By Matthew Nunes
As both a composer and performer the British brass band movement has been an inspiration. I had the privilege of substituting in a band for one year. The literature and musicianship astounded me. However, I have perceived a lack of interest in the medium among fellow composers. I feel as though it is often ignored by these brilliant minds because opportunities are fewer and the literature is rarely known outside of those involved.
My aim of this article is to provide key information for how the ensemble works – from keys, to clefs, and representative examples of each instrument. There will also be a reference for the standard set-up of the ensemble. Next I will provide examples from different periods in the medium’s development that I hope will prove reliable for study. Lastly, I have provided a few further resources that I urge composers to visit.
I hope it is a useful guide to getting started on your very own brass band work. If you are not ready now I hope that you will be inspired sometime in the future to contribute your skills to the repertoire such as Gustav Holst, Malcolm Arnold, Ralph Vaughn Williams, and many more have.
But first here is an exciting work that showcases some of the strongest capabilities of the brass band:
Paul Lovatt-Cooper – Enter the Galaxies
The brass band medium evolved from the mid nineteenth century through Salvation Army recruiters as well as employers (such as mining facilities) looking to give their personnel something to look forward to. Instrumentation of the group wavered for years and included clarinets and saxophones mixed in with the brass during development. It was not until 1913 with the Crystal Palace National Championships in Great Britain that the scoring of the ensemble became standardized thanks to Percy Fletcher’s Labour and Love – one of the first original works for the medium. Contests soon required competing bands to adhere to these instrumentation requirements.
A British style brass band consists of:
1 Soprano Cornet (Keyed in E-flat) (Treble Clef) (Conical bore)
3 to 4 Solo Cornets (B-flat) (Treble Clef) (Conical)
1 Repiano Cornet (B-flat) (Treble Clef) (Conical)
2nd and 3rd Cornets (B-flat) (Treble Clef) (Conical)
1 Flugelhorn (B-flat) (Treble Clef) (Conical)
1 Solo Tenor Horn (E-flat) (Treble Clef) (Cylindrical)
2nd and 3rd Tenor Horn (E-flat) (Treble Clef) (Cylindrical)
1st and 2nd Baritone (B-flat) (Treble Clef) (Cylindrical)
1 Solo Trombone (B-flat) (Treble Clef) (Cylindrical)
2nd and/or 3rd Trombone (B-flat) (Treble Clef) (Cylindrical)
1 Bass Trombone (B-flat) (Bass Clef) (Cylindrical)
Solo and 2nd Euphonium (B-flat) (Treble Clef) (Conical)
Solo and 2nd E-flat Tuba (E-flat) (Treble Clef) (Conical)
1st and 2nd B-flat Tubas (B-flat) (Treble Clef) (Conical)
2 to 3 Percussionists (varies on demand) (Clefs as traditionally used)
You will notice that every instrument is keyed in either B-flat or E-flat. This is a convenience that bands welcomed both with playing as well as personnel. If you take a look at fingering charts for each of the band’s instruments you will notice that the fingerings are the same in relation to written pitch. Sounding pitch will be different but this allowed for bands to move personnel around the ensemble as needed.
Treble clef is used on every instrument except for the bass trombone and necessary percussion. This, too, evolved out of necessity. For concerns of range a good rule of thumb is that two ledger lines and a step in either direction of the stave are about as far as you want to go. Different instruments have different limitations and you may want to keep a range guide handy if you are not familiar with these instruments.
Below is a list of each instrument accompanied by a representative work. I have also provided a short list of performers that would be handy to keep in mind when a reference of representative sound is needed. Please keep in mind that with any list of suggestions there are many options that are not presented that are equally valid!
Keep in mind that cornets are not trumpets! They are fundamentally similar but have distinct differences. This video by YouTuber Trent Hamilton presents a side-by-side comparison of the cornet and trumpet:
Soprano Cornet – E-flat Treble Clef
This instrument can be used both as a beautiful dressing over the top of the ensemble or an absolute laser beam depending on how it is scored. Avoid using it only for helping the front row cornets – if anything the Soprano Cornet is wisely used to top off a large build and to add brilliance to full-ensemble chords. Its extreme high register is best when reserved for dramatic purpose.
Memory from Cats by Andrew Lloyd Weber by the Yorkshire Building Society Band, Peter Roberts, soloist.
Suggested Performers: Steve Stewart, Peter Roberts, Keith Thompson, etc.
Cornet – B-flat Treble Clef
The cornets can be seen as your violins (if from an orchestra background) or your clarinets (if from a wind band one). You will have 3-4 Solo Cornets, a Soprano Cornet, a Repiano Cornet, and most likely 3-4 section Cornets divided between parts 2nd and 3rd. It is an agile instrument used often for its melodic capabilities but quite useful as an accompanying figure.
