A view from the trenches…

Musicians spend a huge chunk of their lives sitting at rehearsals and paying attention to instructions from the MD. In my experience, MD’s have generally been fairly competent. What I’d like to do here is to provide them with a little feedback; a view from the trenches.

My early experiences were with various big bands and jazz combinations but I currently spend a great deal of time working with English-style brass bands. As most people will know, many of these bands achieve stunning levels of competence, made all the more remarkable by the fact that very few players are ‘professional’.

We’re in the contest season again, where bands compete, firstly, in their local regions. The top three bands in each group ­– Championship, 1st., 2nd, 3rd, and 4th – then go on to the Nationals.

I have mixed feelings about competition in the arts but it has always been with us and probably always will. On the one hand, rehearsing a piece of music over and over again, each time digging further and further into the subtleties we hope will bring us success, improves a band technically and, especially, teaches us to pay attention to dynamics and other markings. On the other, beating the living daylight out of a composition to the extent that we still hear it in our sleep isn’t what I had in mind when my father loaned me the money to buy my first (second-hand) trombone in 1957 (£7 and I had to pay him back).

I’ve played in brass bands at all levels – it’s very satisfying for me, aged 74 years, to be called into one of the top bands – but most of my time is spent in a local 4th section band. It’s always a pleasure to walk into the rehearsal room and be greeted by so many friendly faces. There’s a bar, too! We performed in a local contest Sunday 9 March and were placed 13th out of 20. At least it was an improvement on last year.

A typical problem involves having to make a ‘tactical’ choice between playing a piece the way we’d like to play it and/or providing the subtleties the adjudicator might be looking for. At the start of our Thursday 6 March rehearsal, the cornets sounded gorgeous. I wondered if I’d strayed into the wrong rehearsal. But they were slightly louder than the dynamic marked on the score. When they dropped the volume they lost their sound. Playing down to stalling point means players can lose the note and they can’t sneak back in. You think no one will notice little you, but they will (especially the adjudicator).

This is the point (as I see it, of course): when a performance is imminent, whether paid for or not, the rehearsing stops and we concentrate, instead, on the finished result. We’ll get the criticism we deserve at the next rehearsal. In any case, surely we will lose more marks for an inferior sound than would have been lost because we played slightly louder than we should have done? Added to which, dynamics are relative; it’s the range of dynamics that is important (volume is also linked to the size of a venue or when playing outdoors, and one human being = 1 sq. metre of acoustic tile). Whenever I sit with a top band the first thing I notice is how unbelievably loud the loud bits are. One of Stan Kenton’s musicians once commented that, when you play with Stan, you have to wear your virility on your sleeve!

My remaining comments refer to practical problems encountered during rehearsals:

Playing bass trombone I often have to take in a huge gutful of air. So there I am, lungs exploding, and the MD brings the band in. Then he stops, to make a point he’d omitted. I then have to expel this air and breathe in again. Before this process is complete I find myself half way through another count-in.

A similar problem involves mutes. It works both ways – mute in, mute out – but let’s say I’ve removed a mute because the succeeding passage requires an open horn. Then the MD decides, at very short notice, he’d like to repeat the section just played and starts counting in again, immediately. My mute is back on the floor at this stage.

And that reminds me: Arrangers please note that the trombone requires both hands on the instrument, most of the time, so please allow enough time for inserting mutes.

There’s nothing like a good moan.


2 thoughts on “A view from the trenches…

  1. You’re right, dynamics are relative. Dynamic contrast is more important than absolute dynamic level. No one has ever defined what forte and piano is in decibels, but there has to be enough difference so that the contrasts are expressive. I love your moan about taking a breath and then not getting to play. I’ve had that happen two or three times in a row, and it does get annoying. It’s like a baseball umpire calling time after the pitcher has started his windup.


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