A British Brass Band Experience by Adam Frey
A British Brass Band Experience for an American Euphoniumist
From August 1997 to November 1999, I had the great pleasure to experience the brass bands of Europe during work on my Masters of Music degree with Steven Mead at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England. Reflecting on my years spent in the home of the euphonium, 1 was extremely lucky to have joined the Point of Ayr Brass Band on Solo Euphonium upon my arrival. Winning 1st Prize in the 1997 and 1999 Welsh Championship and 3rd Prize at the 1998 European Championships were some major high points for the band located in north Wales in an old coal mining area. One of the most eye-opening experiences during my study was the discovery that brass band euphonium playing was unlike performing in any ensemble that 1 had ever played with previously. People outside of brass bands may not agree, but if you sit in a Championship Section Band, prepare for a performance at the hallowed Royal Albert Hall in London, and compete at the European Brass Band Championships, then you will probably change your opinion. Many differences in ensemble, style, vibrato, and teamwork separate the brass band from other performance mediums, but they are also the characteristics that make them so special.
Since most Americans have not had the opportunity to play in a brass band, I feel it important to mention some of the major differences between wind bands and brass bands that I confronted during my experience. First, most “non-banders” I immediately notice the vibrato. Put on an ■ old vinyl of Black Dyke Mills, or a more recent recording of Steven Mead, the Childs’ Brothers, or Jim Gourlay, and the vibrato of the brass band leaps at your ears. Many Americans express their dislike for the style of vibrato employed by most British brass bands, and 1 was of this opinion before actually playing in a brass band. However, I have widened my perspective of both euphonium playing and music and now understand the reasons for and purpose of this style of vibrato. For those who are unaware of the technical differences in the American and British vibratos, the British style employs a very fast, shallow pitch change as compared to the slower, deeper vibrato of most other
non-European countries. The British vibrato traces its roots back to the early times of brass bands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when original literature was scarce. Most bands filled concert programs and contest performances with orchestral transcriptions and arrangements of traditional melodies. Players throughout the band employed a fast, shallow style of vibrato to imitate the sound produced by the string sections in orchestras, while soloists emulated the style, charisma, and vibrato of tum-of-the century operatic singers. With these perspectives, one quickly understands the resulting vibrato and its strong foundation still rooted in bands today. Other performance mediums have progressed and changed styles over time while the brass bands, with such strong traditional ties, still contain many players employing this old-school style of playing. When one hears the old style bands, or a mature principal comet or euphonium player, the sound transports you to a different time. While this style is exceptionally effective for some players and settings, many people debate its use on a broader scale of repertoire.
Other differences between brass bands and wind bands involve demands on technique and range. In the past and present, technique has always been a strong point for the euphonium and this focus can be traced back to its earliest times. In orchestral transcriptions, euphoniumists generally receive the cello parts, which require facile technique and nimble dexterity. While this trend for euphonium technique has eased in most wind band compositions since the early 1900’s, brass band composers and arrangers have continued to push the limits.
This forward motion in brass bands pivots on a single issue: brass band contesting. Typically, bands view competitions and contests as a source of measurement of a person and musician. People always want to be a part of the winning band, so a tremendous work ethic and camaraderie develop among band members, as well as a strong competitiveness and numerous rivalries.
The playing level of the brass band movement has progressed greatly over the years with most of the credit directed to new compositions. Brass band contests have gradually needed more challenging music to separate the bands in awarding prizes. Hence, the range, skills, and detail required for a “test” piece (a composition that must be performed at a given contest) has also increased. As an example regarding range, it is not uncommon to see many high concert Cs and D-flats placed along side low concert Ds and Cs (or lower) in the newer works (Ex. 1, 2, & 3). These three examples are found in solos, but many times the pieces require extreme technique in the high and low range not only for the solo euphonium, but also for the second euphonium (Ex. 4, 5, &. 6). Also it is important to note that a few of the numerous demanding solos appear as cadenzas or on top of very thinly scored band textures (Ex. 7 & 8). Seldom will one see euphonium parts this demanding and on a regular basis in a wind band situation.
Another outstanding quality of brass bands manifests itself in the level of dynamic contrast that is used. The pp and fff dynamic levels have an enormous difference, especially in live performances. When listening to recordings of brass bands, one should remember that recordings typically undergo a sizable amount of dynamic compression so they do not destroy personal stereos. The fff in a brass band is incredibly intense and powerful and rival the dynamics of a 100 or more piece wind band. Yet, contesting British brass bands only utilize 29 players: 1 Eb comet, 9 Bb comets, 1 Bb flugelhom, 3 Eb alto horns, 2 Bb baritones, 2 Bb euphoniums, 2 tenor trombones, 1 bass trombone, 2 EEb tubas, 2 BBb tubas, 3 neglected percussionists, and a conductor. However limited in number these groups may sound on paper, they are not at all limited in how impressive their loud and soft dynamics can be.