Ernest Tomlinson – Cornet Concerto
Suggested Performers – Maurice Murphy, Philip Cobb, Tom Hutchinson, Richard Marshall, Ian Williams, etc.
Repiano Cornet – B-flat Treble Clef
While the name may suggest an entirely different instrument the Repiano Cornet is just a specialized cornet part. The name means “the stuffing/the middle” in Italian and its role is to double instruments that may not project well and to perform exposed passages in the lower cornets. One of the band’s most reliable performers will have this role.
Flugelhorn – B-flat Treble Clef
Mainly known now for its jazz role, the flugelhorn can be a tricky instrument to write for. It benefits from solo passages where its unique tone can be perceived. One of my favorite such moments is in Peter Meechan’s The Legends of King Arthur where the flugelhorn represents Guinevere. The timbre is clearly presented and soloists shine in these moments.
While the William Himes Concerto for Flugelhorn remains a prominent work I recommend a listen to Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez (Arr. by Trevor Jones) from the film Brassed Off. This video provides notation for the solo and will surely be beneficial for figuring out how to use the instrument wisely.
Suggested Performers – Zoe Hancock, Paul Hughes, etc.
Tenor Horn – E-flat Treble Clef
Tenor Horns fall into the middle range of the ensemble and serve the same role as a viola or Horn in F would in other ensembles. The Tenor Horn is often used as a solo instrument and often written in conjunction with the baritones when used as a section. Dove-tailing in this section is quite easy because you have three players to use.
David Harrington – Paradise Lost
Suggested Performers – Owen Farr, Sandy Smith, Arfon Owen, etc.
Another fine resource for examining the tenor horn’s capabilities are the masterclass video series that Owen Farr did for a few Besson workshops. These videos feature Farr in a bare-bones demonstration of his talent with the instrument.
Baritone – B-flat Treble Clef
This instrument is often confused for a Euphonium. In the brass band it is more similar to the Tenor Horns. It is often scored as a Euphonium double and solo passages are rare but can be used effective in thin textures. It has the same range as the euphonium (save the bottom end) and is operated similarly.
Martin Ellerby- Baritone Concerto
Suggested Performers – Katrina Marzella, Kristy Rowe, etc.
Trombone – B-flat Treble Clef
The Trombone is a rather useful instrument both in quick passages that require some bite and for its soloist capabilities. Trombone, like the Flugelhorn, is often used in jazz roles – use this to your advantage.
Some composers get caught writing only moderately difficult parts because of the slide mechanism required. It may not always be crisp but trombone players can handle tricky slide combinations. Also, please do not only write glissandi in your Trombone parts. It is one of music’s most useful instruments because of the many roles it can cover – use them all!
Olivier Waespi’s As if A Voice Were in Them features a short Trombone feature as well as Betrand Moren’s Dreams, Movement I. Philip Sparke’s The Year of the Dragon contains a Solo Trombone feature in the second movement that is quite lengthy and would be good for study.
Derek Bourgeois – Concerto for Trombone
Suggested Performers – Christopher Thomas, Brett Baker, John Barber, etc.
Bass Trombone – Bass Clef
There is not a world of difference between the Trombone and the Bass Trombone save an extra trigger or two. This allows the Bass to dive into the depths of its range while retaining its strength. Peter Graham used it in Journey to the Center of the Earth in conjunction with the Tubas to rev up the energy after a slow section.
There is nothing quite like the roar of a great Bass Trombonist. One prominent memory is hearing the Stavanger Brass Band at NABBA 2014 with their Bass player. She laid absolute waste (a positive compliment) when appropriate and won the respect of the attending audience. Brashness and strength work well when deciding how to use this instrument.
Peter Sarcich – Concerto for Bass Trombone
Suggested Performers – Geert de Vos, etc.
Euphonium – B-flat Treble Clef
The Euphonium is one of the most reliable instruments in the brass band. As it is my personal instrument there is a bit of favoritism involved with that distinction. However, composers throughout the history of the brass band have shown that to be true. It can be doubled with nearly anything to great result and excels in the solo role. It covers a great range and rarely has a problem cutting through the ensemble.
Philip Wilby – Euphonium Concerto
Suggested Performers – David Childs, Steven Mead, David Thornton, Glynn Williams, Glenn van Looey, etc.
