In Japan, we have a monthly magazine called “Band Journal” published by Ongaku No Tomo Sha Corp. Every year, it publishes an analysis of set pieces for the All Japan Band Competition (AJBC) a few months before the competition. Similarly in this article, I’d like to share my ideas about the march “Sunny Island” by Kahchun Wong, the set piece for 2017 Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) Arts Presentation (Secondary School Level), from both the band conductor’s and composer’s viewpoint.
Singapore born Kahchun Wong joined band activities as a trumpeter during his school days. He is now a renowned conductor as the winner of the 2016 International Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition, and holds many important positions of professional orchestras in the world.
You will find some suggestions of his musical imaginations like “Infinite Dreams”, “Reach for the Stars”, and “Let every note ring, like the sparkling stars on a moonless night” in his work. As Kahchun Wong is a professional conductor, we can imagine how he rehearse with his orchestra when he can put such imaginative words into the score.
I hope that my ideas in this article help you to better understand and express this imaginative work on the stage.
It is common that performers tend to focus on details such as parts with fast passages or high registers, but firstly, we should understand the total structure of the music.
This work is made up of three sections with slow-tempo introduction as follows:
Introduction – (Bar 1 to 10）/ Bb major “Infinite Dreams”
1st section / Bb major “Tropical Breeze”
1st strain – figure [A] (8+8 bars)
2nd strain – figure [B] (4+4 bars), figure [C] (4+4 bars)
1st strain recapitulation – figure [D] (8 bars)
2nd section / Eb major → F major “Dayung Sampan”
Introduction of the trio – Bar 53 – 54 (2 bars)
Trio – figure [E] (10 bars), figure [F] (10 bars)
Episode theme – figure [G] (8+4 bars)
Trio theme recapitulation – figure [H] (8+2 bars) / Key modulates to F
Coda section / F major “Reach for the stars”
3rd strain (Grandioso) – figure [I] (16 bars)
Ending – figure [J] (4 bars)
Some readers may feel that this piece is modeled on the style of an AJBC set piece. Indeed, the orchestration of the 1st strain and phrasing of 2nd strain in the 1st section is very similar to Japanese march style, but the second half of the section is different in style.
I’d like to mention two big characteristics of its structures; one is the modulation at bar (87) from Eb major to F major, and the other is the 3rd strain’s appearance at the grandioso section, which can be found in some early John Philip Sousa’s marches. The 2nd and Coda sections could be regarded as one big section.
Although the composer wrote in the full score that metronome markings are not absolute, the tempo of Andante shouldn’t be too slow. The dramatic crescendo in bars (7) to (8) and/or poco rallentando in bar (10) would not be effective if the tempo is too slow. Conductors must make sure that the tempo does not go down unconsciously. Actually, it happens quite often when you try to do espressivo especially when the tempo is around 70 to 80. You may have to use the metronome to check the tempo.
The tempo of the music must be stable. All performers including the conductor must listen to the snare and bass drums. Basically, all performers must follow the bass drum when it plays crotchets or a set of similar rhythmic patterns. At figure [E], all players must listen to and follow the snare drum. Phrases without percussion like bars (33) to (36) tend to lose tempo (tempo would get slower in many bands). Players must count properly BEFORE entering this “no-percussion” section and keep the tempo constant.
As I mentioned above, the roll of drums is extremely important. Generally, the bass drum is much more powerful than the conductor in a march composition. As crash cymbals are the musical partner of the bass drum, two of them must play in unity (hence, crash cymbals should be placed next to bass drum as almost all the bands/orchestra in the world do, NOT the snare drum).
All percussionists should have a sense of tempo and feel, and have to be fully aware of the responsibility that the percussion section dictates the tempo and quality of the ensemble. Of course, percussionists have to practice with the metronome and improve the togetherness of the section.
Relationship between dynamics and air speed
This piece has many softer dynamics, namely p and pp, while the dynamic ff appears only twice at bars (53) and (113) (in addition, ff is sustained for only 2 counts at bar 53).
Hence, conductors have to follow through with how the composer uses dynamics marks. Perhaps, some parts with p and pp should be played a little louder than usual.
In the case of school bands, air speed tends to be in proportion to dynamics, but the width of tone colour or music expression would be rather narrow (see figure 1). Conversely, you will have much bigger room for music expression if you can think of dynamics and air speed separately.
