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To Flex, or Not To Flex…

To Flex, or Not To Flex…

Ed Dumas

Recently while working with a few bands in the last several weeks, I have come across several examples of Flex-Band scores that the students were working from. I have had very little experience with Flex-Band scores, but after seeing them frequently in a short period, I began to better understand some benefits and challenges of using them.

Now if you are not sure what a Flex-Band score is all about, here is a basic description. Flex-Band scores for concert bands are usually written with a smaller number of “parts” within the band. It is often five parts, and percussion is often not counted as one of those parts. Each part will be written for a variety of instruments so that should one or two of the instruments listed be not available, there would still be coverage of that part in another, more likely, instrument.

For example, if “Part 5” happens to be the bassline and you do not have a tuba in your band, Part 5 would likely be arranged so that the euphonium player also covers the bassline. So, too, do the baritone sax player and the bass clarinet player. That way, it is likely that your band will have at least one of those instruments to cover that essential part.

Now most band teachers these days understand that the lack of a bassline part drives many decisions regarding musical choice. But, Flex-Band music will have each of the other parts in the composition made available to a variety of instrument choices as well. For example, Part 1 could be written for flute, oboe, clarinet, alto sax or trumpet. Part 2 could also be written for flute, oboe, clarinet, alto sax, and trumpet, but could also include tenor sax, trombone, or euphonium. It all depends on how the composer would like to arrange the various parts across the band’s instrumentation.

Another characteristic of Flex-Band parts is that each player may have some choice as to which part they would like to play. Some Flex-Band arrangements even provide more than one part written out on the sheet music which is handed to the students. This is unlike most regular band arrangements where the students will be given one part only. This allows students to make an easy switch to a different part in case there is a sudden change in players. Usually, this is done in consultation with the teacher to make sure that all the parts in the arrangement are still covered somewhere in the band.

Benefits of Flex-Band Charts

There are some benefits of using Flex-Band charts that teachers should be aware of. The first benefit, of course, is that these arrangements are a quick way to deal with instrument challenges or missing instruments. If, for example, your band does not contain a trombone section, the critical trombone part will now be covered by someone else in the band, such as a tenor sax player or euphonium player.

The second advantage is that Flex-Band arrangements can help you for very small groups, such as a band class of only 10 players. In a case such as this, missing sections are not the only serious problem. Now ALL of the sections that have multiple parts (first, second & third) such as clarinet, trumpets, saxes, and trombones will all be compromised at the same time.

When this happens, each section may have only enough players to cover the first part, or maybe the first and second, in each of the sections. In this scenario, all the lower harmony parts in the entire band could be missing. Using a Flex-Band score here can ensure that someone, somewhere in the band is covering the valuable harmony parts.

These two advantages of Flex-Band arrangements are worth looking at for many music teachers. These arrangements can help you fill in for a missing section or can help with missing harmony parts in a small group. With the major disruptions to music programs across our province due to Covid, Flex-Band scoring has been a huge benefit to many music teachers. With Covid dramatically reducing participation in music classes, Flex-Band scores have allowed music teachers to carry on with somewhat stable melodies and harmonies despite unstable participation in music classes.

My work with Flex-Band scores throughout my career has been mostly limited to some situations in leading adult community bands. In these settings, we have found at times that we were unable to accurately predict how many musicians would be attending a given event, and therefore which instruments they would be playing. These events were usually smaller community-based, less formal events which were sometimes hastily organized.

We often called these “tailgate events” and were something like a sports tournament intended for raising funds for special needs students. We were happy to play at these gigs and usually played some light pop tunes from books of Flex-Band arrangements for those players who could make it. We could then go with as few as a handful of players, but could also still use 20 or more if that many showed up on a short call. For quick call events like this, the Flex-Band scores were a huge blessing.

Disadvantages of Flex-Band Scores

There are, though, some notable disadvantages to using Flex-Band scores that have come to my attention lately that I would like to share with you. Until recently, I had not put much thought into Flex-Band arranging, as I have rarely used them in a concert band class in a school setting.

First, I have noticed that Flex-Band music often has less “Flex” for the percussionists, as this is harder to make optional. An arranger cannot simply switch out a snare drummer for a tenor sax player as they have so little in common. What is in common between the wind instruments is that the instrument which creates the intended part is less important than the reality that the line needs to be played somewhere in the band. So, switching a critical flute line to clarinet at least makes sure that the part is covered.

But how do you cover critical percussion parts if you do not have a percussion section at all? I am not sure if that can even be done, so the result is usually that there are fewer critical percussion parts in Flex-Band music. This means that the tendency in Flex-Band music is that the percussion section tends to carry less importance and weight within the band. For them, it is more like their entire existence in the band has become somewhat optional. This can make an essential section in the band now feel less valued and more like an afterthought.

Here is an example of that problem in action. Imagine Jay Chattaway’s wonderful work “Mazama” being re-written as a Flex-Band score. If you do not know, Mazama was written about Mount Mazama which exploded about 600 years ago causing the First Nations People living on the mountain to suddenly go extinct. The work opens with an explosion of sound from the percussion section that can cause an audience to jump in their seats on beat one. How can this effect be created on any other instruments besides percussion? It simply cannot, which means Mazama will likely never be put out in a Flex-Band score and students will never be able to experience this work without using the original.

So, music that has critical percussion parts that cannot be substituted is often not selected to be rearranged as a Flex-Band part. This has the effect of reducing the importance of percussion to an afterthought kind of role, at least in the Flex-Band arrangements, leaving the percussionists feeling a little less desired.

