Brass band instrumentation - is it time to move forwards?

Discussion in 'The Rehearsal Room' started by Dave Payn, May 11, 2004.

  1. Dave Payn

    Dave Payn Active Member

    I was pondering this whilst conducting Merton Concert Band last Wednesday. Why is the brass band instrumental set up so rigid? I should add here that this is not going to be another rant about occasionally bringing French horns into the fray, or even suggesting the use of trumpets (phew!) but even sticking purely with brass band instrumentation, why can’t we vary our instrumentation somewhat? I mean, the occasional test piece which has a section for two flugels is almost seen as a freak example because it’s so rare!!

    So why did I mention Merton Concert Band? Because in any given rehearsal/programme I conduct, the instrumentation can vary somewhat. There’ll be some pieces which include E flat clarinet, some that won’t (Holst’s First Suite in Eb calls for two Eb clarinets!), Sometimes there’ll be a part for one or even two piccolos, sometimes none. Sometimes, you’ll have parts for alto and contra-bass clarinet (Gallimaufry – Guy Woolfenden, for instance). Some of the brass instrumentation can vary, from pieces with 2 cornet and 2 trumpet parts (dedicated, separate parts for both in the case of, say, works by Clare Grundman), some with just three trumpet parts, some with four. In most cases, (i.e. the flute/piccolo and Bb/Eb clarinet) you usually find players who ‘double up’ on both (there again, in a lot of cases, the trumpet/cornet parts will probably all be played on trumpets – in an amateur band situation anyway).

    My point is this:, rather than say necessarily bringing in extra players, why not have one or two on the front row doubling up on say, sop or flugel to either combine with the regular sop/flugel to vary the tone colour in the treble range a bit more or take the weight off of them. For a medium which, with regards to scoring (all except bass trombone in treble clef) supposedly encourages players swapping instruments, why not do it within a rehearsal/performance, rather than just staying on one instrument for a dedicated period of time? I personally find the brass band medium (particularly in the upper registers) rather limiting with what you can do, writing or arranging wise. As there is but one sop, a lot of the writing/arranging tends to encourage the theory that the sop is only there to deal with the high register stuff, when it could and should be about far more than that. One might say it’s difficult to get one sop/flugel in tune, why try it with two or three? Same could be said of Eb clarinets and piccolos, but the wind band survives those problems (most of the time?). I also find that the more you play some of the ‘specialist’ instruments or double up on them, perhaps intonation may become less of an issue. I rarely hear good Eb trumpet players play wildly out of tune in the lower registers, but it’s something (even in top section bands) I hear quite a lot from sops in the banding world. Why? Not because dedicated sop players aren’t as able as good trumpeters, but simply because it’s (a) treated as such a specialist area and as a result(b) I refer to my earlier point about the writing designed to encourage expertise in the high register and not much else.

    I think the OCCASIONAL use of added sops and flugels (again, NOT by adding players but utilising the ones already in the band) could add a nice variety to what can be a monotonous tone colour at times (in the sop’s case, utilising more of its register).

    Sure, I’m biased about this being raised as a trumpeter, regularly encouraged to mix between Bb, Eb, Piccolo trumpet, flugelhorn (and even cornet! – not that I claim to be proficient in any of them – you know, jack of all trades, master of none!) and the point of this is not to deliberately wind up the ‘traditionalists’ out there, but just to speculate whether the brass band instrumentation is ever likely to vary in the foreseeable future and to lay the case for actually (occasionally) doing so! Orchestras do it, wind bands do it, brass ensembles do it? Why should the brass band be so rigid?

    As ever, with tMP. I look forward to my opinions being challenged! ;-)

  2. nickjones

    nickjones Active Member

    if you look at some of the competing bands at this years european...
    4 troms used , 4 horns , 5 solo cornets, 2 sops, 6 tubas.
    I think it creates a different sound , middle of the band can be stronger with the horns and troms.
    yes it's a really good idea , well the registry can allow bands to sign 40 players now..why cant we use them at the same time , yes I know you could say , where would be stop. but I think it would be a benifit to bands.
    I have played the complete " Pictures at an exhibition " with the National Youth Brass Band of Wales ( Double band ) with the addition of a picc trumpet for some of the different pictures..was great add on sound to the band.
    French horns..yes , why not would be a similer sound to baritones or Euphoniums , maybe not need 4 , 2 would help.
    I think bands should evolve..nowt wrong with Progress , instrumentation and specially commissioned music ( not just for a competition )
    I mean look at the judges at the Grand Shield weekend , a few with Orchestral Experience Jim Scott , Geoff Whitham etc.
  3. Dave Payn

    Dave Payn Active Member

    I should add (taking Nick's point) that what I would like to see are parts especially written/arranged for this occasional 'doubling up' (i.e. sop parts written in Eb on the front row and instruction of 'change to flugel') within the framework of band writing rather than having just a bigger band playing a set of music written for standard band instrumentation.

