Bringing brass bands to the (classical-minded) masses. Or not, as the case may be....

Discussion in 'The Rehearsal Room' started by limegreenguy, Nov 7, 2005.

  1. limegreenguy

    limegreenguy New Member

    I just had an interesting experience I'd like to share with the brass banders of the world. I'm teaching two classes in Classical Music Appreciation in night school ( ). I thought this would be a good opportunity to raise the profile of brass bands and introduce brass music to an orchestral-oriented group. So with some apprehension, I introduced my first class to Holst's Moorside Suite. To my surprise and delight, they liked it. Not only liked it, but two of them (there were only 6 students) rated it their favorite piece of the entire class. One of them even went onto the Chandos site and bought the CD (Grimethorpe, Brass from the Masters Vol 2, CHAN 4553). And this from a class of Americans who'd never even heard of a brass band before. I must say that it really helped them understand the piece to have my map in front of them, with me checking off the milestones as we passed them (see

    "Okay," I thought, "this is great. People who appreciate classical music can relate to brass bands. I can really promote the medium through this class."

    Ha! Then came the let down. In my second class, I followed through on the plan and introduced Prometheus Unbound as an illustration of a tone poem. I was surprised and disappointed that the universal reaction was "boring." They didn't get it at all. (And one of the students in the second class also took the first class -- and she'd liked Moorside Suite.) I'd made no map of the piece this time -- just let them listen to it with my program notes ( ) to help provide some explanation.

    "All right," I thought, "maybe the lack of a map left them a bit disoriented. It can't be the brass sound that's putting them off. After all, the first class really liked Moorside, and this class really liked the Phillip Jones Brass Ensemble playing Elgar Howarth's Rose without a thorn by Henry VIII."

    So I forged ahead and used Belmont Variations to illustrate the theme-and-variations form. To my dismay, that fell flat as well, in spite of my map ( In discussing their reactions with the students, I got the feeling that the unfamiliar instrumentation was at the root of their failure to relate to it. The brass band ensemble sound is quite unfamiliar to them, and it doesn't resonate with them.

    Looking back, I think I can identify with feeling disoriented by unfamiliar sounds. I myself was a brass band bigot until I was forced to get to grips with orchestral music to get my music O-level (even though I'd been playing in the local youth orchestra for 4 years). But having the Haydn 102 force fed to me eventually led to my really liking orchestral music.

    Okay, let's get back to the brass thing. They liked Moorside Suite. They liked Rose Without a Thorn. They didn't like Prometheus Unbound or Belmont Variations. Why? What's the difference? Here's my working hypothesis: the pieces they liked are thinly scored. The pieces they didn't like are densely scored. (Okay the Holst march is fairly dense, the Belmont 6th variation is mostly thin, but you get my drift). The students seemed to agree with this hypothesis. The thin scoring gives a transparency that lets them appreciate individual instruments. The dense scoring yields a rich ensemble sound that hides the identities of individual instruments in an aggregate that their ears are unprepared for.

    I haven't yet figured out where to go from here, but I wanted to run this experience and tentative hypothesis by all you brass band aficionados out there and get your reactions and insights.
  2. chacha18

    chacha18 New Member

    i think you're right, eapecially for people who don't normally listen to brass it could be overwhelming to listen to a thikly scored peice.
  3. Melph

    Melph Member

    What about paganini variations?

    Ok, it is a test piece but a bl00dy good pne at that - even non brass band folk seem to like this.
  4. Steve

    Steve Active Member

    Two schools of thought I guess.

    Use the classical repertoire performed by a different medium to help them relate to the music and thus learn appreciation for what they already understand


    Smack them in the face with the biggest, loudest mast overscored brass band peice possible that makes them wonder how so few people make such a noise.

    Obvisouly there is a middle groud but I would take one of these approaches as your starting point and work backwards. Its the closeness of timbres that makes us brass bands sound awesome so I think a heavily scored yet quiet and controlled piece (ideally from the classical repertoire) would be ideal. Cant think of any off the top of my head though.
  5. trumpetmike

    trumpetmike Well-Known Member

    Holst was a great composer. Even his lesser known works (which in the wider world of music, Moorside Suite is, unfortunately - I love it) are still works by a great composer and this does come through in his music.

    If you are trying to introduce brass band music to a wider audience, I wouldn't start with the more modern works. I would suggest that you might start with those that are going to be familiar (musical) territory. Composers who write a good tune, with a familiar harmonic structure.

    If you are exposing people to "traditional" classical music for the first time, how would you expect them to react to Bach, Mozart, Schoenberg, Ligeti, Berio, Birtwistle?
    Some of these would already have a sense of the familiar to them, some might be a whole new tonal experience for them.

    Personally, I would introduce the genre using more familiar styles of music (to grab 3 pieces out of the ether - Pageantry, Year of the Dragon, Paganini Variations). Once they are hooked on the sound of a brass band (which might happen), then introduce further works that might explore the boundaries of what bands are capable of.

    It is great that you are doing this - there is some great music around in the brass band world that deserves a wider audience
  6. PeterBale

    PeterBale Moderator Staff Member

    If you think it is the sound that is putting them off, what about looking at "Pictures from an Exhibition"? There you've got the piano original, various orchestrations and the two versions by Elgar Howarth. You could also split it down to individual movements easily.
  7. Rapier

    Rapier Supporting Member

    I think I need to attend a Musical Appreciation Class too. My heart always sinks when I see the words Tone Poem on a piece of music. It should just say 'Tuneless Dirge'.
  8. James Yelland

    James Yelland Active Member

    You have clearly never listened to the works of Richard Strauss!
  9. Rapier

    Rapier Supporting Member

    You're probably right. Does he write for Brass Bands? :D
  10. brassneck

    brassneck Active Member

    Play them Elgar Howarth's 'Fireworks', possibly the narrated recording by Grimey as it introduces each instrument to the listener.
  11. timbloke

    timbloke Member

    Interesting topic. I've often wondered whether you could market bands to the Orchestral Audience, by putting on an Orchestral Style Concert - Overture, Concerto, ANOther and Symphony replaced by an Overture; Major solo work, guest soloist or Concerto; short test piece and a major test piece or two after the interval. It would be brilliant to work them up, but would the audience appreciate this.

