression that I should be fostering, particularly for my brass players.

I usually start kids out playing easy, low tones – both trumpet and trombone players don’t get anything above a written C (trumpets in the middle of the staff, Trombone above the staff).  By the end of their first year, trumpet players should be comfortably up above D in the staff, maybe even up to G; second years past G to A’s and B-flats (always good for those #9 voicings in a G blues).  Trombonists don’t need to focus on their range as much as just increasing their mobility; I don’t try to push it too far above the clef, instead focusing on adding some eighth-note runs to my arrangements later in the year.

5. Always Do Something Awesome

The name says it all.

Maybe this one also goes without saying, but everyone wants to do something rad onstage.  Students will learn jazz, learn the language, and challenge themselves, but they’ll only want to do it (and you’ll only really have a good time directing them) if you make sure that every concert, they get to do something that is awesome.  Not “Wow, we are playing this jazz standard quite well” awesome, but actually awesome.  My (amazing) high school band director, Janis Stockhouse, had this down to a science.  In fact, my “something awesome” for this past concert was a chart that I got from her, Lyle Mays’ “Overture to the Royal Mongolian Suma Foosball Festival.”

I re-arranged the tune specifically for my group, making it into a violin feature and adding a string quartet, borrowing some players from the Urban Chamber Ensemble.  It was a real showstopper, in no small part because the chart was tailored very specifically to the strengths of my players. But really, more than anything else, the reason that the tune went off so well was because, well, that song is awesome.  Past arrangements of “Watermelon Man” (featuring a ripping harmonica solo and a groovy marimba/vibes/pizzo strings intro), Seu George’s “Carolina,” and the aforementioned “Tank!” were also galvanizing tunes that made everyone, myself included, want to put in the extra work to really kick ass.


I’m planning on coming up with a more coherent, detailed, and easily-implemented method for this type of arranging, but those five basic ideas are a start.  I’m sure that some of the more prolific arrangers of student-oriented charts (Mark Taylor and Gordon Goodwin come to mind) have a plethora of their own techniques, as well, and I am very interested in finding out if they’ve written at all on the subject.

I think this sort of approach is a big deal. The explosion of interest in jazz education, coupled with the high-level arranging training at the disposal of today’s jazz educators, make it clear that while pre-fab Kendor charts will always be a worthwhile (and time-saving) resource for jazz educators, we and our students stand to gain far more by creating original arrangements, tailored to the strengths of the individual musicians in our bands.  Time is, of course, a huge factor for full-time band directors, but a possible work-around would be for directors to hire local arrangers to write music specifically for their student groups.  We’re out here, and we’re surprisingly affordable!

Used creatively and with an eye (and ear) for our students’ abilities, ensemble-specific arrangements allow jazz educators to awaken young instrumentalists to the joys of musical performance while helping them to improve and prosper regardless of their prior level of  musical training.


3 thoughts on “Arranging: Writing for Student Ensembles

  1. As a harmonica player it’s good to see that you’re letting young harmonica players into the band. However fitting them into the performances may be difficult, as most harmonica players play by ear, rather than by reading scores.

    The harmonica works very well with small groups, or with vocalists wanting to expand their repertoire. However it is far more than an easily picked up second instrument. I’ve been playing for more than 30 years, and feel like I’m at the start of my journey.

    I do teach harmonica online, so if you have any students who want to go further with the instrument, then send them to

    1. Hi Tony – thanks for writing! I agree – harmonica can be a tricky instrument to start out on. When you’re teaching a beginning student the harmonica, what instrument would you say is best to learn as a compliment? Guitar? Piano?

      It’s such a great texture, and such a cool instrument (particularly when used to play changes, a la Toots), that while I can’t see it becoming as mainstream as, say, alto sax, I do hope that more jazz programs will focus on it as a bona-fide ensemble instrument.

      You might get a kick out of this ode to the harmonica that I wrote after our winter concert. Cheers!

  2. Dorothy

    This is awesome and I can see how acting teachers could certainly use a similar way of working when they create an ensemble with young actors.

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