    Honest, I'll shut up! (for now!.....)
  4. Tuba Miriam

    Tuba Miriam Member

    Re: Brass band instrumentation - is it time to move forwards

    Are you suggesting utilising the sop's lower register? Why would you want to do this, with an army of Bb cornets at you disposal; surely, similarly with a piccolo trumpet, isn't the point of the instrument to get that 'bright' sound in the upper register? I thought it was generally understood that soprano cornets are hard work to get in tune down there; does anyone really want to listen to a soprano cornet playing bottom C#?!

    I like the idea of using more than one sop or flugel, for example, but expense may be prohibitive for many bands, particularly if the additional sops / flugels are only required for one piece.
  5. Dave Payn

    Dave Payn Active Member

    Re: Brass band instrumentation - is it time to move forwards

    Occasionally, yes, because the sop has a brighter timbre than the Bb cornet, so rather than just having the Bb cornets cover that register, it would provide a slightly different tone in the lower reaches. And as I said, taking your point about how hard it is to get in tune down there, if the lower register was used more, perhaps it wouldn't be such a problem. When you consider most performances of the Haydn and Hummell Concertos are played on modern Eb trumpets (where depending what edition you play from, the pedal register of the Eb trumpet is explored for one note in the Hummell!) you don't hear players complaining about its frequent forays into the middle and lower regions, even if it wasn't written for the modern Eb trumpet.

    Going back to another point, if you just assume that the sop is there simply to play high all the time, then think about it. For most bands sop players, that limits what can be a very expensive piece of brass musical instrument to not much more than a range of a 11th. (middle G to top C) Surely that's not right? Piccolo trumpets don't JUST play in the high register all the time. Listen to Maurice Andre playing transcriptions of Mozart and Haydn Oboe Concertos (for instance) and you'll see what I mean.
  6. nickjones

    nickjones Active Member

    Am not a composer but if you look at the scoring of some brass works ( soprano Solo in Diversions by Derek Bourgeois ) exposed low G entries. I think that different textures and colours can be added with mutes , low and high work you wouldnt expect from the intruments ( songs for BL- Elgar Howarth , Big Sky - Matt Lima ). most instruments are tested to there limits now with range , just because you play sop , dont mean you should not be Limited in an easy option , just because you have something written low...
  7. andyp

    andyp Active Member

    I just had an odd thought, what about a piccolo cornet, as opposed to a piccolo trumpet? People object to trumpets bcause the sound doesn't suit the band for whatever reason, so how about something made to match?
    Then you would have cornet in Bb, sop in Eb, and piccolo maybe in Bb octave above the normal cornet (or slightly lower if it fits better). All you need then is to find someone to play it! :)
    My vote goes to having more horns and baritones, so many bands sound cornet-heavy at big volumes, and more middle would add to the sound, and thicken up chords too.
  8. Tuba Miriam

    Tuba Miriam Member

    I take your points, Dave, but I suppose to some extent it depends upon whether you're talking about using the sop down there in a solo or tutti capacity. As a change in colour it's another option as part of a cadenza passage, say, but if the low C# is simply accompaniment I'm sure most sop players would prefer to give it to a Bb cornet and let them play an F#, using it as an opportunity for a, usually, badly needed rest (this probably supports your case for more than one sop!). How many sop players hoped they'd escaped the bowels of the register?!
  9. Historically, ensembles change with the direction of the composers pen...

    When composers start writing outside the square we are used to, subtly, bit by bit, things will start to change....
  10. Dave Payn

    Dave Payn Active Member

    I do take your points too about the expense. Just that, in my experience, quite a few cornet players I know have their own, or have access to flugels (though more likely to own Eb trumpets rather than cornets!) In the end, I can't (despite my theories) really see it happening. (I can hope...) Just thought I'd throw a few thoughts around to see what people think! And there's no better place to debate these issues than tMP! ;-)
  11. ScrapingtheBottom

    ScrapingtheBottom Active Member

    I think the alto trombone could be brought in. There are a lot of pieces which would benefit from the difference in tone colour that an alto brings (especially with many bands using symphonic instruments now).

    The University of Nottingham Brass uses french horns and trumpets (well the odd cornet too). In pieces like 'Star Wars' for instance these instruments really make a massive difference to the sound. I think there is scope for a little bit of slack in the system. I think the rigidity in formation is a major reason why brass banding is so seperate from the rest of the 'classical' world - whether that is good or bad I just don't know yet.

