This month the spotlight is on Frank Ticheli’s “Blue Shades,” a medium-advanced piece for concert band, now available in SmartMusic. Widely regarded as one of the very best by one of the very best, “Blue Shades” combines Mr. Ticheli’s own unique voice with the influence of traditional jazz and blues music he heard in his childhood near New Orleans, Louisiana.
Are you thinking of programming “Blue Shades” for your holiday concert? Is your clarinetist already planning to practice it over the summer? To supplement the great background and program notes provided by Mr. Ticheli, we’ve asked educator, conductor, clinician, and performing artist Joel Levy to share his experience with the piece. This interview appears beneath the score below.
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We talk to Joel Levy about “Blue Shades”
What was your initial introduction to “Blue Shades”?
I think the first person that suggested “Blue Shades” was Anthony Maiello from George Mason University. I am a fan of Frank Ticheli’s writing and have performed several of his works.
What about the piece spoke to you?
I really liked the jazz influence and feeling of the piece. I have been most fortunate to perform in a lot of very fine jazz groups in my career, and really liked “Blue Shades” the first time I heard it.
The piece provides a great opportunity to teach students about jazz style and jazz history. During rehearsal I talk to my students about the big band era, including great clarinet soloists such as Benny Goodman, Buddy DeFranco, Artie Shaw and current great players like Eddie Daniels. There is an opportunity to talk about playing with brushes for the percussionist and introduce them to the great “brush” drum set players such as Philly Joe Jones. I love the rhythmic elements of the piece, the polyrhythms and opportunity to teach students to lock in a groove.
What groups have you performed “Blue Shades” with?
I have performed this piece twice with the Nassau-Suffolk Wind Symphony and once with the Nassau-Suffolk Alumni Band. Both of these groups have very high-level players. I only program “Blue Shades” if I have the clarinet, bass clarinet, and marimba player to make it work.
It’s a tough piece – how do you get there?
I spend a lot of time rehearsing the band with a metronome. I will start with the metronome on every beat, and sometimes have it click just on the downbeat in each measure or the downbeat of every other measure. This will make it very clear if the ensemble is playing with good time. At 14 try putting the metronome on beats 2 and 4. This will help to get the eighth notes to swing and teach students about backbeat and a swing feel.
Slow practice for articulation and time is a must. I break down the dotted eighth notes at 97 into 16th notes so students understand the polyrhythm. Dynamics must be obvious and exaggerated. I also send my students recordings of the music. Rehearsals are recorded. Students are emailed a link of the recording that they can listen to during the week. We will schedule sectionals during rehearsal as needed.
Can you recommend a reference recording?
Many recordings and videos can be found online. An excellent recording by John Whitwell and Michigan State University can be found in Itunes.
Can you share some specific tips about preparing the piece?
Frank Ticheli provides excellent program and rehearsal notes in the score which must be studied before working on “Blue Shades.” Most importantly, I would say that this piece requires a band with very good articulation and rhythmic skills.
Obviously, you need a clarinet player who can play the solo with Benny Goodman’s style and energy. The clarinet has to play a bend in measure 325 to 326, which always is scary for them at first if they do not have jazz experience. This is not really hard to do, and your clarinet player will be able to do it after some practice. I do the first bend in measure 325 with my lip/jaw, while some might try a slow finger lift. The clarinet also has a bend at 352 to 353, high F# to G. Alternate fingerings should be tried here, as it is quite difficult to play it with the most common fingering. For me, it is best to finger Bb to B above the staff and overblow to the correct-sounding partial. Leaving the Bb key open on the high G will raise the pitch if needed.
In addition, you need a bass clarinet player who is very comfortable playing solos, has a good sound and flexibility. The marimba player must have solid time. The marimba part at 321 sets the groove for the clarinet soloist. The time must stay steady, locked in and not rushed.
As mentioned earlier, Mr. Ticheli’s notes will be very helpful. Some spots that have come up in my preparation appear below.
- Dynamics are very important.
- Time and articulation must be solid and crisp.
- Beginning at number 14, clarinets must be precise with the articulation. The notes are grouped by two or three. Make sure accents are being played.
- If the flutes cannot flutter tongue beginning in 38, they can try a “ growl” with their throat.
- 54 to end of 66 will take work. The group needs to end bar 66 tight with a crescendo with a lot of energy.
- Bar 69 is marked Sultry, but time must still “lock in.” It will take some work to get the right groove and feel here. The swing feel in the section is written out using triplets. The 16th notes first heard in the flutes in 286 are straight.
- Polyrhythms need to be discussed, both 2 against 3 and 3 against 4. I found the students to pick up on this quick.
- At 135 and 136 the pitch bend in the flutes and horns will need to be practiced.
- Starting at 173, it is important that the pedal D is heard. Woodwinds and percussion must be “tight” and locked in.
- 271 to 284 always takes work, setting up the new section at 284.
- 284 is a great place to talk about time, playing ahead, on or behind the beat. I try to have my groups play on the backside of the beat (without dragging) from 304 to 308.
- One of the most difficult spots for me is 308 to 321, making sure to arrive at the correct tempo at 321. Marimba needs to be “rock solid” in this section! The hits in the brass behind the clarinet solo are like people shouting out encouragement in a jazz club during an improvised solo.
- At 400 the brass really need to dig in and blow! The brass parts remind us of the sound of a train whistle, heard by so many jazz musicians while traveling on the road.
- Last three measures no flute vibrato. The audience always enjoys the final hit with the splash cymbal.
There is so much to talk about with this piece. As I write this I find myself getting excited to rehearse “Blue Shades” once again.
Joel Levy is the conductor of the Nassau-Suffolk Wind Symphony, Nassau-Suffolk Alumni Band, Atlantic Wind Symphony, and Bay Shore Community Band. He recently retired from East Meadow High School on Long Island where he served as Band Director and Department Chair.
Under Mr. Levy’s direction, the Nassau-Suffolk Wind Symphony and Alumni Band have been honored to perform at All-National and All-Eastern NAfME conferences. As a freelance performer in the New York metropolitan area, Mr. Levy has performed in jazz, classical and commercial genres, including several Broadway and regional shows. Mr. Levy is a D’Addario Performing Artist and Clinician.