Test Piece - What makes it a test piece?

Discussion in 'The Rehearsal Room' started by Euph thumbs up, Mar 1, 2011.

  1. I know a while back there was a thread about test pieces. This was more to do with origins/commissions etc.

    I want to look at it from a different angle.

    What makes a test piece a test piece?
    Paul Lovatt Cooper mentioned in an interview that he knows what notes/fingerings are difficult for players, and he tries to incorporate this into his a lot of his test pieces.
    On average it would be fair to say that the average test piece is around the 15min mark. Could we test bands in 5 mins?
    Does it have to be a tone poem?
    Do these 'rules' make it harder/easier for composers to compose.

    Above all, What are similar traits by brass band composers, and what do other composers do to be different, eg Gilbert Vinter radical modern techniques, taking brass band test pieces to a new level.

    Comments much appreciated.

    Seek differences where you assume sameness. Seek sameness when you assume differentness ;)
  2. eflatbass

    eflatbass Supporting Member

    You are asking for replies to a number of issues, and I would not attempt to respond to all of them. I would, however, like to comment on PLC’s mention of difficult notes/fingerings. Presumably, this was voiced as part of an interview regarding his overall approach to writing test pieces, and was not to infer that the inclusion of difficult fingerings etc. was at the core of his compositions.

    It is only my personal opinion, but I believe that there must always be wider horizons to be considered, and that the best test pieces should pay just as much (if not more!) devotion to the musical content, as that devoted to degrees of difficulty.

  3. Thanks for this, Barry. Yes I have posed maybe too many questions but the reason for this was because some people may have an opinion on 1 specific question, which is great.

    Here is the passage in question;

    "However, I do take into consideration the ‘test’ element, so when writing a solo line I consider the range and technical boundaries of instruments.

    Certain notes in certain keys can be slightly sharp or flat, so I use them in the melodic lines in the hope that the player realises this and adjusts accordingly.

    My general approach is to compose a challenge for players in terms of sound, intonation, technical ability and range, and a challenge for conductors to make the music come to life and shape the performance."

    The way I interpret this is that he is writing his test pieces as an examiner primarily. He also mentioned earlier in the interview that he structures his piece to incorporate a musical element like you said, so my question to yourself as a composer is, are there rules you must conform to when writing a test piece?
  4. WoodenFlugel

    WoodenFlugel Moderator Staff Member

    As far as I'm concerned if you play it in a contest then - and only then - is it a 'test piece'. At all other times its just a piece of music. So it can be whatever - a hymn tune up to a 20 minute long opus.

    I have to say I'm not comfortable with the idea of a composer deliberately writing something that's perceived to be 'difficult' - even if the piece is commissioned for a contest. Surely the criteria should be to write music that is testing rather than a series of technical hoops to be jumped through, stung together to form a piece. Maybe PLC is not expressing himself too clearly here, or the context of the original article is lost. Do you have a link to the original article?

    (This is from someone who would struggle to compose a scale...:roll:)
  5. eflatbass

    eflatbass Supporting Member

    I am glad that you have now quoted PLc's interview in more detail, rather than extracting just one part.

    Me, write test pieces? No thanks; I know my limitations, and would not presume to be capable of writing one, neither am I qualified to lay down rules for doing so.

  6. HBB

    HBB Active Member

    A test piece should just be a normal piece of music. It shouldn't be deliberately hard for the sake of being a test-piece. Pieces written just to be hard are definitely less musically satisfying than written pieces that are selected for a test-piece... :)
  7. Laserbeam bass

    Laserbeam bass Active Member

    If Willy Wonka had anything to do with it, it would only be a piece of music written in the "Test" Valley :tongue:

  8. Sure thing, please let me know if I am interpreting this wrong.


    Dont get me wrong I think PLC is one of the top current composers for the brass band medium (especially as he is a percussionist!:cool:)

    I have heard other composers (their names I forget) mention they also purposely set out to make test pieces hard (but not impossible) for the players.
  9. John Brooks

    John Brooks Well-Known Member

    I completely agree. In support of that statement I would suggest that, in recent years, a lot of music from the Salvation Army catalogue has been used to test bands but none of it was specifically written as a test piece (eg: My Strength, My Tower; On Ratcliff Highway; The Kingdom Triumphant etc.).
  10. I agree to an extent. If it was commissioned specifically for a contest or particular section, then I would still call it a test piece out of a contest situation

    If it had been selected to be a test piece after it was composed, then I wouldn't call it a test piece out of a contest situation.
  11. HBB

    HBB Active Member

    There is no such thing as a 'test-piece'; merely pieces of music that are used in a competitive environment.
  12. stevetrom

    stevetrom Well-Known Member

    What about Contest Music?

    Commissioned as a test piece and quite clearly, from the name given, written to be used for a contest.

    Fantastic pice of music as well (IMHO).
  13. sjs

    sjs Member

    Absolutely agree! :clap:
  14. Thirteen Ball

    Thirteen Ball Active Member

    Yes, agreed, the name is indicative that it was written to be used in the context of a competition. But from one listen to it, you can tell that it's difficult by chance and musical by design. That's whay, as you rightly state, it's such a fantastic piece of work.