Tuba –E-flat or B-flat Treble Clef
Not just the oom to your pah, the Tuba is the groundwork the ensemble relies upon. There are two different Tubas used in a brass band – E-flat (more often used for solo passages) and B-flat (often used for sustained tones). The beauty of the brass band is using these four tuba parts to your advantage. Chord building, dove-tailing, and power can all be done in one section! Keep in mind that the Euphonium is in the Tuba family and can be added to great effect for consistency of sound. Some composers will be surprised by the agility and clarity tubists can attain – they can be used for way more than whole notes. While fast articulate passages may be ineffective on the tuba using it as a skeletal support for those above it has been used quite effectively.
Philip Wilby – Cyrano
Suggested Performers – Joseph Cook, Les Neish, etc.
I do not have recommendations for percussionists. The percussion section is one that is used closely like most other mediums. Effective when doubling, and for prominent musical moments, composers rarely fail to use this section well.
The typical brass band will be organized as three distinct rows around the conductor.
The Brass Band Hessen, above. Image from: http://www.kultur-bad-vilbel.de/burgfestspiele/spielplan/?id=8183
Row One (from left to right) consists of your four Solo Cornets, your Flugelhorn and Tenor Horns, your Baritones, and your Euphoniums with the Solo Euphonium on the end (similar to your Cello Soloist in an orchestra). Your Flugelhorn may sit next to either the Cornets or the Baritones, depending on the demands of the work.
Row Two consists of your Soprano Cornet, your Repiano Cornet, and then your 2nd and 3rd Cornets. The Tubas (B-flat and E-flat) will be positioned in the center of the ensemble. Trombones will feature the Bass Trombone close to the Tubas and your Solo Trombone on the end.
Row Three will be your percussionists with whatever assortment they require.
There have been deviations to this set-up (notably Philip Wilby’s The Red Priest for a concerto grosso effect) but this remains the standard form. Any special placement requirements should be noted in the score/program notes.
Note where your instruments are placed in the acoustic environment when scoring your work. Some instruments, like the Baritone, do not project well in their seating location and may require special attention (doubling, thinning out the texture, etc.). You can also use this for dynamic decisions – your Soprano Cornet will not need too much oomph to be heard.
Purchase brass band scores – find your favorite work and see exactly how it works. I consider there to be three periods so far in the development of brass band music. You will want a score from each period to reference. Some of music’s greatest composers have contributed to the repertoire – Gustav Holst, Malcolm Arnold, and Ralph Vaughn Williams to name a few.
Early works – the “classics” (early 1900’s to 1950’s)
Labour and Love by Percy Fletcher
A Moorside Suite by Gustav Holst
Resurgam by Eric Ball
Mid-century – mostly Contest pieces that developed the demands/limits of the ensemble (1950’s to 1990’s)
Blitz by Derek Borgeous
The Year of the Dragon by Philip Sparke
Variations on a Ninth by Gilbert Vinter
Modern fare – serious works covering a variety of genres and programs (2000’s on)
Symphony in Two Movements by Edward Gregson
As if A Voice Were in Them by Olivier Waespi
Spiriti by Thomas Doss
How does one attain recordings of brass bands? I have relied on a few useful resources to fill out my personal collection. My favorite site is theclassicalshop.net. Just search “brass band” and click on the subheading “brass” (with about 300 hits) and enjoy! World of Brass has a wonderful collection – both for digital download and physical copies.
Review orchestration techniques to make your ideas as practical as possible for the band. Doublings across the ensemble are common and encouraged and one’s use of dovetailing for tricky passages will greatly increase the chances of performance success. The beauty of a brass band is that you rarely have to hinder your creativity for fear of the impossible. Philip Sparke’s The Year of the Dragon was deemed impossible by some the year it came out. Now, it is considered attainable fare for most bands.
Some wise doublings include Cornet/Tenor Horn with Trombone/Euphonium an octave lower, Tenor Horn, Baritone, Euphonium when runs need doubling, and Soprano Cornet and octave above the melody for climax points. Additionally, using Trombones in tandem with your Tubas to fill out chords has proven effective. Do not confine yourself to these – your music will require unique combinations depending on the material!
Mutes are a useful tool for composers looking to alter the sound of an instrument. Cornets and Trombones will have the most options available – straight, cup, plunger, etc. Euphoniums, the Horns, and Tubas will have mute options available but are more often asked to use a straight mute. Some works require the Cornet section to use mute holders on their stands that can hold up to four or five mutes. Most players will have their own healthy assortment of mutes – feel free to use these resources wisely! If you write a muted part please make sure your performers have enough time to pop it in/pull it out (I’ve played both baritone and euphonium parts requiring me to tuck it between my legs in order to get it in/out in time – very easily doable but sometimes risky).
