Quick tip: arranging for brass

IMG_20160413_233447554With Easter Sunday behind us, I always find it fascinating to look at message boards, Facebook groups, and other social media.  Church services are full, choirs are singing joyfully, the organist has pulled out all the stops (literally!), and the brass are in full force.

Invariably, there is always someone that talks about the brass being too loud.  There are lots of causes, but one of main culprits is always the arranger/orchestrator:  how did he or she arrange/orchestrate the music for brass in the context of a church setting?

This can be a gigantic article, but I thought I’d leave you with a few big things that I see in poor brass arrangements and orchestrations, as well as ways to improve them.

Instrument ranges

There are books and plenty of websites that show instrument ranges (and don’t forget transpositions!).  Learn the ranges and liberally apply some common sense (ex.:  tubas like low notes; trumpets shouldn’t be playing a lot below the staff–that’s why there are trombones).  Taking it a step further, learn where an instrument sounds good.  Just because a trumpet can play a low F# doesn’t mean you want to go writing tons of them for him/her to play.

Who gets what

If you have a brass quartet (as many did for Easter Sunday), you’ll generally have 2 trumpet and 2 trombones.  In the context of a church setting where the brass is accompanying the congregation in singing, you have a bit more flexibility.  Here’s my basic formula for brass in a church setting:

Congregational singing (typical 4 part hymn):  Trumpet 1 on soprano part, Trumpet 2 on alto part, Trombone 1 on tenor part, Trombone 2 on bass part (you may have to adjust for ranges with Trombone 2).  If you’re on a hymn that has just a melody written with keyboard accompaniment, the same idea still applies:  just use the keyboard accompaniment to create your parts.

Make sure you use the trumpet for a descant, but only on a hymn that the congregation knows well.  Same goes with a reharmonized final verse:  it’s OK to leave the melody out if the congregation (and choir!) is very familiar with the hymn.

Also, don’t underestimate the power of having the brass play in unison at certain key points.  I’ve done this on the first phrase of a hymn (playing in unison with keyboard and choir), and then when you break into harmony on the next phrase, it’s really a dazzling effect for the congregation.

Using a brass quintet (2 tpt., horn, tbn., tba.) is great fun!  If you’ve never worked with horn before, get ready for a wild ride on the Transposition Train.  Tuba is fun, too:  don’t be afraid to write some ledger lines below the staff and really make the place rumble!

Choral anthem:  This gets trickier, but is still easily done with a few simple concepts in mind.  If there’s an intro that’s mezzo forte or louder, you’ll definitely want brass in on this.  Same with the coda/ending.  I think that goes without saying, but I wanted to say it just in case….

Next, interludes where the singers are resting are a great place to bring in the brass.  This can be with or without keyboard accompaniment depending on what texture and color you want.

Having the brass play while singers are singing poses balance challenges.  One thing that helps to remember is that you don’t always have to use all of your brass at once.  Sometimes, using two trombones for a mezzo piano part is just fine.  Trombones, due to their lower range, tend to blend a little easier than trumpets, so consider using them for quiet parts (horns can be included in this, as well).

The lower the singers are singing both in pitch and volume, the harder it will bring the brass down to a level where the singers can compete.  Wait for the big, robust singing parts to consider bringing in the brass.

If all else fails, you can call for bucket mutes or straight mutes.  While those mutes change an instrument’s sound in different ways, they can still be effectively used when paired with singers.

A few more tips….

