About...


 

About Ted

I’ve been playing in concert bands for over 40 years, and writing band music for nearly as long. I’m a Southern California native living in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, the Los Angeles suburb where I grew up.

I led a performance of my first “orchestrated” work when I was six or seven years old. It depicted a rain storm— yes, it does rain in Southern California— arranged (surely with considerable assistance from the teacher) for my fellow students playing classroom instruments. I remember it ending with chords strummed on autoharps to represent the re-emerging sun. There is no recording, and any written score disappeared long ago. But I distinctly remember it as my first musical work for performers other than myself, for instruments other than my parents’ piano.

I attempted to write for “real” instruments a few years later, after I started playing clarinet and solved the mystery of what “B♭ clarinet” and “E♭ alto saxophone” actually meant. Then my middle-school band and orchestra teacher let me experiment with my fellow students. She also suggested that I could learn much from studying scores while listening to records of the works, both from the extensive collections at the Palos Verdes main library.

Don Marino, then the band and orchestra director at Palos Verdes High School (PVHS), encouraged me to write for the marching band, pep band, and wind ensemble. That taught me what the instruments and players could (and could not) do. I also continued to study scores from the library. I made a lasting contribution to the school in 1975, when I wrote the PVHS fight song. You can read the story of how and why I wrote it, or listen to it with the audio player at right or below. It’s my only music from that period I can share.

At the University of California, Irvine, I arranged for and eventually became conductor of the pep band. I wrote my published arrangement of the Star Spangled Banner for their trumpet section to play before basketball games. (UCI has never fielded a football team.) I was also musical director and arranger for three UCI “Gong Shows”— this was the late 1970s, after all— intramural productions elaborate enough for a 15-piece band. I also arranged for the school’s jazz big band. That was my “payment” for a key to the Music Department’s piano practice rooms I needed to write arrangements, a privilege normally unavailable to non-majors.

After graduation in 1981, I joined the Palos Verdes Symphonic Band, which led to my current focus on arranging for concert band. In 1996, I was among the players who split from that band to form the Peninsula Symphonic Winds, in which I play tenor saxophone. (The first piece on our inaugural concert program was one of my arrangements.) In 2002, Finale score-writing software liberated me from the tedious drudgery of copying parts by hand, and eventually provided a way to make my arrangements available to adventurous concert bands and small wind ensembles around the world.

Some of my other interests are photography, travel, and travel writing, which I’ve offered since 1999 on my other Web site, Ted Marcus’ Virtual Light Table.

 

Ted in Labyrinth at the Last Bookstore

Ted in “The Labyrinth” at The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles.


 

 

Sea King March

I don’t have a usable recording of the Palos Verdes High School band playing the fight song I wrote in 1975. But this “Virtual Pep Band” version I made in 2011 should give you an idea of what it sounds like.

The “Sea King” is the school mascot. It was inspired by the fountain featuring a statue of Neptune, the Roman ruler of the oceans, not far from the campus at Malaga Cove Plaza. The fountain, copied from a 16th century original in Bologna, Italy, is the iconic landmark and symbol of the city of Palos Verdes Estates, California, where the school is located.

Choosing music to arrange

I arrange public-domain music for concert band and winds. Since I’m in the United States, that currently means music written before 1929. (Copyrights dating from subsequent years will expire at the beginning of each year from now on.) The licensing practices of corporations that own copyrighted music make arranging public-domain pieces my most practical option. Fortunately, that includes much of the music I most enjoy listening to.

I write music for concert band because I play in one that provides opportunities to hear it performed. I would like to write for orchestra and string players, but I don’t have access to them. And yes, I do compose original music. But I long ago accepted the reality that my talent for reimagining music that interests me for band and small wind ensembles exceeds whatever gifts I have for creating original music.

How do I choose pieces to arrange? They usually choose me! I’ll typically hear something on the radio that immediately grabs my attention and (sometimes literally) makes me exclaim “I have to do this for band!” or “This would be great for woodwind quintet!” The Internet stream of Radio Swiss Classic has been my most reliable source for that sort of inspiration. But before I can get started, I need to find a score of the original piece (IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library is a valuable resource). Then I need to get “clearance”— that is, make sure there isn’t already a Grade 4 or higher arrangement currently available. My arrangement would be so different from any versions for young bands that I can ignore them. I don’t write specifically for young players because I believe that requires extensive experience as a music teacher.

Most often, an “advanced” version of the piece is available from the likes of Hal Leonard, Alfred, or one of the numerous imprints they distribute. In that case, there’s no point to either reinventing the wheel or attempting to compete with any well-known arrangers under contract with a Major Publisher.

