Saturday, June 12, 2010

Brass Bands

As brass banding is taking over my life a bit at the moment - June and July are busy months for playing at fetes and bandstands, not to mention world cup matches - I thought I would write a brief (or maybe not!) introduction to brass bands.

Brass bands are a peculiarly British musical institution, with links back to the "waits" of the middle ages. While brass bands are found elsewhere, their roots are in the UK and they are most popular here. Early 19th century bands included both brass and woodwind, until in the 1830s the brass band format emerged. Bands were - and are - community based, often linked to works organisations like factories or mines. In the 1880s there were over 40,000 brass bands in the UK. Since the 1850s taking part in competitive leagues - "contesting" - has been a big part of the band movement (the band I play in used to take part in contests, but currently does not). Brass bands are amateur, usually self-funded and typically have training or junior bands to teach new players. They provide instruments and charge nominal fees to members, meaning they are open to anyone, regardless of financial circumstances.

Bands are made up of a specific collection of instruments and parts:

  • Solo cornet - plays lots of solo bits
  • First cornets - usually 4 or 5, the equivalent of the first violins in an orchestra, they often play the tune
  • Second cornets - 2, usually playing a lower harmony under the first cornets
  • Third cornets - 2, playing below the second cornets
  • Repiano cornet - plays more "frilly", tuneful harmonies
  • Soprano cornet - a smaller, higher pitched cornet, that plays (logically enough!) the high bits
  • Flugelhorn - slightly larger than a cornet, with a mellow sound. Often gets solos, and sometimes doubles with the repiano cornet
  • Tenor horns - 3, playing solo, first and second horn parts. Smallest of the "upright" instruments, it plays a few tones lower than a cornet
  • Baritones - 2, playing first and second baritone parts. Larger than the tenor horn, it plays in the same pitch as a euphonium. The first baritone gets some solos, sometimes harmonising with tenor horn and euphonium. Second baritone is a "fill-in" instrument, either playing a lower harmony under the first baritone, or doubling euphonium, trombone or tuba
  • Euphoniums - 2, mostly playing the same part, though occasionally it splits into two. An important brass band instrument, with lots of solos and twiddly bits.
  • Trombones - 3, playing first, second and bass trombone parts. The first trombone often gets solos, the second sometimes doubles the first trombone and sometimes harmonises with it. The bass trombone sometimes does its own thing, playing along under everyone else, or forms a third with or underneath the other two trombones. 
  • Tubas (known in brass bands as "basses") - 2 "E flat" basses and 2 "B flat" basses. These last are the biggest, deepest instruments in the band. The basses play - surprise, surprise - the bass part, often setting the rhythm for the band.
  • Percussion - 2 percussionists, playing a drum kit and or any other percussion, and sometimes also timpani.
A band with a full complement should have 28 players. To give an idea of what a top brass band sounds like, here is the Grimethorpe Colliery Band playing MacArthur Park (begins about 40 seconds in):


MacBeth said...

Brassed Off is one of my favorite films...Colliery bands are so cool!

The Bookworm said...

A favourite of mine too. I've discovered the whole brass banding thing is cool - colliery bands, works bands, town bands, village bands, the lot. It's a whole different musical world, and a lot of fun.