Last Sunday I spent a fascinating day listening to brass bands at the National Finals at the Centaur, Cheltenham.
I got there early and listened to a few of the third section bands, then trotted off for a quick rehearsal with Amersham band, with whom I was competing in the First Section later that day. Much, much later, as it turned out! We were drawn 17th out of 17 bands and, after the groan of disappointment that went round the band room — accompanied by the usual fears of the players being tired at the end of a long day; or the adjudicators being fed up with the music by the time they got to hear their 17th ‘King Arthur’ — I realised I had a golden opportunity.
As a composer and arranger, I’m constantly looking for opportunities to hear different bands. Well, by being drawn last I was gifted the chance to hear at least twelve bands before I had to sign in and get ready for our performance.
Now, ‘King Arthur’ is a big orchestral-style piece that requires a large body of sound, but always under control — often tempting our wonderful MD into that old cliché “never louder than lovely!” I noticed that some of the bands were set up in a very different way from the traditional brass band formation, in an obvious attempt to get more sound out of the band. And it set me thinking: if you were to design a brass band from scratch, knowing nothing about its history or traditional setup, how would you set the players up?
Knowledge of modern acoustic science would play a part, as would musical factors such as, for example, having the Flugel in between the cornets and horns. You’d also want your main soloists — soprano, principal solo cornet, solo horn, principal euph — near the conductor.
The Centaur threw up some interesting problems. The heavy drapes surrounding the stage were a sponge for the higher frequencies, and there were almost no ‘early reflections’ of the higher frequencies which usually make for a ‘live’ acoustic. As a consequence the acoustic, whilst not exactly dead, would have needed a good doctor to get it back on its feet again!
So, after a week of musing, here is my suggestion for the best brass band setup.
What do I know?
How am I qualified to comment? Well, as well as being a composer and arranger I have spent a large part of my career as a music producer, both in live and recorded situations. I’ve worked with Big Bands (BBC Big Band, National Youth Jazz Orchestra), choirs (Tenebrae, Commotio), orchestras (BBC Concert Orchestra, English Chamber Orchestra) and ensembles of all shapes and sizes.
I also did my degree at Southampton University, which had the first acoustically designed concert hall in the UK — the Turner Sims Concert Hall. As undergraduates we were encouraged to study acoustics, particularly in relation to musical performance. So, I think I’m reasonably qualified to offer up my two pennies worth.
That said, this is only my personal opinion. If you disagree, please tell me — I’d love to hear your ideas on the subject.
So, let me start with a review of what I feel is wrong with the traditional setup. Well, for starters, many of the players have their bells pointing away from the audience, often into a curtain at the back of the stage! This is true of euphs and baritones and, to a lesser extent, the basses (they point straight up into the roof!).
Now, this type of setup — half the ensemble playing into the curtains or the roof — would be damaging to any family of instruments, but it is particularly harmful to the sonority of a brass band. Why? Because, apart from the trombones, all the instruments in a brass band are ‘feminine’ instruments.
“What’s a feminine instrument?” I hear you ask. Well, the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are sometimes adopted to describe the difference in sonority between instruments with a ‘straight’ bore, e.g. a trumpet or a trombone, which has a fixed bore size until it reaches the bell section, when it suddenly flares out, and those with a conical bore — i.e. one that gets wider along its entire length.
Brass bands are populated almost entirely by ‘feminine’ brass instruments. Only the mighty trombones are masculine. The difference, in acoustic terms, is that masculine instruments are much more directional, whereas feminine instruments have a more diffuse, less centred sound.
This, of course, is why brass bands have such a warmth of sound; it’s also why we tend to overblow when trying to make a big, loud, assertive sound. It’s just not in the nature of our instruments.
As someone who once played trombone professionally, and who now plays euph with Amersham, I can attest to the fact that it is far harder to make a big, solid euph sound that penetrates — even on my beautiful shiny new Besson Prestige (thanks again Steve Mead for the advice and help in choosing this magnificent instrument!) — than it is on my lovely Bach 50b bass trombone.
When considering a ‘start from scratch’ approach in setting up a band, I gave myself a few criteria, all based either on common sense, or on musical sense. First, I wanted as much of the sound as possible to get to the audience directly (i.e. not bouncing off surfaces such as walls and windows).
Second, I wanted to make it easy for the players to listen to one another, with the main combinations — those most commonly used by composers and arrangers — to be in close proximity to each other. So, I wanted the Flugel near the cornets, but also part of the horn section; I wanted the bass trombone to be part of the trombone section, but also well placed to lead the low end — the bass trombone is often the ‘sizzle’ on the meaty sound of the bass section. It was also important that what Ray Steadman-Allen calls the ‘saxhorn section’ — the tenor horns and baritones — should be close enough to be able to hear one another clearly as a unit.
Taking all those factors into account, here is my perfect template for maximising the sound of the band into the auditorium — not the back of the stage!
