Contesting, rehearsals, and “Its OK to act like a brass player” (a long post)

It has been a very interesting week here in the UK. The girls are on Half-Term Break and both bands are working hard on contest music. The schedule has been very full and very fun.

Some of you may recall Kate has taken up the cornet and that I have helped out a bit with her training band (The Elland Youth Training Band).  I have also been attending some rehearsals of The Elland Youth Band. The youth band just won a very big national contest. They took home something like 6 trophies, and beat a much bigger band with a much larger talent pool. It is a big honor for them but after putting in double or triple rehearsals Fri, Sat, and Sun. each of the last 4 weekends they earned it!! Congratulations to Sam Harrison and her group. Also congratulations to my friend Murray Grieg (solo trumpet of Opera North) who did all of the arrangements (Carmen was the theme) and an original composition “finale”.  Murray put in too many hours to count on this project and it was wonderful to see the bands progress. I look forward to seeing the DVD.

In terms of my schedule, this means most weeks, I’m doing 6-days of some sort of brass banding. Not sure I could handle this schedule back home but it is great while we are here. With the girls home during the day this week, we have also taken a few day trips including Liverpool, Hebdon Bridge, and yesterday Leeds. Each night we are back home so I can go to band!

Both bands (Lindley and B&R) are progressing but I admit to being bit nervous about Lindley. Lindley has until recently been in the Championship section. They have a storied history of national success and right now we are in trouble. In real terms, if Lindley can’t pull off a 5th or better at The Areas on 6 March, we will be relegated to the 2nd section. For a band with such historical success this is a big fall.
I wrote earlier that for contest the band has hired Paul Andrews, a former Leyland euphonium player who has a history of contesting success. His rehearsals are crisp, very taxing, and I think are really addressing some of the band’s weaknesses especially with regard to time and pitch. The problem I see is that the band may not be able to make the necessary changes in time for the contest.
It really isn’t a question of “the corner men” being up to the challenge. The solo stuff is all quite good. The issue is ensemble, consistency, and time. Holst’s Moorside Suite is taxing, and hard, and SIMPLE! So what will happen? The band that plays the cleanest (time, ensemble, pitch) with the best musical inflection will probably win the day. This means no rushing, no splits, correctly placed dynamics, correct articulations, all the little things. And the music doesn’t matter at all if the time and pitch are out. For us, this is the test. Everything will be heard by “the men in the box”. If the front row has 4 different ideas bout time and pulse (which we currently do!) then the band has lost the day. And this isn’t true of just the front row.
As 3rd man, I consider the prospect of a poor result a bit frightening. For the long-term members of the ensemble, it must be extremely pressure packed indeed. I’m sure Paul and MD Neil will push us hard (both were a bit exasperated with our lack of time on Wed), but if individual players insist that they are right and on not playing with their section, the result will surly be relegation. And, I am not convinced the folks who may believe “I’m right” really have any moral standing (musically speaking) when they take the band down with them.
We have both a sectional and rehearsal tonight so we will see what kind of progress we can make.
This week saw the return of David King for rehearsals with B&R. I’m not contesting with Brighouse but the 4th man dep isn’t here until next week so I have learned the part and get to participate in the rehearsals. I have quite a lot to say about what is happening but it isn’t all clear in my head yet so I’m sorry for the unorganized discussion…..
Going into Tuesdays rehearsal the band had spent parts of maybe 4 rehearsals with Alan Morrison going over the test piece and doing a bit of slow practice on some tough spots. It appears that this has really paid-off as we basically know the piece and were ready for King when he started. From talking with a few members of the band, they don’t remember being this ready to play a piece this far in advance. In fact if the contest were tomorrow it would be quite a good performance.
Though I’m not contesting, I admit to being quite nervous about playing for David. In the fall, I witnessed him being very hard on some of the players and his reputation for winning and for driving his ensembles very hard was a bit intimidating for me. What has happened in the first 2 rehearsals has been sort of shocking.
King has conducting and musical chops. As each rehearsal progressed he was more and more demanding, moved faster, asked for better playing, more commitment, and…..and…..and I got MUCH more RELAXED. As he asked for more clarity, better understanding, etc, etc, and as the band improved, it got easier for me to find my footing and easier to play. I lost all my nerves and I stopped being tentative. One of the players said “He makes it so easy doesn’t he?” He knows exactly what he wants, makes corrections on the fly, rehearses intensely and gets great results. Of course having great players helps.

(Side note but hang with it): I have been thinking about how to describe this feeling so I hope you can relate.

I have been in orchestral situations where the conductor keeps asking for something that is incredibly difficult to do, and they never give you the impression they understand how difficult it is. In graduate school, at The Cleveland Institute, one of the trumpet players from the orchestra told us a story about a particularly soft passage in a Mozart symphony or something. The entrance was supposed to be very soft. Even before the conductor gave the downbeat he was wincing at the trumpets. After they played it a couple of times, the conductor still insisted it needed to be softer. The next time both players just pretended to play but didn’t move any air and didn’t actually play the notes. The conductor responded, “Perfect trumpets!” While I have never tried to fool a conductor like this, I have certainly been tempted.

So back to this week with King and how that relates to the story: There is no question King has great musical ideas and understanding. Even beyond those of orchestral conductors who come to the orchestral conducting ranks as piano players or from the violin section. Just like them, he is asking for us to realize his aural vision of the piece, but there is a big difference. He does it with a brass players understanding and mentality. He is pushing us to stretch ourselves and our chops, (as is Paul Andrews with Lindley) but with a brass players understanding of brass instruments and brass bands.
This may explain in part, why I really like playing here, and for our MD Sal Scarpa back home with Atlantic Brass Band. Sal is a trombonist who toured wth Paul Anka, and has all the chops and more of an orchestral conductor (which he is!), but at heart he is really a brass guy.
It has taken 6+ months of intense daily brass playing totally divorced from orchestras or woodwind players to realize that brass players are different and that this is OK.  My unfocused “take away” is that this can have a huge impact on how brass players do their jobs in all types of ensembles. We can only do what we can do. If a conductor wants us to make a soft sound that really isn’t a brass sound, we do the best we can and then go have a pint. If they want us to play top C’s for an entire wind band rehearsal and get upset when we put the horn down, we should just relax and realize they don’t understand. We can and should forgive them for not knowing the joy that is brass playing, and we can be happy in the knowledge that we are not string players or woodwind players. Ha!

One thought on “Contesting, rehearsals, and “Its OK to act like a brass player” (a long post)

  1. Hi Bry,

    Sound like a great few weeks for you!! The Lindley situation with time etc, sounds like ABB’s recent history. As you well know our ensemble playing is getting better, but it can be a tough row to hoe.

    We start work on Cloudcatcher Fels tonight….what a terrific piece and great bass part. I can’t wait.

    Take care.

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