Let’s try that again…

I’m returning to a recent post entitled ‘Physician heal thyself’ in which the underlying thread was self-doubt. Now, I don’t want to depress younger composers here but the truth is that we never lose this uncertainty. At least, I never have. This isn’t a bad thing because humility is an essential part of progression, both as human beings and as musicians.

A particular problem was the fact that I was writing for a band staffed by musicians less than half my age. ‘Eye of Newt’ was well received and sight-read very well. It’s one of those pieces that spells disaster if musicians don’t count the rest bars like mad. This is because of the multi-metric forms used.

To expand on the uncertainty principle (not Heisenberg’s), and despite everything I said before, I eventually dug out the sax section feature I’d rejected and… finished it! I’ll present it along with ‘Lady Of The Lake’ and another piece I wrote a few years ago entitled ‘Flameout’. This was originally written for ten brass but is playable with four trombones. The band frequently uses five trumpets anyway.

We all carry with us the influence of good teachers and it was my art teacher at grammar school who once advised me to ensure I always finished something I was working on. It was one of the best pieces of advice I ever received. It will be interesting to hear the band’s response, although there’s little chance of the piece being performed regularly. It depends on programming, which is another interesting point.

The entire process of composition starts with the composer and continues through to its performance. But it doesn’t end there. During the arrangement of titles throughout a performance, consideration will be given to light and shade – loud followed by soft, fast followed by slow, etc. The reception of a piece can actually be influenced by these considerations. Too many slow pieces might provoke someone at the back of the hall to shout ‘Pep it up a bit, will ya!’ during the performance of something you’ve sweated buckets over. So there might be room for my ‘experimental’ piece, after all.

In the 60’s (now I’m giving my age away) Stan Kenton decided to start all concerts with slow, quiet arrangements, building to the louder stuff later on. Yes, this band could play quietly, with superb control of tone quality and articulation, all of which tend to suffer in the hands of inexperienced brass players. This was especially impressive because regular high, loud playing tends to stiffen the chops, causing great difficulty when guys are faced with the task of dropping down a few decibels. Another advantage of Stan’s policy was that initial exposure to the full force of his brass section always came as a bit of a shock, no matter how often one heard it. I heard the band every time it came over. I would have crawled to the concerts on hands and knees.

As a matter of interest, human beings vary considerably in their physical suitability to brass playing and, in a world where young players start where we older players leave off, a musician needs to have everything going for him, or her. There are individual differences in the ability to build muscle, and skin texture varies enormously.

While I’m on the subject of life from the brass player’s point of view, I’d like to ask arrangers to bear in mind the fact that trombonists almost always need both hands, which means that a reasonable amount of time must be allowed for the insertion of mutes. If a note can be played with the slide closed, and these notes vary according to whether or not one of the triggers is used, the horn can be held with one hand on a sustained note, as the other reaches for the mute. (Conventionally, nowadays, most tenor trombone players use a single trigger horn, except those specializing in high lead playing. Most, but not all, bass trombones use two triggers.)

I played an arrangement recently, written by one of the most respected brass band composers around, which required me to have both cup and straight mutes on my knees to win precious seconds. Visually, this is disastrous. And I still maintain that, with a full brass section (in the big band) there’s rarely any need to use mutes with trombones, anyway.

I’m curious to hear the response to my recent compositional efforts.

Watch this space!


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