Frankly, they could go anywhere. They operate at the highest frequency (apart from tuned percussion), they point forward like a row of rocket launchers, and there are more of them than any other section in the band.
But why have I put them on the right of the conductor? Because I need the space on the left for the instruments who — if not placed there — will have their bells pointing away from the audience.
Soprano retains the traditional conspicuous, spotlight-grabbing ‘look at me, look at me! I can play really high!’ spot on the end of the back row, but this isn’t necessary. The sop could go anywhere in the cornet section. In fact, come to think of it, you could put most sop players I know in the pub next door and they would still be heard!
Flugel and tenor horns
The Flugel should always, in my humble opinion, be as close as possible both to the front row of cornets and the solo horn. The placement of the horns is a compromise, as their bells are pointing up. But they are the highest frequency instruments of what we might, to coin a technical term, call the ‘curly-wurly-bell-up’ instruments.
Baritones and euphs
So now we hit the contentious areas. I have put the euphs and baris in a mirror image of their usual spots, on the left of the conductor, This allows their bells to point at the audience, not at the curtains at the back of the stage. Ditto the basses. With the low end brass I have copied, in mirror image, what most symphony orchestras do with their cellos and basses. So, I have the basses sitting behind the euphs and baris. This also means that the smaller E flat basses — who I put on the end of the section — will project more into the audience, helping with the universal problem of what I call ‘cotton wool basses’.
Now here’s the bit that will annoy, amaze, bamboozle and shock the traditionalists. I really don’t like the trombones pointing across the stage, right to left. To my professional ear it dissipates the sound — which is very directional because of the instrument’s ‘masculine’ nature (see above). I also want my bass trombone to have a clear ‘line of sight’ to the audience.
Something strange has happened to bass trombone players in the last few years. When I listened to brass bands as a youngster I was (as primarily a euph player in my earliest days) enthralled by the euphonium of dear, departed Marcus Cutts of the Fairy Band, playing ‘Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms’.
My first ever brass band album — on vinyl — was ‘Polished Brass’, a 1971 Fairey release that featured, among other things, Phil McCann playing ‘Fairies of the Water’. But what really blew me away was the bass trombone playing. I believe it was the late, great, Alf Morten (though I may be wrong). And I think he played on a G trombone.
Anyway, my point is this: over recent years, with the tendency towards larger bore instruments, bigger bells and larger, deeper mouthpieces, something of the sheer ear-ripping excitement of the brass band bass trombone has been lost. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m all for a big sound with control and warmth. That’s what basses are for!
And I’m not alone. No less an authority than Adrian Jarvis — one of the finest amateur bass trombonists ever to have blown down a bit of bent metal — lamented recently that when he went to the Open, he could only hear two of the bass trombonists. The rest, he said, might as well not have played.
So, back to my set-up. I have given the bass trombone a clear line of sight to the audience (with apologies to the 2nd horn!).
One last curve ball. Many big bands I’ve played in have the lead trombone in the middle of the section, and I have emulated that practice here. But I have done it so as to encourage the second trombone player to play up more. I’ve heard it said — by Mike Fowles and Paul Fisher, to name but two (both fine trombonists and musical directors) — that the second trombone is the most important seat in any band. They’ve also said that, in most bands, the second trombone is often too quiet.
I agree with this sentiment. When you ask the average 2nd trombone to give 10% more, the whole section sound suddenly comes into focus. And that positive energy spreads out into the rest of the band. So, I have given my 2nd trombone a clear ‘line of sight’ to the audience. This setup should result in a beautiful ‘symphonic’ trombone section sound whilst also allowing the bass trombone to slather some bacon-sizzling edge onto the bass section sound. If this offends your traditionalist nature, then go with option two, with the trombones in a more traditional format.
These guys don’t need any encouragement, so I’m keeping them where they belong — at the back! No, but in all seriousness the three factors of size, sonic frequency and sheer volume that they create makes it a no-brainer. Percussion is a section of extremes: very high, tinkling frequencies (triangle, tambourine, glock, xylophone etc.) that penetrate any musical texture, and chest-thumping, floor-rumbling low frequencies that overcome any sonic challenge they meet.
From a technical standpoint there’s another good reason to have them further back. Brass instruments speak quite slowly. That is to say, from the moment the player starts the sound (by, say, tonguing a note) there is a nano-second pause before the note actually speaks. The larger the extent of tubing, the more this is true. The vibrating air has to travel through the instrument before the bell amplifies it into the sound we recognise.
Most percussion instruments speak much more immediately than brass instruments, especially the metallophones such as glock and vibes. How do I know this? Simple — as a record producer I have looked at the waveforms of the individual notes in an orchestral note, and the tuned percussion always speaks first, followed by the ‘drum’ type percussion (drums, timps, congas etc.). Then come the brass and woodwind, followed up by those eternal late-comers, the strings.
So, having the percussion at the back is not only desirable from a musical and a practical point of view, it also makes good physics.
And there it is, my 21st Century Brass Band setup.