Brass Band Music Appreciation for Beginners #1: Types of Music

Recommended hymns, marches, overtures, and the like for new listeners

Realised the joys of listening to brass band music? Yet to see your first brass band concert? This piece includes a selection of essential brass band pieces for the absolute beginner.

For almost two years, the creator of East of the M60 has reviewed the brass band concerts at the Boarshurst Band Club. It is a fantastic, intimate venue for brass band concerts, and a good environment for absolute beginners as well as hardcore enthusiasts. A wealth of local and not-so-local brass bands have made their journey to the Greenfield venue on most Sundays.

Boarshurst Band Club on Greenbridge Lane is one of several traditional band clubs. The intimate environment is a good place for your first fully fledged concert. It is a cheaper option than going to a theatre or concert hall gig. Churches are another popular venue, as are local Civic Halls and Town Halls.

I have just got hooked on brass band music. How did I get interested in brass band music in the first place?

For many people new to brass band music, its use in an incidental context is a common factor. One film, perhaps more than any other, has won many converts to the fold. That of Mark Herman’s Brassed Off. It has a joyous mix of social comment, human interest, and a true story, as well as a shedload of brass band music. It is based on the real life story of Grimethorpe Colliery Band.

Apart from the above film, you may have come the use of brass band music in odd programmes. For example: to illustrate a setting with Northern English leanings. Also around Christmas time, for the performance of carols. Sadly, with the lack of dedicated television or radio programmes, that option is less likely. Listen to the Band goes out on Tuesdays at 2330 on BBC Radio Two – way past many a child’s bedtime.

Besides film and television, you might have been brought up with fellow listeners and performers. Shortly after the summer break, you may be used to the sight of your parents rushing off to band practice for the National Finals’ Test Piece. Or sat down at any of their concerts.

On the other hand, and most likely of all, you may have seen your local brass band on the road. For example: during the Whit Walks on Whit Friday (in Saddleworth and Mossley), Whit Sunday (Tameside and Oldham) and on the middle Sunday in June (in Ashton-under-Lyne). In many cases, you may have seen them at your local supermarket or town’s focal piazza playing Christmas Carols.

I am new to brass bands, or wish to introduce a friend to them. Which pieces are the best ones to listen to?

What if you haven’t had the joy of going to a brass band concert? Well, here’s a selection of ‘must-listen-to’ pieces. Each of the pieces chosen below have been chosen in a way similar to a traditional concert programme.

Contest March:

At a concert, most bands open with a contest march (which is exactly as it says on the tin, drum or written manuscript). The most famous one is R.B. Hall’s Death or Glory, which opens Brassed Off in cinematic and theatrical forms.

In addition to the above, Knight Templar by George Allan is a well-bodied march, popularised by Black Dyke Band. It is bombastic and long enough to appeal to those new to the fold. If you have a Harry Potter loving brass band fan, a quick blast of The Wizard – again by George Allan – should suffice.

Overture:

Traditionally, the second piece at a concert is the overture. A most accessible one for new listeners is Franz Schubert’s March Militaire. It has been written for military bands and orchestras as well as brass bands.

Solo Piece:

In a brass band concert, many musical directors offer a platform for solo performers. Over a two-hour long concert, he or she may have two to four soloists. They cover a broad range of the band, typically with solo performances from Principal Cornet, Flugelhorn, Euphonium, and Trombone soloists. Sometimes, there may be solos from bassists and percussionists.

For many people (again thanks to Brassed Off), Danny Boy seems to be a shorthand reference for brass band solo pieces (a good piece it is too). On flugelhorn solo, Paul Lovatt-Cooper’s Forever Yours is a good starting point. On tuba, you cannot fault Leigh Baker’s adaptation of The Bare Necessities. This takes us onto…

Film Music:

As a relief from the heavier pieces, or as part of a themed concert, film music has been a popular part of any musical director’s programme. What makes his or her job easier is how some composers’ works transfer well onto brass band form. Especially pieces written by John Williams and Hans Zimmer. In whole band and solo settings.

In brass band form, Singin’ in the Rain’s title track is a popular number, as is any of the music by Zimmer and Williams. Anything by Ennio Morricone also transfers well. That’s before we mention the entire Brassed Off soundtrack.

