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Striving for balance with horns

Another curious Richard Strauss quote "If you can just barely hear the (French) horns on stage, the balance is perfect." Strauss clearly loved the horn - he wrote two concertos and his orchestral music is filled with famously difficult and copious horn writing. If he just barely wanted to hear the horns, why did he write 8 horn parts in Ein Heldenleben? The horn is the instrument that holds it all together in our ensemble - it is capable of incredible range, virtuosic technique, a variety of tone colors, and the ability to blend easily with other instruments. It produces a prototypical conical sound. As I mentioned in ..."why just 2 horns" when we formed the Boulder Brass in the early 90's,

Go ahead - look at the trombones

Richard Strauss famously quipped "Don't look at the trombones; it only encourages them." It is an ironic observation coming from a composer/conductor who wrote really well for the trombones. Trombones are the soul of the brass ensemble - capable of tremendous power, dolce lyricism, and quiet elegance. The technical potential of the trombone is often misunderstood, as is its ability to beautifully execute a melodic line in any register of the instrument. The fact that most orchestral scores use three trombones originates from its use in the church, where the family of trombones was used to support choral lines; the alto, tenor, and bass trombone choir was carried over into orchestral music. U

All about that bass

The notes are all entered into your score template - now what? Of course, the possibilities are nearly endless and there is no one right way to go about any of this. After listening to a recording of the piece several times, scrolling along in my score watching the notes I've entered, I'll start to make some basic notes or even move a few phrases around in my score. Generally, I'm inclined to start with the bass instruments because I'm a tuba player. Or you might think this is the reason. The rationalization is actually more well thought out than that. I believe most balance problems in a brass ensemble originate in the low end. Too much doubling of the bass voice, and not enough variety in

Getting started

As I wrote in Arrangement, Orchestration or Transcription, when scoring for brass I prefer to work from keyboard music. Even when doing a transcription, I'll look for the composer's piano version if available from which to work for a couple of reasons. First, it's easier - everything is in C (ever had to transpose horn in G or a D flat piccolo part). Second, I'm less likely to be influenced by the composer's choice of instrument. Perhaps most importantly, it provides some insight as to how pianistic effects are translated in the composer's mind to orchestral effect which, in turn, suggests solutions to otherwise thorny orchestration problems. A left-hand octave tremolo, for example, might be

First impressions

Musicians spend years in solitude learning to perfect their craft, and are rightfully protective of what comes out of the horn. Musicians are also at the mercy of the composer, arranger, orchestrator, and copyist. If a chart is faulty, it can expose a musician to the stink eye from a colleague or conductor. It will also cause them to not trust the music in front of them and play with less confidence. Thy may not want to play your music in the future, which can affect your career. A few years ago, Boulder Brass was reading for the first time one of the Mahler songs I've arranged. The second trumpet part switches to piccolo in the middle of the chart. Our friend playing that part that night is

Choosing a project

Never being one to shy away from difficult projects, in 1978 I set out to make a version of Toccata and Fugue for my brass playing colleagues in the Wheat Ridge High School band. I worked feverishly on it for weeks and excitedly put it in front of my friends one morning to read. It was a disaster directly from the upper left hand corner – the only parts that were even close were the tuba and trombone parts. My basic concept for transposition was just wrong and my trumpet and horn parts were a mess. My brand as an arranger was a wreck. However, lessons were learned and I leaped into my next big project – the next summer was devoted to orchestrating Pictures at an Exhibition for brass quintet.

E flat linchpin

The liner notes for the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble recording of Pictures at an Exhibition contain a brief account of Elgar Howarth's arranging process. He wrote something about a particular instrument (maybe a D flugelhorn in the Old Castle) being a linchpin. I'd be more exact, but the LP is in a sealed container in my crawlspace - and I just like the word. One of our regular trumpet players couldn't make the dates work for our first tour of the western United States in 2001. Dan Kuehn (Colorado Symphony) was one of our regular guys and his brother, Dave, happened to be available - what a gift! Among many other things, Dave was the principal trumpet of the Buffalo Philharmonic and he playe

Less is more

I had the great fortune to play bass trombone in Dave Caffey's excellent jazz band at the University of Denver. We played a lot of challenging stuff, and Dave is a great writer and arranger so we also had the privilege of playing new music written by him. Dave is a pro. We were rehearsing a piece one day (written by someone else) and Dave stopped the band to correct something. He looked at the offending musician, and then looked at his score, and then looked back up and said something like "I don't know exactly how you are going to eat that Dagwood sandwich..." Younger people might not understand the reference, so here: He was referring to some ridiculous stack of articulations - we've all s

Why the piccolo trumpet is second fiddle

The way I think about writing for brass has evolved over the years, especially for the instruments with which I'm not intimately familiar. One hopes to keep learning new things, and to learn from previous experiences. I used to write a lot for the piccolo trumpet in my arrangements, and still use it quite a bit. But really, I mean, a lot. I had the good(?) fortune to write for a couple of guys that loved to play piccolo and it colored my judgement. I've since learned that piccolo trumpet is like curry. A little bit goes a long way. So when I start a chart, the template is e flat trumpet on top, 2 b flat trumpets, and flugelhorn. You can see my previous post One on a Part and begin to get a s

One on a part

A friend just sent me a note on an earlier post, and he mentioned that he is writing a lot for brass band. I love the sound of a brass band, and I've wanted to find my mojo to write for that ensemble. But I can't, and it got me to thinking about why. I was fortunate to have done my undergraduate study at the University of Denver. I was one of only two tuba players in the program which meant a lot of chop time. DU does not have a football program so there was no marching band, and there was no symphonic or concert band. Instead, there was a top notch orchestra, and an excellent wind ensemble comprising mostly graduate students, under the expert direction of Joe Docksey. A musical purist, he l

Why just 2 horns?

I only wrote about 5 charts using 4 horns early on for the Denver Brass. In 1988, at my urging Denver Brass went from 4 (or sometimes 3) to 2 horns. Since we were relying heavily on the Philip Jones library for programming, it made no sense to have that many horn players sitting around. It did make sense to occasionally double up the horn part on some of the PJBE charts (see comment below). During my few years as Denver Brass Music Director and then Artistic Director, I wrote a lot of 423.02 charts. But there was always too much tuba in the mix (and I am a tuba player). It also meant that when playing PJBE charts, one tuba was playing the bass trombone part, and that simply wasn't the right

Regarding instrumentation - Why 423.11?

I started writing brass arrangements while still in high school (late 70's) after first hearing the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble and Canadian Brass. Several years later, I had the amazing opportunity to write a bunch of stuff for the Denver Brass. The earliest charts were for 443.11. A few of those early arrangements were performed and recorded the next summer by the Summit Brass on their Toccata and Fugue recording. A year later, the Denver Brass adopted as its standard instrumentation 423.02 (or 422.12) and as music director, I was called upon to write numerous charts for that instrumentation. This was a fabulous laboratory and I learned much about what (and what not) to do. In 1993, we for

Arrangement, Orchestration, or Transcription?

The term 'arrangement' has become a casually used metaphor for the rendering of one version of a piece of music into another. I use this term, admittedly erroneously, when giving credit in my publications to the person who has 'dished up' (to borrow Percy Grainger's coinage) a tune for brass. This isn't really fair to arrangers. Arranging is a very creative endeavor, just short of the pinnacle of setting notes to paper - composition. Nelson Riddle, Henry Mancini, John Williams all got their start in the 'biz' first as session piano players, then as arrangers and orchestrators, and then the fabulous composers we know them to be. So, to be clear, most of what comprises our catalog is orchestra

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