Occasionally I can’t find a score to work from, either on IMSLP or for sale. I wanted to add The Sorcerer to the three Gilbert and Sullivan overtures I’ve arranged; but the only orchestra score I could find was the Kalmus edition of the complete opera, available only as a two-month rental for $500. (I bought the Kalmus scores of those other overtures to use for my arrangements. They’re available at reasonable prices, but Kalmus have definitely earned their reputation for less-than-fastidious proofreading.)

Fortunately, there are plenty of pieces out there just waiting for me to reimagine!

Reimagining classics

I like the word “reimagine” as a description of what I do. It’s clearer than the fuzzy overlapping terms “arrangement,” “transcription,” or “orchestration.” But it’s still convenient to use “arrange.” The standard convention is that the score and parts will say Arranged by Ted R. Marcus underneath the composer’s name regardless of what Ted R. Marcus actually did.

Now consider an architectural metaphor: “Reimagining” is using the blueprints for a building to build a new version of it out of different materials. For example, reimagine a wood and stucco house as a brick house. Ideally, that reimagined house would look like its architect had intended it for brick from the outset. Similarly, my band arrangement of an orchestra or piano piece should sound sufficiently natural and idiomatic that the listener could reasonably believe the composer must have conceived the piece for band. At least that’s the ideal to strive for.

Once I have the score and “clearance,” I spend a lot of time doing what Robert Russell Bennett (one of my heroes) called “listening inwardly.” In his autobiography, Bennett wrote that once he heard a finished musical number in the rehearsal hall, he created the fully-realized orchestration in his head. “Writing” was then the purely clerical chore of outputting the finished work onto paper. Astonished “clients,” including Richard Rodgers, have written about visiting Bennett and finding him working on a score— in ink— while listening to music on the radio or conversing with his wife in French and German.

I don’t claim anything remotely like Bennett’s prodigious abilities. But I do use his technique of “listening inwardly” to the band in my head play whatever I’m working on. Since I don’t have to comply with a corporate publisher’s standards of instrumentation, style, or branding, that band can have whatever instruments and combinations might be appropriate and interesting. If a harp, English horn, marimba, or a flute choir is what I hear, that’s what I’ll use.

The band in my head is, of course, unavoidably influenced by the real-world band that will perform it for an audience. Our principal saxophone player has a particularly beautiful “classical” tone on both alto and soprano instruments; so those colors often come to mind, sometimes in unexpected places. Our oboe player likes to play English horn, so I can generally count on having that available. We also have fine mallet percussionists. And there are other instruments— notably horns and bassoons— I just happen to like.

What I hear in my head first becomes pencil markings in the score of the original piece. When I have enough pencil markings, I’ll start working on a first draft in Finale. When that first draft is finished, it represents the arrangement as I’ve imagined it. But it’s not done yet! I then need to write the arrangement all over again, this time as extensive cues that provide acceptable alternatives for instruments that might be missing in rehearsal or (if absolutely necessary) performance. Since I’m writing for an adult community band, it’s a fact of life that players will have business travel, work, or family responsibilities that conflict with rehearsals. It’s important for any orchestration to “degrade gracefully” when parts are missing.

Thus at one rehearsal, I might reluctantly massacre a lovely bassoon line when I play the cues on tenor saxophone. At the next rehearsal, the clever interchange between oboe and clarinet might get homogenized into Velveeta® when clarinets play both parts. But the parts at least get played. Once, when I got upset at a rehearsal because so many parts were being covered with cues, our director reassured me that “tonight we played a different piece from the one you wrote, but it’s still good.”

After I finish the “final” version (with plenty of cues), I can print the parts and bring it to rehearsal for the band to read through. Even an unpolished reading can give me a good idea of how the arrangement sounds, and lets me know if I need to change or rethink anything. It also gives the director an idea of where it might fit in a concert program.

The vagaries and logistics of concert planning and programming mean it typically takes a year for an arrangement to get a public performance and recording. Occasionally it’s a little less than that, but sometimes it’s a lot more. Patience is an essential virtue when arranging for a community band!

Recordings and Robots

Every band arrangement I offer has been performed at least once by the Peninsula Symphonic Winds, the community band I play in and write for. Except where specifically noted, the audio players on this Web site play recordings from live concerts or “studio recording” projects.

I don’t claim these recordings are the sort of professional-quality model demonstrations deep-pocketed corporate publishers can produce to promote their products. But they are genuine, honest representations of how my arrangements sound when played by the student or community musicians who will most likely perform them. Regardless of any flaws, I’m very proud of these performances, just as I’m proud of our band! And I’m very happy to present them as examples of what my music sounds like. I consider a reasonable but imperfect human performance greatly preferable to a note-perfect performance by robots.

