3.3 Wind and Brass Bands
Rehearsing the Wind Band
Let’s begin with some terminology: Wind Band/ Concert Band/ Wind Orchestra/ Wind Ensemble/ Military Band/ Community Band. What’s the difference and why so many different labels? It’s a good question but if there is a sensible answer it’s not very relevant in the context of this discussion. So let’s acknowledge that all of these terms (and others) exist, that they are often interchangeable, and move on! For the purposes of this article, we’ll adopt the term “wind band”.
Largely due to the fact that band is a huge industry in the USA, there is an enormous amount of literature devoted to the topic and you will find some of that referred to in the resources section of the Library. What follows here are some specific ideas relating rehearsing wind bands.
Size of ensemble
Wind bands can vary enormously in size. The early works by Holst and Vaughan-Williams were conceived for small British Military Bands of 20-30 musicians. In the middle of the 20th Century, the trend in the college and university scene in North America was for bands of 100 or more. Frederick Fennell then introduced the “wind ensemble” concept of one player to a part, although many who follow this model might double some parts. In Spain, one often sees bands with as many musicians as the biggest symphony orchestras.
The ratio between sections will often not be maintained as the group grows. If you have a one-to-a-part group that will likely mean 3 flutes/piccolo, 2 or 3 oboes, maybe 5 clarinets and 2 or 3 bassoons. In very large bands it is common for flutes and clarinets to increase in much more significantly than double reeds.
Of course, orchestras can also vary in size, but usually in a more predictable manner. Generally speaking, there will be one wind or brass player for each part that the composer wrote: that can range from 5 in early Haydn and Mozart up to 39 for Mahler’s sixth symphony but it is unusual to find doubling of parts, except perhaps in some youth orchestras. The string size can vary, and non-professional orchestras may often perform with lower numbers in some or all string sections than is ideal in some repertoire, but the potential for drastic numerical variety is more limited than with bands.
It follows therefore that composers have differing views on this issue. Some are just happy to have their music played. Others can be quite vocal about their wish for a piece to be performed by the forces they had in mind. Some might give quite detailed instructions in the score about what to do if there is much doubling of parts. I know of one successful composer in the field who prefers a slightly larger clarinet section with some doubling. His way of making sure that happens is to always write divisi in the Bb clarinet parts!
There is no right or wrong answer here, but conductors should certainly be aware of these issues, consider it when programming, and if they don’t know the ensemble be sure to ask what the numbers will be.
Lack of variety
Orchestras have strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion. Wind Bands have woodwinds, brass and percussion. Brass Bands have brass and percussion. String orchestras usually only strings. Undoubtedly, there are great works written for all of these ensembles but maintaining the listener’s interest over a long period does become more challenging as the instrumental families fall by the wayside.
This is exacerbated by the fact that in a wind band concert there is usually very little change of personnel – everybody tends to play in all the pieces. In an orchestral concert this would be unheard of unless the programme contained only one work. Conductors may wish to consider creating variety within the programme by including a piece for chamber forces, brass ensemble or woodwind choir.
Another issue here is the fact that most of the repertoire is less than 100 years old, much of it a lot more recent than that. The medium’s engagement with new music by living composers is a big positive, but programming does have to bear in mind the potential for too much of a good thing.
Wind bands can be loud, especially the big ones. That’s just an inevitable consequence of the instruments: it’s much more difficult to play quietly on most wind and brass instruments than it is with strings.
Often the repertoire doesn’t help: composers are drawn to the exciting, loud, fast, energetic possibilities of the wind band. The solution to this partly comes back to intelligent programming as discussed above, but conductors must also take responsibility.
An understanding of the architecture of dynamics is important in any performance – which of those five fortissimo dynamics is the biggest? In the wind band medium it is absolutely crucial in order to avoid audience fatigue. As we all know, brass players do not need too much encouragement to play forte. If it says so in their music that will usually be enough. If the conductor also conducts forte the result is likely to be at least fortissimo. Conductors therefore need to be more intelligent in understanding the consequences of their gesture. with a wind band than might be the case with a large symphony orchestra where two thirds or more of the personnel will be strings.
