Rob Wagner's World of Sight and Sound


A PREHISTORIC SUITE (Paul & Teresa Jennings) by Rob Wagner

It’s hard to find exciting, creative and musically satisfying repertoire for the beginning concert band. Thousands of titles have come and gone over the years - maintaining a shelf life of a year to two then disappearing, never to be seen again. It’s “disposable” music - designed to be churned out, sold and quickly moved onto the next batch of titles. Yet, every now and again, a work comes along that proves to be well crafted and fulfilling the needs of both music educators and students - timeless music that lasts.

A Prehistoric Suite is one of those works, having been re-released over and over again. First published in 1987 by Jenson Publications in their First Concepts Library series, it is still available today under the distribution of Hal Leonard in the Musicworks series. It rarely seems to go out-of-print. There’s a reason for this! It’s especially good music, capturing the imagination of younger students, creatively written with both traditional and contemporary notation, has wonderful teaching material embedded in it’s score, and is also a favourite with audiences.
The Composer
Paul Jennings has been a prolific writer of music for concert bands at all levels, but especially at the grades 1 through 4 levels. In addition, he has written for orchestra, jazz ensemble, and choir. His wife, Teresa Jennings, has orchestrated
A Prehistoric Suite for beginning concert band. Teresa and Paul have also collaborated in many creative and innovative classroom music publications through their wonderful Music K-8 education website (a.k.a. Plank Road Publications). If you are also interested in materials and resources for junior and middle years classroom music, then this site is fabulous and well worth a visit. Check it out at:

Born in 1948 in Portsmouth, Ohio, Paul Jennings studied theory and composition with Paul Whear. In 1979, he joined Jenson, a progressive concert and jazz band publisher at the time. I met him while visiting Jenson in late 1988, where he showed me the early computer generated scores the company was experimenting with in those days. Jenson Publications was sold to Hal Leonard in 1989 and Paul continued to write for the new parent company. He has composed and arranged literally hundreds of works for different ensembles over the years. Much of his focus these days is also geared towards classroom music aids through the family’s Music K-8 company.
Concept and Structure
Paul Jennings gave this suite a programmatic context, drawing upon graphic images of five dinosaurs. And indeed these are probably the most popular or best-known prehistoric creatures with young students. These magnificent and mysterious beasts are musically described in four short but very distinctive movements. They are:

I. Stegosaurus (The Gladiator)
II. Brontosaurus (Gentle Giant)
III. Pterodactyls (Graceful Giants of the Sky)
IV. The Battle (Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops)

In the preamble to the original 1987 score, Jennings says:
“We have tried to introduce, in a simple manner, musical concepts that would not normally be in younger players’ vocabularies. These include non-triadic harmonies, simple clusters, modal melodies, short optional solo passages, non-traditional percussion instruments and even a brief aleatoric (chance) section.”

The work is aimed at Grade 1 to 1.5 level students and includes Mixolydian and Dorian modes, accessible ranges for students who have been learning instruments for just 6 to 12 months (most parts sitting within the range of a ninth), plenty of use of staccato, legato, accents, tenuto, glissando, dynamics, and no real rhythmic challenges (the smallest rhythmic unit being the quaver).

In introducing program music to the students, Jennings suggests they be allowed to research each of the animals represented, and perhaps even show visual representations (slides, video, etc) of them during a performance of the work. He also mentions the benefits of relating the work to the classics, such Berlioz’s
Symphonie Fantastique or programmatic music found in the soundtracks of film music. And so, there are excellent opportunities for teaching beyond the podium.

The total performance time is approximately 5:40 min. In the past, I have also programmed the work successfully by presenting just two or three of the movements, depending on concert demands at the time.
Movt. I - Stegosaurus (The Gladiator):
The opening movement is a bold and majestic march at crotchet = 88-92. In the 12-bar fanfare-style introduction, a two-bar
forte motif in the trumpets is answered by the middle and lower brass/winds, with a contrasting upper woodwind repeated slurred two-note quaver figure (fig. 1). Ensure that the upper winds don’t race these repeated notes. There are accents that must be heavily stressed to add weight and impact to the opening. The use of a concert anvil adds a bright clanging colour. No anvil? A suspended brake drum or other heavy metal object struck with a metal mallet/hammer can also work here.
Stacks Image 101
Bars 13-28: The trumpet melody has the tonality of a major scale but with the addition of a flat-seventh, creating the sense of the Mixolydian mode. The melody should take the form of four-bar phrases, so ensure the musicians are not breaking the line by breathing in incorrect spots or breathing too early before the start of the next phrase. The answering echo phrases in upper woodwinds should be played in exactly the same style as the trumpet melody with due attention given to tongued, slurred and staccato notes. A nice dynamic balance within the call-and-response melody can be very effective. The accompanying repeated rhythmic figure in low brass/low woodwinds should be steady, even and clearly tongued. The crotchets here should be full value but a slight separation between the two quavers would be appropriate and in keeping with the march style of this movement. Ensure the snare drum is not overpowering the winds - rhythmic support is all that is required. There are lots of fourths, fifths and octaves in this movement, so students must be vigilant with intonation. Evidence of poor tuning will become easily apparent with open harmonies. Encouraging beginner musicians to listen for blend and eradicating the “beats” between pitches makes this movement a great intonation teaching tool.