Of course, a computer mock-up is an incredibly valuable tool. I take advantage of Finale’s ability to “perform” music when I’m working on it. It can immediately tell me when I’ve made mistakes, letting me correct them well before anyone sees my work. It can even help me determine the best-sounding voicings and assist me in imagining instrumental colors. Despite its inherent limitations, a mock-up is a marvel of technology. I’m truly grateful to have it, despite its limitations.

What a mock-up can’t do is indicate whether a particular part is idiomatic or appropriate for the instrument, or even possible to play. A computer invites unplayable flights of fancy. A robot can easily “play” Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee on a “harp,” an impossible feat for a human harpist. (That said, you can watch human harpist Julia Wacker perform her own transcription of that piece. She acknowledges that “it actually is impossible to play the Bumblebee in the original tempo on the harp.” But her recorded performance was nonetheless made possible by playing at “half the tempo and one octave lower” and speeding up the video.)

A read-through with human players will quickly identify unidiomatic, impossible, or unduly difficult passages. The rehearsal process in preparation for a performance will more thoroughly “debug” a new piece by discovering and correcting errors, typos, and other infelicities. But then, even pieces from Major Publishers that presumably have been professionally edited, as well as performed and recorded, too often contain typos and other problems.

Many (most?) self-published band music selections sold through Sheet Music Plus include computer-generated mock-ups as audio samples. I have to wonder whether those pieces have actually been played and “debugged” by human musicians. That’s a question I would ask the composer or arranger before buying, if it’s possible to do that.

That said, I will use my marvelous All-Star Robot Band to demonstrate a piece when I believe it represents the music better than an available recording. A live concert is inherently a gamble that I usually win, but it’s never guaranteed. There are many reasons a recording of a live concert might not be usable for demonstration. So even when the “performance” on this Web site is a robotic mock-up, you can be assured that genuine human musicians have played and sufficiently “debugged” it!

The unavoidable exceptions are the arrangements for clarinet and saxophone quartets I wrote during the Covid-19 pandemic “lock down.” Although I’m amazed by the many videos of orchestral or choral works painstakingly assembled from numerous individual recordings, I don’t have the skills or resources to produce anything like that. So I have to rely on my robots to demonstrate those pieces, supplemented with review of my draft scores by human experts. Fortunately, robots seem to play chamber music more convincingly than large ensemble works. Maybe they’re just a little shy?

I have recently been able to work with a woodwind quintet to “debug” the music I arrange for that ensemble. They don’t (yet) perform public concerts, and their rehearsal space is not suitable for recording. So I still have to rely on robots to demonstrate the music. But the feedback they give me is nonetheless invaluable. In August 2023, the group performed my arrangement of Wilhelm Peterson-Berger’s At Frösö Church during a church service, appropriately enough. I couldn’t record the performance; but I was able to record the dress rehearsal in the church, which has very good acoustics. The description of the arrangement on this Web site includes that recording along with the robot version.

In 2022, I upgraded my robot band to NotePerformer. It’s a vast improvement over the Garritan libraries (“Concert and Marching Band” and the “Instruments for Finale” samples included with Finale) I had been using. Its “performance” often could be mistaken for real human musicians, if you aren’t listening to it critically. Sometimes it can be startlingly realistic. But careful listening will readily reveal that you’re hearing robots. Very good robots, but robots nonetheless. I identify NotePerformer “performances” as the “Wallander Winds,” after Wallander Instruments, the Swedish company that develops and sells NotePerformer.

How to Buy My Arrangements

My arrangements are available for purchase from Sheet Music Plus. Clicking the “Buy from Sheet Music Plus” button for each arrangement on my Web site opens the page for that piece, from which you can purchase the arrangement using a credit card or PayPal. Once payment is accepted, you can immediately download a PDF file containing the score and all instrumental parts. The pages are formatted for American “letter” paper (8½ x 11 inches); but if you’re outside North America your printer driver should automatically resize them to fit A4 paper.

Sheet Music Plus is owned by Hal Leonard LLC, the world’s largest publisher and distributor of printed music. Hal Leonard pays me a “commission” (a percentage of the purchase price) when you buy one of my arrangements; they keep the rest to cover the costs of running the platform and as profit. Sheet Music Plus periodically offers promotional pricing or across-the-board discounts, over which we sellers have no control. The discounts or promotions reduce what they pay me, but I’ll fully understand if you take advantage of those price reductions. If you’re in Canada, Sheet Music Plus can price downloads in Canadian dollars, possibly avoiding your bank’s currency conversion fees, eh?