Principles of Ensemble Leadership: Part 1

I’ve decided to finally write a little bit more than usual.  January has been sort of a slow month, and I’ve had the idea for a while now to write a series of blogs about leading bands, so I figure I’ll give it a shot!

I’ve been leading an 18 piece big band for 6 years, and have been the leader of several other 3-6 piece ensembles as well (I currently lead three different projects and co-lead one.  I’ve also been a sideman in bands too numerous to mention.   These experiences have all contributed to developing some specific skill sets that have enabled me  to successfully lead my own projects. By “successfully” I don’t necessarily mean my musical endeavors have always been profitable. Instead, I mean that I’ve been able to  have my music performed on a fairly consistent basis, by excellent musicians, for audiences around the world.

This discussion is going to cover some of the fundamentals of leading ensembles and how to efficiently and smoothly get your musical message “out there” as a band leader.   I’m going to focus on the creative, interpersonal, and administrative aspects of leading a band.   I hope it will start some interesting discussion/comment threads!

So…let’s start from the beginning.

Music Preparation

Unless you’re planning on starting an all-improvisational group or a jam band, obviously without at least some written music there’s going to be no way to get your music played by other musicians, unless they’re all telepathic or willing to take the time to figure out lines that you sing/play to them.  Many of the groups that I play in, lead, or encounter in the jazz world in New York City are dealing with fairly complex and challenging music for several musicians, which further increases the necessity for written parts and scores.
Knowledge of composition, arranging, songwriting, etc. are all important factors being able to commit your musical ideas to the page, and of course these areas of study represent a lifetime of learning , but for the purpose of this discussion, let’s assume  that you already have a set of songs/compositions that you’re ready to share and be played by other musicians in either a session or rehearsal.

The goal  for effective music preparation is to be able to have your music and ideas presented as clearly as possible for performance and interpretation by other musicians.  This doesn’t mean that what you’re presenting is the final draft, or that there can’t be mistakes here and there,, but there must be an intention for clarity.   If this isn’t taken into consideration, it can make for a very frustrating situation for the performers, since valuable time and energy will be wasted in attempting to decipher what is written, and you’ll be frustrated as well because you won’t get to hear your composition played properly.

Here are a few suggestions that can add clarity to the presentation of your notated music:

Learn to use a music notation program: If you’re hand written manuscript looks like that of a professional-level copyist, then you don’t have to worry about this.  Otherwise, if  you don’t have experience using a music notation program such as Finale or Sibelius (there’s a few others, but these two are the kings), then I’d strongly suggest taking the plunge and acquire an up-to-date copy of one of those programs.  There is a pretty steep learning curve for effectively using these, particularly with Finale, but in the end it’s totally worth it.  A great place to start is to create a simple lead sheet from a hand written tune.  It might take a while to do at first, but when you’re finished you will marvel at how much better your music looks, and it will be way more easy to read.   If you’re writing for larger ensembles, these programs are even more of a time saving tool because when you’re creating a score, the program also creates the individual parts.  Finale and Sibelius also have MIDI playback capabilities so you can preview your work, which also helps avoid mistakes such as wrong accidentals, rhythms, etc.  There are definitely some challenges that arise from using these programs – music notation is a slippery slope, but I think the benefits ultimately outweigh the drawbacks and limitations.

Working with scores and parts: When I was at Manhattan School of Music, one day in big band we had to play through several arrangements that were written by students in the composition & arranging class, taught by legendary big band arranger Manny Albam.  Manny was conducting the band, and by the third or fourth arrangement he was completely fuming because almost every arrangement had a single problem in common: the rehearsal letters in the score didn’t match the rehearsal letters in the parts.  It made it virtually impossible to rehearse the music.  So basically, what’s in the score should be in the parts, and the fundamental measure to measure layout and road map of the individual parts have to match each other as well.  Sometimes I find it necessary to simplify and condense rhythm section parts, and when I do that, I double and triple check to make sure that the parts correspond exactly to the score.

Music layout: In my experience, Finale is horrible with this…I think Sibelius might be a little bit more intuitive on this front, but anyway it’s a good idea with music that has even phrase structures (e.g. 2, 4, 8 bar phrases) that you try to have four bars to the system.  If there’s measures that are full of triplets and/or 16th notes, it may be necessary to have only two or three bars in the system.  If you want to learn more about music layout etiquette and notation in general, check out this book.  Also, make sure to thoroughly proofread a piece before you print it out to ensure that individual notes are not crashing into each other and that text, expression marks, rehearsal letters, and articulations are all in their proper position on the page.

Transpositions: It’s always a good idea to have all of your parts transposed properly. Here’s a chart of instrument transpositions.    In NYC,  I’ve found most professional musicians are very good at sight reading, and a great deal of them are just as good at sight transposing.  I’ve developed a fairly high level of skill myself transposing from concert pitch to E flat, as well as from B flat to E flat, as long as the music isn’t too crazy…but lately I’ve been wanting to read only music that is transposed for my instrument, particularly if there is improvisation with chord changes.  I think that there is a slight barrier to optimal interpretation of a piece that’s created when having to transpose…and of course, not everyone can do it in the first place.

Taping parts: As I write some of this stuff I’m feeling like I’m being too basic and obvious, but then I think of all the times that I’ve gone into a rehearsal or performance and there are these basic things that are overlooked in terms of music preparation, and they create problems.  Not having pages taped  is one of those things.  Taping parts is boring to do, but completely necessary, especially because most of the time musicians have crappy wire stands (like mine) that seem to be designed to have music fall off of them.  Also, if there are parts with three or more pages, it makes it much easier to turn pages and no one has to worry about the music getting out of order.  Scotch (tape, that is) is your friend!

Phew! So that’s some of the real basics out of the way.  Hope it was enlightening to you all!

In the next installment I’m going to talk about scheduling musicians for rehearsals and performances.  Stay tuned…



GREAT stuff! I am in a constant struggle with my arranging and comp students about these issues. They don’t seem to understand that details like part preparation are so important to the final performance of their work. Great Blog Man!

Thanks Steve! I was, quite honestly, a little apprehensive about writing this blog because I didn’t want to be too remedial, so your comment is extremely encouraging and greatly appreciated!!! Hope all is well with you too man…it’s been a minute!

Hello Travis, I just found your blog – nice. I’m with Steve, that all these are critical in instilling confidence in the players that new charts are worth the effort. I’ve been in bands reading what should have been really good music, but ‘chart problems’ caused us to table it in frustration without giving it a fair chance.

About taping parts: I went out and bought a ream of 11×17 paper. After I print out every page of the parts on individual 8 1/2×11 pages, I re-copy them, 2-up, on 11×17, so I can just fold it in half, rather than having to tape them all. Cuts taping time in half at least, and if it’s a relatively brief chart (rare) I may have no taping at all.

One thing I also do, which you haven’t mentioned yet, is make sure there are good page turns every 2 pages. This often allows me to use the front & back of the 11×17 paper, so I don’t have to tape a 4-page part. And the players really appreciate it.

Thanks for writing Russell. That’s a great suggestion about using the 11×17 copies, I never even thought of doing that.
I was checking out your blog as well (just subscribed!). It looks like you’re doing some very cool stuff. I’m happy that what I’m writing is of some use professional bandleaders such as yourself too. Mission accomplished!

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