Yearly Archives: 2016

Ask a Maestro: Why do instruments transpose?

The rule of thumb when writing for transposing instruments: whatever the key of the instrument, that’s the note that comes out when the player plays a C. Keep that in mind and you won’t have to keep looking things up.

Another way to think about transposing instruments:

  • For non-transposing instruments, the musical score is a description of the final result. It is up to the performer to decide how to achieve the notes on the page (which string to play a note on, which fingering to use, etc.)
  • For transposing instruments, the musical score is a set of instructions: it tells you where to put your fingers when. The musical result is achieved if you follow the instructions accurately.

A couple extra tips:

  • Horn in F sounds a fifth below written, while trumpet in F sounds a fourth above. Because screw you!
  • Horn in C: that’s not a transposing instrument right? Wrong!! It sounds an octave below written. Because screw you double!

Moments musicaux

I went to something called a “Board Retreat” last week, during the course of which each person seated at the table was asked to recall a defining musical moment of his or her life.

I offered three short vignettes, which I thought showed admirable restraint on my part:

1. The late ’90’s, a performance of the Franck Symphony in D minor by the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin.

My mother took me to this concert, for which I have to give her all kinds of credit – she had little-to-no classical music background, but she willingly stoked the flames of my enthusiasm by purchasing us a yearly subscription to the Kennedy Center.

I had never heard (and probably never heard of) the Franck symphony before, and that’s the reason this performance made such an impression: it was the first time I listened to a new work all the way through and could track the themes like characters in a novel or play.

Franck’s ‘cyclical form’, in which themes reappear in all the movements of a symphony, became a major interest of mine, and it gave me a new view of the dramatic possibilities of instrumental music.

2. June 2004, my first day at the Pierre Monteux School, Hancock, ME.

On the first day of school each summer, the new students are asked to lead the orchestra through a standard repertoire work with which they are already familiar. I chose the last movement of Brahms’ 2nd symphony.

My instructions were to introduce myself, call the piece, and to say nothing more before giving the downbeat.

“My name is William White, and I will be conducting the last movement of Brahms’ 2nd. In two.”

“What did I tell you!?” came the reply from the maestro at the back of the orchestra.

*Terrified headlit-deer stare in return*

“I told you not to say anything.”

In 2. That’s what got me in trouble.

This might not sound like much, and it perhaps the rebuke wasn’t as gut-wrenchingly terrifying as I recall it having been. But when you’re 19, every experience has an added weight, because it’s your first, and I proceeded in abject terror.

Somehow I managed to get from the beginning to the end of the movement. This movement represents a few things to me: a) moments of adversity are when we have to rise to our best, b) it’s important to get knocked down a peg every once in a while, and c) we learn the most from our failures.

3. June 2015, Carnegie Hall. 

I took my CSYO kids to Carnegie Hall and played a Schnittke / Prokofiev / White program. The kids were like family, no one in the administration gave me crap about programming Schnittke, and I got to introduce my music at Carnegie Hall. Come on.