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The Brass Band
This is what the usual brass band set up looks like. The small square box is where the conductor stands and leads the band from. All the brass instruments are played in a similar way and have valves - except for the trombone! The different size instruments have different names and the bigger the instrument is, the lower the sound it produces is.
‘Standard Brass Band’
Throughout this tour of the brass band I will continually referred to a standard brass band formation. This is what is required at the contests or competitions that most bands compete in. There are different rules for national and local competitions but usually the number of players is restricted to 25 plus percussion. Therefore, when you join the senior band, you may not play in every contest if there are more people in your section than required but you can still go along to support the band and your team mates.
The cornet is the smallest and highest sounding brass instrument in the brass band. You will usually find 9 Bb cornets and 1 Eb cornet in a contest band but there may be more at other times.
The Eb cornet is called the Soprano Cornet as it plays a bit higher than the Bb cornets. It is slightly smaller than a standard Bb cornet and can be harder to master. There is only one of these in a standard brass band.
The Bb cornets are divided into sections; 4 Solo Cornets (front row) who will usually play the tune and will be led by the principal cornet who is the leader of the cornet section and will often play the solos; 1 Repiano cornet whose role is to link between the front row of cornets and the back row and will often share a part with the flugel horn; 2 Second Cornets; 2 Third Cornets who will often provide accompaniments and harmonies to the tune.
The cornet is often compared with the trumpet as they are similar to play and can produce the same range of notes. The sound of the cornet should be more mellow than the bright sound of a trumpet though.
There are many famous cornet players in the brass band world such as Jim Shepherd and Phillip McCann in times gone by, and today Alan Morrison, Roger Webster, Stuart Lingard and many more. See if you can find one that I haven’t mentioned. There are also people usually associated with the trumpet who also play cornet such as Maurice Murphy and Wynton Marsalis.
The Horn Section.
Within the horn section there is one Flugel Horn and three Tenor Horns in a standard brass band.
The flugel looks a bit like the cornet but sounds more like the tenor horn. It often shares a part with or similar to the Repiano Cornet although it is being used more as an individual part today, often playing solo passages. You would usually find only one flugel in a standard brass band.
Tenor Horns are pitched in Eb. That means that if you play a C on a tenor horn then you would have to play an Eb on the piano (which is in concert pitch) to get the same note. The music is transposed so that it all fits together.
The tenor horn has three valves and is played in the same way as any other valved instrument in a brass band. The difference in sound comes from the length and width of the tubes of metal.
The tenor horn has a round warm sound that is lower than a cornet sound but not as low as a bass (the cornet is the highest instrument in a brass band and the bass is the lowest).
There are three positions for tenor horns in a standard brass band that are often referred to as Solo, 1st and 2nd Horn. When a brass band is restricted to the number of players it has, such as at a national contest, then there would be just one person per part, but at all other times you may find more than one person playing the same part.
Tenor horns give a fullness to the middle sound of the brass band. They can be played in different styles and when playing tutti (together) with the band, they may play sustained chords, arpeggios, repeated quavers or off-beats. They can often take the melody or play solos as well.
There are many famous tenor horn players in the brass band world including Gordon Higginbottom, Sandy Smith and Sheona White.
The Baritones and Euphoniums
In a brass band you will usually find 2 Baritones and 2 Euphoniums. The instruments are quite similar in shape and sound, but the Baritone is slightly smaller and so lighter in tone than the euphonium.
The Euphonium was unique to the brass band but is now being used more in orchestral works to complement the tuba and in other musical ensembles. The expansion of the Euphonium into these other musical genres has largely occurred in the past twenty years as a result of the significant promotion of the instrument and its sound by famous players such as Steven Mead (playing on the tutor book CD), Nicholas, Robert and David Childs, and before them, John Clough.
Modern Euphoniums and some Baritones in the professional range have four valves. The 4th valve can allow the instrument to play lower than the standard range but the real value is to facilitate rapid passages and help intonation (fine tuning) in the lower register.
The two Baritones will have independent parts (1st Baritone, 2nd Baritone) but the Euphoniums may share just one part. The Baritones will usually play accompaniment parts whereas the Euphonium is often given the melody and solo passages. The Euphoniums are the “Pavarotti’s” of the band; they ‘sing’ the big tenor melodies complementing the main theme that is usually given by the cornets.
The Baritones are part of the middle sound of the band and along with the Trombones form the link between the middle and the bass end of the band (Horns to Euphoniums). The Euphoniums then carry this link through to the basses.
A famous Baritone player from the last twenty years is Margaret Antrobus who played with the Black Dyke Band and the Yorkshire Building Society Band.
The Trombones are different from all the other brass instruments in the band since they do not have valves. Instead, they get the different notes by moving the long slide and stopping at different places. This extends the tubing that the air travels through in the same way as pressing a valve does to give different notes. Therefore, a Trombonist has to learn seven different positions on the slide instead of learning different valve combinations. This makes learning the trombone initially more difficult since the player has no choice but to listen to the notes to make sure that they have reached the correct slide position.
You will find two parts for Tenor Trombone in a standard brass band and one for Bass Trombone. The Tenor Trombones provide the brightness to the middle harmonies, sometimes taking the melodies. The Trombone is also often used as the ‘clown’ instrument of the band due to its ability to make silly noises sliding between notes.
The Bass Trombone is slightly bigger and has additional tubing that allows it to play much lower notes than the Tenor Trombone. It is the only instrument in the band whose music is written in bass clef, all the other instruments read from treble clef staves. The Bass Trombone provides a third part harmony to either the Trombone section or the Basses.
The Trombone is used in almost all types of musical ensemble from orchestras to jazz to pop. Some of the most famous trombone players are Nick Hudson, Brett Baker, Ian Bousfield and Don Lusher.
The Basses are the largest and the lowest instruments in the band. There are usually four players, two playing Eb Bass and two playing Bb Bass. The Eb Bass is slightly smaller than the Bb Bass and is at a slightly higher pitch.
The Basses are the driving force behind the Brass Band. They provide the rhythm underlying the melodies and the huge wedge of sound that all the other instruments build upon.
Although often thought of as simply an instrument that plays ‘oom-pah, oom-pah’, once mastered, it can be as flexible as any other instrument, despite the huge size of the instrument. This has been shown by many of the top brass players including Shaun Crowther of Grimethorpe Colliery Band, who have taken the Bass from its hiding place at the back of the band out to the front to play impressive solos that make the instrument sound light-footed and easy to play, the current favourite being Czardas (a piece originally written for violin).
Other famous players of the Bass include Steve Sykes and James Gourlay.
Percussion is relatively new in brass bands but is becoming ever more important. Every band should have a kit player that plays a standard drum kit. Then, in addition to this, pieces may require timpani, glockenspiels, xylophones and all the percussion instruments that you can think of! Therefore, bands will usually have between one and three percussionists.
Whilst Evelyn Glennie is a very famous deaf percussionist in the orchestral world, brass bands’ most famous percussionist is Simone Rebello.