Expanded article: Arranging for Brass, A Church Musician’s Primer

A while back, I wrote a quick blog post about arranging brass music for church musicians.  When I finished it, I knew I had to expand upon it.

I’ve been writing for a great organization called Church Music Forward, and when I pitched this idea to one of the editors, she could hardly contain her enthusiasm!  I used the aforementioned blog post as a guide, but then considerably expanded upon it.

My expanded article (complete with beautifully hand-drawn diagrams!) can be found in the July 2016 issue of Church Music Forward.  Let me know what you all think!

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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.

Quick tip for brass: getting back to “center”

It’s happened to all brass players at one time or another.  Maybe we’ve been doing a lot of playing lately.  Maybe we had a really strenuous gig the night before.  Whatever the reason(s) might be, when we go to pick up our horn to play, we get that feeling of playing too “spread out.”  Our sound is diffused and unfocused, and our lips aren’t responding as they should.  If I’m not getting ready for something, I’ll usually put the horn away and try again in a couple of hours or perhaps even the next day.

If I have a gig that I’m getting ready for, I have no choice but to practice.  Years ago, I learned this trick from another trumpet player a really good way to get your sound back and to get rid of that spread out feeling that we dread so much.  It’s worked for me without fail, and I hope you’ll give it a try when the need arises.  Here’s the scoop:

Take a Bb major scale.  Play it at about quarter note = 60 bpm, and play it in whole notes ascending and descending.  So far, so good?  There’s just one catch: you need to play it as softly as you can.

For this exercise, it’s not critically important that you sound as amazing as possible.  In fact, you’re probably not going to sound all that great.  But that’s not the point!  What this exercise is great at doing is helping your muscles and your air get back to center instead of that spread out feeling we’ve been talking about.

When I do this exercise, I generally need about 2-5 minutes on it.  After I play a scale, I’ll play something lyrical that doesn’t go too high or too low.  The focus should always be on playing as quietly as possible and of keeping your air very steady.

Once you think you’re ready, try playing something around mezzo forte.  You should notice a huge difference in your sound and in how you feel.  If you’re not quite playing as you should, spend another couple of minutes on it.

Is this something that you’ve done before?  Do you have another tip for getting rid of that spread out feeling that brass players sometimes get?  Post a comment below and let us know what you think!

 

 

 

Tips and tricks for playing in a pit orchestra

As I wrap up playing in Madison High School’s production of “Bye Bye Birdie,” I’m reminded that even though I’m one of the hired pros for the show, for many of this kids in the pit, this is their first or second time playing in a musical.

I started playing in musicals when I was 16, and in the many years since then, I’ve picked up a couple of tricks that serve me well each time I got into the pit.  I’m sure I’ll miss several, but these are the ones that came to mind first (and they’re in no particular order).  I hope you’ll find these of use, and be sure to share your own tips and tricks in the comments below!

Gear to hold your gear

For brass and woodwind players, having something to hold all your stuff is such a huge help!

For example, brass and woodwind players should have an instrument stand, especially if you’re playing more than one instrument.  Don’t skimp on the quality, or you’ll regret it!  Hercules makes some great instrument stands, as does On-Stage.

Also look for accessory stands and holders.  Mute holders are a lifesaver, especially in pits where floor space is limited.  Reed players should find holders for their little cups of water that their reeds are soaking in.  Speaking of gear….

Be ready to provide everything

You never know what playing situation you’re going to be in.  Sometimes, you get a really nice comfy chair, a good music stand, and a stand light.  Other times, you’re on your own.  In my car, I carry a folding chair that I can tolerate sitting in for a couple of hours, a good folding music stand, and a stand light.  If I don’t like the equipment that the employer is providing, I use my own.

Pencils out at all times

Certainly, you should have a pencil during rehearsals, and the same is for performances.  Sometimes when you’re in the thick of things, you miss something you’ve never missed before:  an accidental, key change, a music cut, etc.  Having a pencil on your stand lets you mark it after the song so that you won’t forget it the next time.  Speaking of pencils….

Mark everything (well, sorta)

You should never rely on your memory if you’re playing in a pit orchestra.  If there is a change that the conductor has made (say, a fermata, an accel./rit., etc.) then you need to write it down.  Full stop.  In a pit orchestra, there are so many things going on that you may simply forget about something.  Don’t ever rely on your memory!

Sometimes, even though it’s written in the music, you may skip over it.  This can happen for a variety of reasons.  Two solutions that I use are to circle the direction that I missed (a mute change, for example).  The other solution is to use small, rectangular Post-it notes to help visually draw my attention to what I’ve missed.  Those always live in my mute bag (which I take to every gig), and they’re always within arm’s reach.

Keep track of your staves

staff dividers

Note the switch from two staves to one staff back to two staves. Those parallel slanted lines really help draw the eye.

If you’re playing off a book that has two parts in it, often times they will cut out a part for a system or two.  It can be very visually challenging, so I use system divider markings to help my eyes follow what’s going on.

Lyric cues

In rehearsals, take the time to write the last few spoken words before the next song, especially if there’s a long break in between numbers.  As you get to know the musical, these become less and less important, but when you’re first starting out, these are incredibly useful to have written in!  I also write in a word or two to help me track if we are in the middle of an active section of key changes, meter changes, and tempo changes.

repeats

Put wings on those repeats!  They’re impossible to miss if you do.

Repeats

If you miss a repeat or have to add one that’s not in the music, make sure to “give your repeat signs wings,” as an old music professor of mine once said.  There’s no way to miss where the repeats are if you vertically extend them.

Beat pattern

I have yet to play a musical where the conductor uses the beat pattern that the time signature shows on every single piece.  Sometimes, pieces in 4/4 are conducted in 2/2 and vice versa.  If what the conductor is doing is different that what your music says, then make sure and write in a note.  I use “in 2” and “in 4” a bunch.

That’s about all I can think of right now.  Now it’s your turn!  What tips and tricks do you have for playing in a pit orchestra?