Hymn:

Organs are great for hymns. Pianos aren’t bad either. If you really want to be moved by a hymn, let a brass band play one. Before you started listening to brass bands, you might already have prior knowledge of some. Abide With Me is associated with the English F.A. Challenge Cup Final tie. Hymns are also proof of how the softest of notes can be best captured from brass instruments.

Good examples of hymns for beginners are Gresford, also known as The Miners’ Hymn, after a colliery disaster near Wrexham. Lloyd, especially Paul Lovatt-Cooper’s arrangement is also superb.

Popular Music:

The use of popular music in brass band settings is a bone of contention for some commentators. Some think of it as a distraction but pop music can be neatly arranged for a brass band setting. In some cases, even improve on the original tune.

The Daddy of them all in this category is Alan Fernie’s arrangement of The Beatles’ classic Ticket To Ride. This includes the hissing from a steam locomotive and, at the end, a guard’s whistle. Happy by Pharrell Williams and An American Trilogy, made famous by Elvis Presley, are impressive conversions.

Test Piece:

For brass banding newcomers with headphones, the test piece can be daunting for some ears. A test piece is used at regional and national contests. Some contests allow for bands to choose their own piece. In many cases, a test piece is chosen for each year’s contest, and they vary depending on the section which band falls under.

If you are new to test pieces, Eric Ball’s Journey Into Freedom is a good starting point for newcomers to the art of brass band appreciation. Within its 10 or so minutes, there is enough notes, dynamic range and melody to retain your attention.

Reflections on Swan Lake by Stephen Roberts is a glorious sixteen and a half minute long piece. This, as you would expect, includes a snatch of Tchaikovsky’s piece. A good crossover piece if you are used to orchestral music.

For a less complex test piece – and by far the best one to introduce to a new listener – look no further than Prismatic Light. It is melodic and the minutes fly past each time you listen to Alan Fernie’s creation.

Medley:

As part of a light concert setting, the medley is a staple of some brass band’s concert programmes. They are commonly used as a tribute to certain artistes or as a conglomeration of march pieces. In the latter category is Gordon Mackenzie’s arrangement, 1914. This opens with It’s a Long Way to Tipperary. Of similar leanings (and one for the film music category) is Darrol Barry’s The Greatest War Themes, which includes The Dam Busters March by Eric Coates.

Popular music and stage musicals are also popular reference points for the arranger. There has been countless examples covering the most popular West End and Broadway musicals. The most popular one to have made the transfer from theatre stage to band club level is Eric Crees’ Suite from West Side Story. With popular music medleys in brass band form, the back catalogues of ABBA and Queen have been popular subjects.

Concert finale piece:

From my experience of attending and compering brass band concerts, the last piece before the encore never fails to raise the roof. In some cases it could be a bombastic light concert piece. Maybe part of, or the whole of, a test piece. Well and truly fitting that category for new listeners is Eric Ball’s arrangement of Leon Boellman’s Toccata from Suite Gothique. Loud, well balanced, and leaving you in anticipation for more, it is a most expressive piece.

Also recommended for new listeners is The Pines of Rome. This enables you to visualise the sighting of Roman soldiers, in their hundreds, heading towards you. If you wish to get on with your neighbours, kindly refrain from playing this piece at full blast.

Encore:

The encore piece is usually something light-hearted or familiar. For example: it may be a crowd-stopping popular number like Pharrell Williams’ Happy (which has been well arranged for brass bands). Or a brass banding classic like Derek Broadbent’s arrangement of The Floral Dance. The Radetzky March by Johann Strauss is another good encore piece, and one you’ll be familiar with from the New Year’s Day Concerts in Vienna (as seen on BBC Two).

One thing with the encore piece, from an audience point of view, is you never know what they’ll come up with next. Unless you’re watching Brighouse and Rastrick Band, and expect them to play The Floral Dance (which they do so well, the conductor can sneak out for a cigarette).

Next up…

In our second part, we shall talk about the art of brass band concert going. Also with reference to typical venues and running order.

S.V., 28 July 2017.

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