Concert Band Contest Pieces for Small Bands

I know I am not alone in the world as a band director of a very small school who wants their students to be competitive with what larger schools are doing. I know many other directors want to do this, but they feel uncertain about adapting concert band literature at a judged performance or about their band being able to hold their own at an event involving much larger bands.

None of these concerns have been an issue for my high school band. We have earned ISSMA Gold Ratings (a.k.a. Division 1 or Superior Ratings) 3 out of 3 years, all with 20 or fewer band members.

We have yet to get a negative comment from a judge about changes we made to the music to accommodate our instrumentation. In fact, we have heard positive feedback on creatively getting parts covered. By choosing repertoire carefully and analyzing it in extreme detail, I have only made 2 mistakes where I left something important out and a judge caught it.

Taking my small high school band to contest every year has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. It has been a huge point of pride for me professionally and for my students and my school. Please do not keep this opportunity from your students because you are afraid you will not do well. If you and your students are smart and determined about your preparation, you will have a thrilling experience.

Here is what we played:

2015 Program

We had about 20 in the band, with no tuba and no trombones that year, but we had tenor sax, bari sax, and baritone. We had 5 flutes and 5 good percussionists.

  1. Nathan Hale Trilogy by James Curnow – This piece is available as a flex band arrangement. However, we used the original arrangement and made a few tweaks. It worked great, and we really got a nice concert band sound, despite the lack of low brass!
  2. Romanesque by James Swearingen – This is a decent classic-sounding lyrical piece, but it was challenging for intonation, especially for our flutes.
  3. The Great Steamboat Race by Robert W. Smith – I called an audible a month before contest after I decided March of the Belgian Paratroopers was too risky without more low and middle brass. ISSMA encourages but does not require a march, so we went for something different. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made and one of the best performances I have ever conducted! We adapted the trombone solos for tenor sax, and it worked great. The students still rave about how fun this was.

2016 Program

We had 15 players in the band: 3 flutes, 3 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 alto saxes, 1 tenor sax, 1 trumpet, 1 horn, 1 tuba, 2 percussion.

  1. Landmark Overture by Jim Andy Caudill – This piece seems to be off everybody’s radar. I have never heard another band perform it live. It was not my students’ favorite, but it is high quality literature that made them sound amazing. This finally got them to buy in and make the best of it. It is a grade 3, but it is very tricky, and it took a lot of rehearsal time to clean. Avoid the Youtube videos of bands playing this. The US Air Force Band did a good recording of it for MusicWorks Volume 19 in 2005.
  2. Gently Touch the Sky by Robert Sheldon – Sheldon sure can write a ballad. This is a grade 2 ballad with huge expressive opportunities without anything too technical and with only 2 clarinet parts and 2 trumpet parts. This developed the skills to allow us to play a more advanced lyrical piece the following year. It also helped our small band sound like a concert band should sound.
  3. The Royal Regiment (Concert March) by Joseph Compello – This has to be my favorite march for a small band. You have to have a solid snare drummer and piccolo soloist to pull off this piece. The rest of the band’s parts are easy.

2017 Program

After making last-minute changes to accommodate 2 unanticipated student absences, we ended up bringing an 13-piece band to contest. I feel like most bands in our position would have canceled or performed for comment only. I trust my students and our preparation enough that I decided to go for it, though not without significant anxiety! We didn’t have a good run, but we were so well-prepared, especially on our ballad, that we received a lot of credit for what we did.

  1. Encanto by Robert W. Smith – This was the students’ favorite piece on the program. It has very catchy tunes and fun 16th note runs. We had to have clarinets and saxophones cover the inner brass parts on the opening fanfare.
  2. Air for Band by Frank Erickson – This is a classic ballad that demands superior expression and attention to detail. We had to be extremely careful about breathing. With 9 winds, we were still able to get a nice concert band sound on this. It is so perfectly voiced. If the performers are mature enough to handle it, this piece can be phenomenal for a small band. This piece is very challenging for the conductor from a preparation standpoint. I spent hours carefully placing breath marks in my score. I had all the students write every measure number in their parts so I could give very specific notes. Had they not bought in 100%, it would have sounded pitiful. I held this piece back for 2 years until I knew I had the right band to play it like it should be played.
  3. Arabia Dances by Roland Barrett – I probably had to make fewer edits to make this playable for a small band than I did for any of the pieces on this list, other than maybe the Compello march. It is fast and fun without being to difficult. It was a nice substitute for a march in a year that we didn’t have the best instrumentation to play one. Something fun I added to this–literally the day before contest–was having wind players support the percussion ambiance at the beginning with various shakers (the score only calls for a rainstick, but it is very hard to keep a steady flow of sound with only 1 rainstick). I also added an ocean drum, which the piece does not call for, but it just felt right to me. It created a sound of sand blowing in the wind, which really set the mood for the piece. I would definitely do it that way again.

Other Pieces to Consider

My high school band has also had success with the following pieces in non-contest performances, despite our small size and limited instrumentation:

  • Childhood Hymn by David Holsinger (grade 2)
  • Early English Suite by Finlayson (grade 2)
  • Flourish for Wind Band by Ralph Vaughan Williams (grade 3)
  • Galop by Gary P. Gilroy (grade 4)
  • Joy Revisited by Frank Ticheli (grade 4)
  • Water Music Suite arranged by Frank Erickson (grade 4)

If you would like more specific tips about pieces, click on the links above, which go to my repertoire analysis pages. You can also contact me at dgaking@gmail.com or through one of my social networking accounts. I am happy to share ideas with fellow directors of small band programs!

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