Bars 29-44: The crescendo leading to the
forte in Bar 29 is important in establishing the excitement for the second half of the movement. The mood of the introductory fanfare returns - notes are accented, weighty and cleanly tongued. Asking the students to imagine a heroic mood, appropriate to the entrance of a gladiator may help in achieving the required musical effect. The low brass/woodwind rising/falling line to the flat-seventh at 31-32, 35-36 and 41-42 must be strong and well-heard…..without being blurted out! Remind them to keep the strength of character across the musical line. The percussion section should be reminded of their supporting role in this movement. So, although this section is marked forte, control of volume is necessary. The crash (hand) cymbals should have a clean impact and natural decay. The last three Bb notes of the movement - the “stinger” - played by all winds except the flutes, needs to be controlled, in tune, in time and with good tone quality. Ask students to listen for the space between each note. And remember to give a little more length to the final crotchet - don’t give it the same length as the two previous quavers.
Movt. II - Brontosaurus (Gentle Giant):
Beginner trombonists love this movement because they get to use glissandi to great effect. The slide up from fourth to first position and down again is easy to do on the instrument. But going from
mp to f and back to mp gives added complexity to the task and takes a few minutes practice to ensure it is being executed perfectly. It’s a nice little exercise in controlled breathing! In addition, the snare drum also has these rising/falling dynamics along with the low brass/low woodwinds. Working the winds and snare drum (snares off!) to balance their dynamics together encourages better listening skills between the musicians.

Bars 1-37: After the four-bar introduction, the 16-bar melody is stated twice. On the second time through the upper woodwinds are added to strengthen the sound and add colour. Once again, breath control is important as these are 4-bar phrases. Long legato lines are required. By paying careful attention to the
mezzo piano direction at Bar 5 (fig. 2), even junior musicians should be able to make this distance. But using some long note exercises in lessons and rehearsal warm-ups will help develop better breath control. At Bars 10 and 26, I have found that some inexperienced trumpeters play their fourth-line D quite flat. The note has an inherent tendency to be flat anyway (especially on some cheaper student model trumpets), and this can end up being exaggerated if the musicians approach it with a lack of breath support.

Fig. 2
Stacks Image 107
The percussion writing calls for a gong playing alternating forte and piano notes. No gong? The composer/orchestrator suggests a suspended cymbal alternative, struck with a hard mallet. However, it’s been my experience that you just can’t select any old cymbal that happens to be lying around - go for a large one if you can. Test it out to see if you like it’s sound.

Much of this movement sits in G Dorian mode; so introducing students to that mode through scale practice may be useful in getting their ears adjusted to the Dorian sound.

At Bars 4 and 20, the semibreve chord should be carefully balanced across the wind instruments with an accented production at
forte and quickly tapering to mezzo piano (or mf for upper winds) by beat one of Bar 21. It’s an open harmony (notes are D and A), so tuning will be critical. The same chord appears again in the second last bar, reversing the dynamic. Again, balance will be essential so that the final fortissimo is tastefully executed.
Movt. III - Pterodactyls (Graceful Giants of the Sky):
This is a lovely movement, full of grace, style, flow and charm! What? Dinosaurs charming? YES! Jennings beautifully captures the flight of the massive Pterodactyls with their broad wingspan and sweeping movements across the sky. It’s very well written, too, calling upon the young musicians to play with subtly and sensitivity. From a musical point-of-view, it’s probably the most difficult movement to perform - not from range or rhythmic demands, but in making sure all the important lines are heard while others are providing just the right amount of harmonic support. Jennings makes the point that there is more independence of voices here than is traditionally found in Grade 1 level music. However, the work spent on perfecting this movement will leave your musicians much better for the experience.

Tempo is critical in
Pterodactyls. Marked at a crotchet = 96-100, doesn’t leave much room for error! If you take it too slowly, the melody tends to drag; too fast and the music feels rushed. If you think of a slightly slower version of Kermit The Frog’s “Rainbow Connection” song (which Kermit sings in the movie at about 110), then you have the tempo for Pterodactyls!!

Bars 1-4: The little introduction in upper winds takes its tune from the beginning of the first melody at Bar 5. The counter line is marked as a solo for trumpet (section is optional), and if you have a confident trumpeter then I’d very much encourage you to use him! It’s a very easy range of five notes and creates a lightness that is hard to achieve with additional instruments. Dynamics from Bar 1 are
mezzo piano.

Bars 5-20: The lilting melody is presented in the upper winds, and must be played in four-bar phrases using beat three in Bars 8, 16, 20 etc. as pick-ups into the next phrase. Strive for the best tone quality possible. At 15-16 there is another brief opportunity for our solo trumpeter to appear. Care must be taken in balancing the accompanying chords in saxes/horns, low winds/low brass. Rehearse these musicians separately, explaining that their role in this section is vital in creating the delicate atmospheric nature of the music. Soft dynamics, warm air into the instrument, beautiful tone and consistency of intonation help to support the lovely melody above.