Timothy Reynish, who developed the highly successful wind band programme at the RNCM in Manchester, coined the phrase “forte is a light dynamic”. In other words, in the wind band, if the musicians play with energy and lightness rather than loudly, the result will almost always be forte.
Another consideration here is the role of the different instruments in the orchestra, and the manner in which players are taught. In an orchestra, every wind and brass player is a soloist and that fact informs the way in which these instruments are taught. String players, on the other hand, are much more used to changing their role in the ensemble: sometimes playing a leading line, then switching to accompanying. You can see this in the physicality of a good orchestra – string players are usually only too willing to take a bit of a breather and relax the intensity of their playing! When working with a wind band, this is something a conductor may have to train the players to do.
This is closely related to dynamics of course, but there are a few things to bear in mind here.
Firstly, the wind band can sound “top-heavy” compared to an orchestra or a brass band. Modern symphony orchestras performing big repertoire in a big hall will have a string section of around 60. Probably 10 cellos and 8 double basses. An equivalent sized wind band might have 2 or 3 tubas, 1 contrabassoon, 1 bass clarinet and a string bass. It’s easy to see how the sound of the wind band can lack depth and richness. The brilliance of the sound can be exciting, but after a while it can be tiring.
Solutions to this can be to double the lower parts as well as the higher ones: it is not uncommon to see 4 or more players per part on 1st, 2nd & 3rd clarinet but only one bass clarinet. Compared to orchestral playing, it will also often be necessary to ask the higher voices to play softer and blend into the lower voices. One of the great figures of the American wind bands in the 20th Century, Walter Beeler, talked about building the sound from the bottom up and not being “deceived by the melody line”. This probably happens automatically with a well-balanced orchestra but it requires specific action in a wind band.
Balance within the sections is worth considering. All too often all the strong players will be on the 1st part, getting less and less experienced as you go down the line. If you have large numbers of, for example, clarinets, try to make sure the principal 2nd and principal 3rd players are strong players. This will have a very positive effect in terms of achieving a good balance down into the middle registers of the band. By contrast, in orchestras it is expected that the principal 2nd violin will be amongst the strongest few players – not the best of the second half!
Many composers write the same dynamic all the way down the page. Of course, this happens in all genres – it is by no means a problem only to be found in wind bands – but the dangers of a large brass section in an accompanying role overpowering single woodwind lines are obvious.
One of the fundamental differences between wind or brass instruments, and strings, is that with the former, long notes will generally overpower short notes. With strings, the opposite is often true (because quicker bow speed for shorter notes creates more energy compared with ‘saving’ the bow for a long note). With wind and brass ensembles, it is often necessary to reduce the dynamic of chordal accompaniments while asking those with shorter note values to play more strongly.
Finally, if you are accustomed to conducting an orchestra and then you stand in front of a wind band, you need to recalibrate what you hear. You might think the woodwinds are quite loud compared to the brass, but that’s just because they are now much closer to you. Always remember that what you hear on the podium is unlikely to be the true picture.
Does an out-of-tune wind band sound worse than an out-of-tune orchestra or brass band? Or is that just my ears? The reason that intonation is such a challenge in woodwind sections is that the instruments are all so very different. String and brass sections are much more homogenous, and therefore easier to get in tune with each other, because all the instruments in the family are pretty much the same.
Woodwind instruments are so fundamentally different from each other that getting them in tune is a lifetime’s work.
Take the increased prominence of the woodwinds in a wind band compared to an orchestra, add in the dangers of a top-heavy treble focused sound, and the potential for unpleasantness is significant! That’s before we take account of the fact that a lot of beginner and intermediate level woodwind instruments will not have many of the extra keys that professional level instruments do.
