Banding vs Orchestral

Over the past few years at the NZ National Brass Band competitions, I couldn’t help but think throughout the week how far the relationship between orchestral and brass band players has come. I have had many teachers over the years telling me that their students shouldn’t be playing in a brass band because it is bad for their orchestral playing. Now playing in a brass band might be bad for your liver, but for your orchestral playing? I don’t think so.

As a student I always looked forward to band in the evening as it was a good chance to have a decent honk after often long days of rehearsing works in the Uni orchestra with long passages of rests. I found that band was a great chance for me to work on three aspects of playing that often needed attention.

Solo playing – Playing the trombone solo out of Phillip Sparke’s Year of the Dragon would obviously be approached differently to playing the solo in Mahler’s 3rd Symphony. Sitting in band was a chance for me to think about that style and how I could manipulate the music to get the most out of the line, which had a positive impact on the way I would look at orchestral solos. The soloistic approach of a band trombonist is often a lot more romantic to what you might get away with in the orchestra. I have always loved trying to push the boundaries of what an orchestral conductor might tolerate…

Stamina – This is something we are always working on which was a constant issue for me as a student. Getting through a band practice was a real struggle, so using the band to develop that strength and stamina was really great for my playing. The key to this was making sure that I didn’t pick up bad habits on the way – I was always conscious of not changing the way I played throughout the range regardless of how tired I became.

Changing the sound and style – an often-neglected skill. Players often feel that the sound they make is the only sound they make. Well it shouldn’t be! You should have a range of sounds that you can produce; the sound you need to make to project in a brass band is very different from the one you would use in the orchestra. I have always enjoyed the challenge of adapting to the environment I find myself in, whether I’m playing with a jazz ensemble, a brass band or an orchestra, as a soloist, or in a small group where I need to hide in the texture from time to time. Playing in the band helped me realise that I couldn’t make the same sound all the time, it just didn’t work, so I found a way to adapt, and develop my sound. This was the opening of a door in my mind to many other processes in my playing that I constantly think about.

So, is playing in a band bad for your orchestra playing? I absolutely do not think so. Playing in any ensemble creates a change of environment that is always a positive, you just have to find these positives and stay disciplined.

Over the years brass bands have developed and adapted to their musical surroundings, and the sound of brass bands has also evolved along with developments in brass teaching around the world. I firmly believe that the orchestral method of teaching is the strongest form of brass education as it teaches the instrument first i.e. the basics of producing sound – air, buzz, concept, technique and projection. Many other teaching methods put the music first and the instrument and player equal second.

Over the years we have seen more and more students from brass band backgrounds heading off on a tertiary journey studying orchestral brass and later returning to bands with that information. We have also seen more and more orchestral players taking the reigns of brass bands. This has seen a change in the overall sound of bands, particularly in Australasia, where bands have become an extension of the orchestral brass section. There are pluses and minuses with this that are obvious. The most prominent change is in the rounder and richer sound of the bands – there is a stronger sense of the basics, so intonation and balance have improved out of sight. The downside is, and this is really a question I raise rather than a statement, are we losing our identity as brass bands? When you listen to the traditional band sound there is a rawness to the sound, a brightness to the trombones, vibrato a plenty in the cornets and euphos, and more passion than an episode of Downtown Abbey. Are we in jeopardy of losing this identity? The orchestral influence on banding is generally a positive one, as long as we take the best of the teaching, the best of the quality, and keep our traditions and identity intact.