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October 1950 Brasses are the Foundation of the Band, By H.E. Nutt

Thoughtful music educators have said that school bands are losing strength and effectiveness because of changes in instrumentation in an attempt to imitate the symphony orchestra. There seems to be considerable confusion in school band circles as to what constitutes good school band instrumentation, and many directors have no practical basic philosophy on instrumentation.
   Due to various influences, many school bands have become top-heavy with woodwinds, and lack solid brass foundation. Strings are the foundation of the orchestra. Brasses are the foundation of the band. Woodwinds are effective principally as color instruments. This color is very desirable, but only if there is a solid, well-balanced brass section on which to place it. Even a band that does all its playing indoors loses much of its effectiveness with, a heavy woodwind section and a small incomplete brass section.
   Instrumentation should be based on the needs of the group, the school, and the community. The person best qualified to decide this is die director. He must be willing to think this through and build an organization that functions well in his situation.
   In many communities the school band appears frequently as a marching organization, and derives its support from that work. The logical plan would be to build a basic instrumentation well fitted for playing on the march, yet suitable for concert work. What should be included in this basic band? Cornets, alto and tenor horns, valve and slide trombones, baritones, basses, drums, Bb clarinets, saxophones and piccolo doubling flute.
    For example, a 30-piece Basic Band would include:

      6 cornets

                   3 altos (or 2 altos and 1 tenor horn playing 3rd alto part)

                   3 valve trombones (doubling slide trombone)

                   2 baritones

                   2 basses (one Eb and one BBb)

                   3 drums

                   6 Bb clarinets

                   4 saxes  (2 altos, tenor and baritone)

                   1 piccolo (doubling flute)

   What? No French horns, oboe, bassoon, trumpets, Eb clarinet, alto and bass clarinet, English horn, or string bass? No, not in the basic band. Any of these color instruments would be welcome as additions but not as substitutions for basic instruments. Even in large schools it is wise to bear in mind the need for a solid brass foundation on which to place the woodwind color. In small schools this basic idea is a must.
   Let us consider the above basic band before discussing the color instruments. With its balanced brass, sax and drum sections, the tone would be full and solid both on the march and in concert. The clarinets and flute would add enough color for pleasing effect. By playing cues, this band would do well on most published concert music. Muted cornet would play oboe solos; muted valve trombone the bassoon and English horn solo parts. (These players should try different types of mutes to discover the particular type that gives the best effect.) Baritone sax can play bass clarinet and also bassoon solo passages. Flute and piccolo can cover the E flat clarinet cues.

Start with Valve Trombone

   In regard to trombones, the ideal plan is to start beginners on valve trombone, later teaching them slide trombone. Then you can use the combination of trombones best suited to the music. The school should own a set of valve trombones and have pupils buy their own slide trombones, so that both types will be available as needed.
   After the director has built a good system that insures a “year after year” steady supply of players on the basic band instruments, it would be fine to add more color instruments for concert work. If the director has no assistant, and good private teachers are not available, he can save many weary hours of extra work and much nervous energy by teaching all beginners on basic instruments, and later transferring some of the better players to the color instruments.
   Most color instruments are expensive and get out of adjustment rather easily. Instruments used by beginners take quite a beating and are especially hard to keep in good playing condition. Advanced players have learned how to take care of instruments and can read music. By this time the director has had a chance to get acquainted with his players and will know which ones would do best on these important color instruments. Such players learn tone production and fingering rather readily and are soon able to handle their part in the concert band efficiently. For marching band they can always play the basic instruments again. This plan also saves wear and tear on school-owned color instruments and cuts repair bills considerably.

The Color Instruments

   Now let us consider some of the color instruments – first the French horn. Many bands have replaced alto and tenor horn sections with French horns. This creates a weakness in the middle of the band that is very noticeable at contests, festivals and concerts everywhere. But it is even more noticeable in marching band work. French horns are awkward to carry, difficult to play (especially on the march), and the tone is directed down and back instead of forward. Few bands have a well-balanced French horn section, and even a good French horn section does not fill the gap between the cornets and baritones.
   It is difficult for young French horn players to deliver enough volume of tone for consistent brass balance, and even if they did, the woodwind quality of tone produced by the French horn does not blend so well with the rest of the brass section.
   In the basic band setup these middle voices are taken care of by alto and tenor horns. If one good French horn player is available, the director should arrange a special part selected chiefly from woodwind parts to make best use of the horn tone in passages where the color would add to the effect. Excerpts from alto and bass clarinet, alto sax, 3rd clarinet, bassoon, trombone and baritone parts often work out well for French horns, either singly or in duet form for two horns.
   Some directors use the alto horn parts but have the French horns rest in passages where altos are more effective, and altos rest where French horns are more effective. In many passages altos and French horns can play together, thus giving both solidity and color as well as additional volume. Some experimentation is necessary to determine where and how to use these instruments, but the results are certainly worthwhile. In smaller bands alto and tenor horns are more practical, but in larger bands the ideal plan is to have a complete section of French horns as well as alto and tenor horns.