For example, all sections’ air speeds should be fast to express leggiero feeling for accompaniment, or ensure that the chromatic passages and dotted quiver notes are clear for the melody at figure [A] even though dynamics mark is p.
At figure [I], even though the melody has a f dynamic, air speed shouldn’t be too fast to ensure that the phrasing of the beautiful melody is longer and smoother. Air speed should not be too slow to avoid making the tone colour of each instrument too dull (see figure 2).
The words “air speed” can be read as bow speed for double bass or stroke speed for percussion. Basically, what the conductor must show with his/her gesture are the air, bow or stroke speeds.
Suggestions for Conductors
Conducting should be simple as this march has no change in tempo except for its introduction. Your gestures shouldn’t be too big, and try to avoid fancy conducting when following the melody as it may confuse the players. Percussion and bass instruments should be keeping time and your priority would be to show them the accurate tempo.
Players should focus on accompaniment as it is the key success to establish good ensemble playing of the march. If the tempo of the accompaniment is good, the melody will flow smoothly, and you can use minimum gestures on the left hand if you want to express the melody. Basically, any excessive conducting will confuse your players.
Brief review of each section
The semi-quavers in trombone and euphonium must be together with snare drum. From bars (3) to (8), these 6 bars contains all three important themes of this work. In particular, the counter melody by the horn from the pick-up of bar (5) has to be heard clearly even though dynamics is pp. As the climax of crescendo from bar (7) is on the first beat of bar (11), ensure that the dominant motion is from bars (10) to (11). Do note that the chord on the 4th beat of bar (10) is F7(13), and it changes to the Bb chord on bar (11).
Conductors and rhythmic sections in the band have to establish a stable tempo at bars (11) and (12). Tempo shouldn’t be too slow, otherwise the audience cannot have a feeling of “breeze”. I personally think that the tempo should be faster than 126 at least. It would be more natural to express accents in the 1st strain by air speed than volume. The phrase of “Dayung Sampan” is then heard partly at bar (27) and figure [D] by the counter melody. The conductor has to pay attention to the balance between the melody and other music elements at the 2nd strain.
Ensure that the dynamics are softer at bar (41) than at bar (33) to allow the crescendo at bar (43) to be more dramatic. Melody players however must play the pick-up clearly so as not to lose tempo. The chromatic bass line from bars (41) to (42) is so beautiful and it should be played with natural and slight crescendo. The climax of the 1st section is after bar (48) where all instruments have the same dynamics f.
The saxophone section has to make the difference in harmony between bars (53) and (54), the 3rd and 4th counts of bar (53) is Ab and Eb respectively, while bar (54) is Ab-minor. This sound of harmony should be checked by doing long tones during the rehearsal. This is important as the tenor saxophone is very difficult to control both its pitches D and Db.
If your band doesn’t have four horns, check the constitution of harmony and choose which notes should be played. Generally, the 5th note of the each chord can be omitted, and root can be done except for inversions. Balance control is important at figures [F] and [G] too. Trumpets must use enough air to produce enough sonority in low registers with the straight mute around bars (72) to (74).
A Chinese styled sound effect at bar (85) is composed by a perfect 4th interval building, and it brings a fresh modulation from Eb major to F minor. Players should be aware of the tonality change and should shape their sound colour to become brighter.
As the melody is played by trumpets and trombones, and counter melody is by higher woodwinds, both parties should listen to each other and play like a conversational style. These two voices should have contrast, such as the resonant and broad brass melody versus the vivid sound of woodwinds.
The motif which was heard at bars (7) and (8) in the introduction appears from the pick-up of bar (107) and leads on to the climax. However, all players must listen to the percussion and bass instruments and keep accurate tempo as this is still a march! The tubular bells only have loud dynamics fff at figure [J]. The player should count the rests properly in bar (115) and produce a clear unison F note with the band at the last bar.
I did not manage to write all of my ideas about the elements of the piece such as harmony progress or motivic relationships, as it would require a lot more time. However, I do hope that conductors will continue to study their score and pursue joy in performing this piece with their bands.
Likewise, individual basic technique is necessary to express and enjoy music adequately. I believe that all players have to spend some time for this as to perform music without basic techniques is the same as trying to read and understand a book without the knowledge of the language in which it is written.
I hope that all bands have a good practice on the set piece to showcase their best on the SYF stage. I look forward to listening to your great performances!