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Playing Rags, A Masterclass with Carolina Brass

Judy Nelson | August 2009

    “The "Carolina Brass Rag" has some busy, interesting parts, including a part for drum set, that challenge us every time we play it,” says Matt Ransom, tubist with the Carolina Brass. “The parts have to be crystal clear and clean, especially when each player has to bring his part out as the others listen and back down a bit.” Here are some interpretive  suggestions from members of the Carolina Brass for playing the rag that was named for them.

Timothy Hudson, Trumpet

    Art Frackenpohl’s “Carolina Brass Rag” is reminiscent of the rags that were popular from the late 1800s to the 1920s with their syncopated melodies. Before rehearsing this particular rag, it would be helpful to have students listen to several recordings of ragtime music, played on piano or even piano rolls. The tempo is moderate, about quarter = 92, so avoid going too fast. The melody, which is often in pairs in the two trumpets or the horn with trombone, needs to be heard throughout, with a strong sense of rhythmic energy from the other parts.
    For articulation, the players should have a solid concept of clear, clean, and crisp articulation; accents are also important. Brass players are told from their first lessons not to end notes with the tongue; but if you think about it, the end of one note is simply the beginning of the next note. Defining the idea of the end of the note will clean up many problems and make the ensemble sound exactly together.
    When a player shapes notes, he needs as close to 100% control over the note as possible. When he thinks of the end of the note, he has already heard it correctly in his mind and as a result more easily plays it correctly. I seldom use the term attack when I teach. Articulation is not an attack – it is a release. A player releases the note with the tongue, followed by a good healthy supply of air.
    Other important areas to a good performance are dynamics and balance. I tell students to avoid the mezzo nothing dynamic level. The only way to be expressive is to be exactly that. Art Frackenpohl clearly indicated what he wanted in the parts, so the students should observe the dynamic markings. That alone will help with balance. Interestingly enough, when the balance is good, pitch improves.
    Players should understand the music well enough to know when they have the melody and to bring it out as the others hold back.  We call this playing underneath the tune so as to not cover it up. Being in a quintet is all about working together as a team – a unit. One interesting thing to note is that Art wrote the name of our quintet into the piece: C,  A,  R (Re), oLa, in A, B,  Re, A, Sol, Sol, Re, A, G. It spells Carolina Brass Rag, and it turned out to be a nice little tune!

Timothy Hudson graduated from Indiana University, the New England Conservatory of Music, and the Uni­versity of North Ca­rolina at Greensboro. He teaches trum­pet at Gardner-Webb Uni­versity and is a Yamaha Performing Artist.

Dennis de Jong, Trumpet
    A director could begin by giving a brief presentation on the rag as a musical tradition and play a rag as it was originally conceived, such as a rag for piano by Scott Joplin. Next he should elicit some adjectives from the quintet describing what a musician might want to convey in terms of the music. Is the rag light or jaunty? Does it bounce or dance? Finally, relate those ideas back to playing the instrument.
    It is important for brass players to understand that the rag was not originally conceived for brass quintet. In general the topic of literature is always good to discuss with young brass quintets because much of the repertoire was not originally conceived as brass repertoire. Students may be playing a Bach contrapunctus that was conceived for organ, while the rag from its earliest days was conceived for piano.
    Directors might want to address two areas in terms of the rag: agility, because rags do have a wide range in terms of individual parts, and the ability to be light with the articulation. Guidance for brass ensembles is always a two-sided approach. It is important to keep the musicianship in the forefront, so directors are always discussing  what the musician wants in terms of the sound and the delivery of the music, which go hand in hand. Then there is always a discussion of the technical facility. Based on these areas, you create an image for the players in terms of what they want to emulate.

Dennis de Jong teaches at Johnson Community College. He earned a master of music degree from Du­quesne Uni­versity and a bachelor of music degree from the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University.

David Wulfeck, Trombone

    The music shifts between major and minor intervals in several places, especially in measure 30 to 38. Here the trombonist has to be sure he hears the intervals correctly because he is playing with the horn. At measure 61, where the notes spell out the words Carolina Brass Rag, the trombone plays alone the first time through whereas the second time the horn joins the trombone at the octave. The trombone has the melody at that point.
    At measure 58 it sounds as though the piece ends, but the trombone has a lead-in that should be played soft but solid. The trombone melody at measure 61 should be played with character; have fun with it.