    I'd take a look at dance bands - most of the time their formation is pretty similar (saxes, trumpets ,troms, keyboard, (guitar) bass and drums) but you also get the opportunity for flugel, clarinet, flute and even the tuba!
  12. Dave Payn

    Dave Payn Active Member

    It's funny! I'd genuinely meant to include alto trombone in my original thread, but my brain ran away with me (as ever!)
  13. The symphonic way could do so much for our image and reputability but surely more people would fight to stay "brass bandy" rather than risk subtle, yet permanent changes to the sound

    As for me, I'm split 50/50, I love the symphonic sound, but would die for that rich full blooded trad. brass band chord.... Tsk Tsk Tsk

    I think in the end debate is pointless, the music will always carve its own course
  14. ScrapingtheBottom

    ScrapingtheBottom Active Member

    Totally agree. There is nothing to stop brass groups from forming with different instrumentation to the taditional brass band (indeed I am a member of one) - you just can't contest, which isn't really a massive loss...
  15. Dave Payn

    Dave Payn Active Member

    [quote="ScrapingtheBottom Totally agree. There is nothing to stop brass groups from forming with different instrumentation to the taditional brass band (indeed I am a member of one) - you just can't contest, which isn't really a massive loss...[/quote]

    Well you can, in the Europeans, in the B section it would appear.
  16. Okiedokie of Oz

    Okiedokie of Oz Active Member

    I agree, the alto trom would really fill that section out, much akin to the flugel with the tenor horns!

    Sometimes, also, technology will allow bands to adapt. For example, baritones mainly are 3 valved instruments, but Someone went out and made a 4 valve! Now composers are all rushing (OK, somaybe not "rushing") to write music for baritones in this newer register. I personally would like to see more emphasis on baritones, or adjusted scoring (2 tenors, 2 baris) because baritone always strikes me as the neglected instrument.
  17. Just pondering actually, my teacher is trying to get brass banding going in Queensland Schools and is currently at the halfway point, where he has a semi orchestral/semi bandy group of about 40 musicians, 5 french horns, 2 tenors, 2 bass troms and 3 tenors, a solid mix of trumpets, cornets and a soprano thrown in for good measure, plus the eupho/bari line and tubas and perc....

    I heard them play a fanfare the other day and I must admit was very impressed with the balance of timbre they had...quite stunning
  18. Okiedokie of Oz

    Okiedokie of Oz Active Member

    As beaut an idea it would be to have brass bands in schools along with stage bands, concert bands, orchestras etc etc...., Education Queensland would be forced to modify the "rules" on how to teach brass players, plus hire brass specialists, or ensure that university degrees for IM cover the finer points of brass band transposition, structure, repertoire etc.

    Considering how stubborn they are over the TC/BC issue (mind you, I don''t see brass bands adjusting either)it won't happen until a brass bandy gets to the top.
  19. Spanky Rear

    Spanky Rear Member


    Great thread Dave.More power to your elbow.
    Much as I love the sound of Brass Bands-I wouldn't be without them- it does no harm to look ahead.Things just don't stand still.
    I presume that the current rules about contesting Bands[types,numbers,pitches of instruments] was the end result of an attempt to sort out the odd assortment s commonplace inthe 19th century.With the 'slide trombones 'only rule of 1899[?] that process ended.
    I like the idea of an alto trombone;more emphasis on the baritones; extra flugel horns;a second soprano part[?Eb flugel].Why do we have 4 Basses? Why not change some cornet parts to flugel?
    So we might consider afront row of 2 solo cornets+1 ripieno+1 sop+another one or Eb flugel.The back row might be 3 cornets or flugels as the score directed. We could have 2each of Tenors,Baris and Euphs+3 Basses of any pitch suitable for the music written.Finally 4 troms-- say Alto ,Tenor, Bass with the choice again suitable to cover the requirements of the music.
    A total of 21 players[+ the required percussion of course]. A far more attainable number of regular players for many Bands from what I can see, and from the Sits Vac adverts.Might give good balance too.
    Finally let me say for those who don't know already--Yes Dave you are proficient. From the way you use your triggers I'd say you're aiming for one of the flugel parts!

  20. Re: Instrumentation

    More to the point why do we have 2 different types of basses. As an eflat player who was press ganged onto bflat, I don't think I'm alone in thinking that if you've a couple of decent pedalers in a group of four eflats, the range will remain the same whilst making the tuning a whole lot better,not to mention easing a number of other things like back ache and band funds! Seriously, the bflat is a comparatively cumbersome instrument in all but the finest hands, and even then. It's not that often that the full range of the bass section from the bottom of the blat to top of the eflat is utilised. Why not treat 4 eflats in pairs in much the same way as orchestral composers often do with horns?

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