  • Pipe organs tend to get buried by brass if the organist isn’t using plenty of mutation-type stops:  Fourniture, Mixtur, etc.  You need the high brilliance of the 2 2/3′, 2′, 1 1/3′, and 1′ pipes to cut through the brass.  Stops with a lot of chiff also help.  (If you’re not the organist and didn’t understand a single thing I just wrote, pass this note along to him/her:  they’ll know what I’m talking about!)
  • From the smallest sanctuaries to the largest cathedrals, you’ll want to think about where to put your brass to tone them down a bit.  Don’t have them facing the congregation directly without something in between them (the altar, for example).  You can have your brass facing inward toward the middle so that the congregation sees the side of their heads, but they don’t get the full brunt of their sound.
  • When possible, put the brass as far away from the singers as you can without hindering their ability to hear the choir and organ.  Also make sure they’re in a place where they can see you at all times during a service.
  • If you’re using Finale, Sibelius, or other music notation software, make sure that you arrange a player’s part in logical phrases whenever possible.  So in other words, if you have a bunch of 4 bar phrases, you should have 4 or 8 bars of music per line.  It helps the player track where they’re at and can help them get back on track if they get lost.
  • Unless you have a really good reason, make sure the keyboard (organ or piano) plays with the brass on hymns.  Brass players aren’t always attuned to the subtleties of what an accompanist does to facilitate congregational hymn singing, and the keyboard player should always be leading that.
  • When you have brass on hymns, have them play the first and last verse for sure.  Then, depending on the number of verses, evenly spread them out among the other verses.  This keeps the brass from getting too fatigued and keeps the congregation from growing weary of them.

I hope this gives you a good starting place to begin incorporating brass in your congregation if you haven’t already done so.  There’s lots more I can write (and maybe I will later!), but if there’s something specific you need, be sure to use my Contact page to shoot me a question.


Tuesday listening break

I hope y’all are having a great week!  Here’s a bit of listening to get you through your day.

Maynard Ferguson & Jon Hendricks
Got the Spirit

I never know that Jon Hendricks and Maynard Ferguson ever did any collaboration, but a good friend of mine posted this the other day and I had to share it with you all!


If you’ve never heard of shouting music, this is a great intro to it.  Check out YouTube for hours of listening pleasure.

Music for a Found Harmonium
Penguin Cafe Orchestra

This is a fun piece that I came across years ago.  It also introduced me to the Penguin Cafe Orchestra.


Upcoming gig

Portland area folks:  I’m going to be playing in a recital with organist Grant Edwards on Sunday, April 3rd.  Here’s the skinny:

When:  Sunday, April 3rd.  Recital starts at 4:15 p.m.  (Note:  there is an Evensong service directly after the recital that will start at 5 p.m., but I will not be involved in the Evensong service, only the recital.)  Both events are FREE.

Where:  Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, 147 NW 19th Ave, Portland, Oregon 97209

What:  This recital directly precedes Trinity’s monthly Evensong service.  Local organist and composer Grant Edwards will begin the recital playing on the cathedral’s fabulous Rosales organ (Op. 11).  I will join him a bit later on his finest composition:  Sonata for Trumpet and Organ on the St. Mark Passion.  The recital will end at 5 p.m.

Several years ago, Grant asked me to write him a theme for a short piece he was wanting to write in time for Easter that year.  I thought about it and finally decided that I’d give him a melodic strain that had been running through my head ever since I can remember.



When I gave it to him a week later, he was less than thrilled, because he was expecting something a bit more developed than a simple 9-note theme with a little rhythmic flourish at the end.  He took it anyhow and decided to play with it and perhaps come up with something worth playing.

The next week when I saw him, he was ecstatic!  He said that the more he played with the theme, the more he was able to do with it.  He managed to take something so simple and eventually turn it into a 5-movement piece lasting around 20 minutes!  Over the years he’s edited it a little bit, but the piece that you’ll be hearing on Sunday is pretty close to what we had when we first premiered this work.

I’m very excited about this gig because although Grant and I have played this piece on several other occasions, this is by far the largest pipe organ this has ever been played on.  This offers both organist and trumpeter more artistic freedom and it should be a thrilling performance.  I hope you’ll be able to come and listen to this magnificent work!

Remember:  the recital starts at 4:15 p.m., I’ll join Grant a little later, and the performance will be done by 5 p.m.  You’re welcome to stay for the Evensong service, but Grant and I will not be participating in it.