The other problem with percussion kind of aims the other way. That is, you cannot substitute one instrument in the percussion section for another, particularly the non-pitched percussion. Snare drums cannot be substituted for bass drums, which cannot be substituted for crash cymbals and so on. Percussionists, though, are usually quite used to playing all the non-pitched instruments. In a traditional concert band composition, the players themselves already switch instruments to cover all the parts, which makes the need for a Flex-Band score here kind of moot. This is what they do all the time!

My response to both of those problems would be to just play Mazama as it was originally intended, even though I had fewer than the necessary number of percussionists available. Whenever I encounter this problem, I usually find wind instrument students willing to jump into the percussion section for the one work to help out and cover anything essential.

Another disadvantage of Flex-Band scores that I have recently encountered is that the players on each part are spread throughout the band. Concert band programs have a long tradition of sitting all the players within a section together so that the section can develop a certain sound as one group. All the flutes would be seated together, all the clarinets together, and so on down the band.

Now, with Flex-Band scores, these players will be spread throughout the band because the arrangement is not based on instruments, but on “parts.” The downside for the conductor is that rehearsing these various players as one group is now more challenging since you will need to locate each player for each part you want to work on.

The flip side is also true in that performing these various parts also became a little bit harder for each player. Since the players on each part are not seated together, they will have difficulty hearing each other and supporting each other. They cannot help each other with things like counting issues, making entrances together, common articulations, common fingerings, finding the correct pitches and all the many other problems that sections must deal with.

Since the students cannot be sure which part is now beside them, they tend to play more as individuals instead of sections. In the best-case scenario, the seating with the group should now be rearranged to reflect the parts that the students are currently playing and not the instrument that they are holding in their hands. In other words, they should sit together as Group 1, Group 2, and so on. It would be interesting to try this to see how it would work out.

One other challenge with Flex-Band scores recently came to my attention that I had not thought of before. One group that I had the pleasure of leading as a guest was playing a Flex-Band score of a John Phillip Sousa march. I have always loved great marches and found them to be useful vehicles to introduce all sorts of concepts to students.

In the traditional version of this march, the trumpet section carries the lead with a melody that could all be played on first and third valves. I have often found this to be a doorway into talking about tuning 1 & 3 using the third valve trigger. In the same part of the march for the trumpet section, they are asked to play one group of four eighth notes in a fast cut-time tempo. Here I have always found this to also be a good doorway into talking about how trumpet players can teach themselves double-tonguing, and the practice strategies needed to accomplish this. I have never found a better piece of music for these concepts because while the trumpet players were moving between the harmonics, the valves would be stationary and the players could focus on the short bit of double-tonguing much more readily.

Now, though, in the Flex-Band arrangement of this Sousa march, I saw a huge downside. That great brass melody was doubled in other wind instruments making the part fairly unplayable for the alto sax and clarinet players. Because of the instrument they were playing, the double-tonguing quite literally became inaccessible for them and dramatically changed the nature of the work. I also wondered if the brass players pushed ahead with the 1&3 valves, would this flexible arrangement now mess up the tuning? Would we need to slow the work down to get the woodwinds to be able to do the eighth notes in cut time, or do we compromise the melody section and have the woodwinds turn the four eighth notes into two quarter notes to make it playable?

All of those questions got me thinking about the nature of melody lines that are written specifically for one type of instrument that might be dramatically changed when put onto a different instrument. Trombone players playing glissandos, upper woodwinds doing rapid chromatic scales, saxes doing octave leaps, clarinets leaping over the break, trumpet players doing fanfares, flutes playing high, tubas playing the lowest notes in the band, all of these things and more become compromised when you switch instruments in a Flex-Band arrangement.  What happens when a line suddenly becomes unplayable simply because it was moved from say trombone to clarinet?

Using a Flex-Band Score

Flex-Band scores certainly have their uses, but I would suggest that you do not become dependent on only Flex-Band arrangements for your program. There are so many subtleties in great concert band writings that just disappear when the music is converted into an arrangement for flexible instrumentation. If you are using them, though, as a one-off for a particular event where your numbers are low, all the more power to you!

When my career in music education began, we had never heard of Flex-Band arrangements. We had the full arrangements to work with and that was it. Music teachers quickly learned what to look for in an arrangement so that we did not purchase anything that had a part we could not cover.

I also soon learned that playing a piece of music where I was missing an essential part had some benefits too. I found that we could still learn many of the great concepts in that music even though we would likely not perform it. Then my students showed me how enthusiastic they were to cover an essential part if one instrument was missing. Many students would ask to play a different instrument to cover for a missing solo.

Once I learned that lesson, I then learned that I could even program for a solo or feature on an essential part just for the purpose of having someone move onto that instrument. For example, if I had no tuba players, I could program a piece of music which featured the tuba and would find that someone would soon want to give it a try. If I chose the music carefully with something the students would find fun, someone would surely take up the challenge.

I remember one year having a sax section of mostly alto players because some students did not want to play the larger saxes. I decided to hand out Michael Sweeney’s arrangement of Root Beer Rag by Billy Joel. This is a fantastic piece of music that features the entire sax section as no other instruments would be right for this fabulous jazzy sound. It did not take more than a few minutes to have some takers on the bigger sax instruments, and some stayed!

Flex-Band arrangements have their advantages at certain times. By all means, use them when you feel you need to. Just don’t forget to watch out for the downsides of flexible concert band arrangements. And don’t forget that a hole in your band’s instrumentation can also be presented as an opportunity, rather than as a loss.



Ed Dumas is a retired band director who taught his entire career in the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows School District. Ed is now living with his lifelong partner Laurie in Parksville, BC.  Ed & Laurie also work as Mid-Island reps for Tapestry Music while enjoying making music in retirement.


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