Bars 21-42: Here the music thickens somewhat as independent voices are heard contributing to the overall texture. The flutes/oboe/clarinets are still carrying the melody but there are additional supporting lines weaving in and out from the trumpets, saxes/horns and trombones/euphonium. All of these instruments are subservient to the upper wind melody, but can be allowed to come “to the fore” when they have a moving part that enhances certain melodic points (fig. 3). But once they have returned to dotted minims again, their role is as before, maintaining the delicate atmosphere of the music. In addition, low brass/low woodwind musicians will need to watch their intonation on the harmonies from Bars 19-35, as being written down low they can sound muddy unless referenced to and balanced with the bass line. So, for the conductor the challenge here is to allow the melody to be heard at all times while letting supporting lines have their moments to shine and then move to the background again. It will be a test of musicianship for both conductor and ensemble!

Fig. 3
Stacks Image 113
A word for our percussionists here: The composer gives permission to “be creative in adding to the mood by using wind chimes or other ethereal sounds”. In addition, he stipulates Antique Cymbal (opt. Triangle….but if you are going to use a triangle, make sure it is one of the smaller, higher pitch devices, not some large clanking classroom music instrument that sounds like a dinner bell!), yarn mallets AND metal beaters on cymbals. Depending on the type and condition of your glockenspiel, you may find either plastic or brass mallets yield the best result. Again, subtly is the goal but there is room to experiment as well. Space between the sounds is a good idea, so that it doesn’t clutter up the texture, especially in the second half of the movement.
Movt. IV - The Battle (Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops):
This movement is usually enjoyed by everyone because it’s dramatic, unexpected and…..umm.…well….and it’s LOUD!!! Bar 1 begins with the instruction:
“16-20 seconds. Random notes - start low and soft; get louder, faster & higher”. The same effect is required towards the end of the movement for 16-20 seconds at Bar 32. In his notes, Jennings says “Make as much of the first two measures as you like; you may wish to start with just woodwinds and gradually add players. Another possibility is to let the players plan the aleatoric section.” So there is room for firstly an explanation and then a discussion with students on how to best bring off this aleatoric effect. However, the composer’s intention of a long gradual build-up must be adhered to for a faithful performance. And, of course, as with any form of chance music, there is a “chance” that it might work better on some occasions than others…..including at the performance! This could present a problem for conductors who like to micro-manage their ensemble. But, that’s a “chance” I guess you’ll have to take!!!

Aside from the aleatoric bars, this movement is pretty easy to pull off. Major second dissonances in blocks and minor second intervals in the low brass/low woodwind parts (Bars 10-11, 16-17) create exciting aural theatrics to increase the tension of battle. There is no lengthy melodic material here - it’s an “effects” piece! The striking chords should be confidently performed with deliberate intent, weight and strength, but at the same time still referencing their execution back to good tone and blend of sound. Indeed, there’s a great exercise to be had in practising these clashing major second notes at all dynamic levels to note any changes in timbre or aural effect. You’ll find students are most curious about these seemingly “harsh” tonal qualities.

Another consideration is rhythm. Precision is demanded for if we are to achieve maximum effect in performance, and although the rhythms are not difficult by any means, sloppiness can creep in. Some notes are long and require correct length, some are shorter (or staccato) and must be executed exactly in sync across the ensemble, and most are accented. I have found that when beginner snare drummers get excited, quavers are propelled forward! It can be easy for the drummer to end up ahead of the action. So they must watch the conductor carefully and focus on how their quavers subdivide each beat.

Finally, coming out of the aleatoric sections into the next bar can be haphazard at times. The chaotic sounds must not break before the playing of the accented notes in Bars 2 and 33. Yet, all musicians who play on the first beat of Bars 2 and 33 must arrive at the beat together….with an accent! It’s necessary that while students are “going sick” (to quote one of my past musicians!!) in the aleatoric section, they must still be conscious of their responsibility to join with the conductor on beat 1 of bar 2!! On several occasions, I have found that some became so involved in “making up stuff” (!) that they forget the importance of the next entrance!

As you can probably guess by now, this is a fun work to rehearse and perform. Students and audiences appreciate the colours and contrasts that lie within and between each movement. And, it’s important to have fun! But there is also much to learn including exposure to new sounds, exploring interesting performance techniques, reinforcing solid playing techniques, greater ensemble reliance on communication with the conductor throughout the performance, the role that good ensemble listening plays in a successful performance, the ability to implement rapid musical mood swings as each movement is performed, and so on.

All of these things are rarely offered in a Grade 1 level work. This is why
A Prehistoric Suite is so successful and an important addition to our beginner band teaching and performing repertoire. I do hope you find this Performance Guide useful and that you will consider A Prehistoric Suite for inclusion at a future concert.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments:

A Prehistoric Suite by Paul Jennings (orchestrated by Teresa Jennings) is published by Hal Leonard.

This Performance Guide was first published in the July 2013 edition (Vol 18, No. 2) of the
Interlude journal.

This guide is not to be reproduced without the expressed written permission of the author.

Back to Performance Guides Index