Also, take the time to comb through any necessary edits/clarifications your piece may need. The last thing any group will want is an inconsistently edited work with questions that will eat up precious rehearsal time. So you wrote in a muted part – when do they go back to no mute? When does the solo end? Is that a flutter or a tremolo? These are common occurrences that are sometimes not properly notated for the performers. Use ornamentations as normal. Extended techniques or special requests should be explained in the program notes and the individual part.
Finally, there are some aspects composers tend to worry about that you need not lose concentration over. Intonation will not be a problem for you unless you write low concert B-naturals below the staff for Cornets/Flugelhorn/Baritones/Tenor Horn/Trombone. This note tends to be out of tune due to the instruments’ limitations. Write it instead for Euphonium – the compensating valve system rectifies the tuning of this pitch – or for a lower instrument in their middle register. Register and range will rarely be a problem unless you write everything way too high for most of your work. Remember that these are humans operating pieces of metal with their lips. Breathing is left up to the performers to figure out – each instrument, save for a few, have two players assigned so feel free to experiment dovetailing sustained passages. Articulations should be clearly notated – use short notes, use slurred passages, use accents for power. The players are capable of stark differences as long as you ask it of them.
Finally, start writing the piece. You will quickly gain a sense of what will work and what will not. It is better to have a work for brass band at the ready when the opportunity arises than vice versa. Write it, promote it, and have it ready to send to a prospective ensemble. Attend a rehearsal of your work or two and then attend the premiere – use all criticisms to your advantage for your second work. The most effective way of learning how to write for the brass band is to do it – so stop reading and go get started!
Here is a sample of one of my own works for brass band – an arrangement of Chopin’s Etude Op. 10 No. 12 in C minor. This is a second draft and I have not yet finalized the orchestration. You will hear the melody carried by alternating cornet and trombone/tenor horn. The flugelhorn plays all of this line for continuity. The tubas, euphoniums, baritones, and some tenor horns take care of the left hand. I also chose to add timpani to the starts of these running lines. We will hear what works and what does not when it gets a reading. One reservation I do have is that writing for a larger ensemble reduces the practicality of rubato.
4barsrest.com provides live-Tweeting from Contests, video interviews with performers, composers, and conductors, and lengthy analyses of CD’s, Books, and even Test Pieces.
Brass Roots Volumes 1 and 2 by Roy Newsome are excellent if you are curious in the development of the medium and why certain traditions are carried out the way they are. They were fascinating reads for me and one I highly recommend for all brass enthusiasts.
Colour and Texture in the Brass Band Score by Ray Steadman-Allen is a fantastic text for composers as well as arrangers. It provides score examples of techniques that have been used both effectively and not so effectively throughout brass band history. RSA was a noted composer/arranger for Salvation Army bands and it is a must have for composers looking to begin their first work.
NABBA’s Brass Band Bridge is a fascinating journey through the craft in the confines of North America – from the first dainty issue to the sprawling recent ones almost every entry is archived on the NABBA website. You can read about the struggles of beginning one’s own band and the successes of North American involvement in the craft.
Vlamo’s page on YouTube has a year or two of Contests that are great for composers to hear how different ensembles perform the same work. Here you will hear what bands handle with ease and what may be difficult. It also has a wide collection of works handled expertly by the ensembles.
Brass Band Results – This handy site has everything you may ever want to learn about Contests and the works involved. Who judged, who performed, and what piece has helped bands win the most are all included. The Best Own Choice section is the best for composers – here you’ll find a top to bottom list of works, how often they have been performed in contest, and how often the performing bands have won with them.
Literature I Love: Brass Bands is a blog post I did on my own website in the summer of 2015. It features ten works that are some of my favorites.
Blitz by Derek Bourgeois
A Breathless Alleluia by Philip Wilby
Fire in the Blood by Paul Lovatt-Cooper
Of Distant Memories by Edward Gregson
Dreams by Bertrand Moren
The Legend of King Arthur by Peter Meechan
Life Divine by Cyril Jenkins
The Torchbearer by Peter Graham
Matthew Nunes is a composer and euphonist from Niceville, Florida. In the spring of 2014 his band piece Second Strike won the Phi Mu Alpha Mu Eta Chapter Composition Competition and was premiered by the Space Coast Wind Symphony. His Euphonium Concerto written for Dr. Gail Robertson is set to premiere in April 2016 by the Little Rock Wind Symphony. He has performed with the Brass Band of Central Florida, 2014 FMEA Intercollegiate Band, the National Music Festival Symphony Orchestra, and more. Matthew will begin the final year of his Performance Masters at Montclair State University in fall 2016.
To view his list of works, read his bio, and more visit matthewnunesmusic.weebly.com