    I think the other problem is that the range of colours available in a Band is significantly less, and with the exception of the top composers who can bring out the full range of colours, someone not use to a band could easily think the music is bland. Especially if the piece is unfamilliar and long. I'm performing Bruckner 8 in a couple of weeks, and at 1hr and 20mins long it is still thoroughly enjoyable (if perhaps a bit tiring) to listen to because Bruckner is able to use the orchestra so well. There is no way a band piece could be that long without getting boring and repetitive.

    So back to my original question, would it work. I think the audience would quickly get bored.

    On the other side of the coin a year or so ago we played Land of the Long Whit Cloud in a normal Band concert and the reaction was similar - the normal band audience got bored (and we performed it well). The didn't cope with the length of the piece which is not that long by comparison to many works. So if an audience used to the sounds of a band cannot cope - why would those not familiar with it be able to.

    On the Tone Poem idea, how about Finlandia? or the one we've got out at the mo is Foce of Destiny? What about playing them a wind band version of a brass band piece, as I understand it yanks are more familiar with the wind band sound? maybe LOTLWC?
  12. James Yelland

    James Yelland Active Member

    Not too much nowadays, I'm afraid. His Alpine Symphony was clearly influenced by Eric Ball's High Peak, though.
  13. James Yelland

    James Yelland Active Member

    Or, as a little known alternative, how about Joseph Turrin's 'Prologue'? Not a bad piece, which introduces the instruments of the band one by one. I suspect the reason why it isn't better known is because the only recording of it (that I'm aware of, anyway), by the GUS Band, features some dreadful purple prose, spoken by a narrator who makes Donald Sinden sound like a shy and retiring Cockney. It really is toooooo much, dahhhling!
  14. limegreenguy

    limegreenguy New Member

    The tone color thing, and the length thing

    Interesting points. I think the tone color thing and the length thing are, at root, fundamentally separate issues, although it's true that they reinforce one another.

    I believe the length barrier is the principal root of Joe Average's inability to "get" classical music. I think the development of sonata form was an important enabling factor in allowing longer movements without sacrificing intellectual manageability. That said, you can't just explain sonata form to a bunch of newbies and then throw a symphony at them and expect them to follow it. That's why, in my classes, I provide a map of the longer pieces and check off the milestones on the whiteboard as the music reaches them. I first tried this technique for the Britten Young Person's Guide, and the students really appreciated the navigational help. By the time we got to the Tchaikovsky's 5th, my map had become very detailed, with theme chart, bar numbers, and timings (see Although I had been initially apprehensive about throwing out so much detail in a class I'd titled "Classical Music Appreciation, Introductory I," I was delighted that the students really enjoyed having the map, detailed as it was.

    The tone color thing is an intriguing subject. I could listen to brass band music for hours on end, and often do. I bet most people reading this are the same way. Yet play me a string quartet and I can barely make it to the end -- my ears get too tired. Isn't that simply a question of what we're attuned to? The other night I was at a recital at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Wonderful piano playing, but less than halfway through Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata I'd had enough piano to last me a month. But a lot of people really enjoy that (all the way to the end!), so tone color -- or lack thereof -- can't be a universal barrier, because a brass band has a terrific amount more tone color than a solo piano (or even an organ), especially in the hands of a top-notch orchestrator like Frank Wright. It comes down to familiarity, and you can only build that slowly, by repeated listening.

    I'm leaning toward scaling back my ambitions with the brass band proselytizing, aiming for planting the seed rather than trying to raise a mature plant. In a 4-to-6 session class (I've only just started the class this term, so things are still evolving), I really can't lay on too many band pieces. But hey, if Moorside Suite induces a few more students to go buy the CD, well, there's more music on the same CD that they can indoctrinate themselves with.

  15. andywooler

    andywooler Supporting Member

    we are doing the four last songs next weekend - I'm surprised Morrisey hasn't picked up on them yet
  16. PeterBale

    PeterBale Moderator Staff Member

    Is that the version with Derek Watkins screaming over on top trumpet :?: :shock: ;-)
  17. timbloke

    timbloke Member

    I had a similar experience last night. As part of orchestra concert on the weekend we are doing a Shostakovich piece for wind based on Scarlatti (I think) Harpsichord pieces. Last night the wind section performed it to the rest of the orchestra. Now I like Shostakovich, I also quite like listening to baroque music such as the Scarlatti, and I appreciate that the piece was a good arrangement, but I got bored. It was not the best performance, and it'll be interesting to see if I enjoy it more on Saturday in the right setting and with the final performance. But maybe that had something to do with what I'm used to listening to.
  18. brassneck

    brassneck Active Member

    In my wee opinion, it depends on what you know initially and what expectations are there! What seems 'just noise' does take time to acquire a mindset to be able to distinquish the subtleties/details of writing within and against other similar styles. In relation to brass bands, most people still associate marches and hymn tunes to the genre, so maybe a point of reference could start there.
  19. andywooler

    andywooler Supporting Member

    I think if you put this one in front of Derek, you really would need the "last" rites.

  20. brassneck

    brassneck Active Member

    (I was surprised to find Mr. Watkins with some of his peers playing in the horn section of Haircut 100 years back! Must have been more money to burn for artists back then).

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