Mutes in brass bands

Discussion in 'The Rehearsal Room' started by Dave Payn, Jan 22, 2004.

  1. Dave Payn

    Dave Payn Active Member

    I'll lay my cards on the table from the off. I was brought up as a trumpeter and spent most of my early playing years in orchestras, wind bands, brass ensembles and the like. However, having spent 25 years in brass bands being involved both as a player and a conductor (I don't claim any degree of expertise, mind - but I will stick with banding all the same!), one difference I've noticed between the two is, on a GENERAL level (not top section banding) is that muting is a compartively rare thing if you don't play a cornet or trombone. My experience in lower section banding is to see a whole array of different mutes on show when a 'uniform' is asked for. (i.e, a passage marked 'straight mute' no intentional reference there, David! - only to see players put in cups, harmons, wooden mutes, etc. etc. and it gets even more varied throughout a section when a cup mute or harmon mute is indicated by composers and arrangers!).

    Let me state now, that though I kicked off the French horn debate for 'tone colour' purposes, this is not directly linked to French horns, but the common denominator is 'tone colour'.

    Having played in many a brass ensemble over the years, an array of mutes was expected rather than desired. Many brass bands, obviously, struggle with the finances just to get a decent set of mutes for cornets and trombones, let alone mutes for basses, euphoniums, tenor horns and baritones! Many top (or near top) section pieces nowadays are written/arranged with the extra muting in mind and those bands with sponsorship and the like are more able to afford a complete set of mutes (not a jealous rant, just an observation). However, most 'bog standard' pieces written and arranged playable by lower section bands rarely ask for muting outside the trombone and cornet circles. (Certainly true of the older repertoire)

    The National Lottery provided an opportunity for many bands to acquire a complete set of new instruments, uniforms (and in some cases, I dare say, mutes!) but the general 'band' culture is just to have mutes for cornets and trombones (and even then, not always a complete or consistent set)

    My question, having rabbled on for so long, is this; wouldn't the banding outlook as a whole benefit from some sort of funding (or indeed putting aside some funds) to (a) provide the vast majority of bands everywhere, no matter what their current standard is, with a set of mutes for all (I'm not going so far as to say EVERY instrument in a band should have straights, cups, harmons, plungers etc. etc.) but to 'open some doors' to composers and arrangers to provide some variety in tone colour in their works, but where they may have felt restricted to a degree beforehand because of the 'tradition'?

    I accept that mutes for non cornet and trombone players aren't readily available to all, but if only (again, this is more a hypothetical 'plea' than anything else) someone or some thing could kick start this, then I believe the true versatility of the brass band would be fully realised and maybe the 'rarer' mutes would become more available (accepting that the instruments with the bells pointing up would find it more difficult to insert/extract mutes than the rest!).

    As I said, I'm not writing with any degree of 'expertise', it's just that the brass band could become such a wonderfully versatile body of musicians (correction, it IS versatile but so much more could be made of it from a general banding level with opportunities to vary the 'palette').

    I accept that I could be talking complete tripe from a 'lottery grant' front (amongst other things) but I haven't experienced a band that has applied for funding from a 'muting' point of view (other than cornets and trombones!).

    Comments, of course, welcome, but particularly from (a) composers and arrangers and (b) lower section bands; what collection of mutes do you have? Have you 'substituted' a passage in a concert indicating 'harmon mute' with a straight mute? I've seen it happen!

    (Edit -addendum) Also, what about Salvation Army bands; is it a case of most bands with mutes just for cornets and trombones, or more?

    Apologies if this is a case of 'taking nothing very much far too seriously' but there you go!

    Kind regards
  2. Despot

    Despot Member

    Well it's really up to the composers and arrangers!
    If they ask more regularly for the less used mutes, bands will buy them! Lower level, cash strapped bands are unlikely to pay for equipment that's only rarely used.

    Bit like timps and mallet percussion. Go back far enough, "bog standard" bands only used a bass drum, snare and cymbals. As more and more music was arranged including them, bands bought them!
  3. Straightmute

    Straightmute Active Member

    As we climbed through the sections we've needed more and more mutes. Leonardo and Cloudcatcher Fells which we've played in the last 18 months or so both required that the whole band is muted, as does Tallis Variations which we've not yet performed.

    I've always insisted on matching mutes within each section for two reasons: tone colour and tuning - mixed mutes can be problematic from an intonation perspective though some composers, notably Philip Wilby, love to experiment with different combinations of muted sounds.

  4. Dave Euph

    Dave Euph Member

    Apology accepted!

    But seriously, I think you have a point. I think muted horns, baritones and euphoniums can add that extra layer of tone colour which is essential to the limiting sound of a brass band (in comparison to say a symphony orchestra). However, it makes me feel like the boat is being pushed a little too far out in terms of muting. To me, the lower you go in the brass registry, the less effect a mute has on your sound. In my opinion bass mutes are just another layer of complexity.

    It's an interesting situation. Accept the slightly larger range of tone colours and in turn place larger financial burdens on bands (with bass mutes £1000 a go)?
  5. PeterBale

    PeterBale Moderator Staff Member

    Regarding mutes in SA band writing I can't recall coming across any muted passages for instruments other than cornets and trombones, although equally I'm sure I've seen the ISB using other mutes - cue Carl :wink:
  6. Cantonian

    Cantonian Active Member

    I cannot remember the arranger but the SA arrangement of pines of Rome requires the Solo horn to be muted.
  7. PeterBale

    PeterBale Moderator Staff Member

    Peter Graham, I think :wink:
  8. gazrose

    gazrose Member

    The ISB use Horns and Baritone mutes in a few pieces. Song of courage, Credo, Chassidic Dance, there may be others than don't spring to mind. Although the bandmaster has used his poetic license in Song of Courage!

    Sorry for answering this one Carl!

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