Beating the Low Brass Stereotype
by Ann M. Alston
When asked the question, “Do you believe in band instrument stereotypes? If yes, how would you classify the low brass section?,” university-level low-brass students gave a large range of answers.
Ann M. Alston
“I think that playing a low brass instrument from a young age generally tends to make people: a) laid back, b) humble, and, most importantly, c) a connoisseur of fine beer,” stated one student.
“The most common stereotype is that the tuba players are terrible musicians and terrible players and can only play ‘oom-pa,’” said another.
Another student thought that “[the low brass section] just like[s] to have a good time while playing great music.” Some responses were as expected, since I would agree that low brass players in general are fun and laid back. Other responses were surprising to me, particularly the comments regarding low-brass students’ supposed laziness. I was slightly shocked by the “terrible players” stereotype; the entire brass section in my high school was very talented, and I did not realize so many people had such different experiences with low brass. According to an article by Scott Garlock, who has given numerous clinics on the recruitment and retention of low brass students at state and national music conventions, brass players have the lowest retention rate of all the band instruments. I wondered if the way low brass players are often stereotyped, regardless of the truth behind the stereotype, is part of the reason behind this problem.
My euphonium teacher, Eileen Meyer Russell, and I surveyed 107 student ITEA members concerning their opinions on low brass retention. The survey was designed to discover why low brass students have a low retention rate in band and how this can be improved. Various aspects of retention were examined, including satisfaction with the instrument and the band program in general. Please see the supplementary graph that illustrates student responses to the stereotyping question.
Overall, the answers regarding stereotyping indicate that low brass players are seen as fun, but also tend to exhibit negative qualities such as laziness. There is also a significant gender stigma attached to the instrument. For example, one student from our survey stereotyped the low brass section as “laid back and manly.” The gender stigma attached to the instrument is also shown by the fact that only 17 out of 107 low brass student respondents in this survey were female.
Whether these stereotypes are actually true is another question. Many students (about 27%) do not believe in stereotypes and 11% felt unsure. It is also important to note the ambiguity of the question “Do you believe in band instrument stereotypes?” because some students answered as if it asked, “Do people stereotype band students?” Others answered as if it asked, “Do you stereotype band students?” Yet others read the question as “Do you fit into band stereotypes?” Still, what students had to say is both interesting and valuable. Some felt that although they do not “fit the mold,” stereotypes hold true in a general sense. Others disagree with the general stereotype, agreeing that stereotypes exist but refusing to believe them.
So what can be done to keep low brass players in band? Students were also asked what inspired them most as musicians, and many answers were about the influence of positive role models and experiences with successful professional musicians. Good role models are one way to encourage musicians to work harder and see the potential low brass instruments hold. When asked to describe the most significant action or event that influenced or inspired them as a musicians/performers, students answered with events such as seeing drum corps live up front on the 50 yard line, performing with the All-State ensemble, being given a Canadian Brass CD, and watching a Charlie Vernon master-class. One student claimed thatattending the North American Brass Band Association 2006 gala concert where Allen Vizzutti was performing encouraged him to “learn harder brass skills.” By allowing students to experience the professional world of music, they are able to grow in their own capabilities and talents. Professionals and students who play low brass music can transcend the stereotypes, not necessarily breaking them, but by going beyond.
The survey was conducted using Survey Monkey. With help from Jennifer Jester, then Executive Director of ITEA and currently Assistant Professor of Music at Millersville University in Millersville Pennsylvania, we invited all student members of ITEA to respond between the dates December 3, 2009 and January 1, 2010. Although we originally wanted to survey high school students in our community, there was simply too much red tape to interview students under the age of 18. If you are interested in reading the complete survey or obtaining additional information concerning our research, please contact Eileen Meyer Russell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Garlock, Scott. “Building a Better Low Brass Section: Methods and Motivation.” Banddirector.com: The #1 Online Resource for Band Directors! 2008. Web. 08 June 2010.
Steinkuehler, Amy. A Thesis Presented to The Graduate College of Southwest Missouri State University. Thesis. Southwest Missouri State University, 2004. Print.
“Survey: Recruitment and Retention Methods.” School Band and Orchestra, April 2002: 44–7. Symphony Publishing, 01 April 2002. Web. 7 June 2010.
Ann Alston is currently working on her undergraduate degree at Southwestern University. She is an economics major with a minor in music. A music scholarship recipient on euphonium, Ann performs with the Southwestern University Wind Ensemble, the Low Brass Ensemble, and has taken euphonium lessons each semester of her degree. She was a late beginner, joining band for the first time as a sophomore in high school, and she achieved success at the Area level in the All-Region band competition after only a year of playing. Ann also enjoys singing, piano, and music composition.