6 band works you must hear, program and perform (that you probably don't know)

Here are 6 incredible band works for ensembles from Grade 1-5 you need to hear, program and perform - that just happen to be by women composers.

1. Jodie Blackshaw

Jodie Blackshaw is one of the most innovative, interesting and distinctive composers working today. What stands her work apart is how she fuses deep artistry with impeccable craft, and her insistence on giving players responsibility for musical decision-making. About 10 years ago I was fortunate enough to watch Jodie teach classroom (general) music. Her Orff training permeates her works for younger players which are so simple in their construction, yet musically elegant. Every work she writes is a unique piece of real art, with its own sound world. This is SO rare in band music, especially for younger players, and is a testament to her dedication to young musicians.

Whether your band plays Grade 1 or Grade 5 there is a Jodie Blackshaw work to suit your ensemble, including those with limited instrumentation. Though Whirlwind is the work I've performed most because of its great flexibilty and excellent supporting teaching materials. I've conducted it with beginner 7th graders, through to adults learning and performing from memory, surround-sound style.

However, Soulström was the work that changed my life as a teacher and conductor that you must hear. Written to process her grief following the loss of her dad it is introspective, unsettling, turbulent, and ultimately liberating. Get tissues.

Soulström (Grade 5/6)

2. CHEN Yi

Pulitzer-Prize nominated Chen Yi is a Chinese-American composer who has written a vast catalogue of works for vocal and instrumental soloists, chamber groups and large ensembles. I first came across her spectacular Suite from China West (Grade 5) and immediately fell in love with it, especially the virtuosic glockenspiel and piccolo duet that opens of the third movement (watch). Many of her other band works are equally technically demanding and aurally compelling.

Which is why Spring Festival (Grade 3) is so special. It's one of 26 works in the American Composers' Forum Bandquest Series, which challenges world-class composers (who mostly write for professional players) to turn their hand to writing for young band. The myriad resources and videos that accompany these works really give you an insight into what a challenge these restrictions can be for a composer used to having free-reign! (Like this video where students interview CHEN Yi about the piece)

I love the vibrant sound world of this piece, especially the use of traditional percussion (there are alternates if you can't access the required instruments).

Spring Festival (Grade 3)

3. Tania Owens

Tania Owens is an Australian flautist, composer and educator. Her career as a primary and secondary teacher informs her well-crafted works for beginner ensembles. I first heard Banish the Moon (Grade 2) at the start of 2021 and was immediately captivated by its sounds and tonality. It's a great way to introduce or consolidate younger players' experience in 3/4 and minor modes. Her newer work Bellbird Grove (Grade 1) is also worth our attention - I especially love the evocative percussion opening.

Banish the Moon (Grade 2)

4. Erika Svanoe

I can't remember quite how I came across Erika Svanoe's Steampunk Suite (Grade 5) during a COVID lockdown, but it provided me with much enjoyment and levity during a tough time. Originally written as Steampunk Scenes for chamber ensemble (I personally prefer this version), she re-wrote it for band in 2017, and then flexible instrumentation during the pandemic. It's quirky, humorous and references a lot of musical genres along the way, but requires a really solid ensemble to pull it off with the panache and verve it deserves.

If you've got a less experienced group, check out The Haunted Carousel (Grade 3, excellent) and Springtime Ride (Grade 2)

Steampunk Suite (Grade 5)

5. Shelley Hanson

I think the first Shelley Hanson work I conducted was her La Tumba de Alejandro Garcia Caturla (Grade 5) from her Islas y Montañas suite. I LOVE that piece! I later went on to conduct all the other movements - except for the insanely hard antiphonal clapping piece Tocata - approach with caution!!! We gave it a brave go, but it never got to a performable standard. It could definitely be attempted by a group with excellent internal pulse and impeccable syncopation chops!

I've also conducted her gorgeous Elegy for Albinoni, El Gato Montés (Grade 4, just this week!) and Albanian Dance (Grade 5).

I first heard Elegy for Albinoni performed at the Midwest Clinic, conducted by my teacher and mentor Craig Kirchhoff. This is that performance.

Elegy for Albinoni (Grade 4)

6. Cindy McTee

I was first introduced to the work of Cindy McTee by Jodie Blackshaw (see no. 1) in 2010 as her work Soulström (see also no. 1) had been performed at the University of North Texas in a concert alongside McTee's Timepiece. I fell in love with her sound and sought out recordings of all her other works. Many are featured on the album 'The Composer's Collection: Cindy McTee' recorded by the North Texas Wind Symphony.

During my Masters I compiled a profile on McTee and her band works (now lost in the mists of time and old Macbooks). What I enjoyed discovering was her obsession with clocks, time, and car racing. These fascinations are reflected in her tightly wound, angular, energetic writing and titles like 'Gizmo', 'Twittering Machine', 'Finish Line' and 'Circuits'. I haven't yet had the opportunity to conduct any of her works with an ensemble up to the task - but I can always dream!

Timepiece (Grade 6+)

tl;dr

There's something for EVERYONE here - a whole myriad of sound worlds, colours, voices, textures and ideas. I hope you hear something here that ignites your imagination and inspires awe.

Young women need to see themselves in their musical experiences - on stage, on the podium, and on the top right hand corner of a piece of music in their folders. Whether your ensemble are beginners or seasoned professionals there's a work here for you to program and share with them.

There's no excuse any more for saying 'I don't know works by female composers' or 'I don't know where to look'. Many fabulous, hard-working people in our industry have made it easy for us.

To find more works by other women composers I highly recommend:

Happy listening, programming and conducting!

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