Here are some suggested tactics (applicable to brass as well as woodwind):
- Intonation is not an exact science, it is the art of compromise. Therefore, going along the line checking one note on everyone’s instrument against a tuning machine at the start of the rehearsal is not going to improve things in the long term
- If playing loudly in the high register on most wind and brass instruments, the player’s head will be so full of their own sound that listening to others will not always be easy
- Try to learn the general tendencies of each woodwind instrument – which notes are likely to be high or low – but bear in mind this can change dramatically according to the age and experience of the player
- Good intonation is only possible with good balance. If the chord is top heavy, or the thirds too loud in relation to the tonic, it will still be “out-of-tune” even if the tuning machine says otherwise
- Sometimes conductors can be reluctant to deal with intonation in case they get it wrong. It’s ok to be wrong sometimes, very few are infallible, and if you summon up the courage to work at it there will be an improvement. Not dealing with it at all gives the impression you don’t notice or don’t care, and if that’s the case why should the players bother?
- Be sure you have a process worked out. When tuning a chord, start with those playing the tonic, then add the fifth, then the third. Make sure that overall the tonic is the strongest in volume, then the fifth, then the third. Simply going through that process will almost always make it better because the players will understand their role in the chord and because the aren’t all playing all the time they will hear better
- With less experienced players, changing the octave and/or the dynamic to something less extreme may help train the ear as to how the intervals should sound
- Playing the piccolo and Eb clarinet in tune is hard in any situation. Wind band composers do love to ask these instruments to play in unison maybe a little more often than they might! Asking these players not to play once, and just listen, can help. Perhaps then have one of them play, then the other, then both. Sitting them beside each other in a rehearsal is another strategy to consider
- Don’t be afraid to re-tune when everyone has played a bit. Excellent woodwind players have been known to suggest that the amount of adjustment required on almost every note makes the tuning ritual a waste of time for woodwind instruments. One could see the point of that with high level professional players, but if nothing else the conductor saying, “Shall we just take another A?” is a polite way of pointing out that the intonation needs some work
- A lot of wind band music, especially repertoire aimed at young musicians or less-experienced amateurs, is in friendly keys. Bb major is a particular favourite! If you are working in this environment, make sure your players learn to play in # keys as well
Here is a highly experienced professional wind player on the subject.
Wind bands will generally do accents and staccato pretty well. Working on a true legato will pay dividends. In this respect, it could be said that the conductor should focus his or her gestural language towards what the ensemble needs most assistance with. So with a wind band, conduct as if you are conducting strings and vice versa.
Articulation of repeated pitches usually needs more attention with wind/ brass than strings because there isn’t a bow change to help. Ask the players to articulate a little more cleanly on repeated notes than when the pitch changes, or if it doesn’t interrupt the musical line to separate slightly.
Conversely, a portato articulation is often played too clearly by wind and brass players: they tend to focus on what they think is a staccato marking and ignore the slur.
The conductor will often have to ask for more connection and less space between the notes. One could say it’s like a “not very good” slur.
The manner in which different kinds of accent should be played depends very much on the individual aesthetic of the composer. However, even though this might be a bit of a generalisation, woodwind and brass players are more likely to treat all accents as quite marcato. A conductor may find they need to ask for a more espressivo or less tongued accent in certain repertoire, akin to what string players might describe as a left hand accent.
Playing a string instrument for hours can be tiring, but stamina is certainly more of a factor for wind and brass players – especially young ones. In an orchestral context this is usually less of an issue because in most repertoire the wind, brass & percussion will have more rests. Of course, sometimes they have so little to do that they might decide to go and play in a wind band!
If you have more than one session in the day there can be a need to mitigate stamina issues, particularly with young players.
- Break the music down a bit in order to give people a rest – just the brass, just the melody, just the clarinets and bassoon etc.
- More shorter sessions with frequent breaks
- Start your rehearsal with just the woodwind for 30 minutes and finish it with just the brass and percussion for 30 minutes, everybody playing in between
- Learn difficult rhythms and improve ensemble by asking the players to vocalise their parts instead of playing
- Train the principal horn and trumpet that you don’t expect them to play the high stuff all the time
- Take extra care on the concert day: over-rehearsing is a big danger so selecting the tricky bits and not playing through the big loud tutti sections needlessly will be a big help
Experienced brass band specialist Michael Fowles talks about working with brass bands.