Creative Thinking and the Art of Transcriptions
29 May 2009
Backstage Brass

By Brandon Ridenour

How do you stand out as a soloist or chamber ensemble when there is limited repertoire written for your instrument(s)?  This is a common problem for many brass players.  One way around this problem is to create your own repertoire by playing pieces not originally intended for your instrument.

Transcriptions have been written and played by all instruments, whether that instrument has a large amount of solo repertoire or not.  Some people may argue that transcribing something for another instrumentation is going against the composers original will.  In many cases, if done well, transcriptions/arrangements can become even more interesting to listen to by comparison to the original instrumentation.   There are many songs that have been adapted and re-arranged (commonly known as “cover songs”) by artists/performers.  To name a few: Summertime, Yesterday, Stairway to Heaven, My Favorite Things, Come Together, Respect, With A Little Help From My Friends, and of course, The Star-Spangled Banner. (My apologies for leaving off your personal favorite cover song.)  With examples of great songs like these, it leads me to believe that it’s OKAY to go ahead and adapt songs/pieces for you or your ensemble to play.  Go ahead and take the “cover song” approach to your arranging, in hopes that your new twist may improve the original work in some way.  Many artists have taken chances with adapting a song that they didn’t write themselves, and in many cases it paid off… even better than the original artists’ versions!

Many brass ensembles have earned their reputation and fame by releasing albums with only new transcriptions of brass works.  Canadian Brass is the best example of a successful brass quintet building that success on a repertoire of masterworks adapted for their instrumentation.  They’ve played pieces such as Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, some of Wagner’s greatest opera hits, along with many popular pieces by Mozart, Bach, The Beatles and other well known composers.  Most everything arranged for the group in the jazz realm was created by Luther Henderson.  Luther was Duke Ellington’s right hand man for arranging charts for his big band.  The Canadian Brass’ relationship with Luther was key in creating great new repertoire for brass and achieving enormous success as a performing brass ensemble.

When your instrument’s repertoire is limited, it is important to enter the realm of creative thinking.  Ask yourself, ‘How can I be successful with what I’ve been given?’  In the case of brass musicians, we do not have as much music to work with by comparison to singers, string players, and pianists.  The art of adaptation, transcription, and creative arranging have become essential for standing out as a soloist or small ensemble.  Even if you belong to a string quartet; everyone has heard a Beethoven string quartet played hundreds of different ways, so why not do something completely different?  Why not try to adapt a piece for your ensemble that hasn’t been done before?  Show off your technique by playing something that’s really difficult, even for the instrument(s) the piece was originally intended for.  As long as it’s done well and tastefully, you or your group will immediately be set apart from the rest of the competition.

<April 2020>

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