    I must confess I hate the term 'test-piece' because this implies some of the 'hard for the sake of it' type writing has gone in there - and I don't personally believe that there's any need to write that way. I realise it's a controvversial angle, but my opinion is that the primary and overall driving force of any scoring done should be how it sounds when played. If it isn't done for this reason, it ceases to be music.

    There's a passage in St Magnus which is all 9:8, 5:16, 5:8, 3:16 etc, but when re-written in 3:4, it all lines up exactly, musical phrases meet barlines and the beat makes sense. All that tells me is that it was originally written that way, then purposely messed about to make it look harder than it is. Now it still ain't exactly straightforward when it's re-written! But what on earth was the point in doing that? It sounds just as good either way, so why make it unecessarily difficult?

    I'd never deliberately write something in an obstructive key, just to make it harder. What on earth is the point in that? But, if by writing in a dificult key, I could achieve the sound I wanted, then I wouldn't hesitate for a moment, because a key change can affect the sound and mood of music immeasurably. It's the same with range. I'd never wrrite a euph up to a top E just to make a piece hard - but if I wanted that sound, then in it goes. I'm sure he'll be along to correct me if I'm wrong - but I'm pretty sure Phillip Sparke wasn't thinking about the difficulty factor when he wrote the euph cadenza in harmony music. OK, it may have been in the back of his mind, but I'd bet a fair few quid he was primarily thinking about how amazing it could sound in the hands of a skilled player.

    It's my opinion that the driving force for a writer should be the music, not the difficulty factor. If, as a writer, you're writing something purposely to be hard, it's my opinion that you've probably lost sight of why you're writing, and it's time for a cup of tea and a good long think.
  15. MoominDave

    MoominDave Well-Known Member

    A composer undertaking a commission is producing a piece of work that they should design to please the commissioner. If the commissioner is requesting a piece of work suitable for a band contest the writing needs to present a set of musical hazards that will make an adjudicator's work easy when the work is used.

    I think it's a bit simplistic to state that the desired difficulty should not be a motive force. It's the ability to create a musically coherent work that accurately incorporates the desired level of difficulty without sounding strained and artificial that defines a good band contest-piece composer. Philip Sparke demonstrates this ability in spades. PLC - not so much.
  16. Could we say that a test-piece has multiple meanings then? I am sure that there is not a definitive meaning of the term (correct me if I am wrong).

    The way I see it;

    A test-piece has developed into a label, just like a Waltz, Hymn, March.
    There are a few contests in Scotland that stipulate we must play a March, Hymn and Test-Piece.
    This alone must suggest a specific kind of music.

    As you suggest, a test-piece is are merely pieces of music that are used in a competitive environment. I would agree with that.

    However, I think 'test-piece' could have other meanings.
    I am in my final year as a composition student. For my final assignment I have opted to write a test-piece. The reasons being that I want a piece created specifically for the contest environment. I want a piece that bands fuss over, that takes up a lot of their time. For me, hearing 10 bands play your piece in 10 different ways would be the ultimate highlight.It is a unique experience you can't get from concerts.
    If it was played out of a contest then great, but I would be more than happy if it was showcased once in a contest, and never played again. For those reasons, to me the piece I am writing is a test-piece.

    Now how that differs to a regular 15min piece of brass band is worth exploring. There may be little or no difference at all.
    HOwever, if PLC is composing some test-pieces with the idea of making it deliberately award for players, then I think the test-piece has now become it's own label, unlike the early days when they were just playing operatic selections.

    Composers are now composing in it's literal form, to test bands.
  17. Excellent point !
  18. Thanks for this, Andi.Well said!
    It is similar to the whole enharmonics debate. When I write out a transposed part from a score, it is normally littered with double flats and sharps. Although this is grammatically correct, no-one wants to read them when there is an easier alternative. I get shouted at constantly by my composition lecturer for making things easier for the player (regarding enharmonics). For example, I had a piece performed by the Ulster Orchestra last month, and the only criticism I got was from the Glock player for putting double flats and sharps in. Typical!

    I think what most people on here are getting at is that a test-piece should be great musically and challenging by coincidence.
  19. Thirteen Ball

    Thirteen Ball Active Member

    A good and very salient point, Moomin. To go back to my previous example then, maybe the difficulty was nearer the front of Mr Sparke's mind than I first thought - though he has the skill to take something difficult and make it sit so perfectly within the surrounding tapestry that it doesn't stick out for that reason.

    It's the difference between achieving "Crikey that's hard.... but doesn't it sound awesome" and achieving "Crikey that's hard.... and it sounds a bit odd too.... I can't see the point in that."

    ie: if you can recognise something as being difficult on purpose, then it's missed it's mark.

    In that, Sir, I whole heartedly concur....
  20. Thirteen Ball

    Thirteen Ball Active Member

    Well, there's an entirely different debate - and I have to say, there are frequently occasions when double-sharps and double-flats really do make the most sense. The same as there are situations when only an F-flat can be used and make sense as opposed to an E natural. I'm by no means advocating abandoning proper musical grammar!!

    We had this debate in another thread. Hold on and I'll see if I can look it out.....

    Coincidence is probably not the right term. I'd certainly agree that it has to work both musically and as a challenge though. And that the one should not be compromised for the other.

Share This Page