Double Reeds

    Oboe and bassoon are very desirable color instruments but are not included in the basic band because they are of little value for marching. They are also expensive and get out of order easily. Unless kept in perfect adjustment, they are impossible to play with satisfactory results. Beginners and concert band players using the same instruments soon wreck them.
   There are several plans for handling this problem. The plan of starting beginners on basic instruments and later transferring some of the better players to oboe, bassoon, etc., has already been mentioned. Another successful plan is to have good conservatory system oboes and Heckel system bassoons for the concert band, and lower priced military system oboes and French system bassoons for the beginners. The military oboe and French bassoon not only cost much less, but are much easier to keep in good adjustment and repair. Beginners who make good can easily learn the few differences in fingering.
   Trumpets are useful color instruments when playing real trumpet parts, but are not good substitutes for cornets on cornet parts. All beginners should start on cornet. Those who insist on buying trumpets should be warned or advised that only a few trumpets are used in the concert band and therefore their chances for getting into the band are less. In some schools where the dance band influence is strong and so many players buy trumpets, it is a good plan for the school to own a set of cornets to loan for use in the concert band.

E Flat Clarinet

   The Eb clarinet is a very useful instrument both in marching and concert bands. It adds harmonic beauty and brilliance, enriching the tone of the entire clarinet section. It is fine with flute, piccolo and oboe on unison solo passages. Some directors claim it is too difficult to play in tune, and therefore eliminate it from the band. The answer is to transfer a well-qualified Bb clarinet player, with a good ear, to the E flat clarinet.
   Too often players who have been unsuccessful on basic instruments are given these color instruments. Another mistake is to start unproven beginners on color instruments. It takes too long to find out whether they will do well, and in the meantime the instrument is tied up. One Eb clarinet is enough for bands up to sixty, and two for larger bands.
   Alto and bass clarinets are desirable additions for concert work. Bass clarinet is especially valuable as a general purpose instrument, and adds depth to the clarinet section. It makes a good substitute for bassoon, and many directors prefer to add bass clarinet before bassoon. It is not as difficult to play nor as temperamental an instrument as bassoon. A good sax or Bb clarinet player will get almost immediate results on the bass clarinet.
   While many directors do not favor using alto clarinet in small bands, there is no question about its value in larger groups. It adds fullness of tone and balance in the clarinet section. Again we must be careful to select one of the better players from the basic Bb? clarinet class for transfer to alto clarinet.
   English horn is an expensive and sensitive instrument, but in the hands of a capable player, it is one of the most satisfactory color instruments. The tone is rich, deep and full. The usual plan is to have one of the oboe players double on English horn when parts are available. There are many solo passages for sax, trombone, baritone, bass and alto clarinet that are more effective on English horn. In such cases the player or director can write out a transposed part.

String Bass, Harp
   String bass is a weak substitute for brass bass in concert band, but is a valuable color instrument. Some directors teach their string bass players enough brass bass to play in the marching band. This makes a good double.
   Harp is another fine color instrument but rarely found in smaller schools. The instrument is seldom owned by the school. Few directors can teach harp, so unless pupils buy their own and study with private teachers it is doubtful that it would’ be worth while trying to include it in the band. Marimba, played with yarn mallets, makes a good substitute for harp when called for in the music.
   Flugelhorns add color but few parts are printed for them, and it would be up to the director to adapt cornet parts, etc., for them and to determine by experiment where they would be worth adding. In order to get the characteristic tone of the instrument, the regular flugelhorn mouthpiece must be used. Substituting a cornet or trumpet mouthpiece does not get the desired results.
   I wish to emphasize again the basic importance of brass. Borrowing instruments from the symphony orchestra is an attempt to make the band orchestral in character, and produces a hybrid organization that is neither band nor orchestra.
   Have you had the good fortune to hear the all-brass Chicago Staff Band of the Salvation Army? Here is a symphonic organization that plays with the sonority and virility that inherently belong to a band. School directors would do well to study the instrumentation of this all-brass organization. 

   H. E. Nutt, better known as “H. E.,” is dean of the VanderCook school of music. He is popular as a clinic director, lecturer, and adjudicator. H. E. attended Indiana State Teachers College, University of Kansas, Iowa State College, and the University of Chicago. Formerly chairman of the student directing committee of the National High School Band Association, he is forceful and inspiring thinker, speaker, and leader.