A further aspect of playing that 1 noticed about brass bands is their sense of ensemble. I have never played with or heard “tighter” groups, including chamber ensembles. The attention to detail given in matching articulation, style, and rhythm are superb and result from the desire for a winning performance at competitions. One piece prepared for the 1999 Area Contests, the qualification round for the National Brass Band Championship, is Blitz by Derek Bourgeois. This piece requires the utmost in togetherness and cohesive internal rhythm across the band to bring off the pitfall areas (see Ex. 9) where the entire band must play short ff chords to punctuate the silence. In addition, the players must have a perfect feeling of subdivision to have all the parts interweave correctly as seen in Ex. 10. I believe it would be of interest to explore a few of the stereotypes about British brass bands that many people hold. Yes, they still have to wear the funny uniform coats with huge lapels that are seen on the old records. Yet, it is a unique experience to wear them and tradition demands their use. As an outsider, I felt a tinge of reverence when I wore the uniform for my first performance with the band at none other than the National Championships at the Royal Albert Hall – one of my most nervewracking experiences.
The pressures of an actual contest performance can be daunting. The band has invested so much time and practice for a single performance that is heard by an audience (who usually wants another band to win) and judges (who must sit in a covered box so that they can only hear and not see which band is performing). This precaution for the judges supposedly keeps the judging impartial and anonymous, but so many bands have such distinctive players with unique sounds, that everyone can wager an educated guess after the first couple of exposed comet, soprano comet, or euphonium solos. Another unnerving facet of brass band contests is that many of the audience members are listening and following along with a score. They make mental notes of any deviations, missed notes, or cracked notes by the band – try to imagine this at your next concert! I often felt like most of the audience clung to their seats waiting for errors rather than listening for enjoyment; and this sentiment is not isolated to just me.
To outsiders of the brass band scene, all these competitions, style differences, and traditions from the late 1800’s must appear bizarre. However, one must understand that this extremely competitive nature drives the brass band movement forward both musically and financially. While the ultra competitive attitude among bands generally dissipates after the first couple of beers (save the most heated rivals), it is important to understand the commitment given to one’s band. The players in a band must give a huge portion of their time, money (in financially lacking bands), and energy.
The feeling between the players of brass bands resembles a close knit athletic team. These people are often the closest of friends and spend many hours together in and out of the band room. The contests’ results are the fruits of many hours of work and cooperative effort. The exceptional side of this work ethic is the fact that almost all the players are amateurs. Banding occupies a loved hobby that often turns into a minor obsession in their lives. Only very few top bands employ professional players and these players only receive a small amount of money for the huge amount of work that they put into concerts and contests. Typically during the week before a contest, bands will spend anywhere from 10 to 16 or more hours in full band rehearsal, as well as some sectional time. In addition, many players travel anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour each way to rehearsal. And, of course, most players also practice their music away from full rehearsals. All this work on a single piece with a singular team goal – to win!
Many of the bands in the UK and Europe are out two weekends a month with concerts promoting live music. Sometimes bands even venture down out of their own countries for a short tour or sometimes they go as far as the current tour by the Grimethorpe Band (the subject of the movie “Brassed Of f ’) to Asia and Australia in 1999. So there are other aspects to playing in a brass band in addition to the competitions. There is focus on music making, building a stronger concert audience, and of course, the strong social bonds resulting from intensely working together – the thrill and pressure of heated competition are just added bonuses for many players.
The differences between wind band and brass band euphonium playing are quite pronounced and revolve around the huge demands that the brass band players have placed upon the euphonium for occupying the most important chair in the band behind the principal comet. Because of these demands, the general level of euphonium playing in brass band countries has remained quite high when compared to wind band cultures. Hopefully, wind band composers will take the lead from their brass band counterparts that continue to write new challenges, such’ as the newest British Open Test Piece by ; Philip Wilby The Dove Descending. Possibly,, the small brass band movements in other countries around the world will continue to grow so that more euphonium players have the opportunity to experience a true brass band. I would recommend a trip to England or Europe for any euphonium player from outside the brass band movement to attend any of the big brass band competitions: the British Open in early September at Birmingham Symphony Hall, the National Finals in mid-October at the Royal Albert Hall, or even the European Brass Band Championships in late April which circulates to various venues in Europe – an eye-opening and unforgettable experience awaits!
About the Author
Adam Frey studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Mandiester, England where he was the first euphonium player to earn a Master of Music (with Distinction) and the Professional Performance Diploma (with Distinction). He currently serves as the DMA Teaching Assistant at the University of Georgia and recently released his first solo CD entitled “Listen to THIS!/.” Mr. Frey also completed undergraduate studies at the University of Georgia where he was a student of the late Dr. David Randolph.