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What is a British Style Brass Band?

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By Dr. Jim Fox

The brass band movement started in Britain in the early19th century. For many years bands served as places where people could gather socially after work or church. In the very early years, there were three types of bands, military, brass, and church. As things continued to develop they bands split into Brass Bands and Salvation Army bands. The Salvation Army bands are just slightly different than a competitive brass band.

According to NABBA, the two bands with the longest traditions are the
Besses o'th' Barn Brass Band and the Black Dyke Brass Band which both can be heard on All Brass Radio. By the 1840s, a thriving local contest circuit had grown. By 1860 there were over 750 brass bands in England alone. Today two major championship events are held each year in England, the National Championship and the British Open Championship. The National Championship is only open to bands from England, Scotland and Wales. This competition ran sporadically in the nineteenth century from 1856, but was firmly established by Sir Arthur Sullivan in 1900. The Open Championship invites bands from all countries and has been in existence since 1853. The first winner was the Mossley Temperance Saxhorn Band. Youth brass band competitions are similarly well-established, providing quality players for the adult bands as the young members mature, thereby continuing the tradition.

Many contests are held across the world for cash prizes which help fund the bands. Expenses can be great. A single piece of music can cost up to $200 (£175) and many bands buy instruments and support youth bands. That doesn't include travel expenses, insurance and a vast amount of various expenses. Giving to a band is a good way to support them or buying a CD.

Today brass banding has spread across the world. The United States and Canadian championships are held by NABBA and there are many band festivals. In Europe there are country championships and an all of Europe Championship. There is a major championship in Australia which draws bands from New Zealand and Japan.

What Makes the "Brass Band?"

For those not trained in the brass band methodology, they may find the music a bit confusing. All the parts are written in treble clef except the Bass Trombone and some tuned percussion. In the US and other parts of the world, they are used to reading parts in bass clef for trombone and tuba. That is how orchestra parts are written and often they are called "world parts." Some lower section bands in various countries will transpose treble clef parts to world parts. But that happens less and less all the time. Even the upper division bands in NABBA play treble clef parts.

A large section of cornets, a high cornet (Eb Soprano) and a flugelhorn make up the higher brass. This takes place of the violins/violas in the orchestra and replaces the piccolo, flutes, and clarinets in a wind band. The Eb Tenor horns replace the French horns, but often are the replacement for the saxophones. There are two baritones (smaller bore than their direct cousins, the euphoniums) and two euphoniums which are a bit deeper and richer. The baritones can often take the place saxophones depending on the composers intent. Euphoniums take the place of euphoniums in a wind band, but also would be a good replacement for the cello in the orchestra. Technically, the euphonium is a small tuba (a Bb tuba, although rarely address as a tuba). There are two higher tubas (basses) in Eb. They can play typical tuba parts, but would be a good alternative to the orchestra's double bass. The Bb basses (technically BBb basses, but they are never called that) play tuba parts.

The baritones and Eb tenor horns fit in unique "places" in the brass band. The are both more of a conical bore, and are a "bridge" between the high brass and the low brass. They are a 4th apart in tone, which allow them to combine to work to blend up and down through the brass band section.

Lastly comes the percussion. Three percussionists are common as most pieces need a snare drum, bass drum, and something auxiliary such as a keyboard instrument or the tympani. Most brass band percussionists are versatile and can jump from instrument to instrument. In is not uncommon for a musical work to call for crash cymbals, marimba, tympani, chimes, snare, concert bass drum and gong all in one musical piece.

What Makes the Brass Band Sound Unique?

So what makes this sound so unique that the movement is growing around the world instead of dying out after 2 centuries? It is a very unique blend that shook out over the years.

(ORANGE SQUARES) First and foremost, they use cornets rather trumpets. Why is that such a big deal? Cornets have slightly smaller bells and have a conical bore. This makes for a much more mellow sound. If 9 trumpets were used instead of 9 cornets, they would be very bright and much harder to mix with the rest of the band. The cornets are divided into sections: Solo, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and Repiano. All these sections can be used to make full chords, play melodies and counter-melodies, etc.

(RED SQUARES) Eb Tenors instead of french horns holds a position to make things easier to blend. French horns face backward and are tuned a lot by the musician inserting his/her hand in the bell. They make a beautiful sound but they are hard to master and playing forte on them except by the best players can cause distortion. Eb Tenor Horns also make a beautiful sound, but can easily play pianissimo or fortissimo. They can blend easily with the cornets and flugel or with the low brass.

(PURPLE SQUARE) Soprano cornet is the highest instrument in the brass band. It plays the tops of chords, melodies, counter-melodies, and often fills out the chord. As a cornet, it has a conical bore, and is high, but mellow! There is only one in each brass band. One would think he soprano is used to play piccolo parts like the counter-melody in Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever. This is rarely the case. Its importance to the top of chords and runs is invaluable. Few composers and even less directors (often called Musical Directors, or MDs) would want a high shrill sound. They want and full and melodic sound whenever possible.

(ROYAL BLUE SQUARE) The flugelhorn plays in the same range as a cornet. It is a large conical bore instrument with a large bell. It plays a beautiful melodic sound. It was featured in the brass band movie Brassed Off as the solo instrument in the piece En Arajuez Con Tu Amor. A flugel makes a wonderful solo instrument and bridges the gap between the cornets and the tenor horns.