David Wulfeck received music degrees from the University of Northern Colo­rado, the University of North Caro­lina at Greensboro, and had doctoral studies at In­diana University. He teaches at St. Au­gu­-stine’s College and Shaw University.

Bob Campbell, Horn
    The horn has a lot of off beats in the “Carolina Brass Rag” that young players tend to play too short. It sounds better to give each note a little life – play it just a little longer – before you cut it off. I don’t mean a marcato articulation, just a little longer. For off beats inexperienced hornists tend to think of themselves playing a snare drum with short articulations: dit, dit, dit. It’s a long 16th: dum, dum, dum.
    In several places Art Frackenpohl used a 16th-note, eighth-note figure that is not sometimes on the beat as well as moved over. It goes on forever. The figure begins in the upper instruments at measure 22 and then moves to the horn and trombone at measure 30; it recurs toward the end of the piece. The way it’s written the notation looks very full. We add staccato articulations to give the music a little more lift, and for that 16th-note, eighth-note figure we play the second note short.
    At bar 61 Frackenpohl includes directions in the horn part: “Upper notes 2nd time.” Actually the trombone and horn have a two-measure introduction to measure 61 with the parts written in unison. The way the Carolina Brass plays it, the trombone takes the two bars leading into 61, and then at 61 he schmaltzes up the melody; it really sounds good. I don’t bother playing there because we would be in unison, and it just sounds nice to let the trombone have fun with the tune. The second time through I join in, playing the part an octave higher while the trombone plays straighter. 

Bob Campbell graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts. He is on the faculty at Wake Forest Uni­versity and is a member of the faculty woodwind quintet. He is a founding member of the Winston-Salem Bolton Project Wind Quintet.

Matt Ransom, Tuba
    The tuba part in “Carolina Brass Rag” is somewhat touchy in that the player has to be highly articulate and the notes have to be as clean as possible. It’s easy to make the notes too resonant and too long on the tuba, destroying the tempo and the clarity of the entire group.
    I play my part crisp and short in this piece. It is a rag, so big beats and accents are important. A little bit of a lean-your-shoulder-into-it jazz twist is fine. It’s okay to let young groups in particular release their imaginations  and not treat the music like a Mozart or Bach work. Even though this rag is written in a classical style, it should be played with some chutzpah.
    The tuba part has a number of leaps that can be difficult. Although the range does not extend into the low register, it does reach to B flat above the staff. If a leap goes into an ex­tremely high register above the staff, I’ll play the octave below it to make sure I have the correct pitch in my mind. I usually go to the piano and play the intervals.
    If a particular interval is troublesome, such as a minor seventh above the staff, I’ll play it on the piano and buzz it on my mouthpiece with the piano and even sing it. I recommend a lot of singing with the piano, which acts as a pitch reference. My tuba students will tell you that they do a lot of singing and a lot of buzzing.

Matt Ransom teaches at Wake Forest and is the artist-faculty tuba instructor at the North Carolina School of the Arts. He earned a bachelor of music degree and an arts diploma from the North Carolina School of the Arts.

John R. Beck, Percussion
This particular arrangement has a part for drumset that should be played softly. In fact for a percussionist the ability to play soft and blend is more important than having good listening skills. The piano dynamic never gets discussed on the football field where percussionists are told to play loud. Even in jazz band, it’s about driving the ensemble or playing loud for a ragtime piece.
The difficulty of performing in a small group, like a brass quintet or a small chamber percussion ensemble, is that the players have to refine their skills and learn to listen and play softly to blend. These are things that directors never address to young percussion sections in a typical band rehearsal. A director may talk to the winds or the brass about blending but not the percussion. You are forced to deal with those issues in a small chamber ensemble.
In the “Carolina Brass Rag” everything has to be soft and played sensitively. As the drummer the trick is to make sure you can hear every member of the ensemble. The percussionist is one of six players who contributes to the music making; he is not the engine that drives the group.

John R. Beck is a faculty member at the North Carolina School of the Arts and Wake Forest University. He received music degrees from Oberlin College and the East­man School of Music. He is a former member of the United States Marine Band.