Band Together: Part 3 - Fun with Brass

Over the next few days, I will be posting about my trip to clinic my latest commission, Band Together, with the Northstar Middle School 8th grade band. The premiere will take place at Northstar's cafetorium on Thursday evening, April 21st. 
Part 3 - Fun with Brass

Unsurprisingly, the brass students were very “spirited.” My commissioner commented that the behavior of all the students the last few days has been unusually raucous – we both think it has to do with the heavy rains that have started to make March feel like spring. Luckily, there were only 9 students from the 7th grade brass section I needed to work with today; we had three trombones, three euphoniums, a bari sax (who was in the brass section since their parts are usually doubling tuba), and two trumpets. 

Band teachers and composers seem to have very similar-
looking work spaces (though even hers seems more organized)!
The students were actually pretty well-behaved for the most part – as usual, however, there was one rather rambunctious student who was able to pull focus away from the rehearsal almost instantly, so it was a little tricky trying to maneuver around their energy. However, even that student was excited about the work we were doing – I’ve decided to attribute the restlessness to age, and being in a new situation. It was a good sign, also, that the students were able to largely police themselves – they would shush!! each other and ask one another to listen while I was talking. They loved that the piece was dedicated to their teacher and to their band – it was easy to see that learning this made a few of them focus more.

One of the most exciting parts about this process has been teaching the students new things their instruments can do, and today – working with the brass – was especially rewarding in this regard. I have a quasi-pedal tone with gliss effect in the opening for the brass, and to accomplish this we had to make adjustments for each instrument. At this age, their embouchures are not developed enough to ask them to do true lip glisses (without it being counter-productive to all the work their teacher has put in to helping them develop good technique), or a slow, molto vibrato to bend the pitch. It took a little experimenting, but eventually we found good solutions for each instrument. 

Aleatory in the opening section for the brass; all together, they create
a low, droning texture that supports all of the sparse, open sounds
in the woodwind parts.
For the euphoniums, tubas, and trumpets, I just tell them to play “any really low, ugly note” and then instruct them to move their fingers with half-valve movements. The trumpets move their second finger only, while the euphoniums and tubas move all of their fingers to a half valve position and back. By having them do this slowly, it creates the effect of a pedal tone gliss without compromising their embouchure. The horns (which I worked with yesterday), are able to accomplish this by sticking their hands in and out of their bells – though, as I mentioned yesterday, the students I worked with were a little perturbed by the feeling of the instrument vibrating on their hand. The trombones already know how to move in-between pitches by using their slide, so they were excited to go a little crazy with that effect.

Watching their faces light up as they found a new noise (with which they can inevitably annoy their parents at home – my apologies) to experiment with was truly rewarding as a composer; to see them excited about making music, and to show them they were capable of doing more than they thought (especially since they were able to pick it up so quickly) was an empowering experience for everyone involved. 

While there were a few choruses of that sounds really weird!!, they also thought it would sound “really cool” when the whole band did it together. This was also an amazing feeling – having the students understand that something will be more effective when they’re working together and be excited to do so. It was humbling to see their enthusiasm and energy for the process, and made today feel like a total success. 

Tomorrow, my commissioner was able to arrange for the band to rehearse all together (minus 15 students for National History Day, of course), so it will be really exciting to see how the whole piece comes together then!