(DARK GREEN SQUARES) These are the euphoniums. They are large conical bore instruments that can sing with the best of any instruments. They can blend well with the baritones and the rest of the low brass along with the upper brass. Outside of the bass trombone, the euphonium takes the most air to play and covers a wide range. A good euphonium player will practice for long hours to master the instrument.

(LIGHTER GREEN SQUARES) Here are the baritones. Often baritone and euphonium are used interchangeably which is a large mistake. A baritone has the same conical bore as the euphonium but with a much smaller bell and the bore is much smaller. The baritone gives a sound that bridges between the euphoniums and the trombones. The baritone is smaller and therefore a bit more nimble than the euphonium. It is not uncommon to hear the baritones playing running parts in support of the rest of the low brass.

(DARK BRASS SQUARES) The two dark brass squares represent two trombones. Trombones have a straight bore and some writers have said it is the loudest instrument in a band or orchestra. This is most likely true. The trombone is played by using a slide rather than pushing valves. Vincent Bach nearly 100 years ago said all trombones will have valves. He was quite wrong. The slide allows for unique sounds such as the glissando. The slide also makes it very difficult for trombones to play long and fast passages. Because the trombone can be loud, it takes a musician to play one. They must hold back when they are not featured, and play forte or fortissimo without making a nasty splat like sound in big chords and finales.

(LIGHT BRASS SQUARE) The is the place for the bass trombone. A bass trombone to the uninitiated eye looks quite funny. It has two rotary valves that help the player hit really low notes. It looks like a big trombone with lots of extra plumbing. If trombones are the loudest, the bass trombone is the king. It takes a great musician to master the bass trombone. They mostly play low trombone parts (in a wind band they would be considered 3rd trombone parts) which takes great control. But at times they are called upon to play booming bass notes that can often be lower than the tuba parts. It takes tons of air and control to play the bass trombone.

Bass Trombone

(LIGHT GRAY SQUARES) These are the Eb basses. They play a fourth higher than the BBb basses. This gives them a bit less of a bottom sound, but makes them more nimble. Often, if you hear fast moving parts in the bass section it will come from the Eb basses. They are capable of playing low and supporting the BBb basses.

(DARK GRAY SQUARES) Finally we come to the bottom of the brass. The opposite of the soprano cornet. The low Bb basses. They are used primarily to support the band by filling out the bottom of the chords. But that is not all they can do! Playing on the radio station at the moment is an arrangement of Stars and Stripes Forever played by the US Army Brass Band. The piccolo part in the last strain is played by the Bb basses to a dynamic finish.

(BLACK SQUARE) This of course, is where the director stands. Some choose to use a podium, some use a baton. Others stay on the ground and direct just with their hands.

In the back is the percussion. Tympani
(MAROON), snare (LIGHT BLUE), cymbal (BLUE), concert bass drum (PINK) and marimba (DARK BLUE). This only a sample. Some pieces call for chimes and no tympani. Some bands use a trap set. Triangles, xylophones, and almost any percussion instrument you can think of may be required.

The setup illustrated is a common example. Some bands split the cornets left/right and other changes. But this setup is quite typical.

Some amazing music has been written for brass bands, and only for brass bands. Pieces written for television, movies, musicals and classical music have been arranged for brass band. John Williams, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Rogers and Hammerstein, Mike Post along with pop songs. All kinds of pop songs. YMCA, Fat Bottom Girls, Bridge over troubled Waters, just to name a very small selection.

Original works from Holst and Elgar to modern-day composers such as Philip Sparke, Paul Lovatt-Cooper, Edward Gregson, Peter Graham, Sandy Smith and Joseph Horovitz have resulted in a growing and dynamic repertoire. American composers such as James Curnow, Williams Himes, Stephen Bulla and Bruce Broughton all got their start writing for brass bands of the Salvation Army and are currently writing brass band music in addition to their other compositions for band, orchestra and film scores.

The Standard instrumentation for a British Brass Band is:

  • 1 Eb Soprano Cornet
  • 9 Bb Cornets
  • 1 Bb Flugelhorn
  • 3 Eb Tenor Horns
  • 2 Bb Baritones (Small Bore)
  • 2 Euphoniums
  • 2 Bb Tenor Trombones (Small Bore)
  • 1 Bass Trombone (Big Bore)
  • 2 Eb Basses
  • 2 BBb Basses
  • 3 Percussionists

One last note. Most Salvation Army and Contest Brass Bands are filled by amateur players. The line is blurry sometimes. If someone goes on a solo tour, or records their own solo CD, is he/she a professional? But basically it refers to the fact that playing in a Brass Band is NOT their job. It is amazing as some brass bands have talent that is unbelievable and I suppose some of them could become professional players. But yet, they work at their jobs and volunteer their vast talent in the brass band.



Below is a video from YouTube showing one of the top brass bands in the world, Grimethorpe Colliery Band playing the William Tell Overture. Notice the different instruments in the band. Unfortunately, YouTube compresses the sound so much it does not sound terrific. Suggestion: At the top of the page the radio station is playing. Slide the volume slider all the way to the left to mute the radio until you are finished listening to the YouTube clip.


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