This week’s post is another one intended for those that are current or aspiring school band directors. Training and retaining good low brass players is a challenge in all band programs. Although my observations might be a little skewed due to my vested interest in finding and recruiting low brass players for the university, the attrition rate seems to be a higher for low brass than for other instrument groups, with a significant number of players not continuing in band through their senior years. Further, the players that do “stick it out” are, by the time they graduate from high school, often several years behind their contemporaries that play more commonly “melodic” instruments in terms of technical and musical development. This is a problem not only for high school bands which have trouble keeping their “foundation” intact, but it becomes a problem for college and university teachers as well, who can struggle to find enough qualified low brass students to fill their ensembles and studios.
The following is a summary version of thoughts on low brass teaching and retention that I have presented to students in my methods classes in the past, and since I am beginning to plan for my first Low Brass Techniques course at Ole Miss next semester, these ideas are “on my mind” once again. While those of you that have been teaching for a while might find these ideas to be “old hat,” I hope there will be something useful for everyone here.
1. “Prepare the Soil:” Make Low Brass Appealing
The work of cultivating a strong low brass section begins well before students start playing or even select instruments. Left to themselves, for every one kid that wants to play the tuba, there are at least 50 that want to play the drums, 20 that want to play the saxophone, and maybe five that really want to play the trumpet, the clarinet, or the flute. Since these choices will produce a very unbalanced (and very LOUD) ensemble, some “shaping” of student preferences will need to take place.
When introducing students to instruments in the beginning of the school year (or at the end of the year before beginning band, if students in your program choose instruments during the previous year), play recordings of professional performers on each instrument (not just low brass) for the class. These can demonstrate that all of the instruments, including low brass, are capable of playing beautiful, challenging, and interesting music. A short (not comprehensive) list of low brass players and groups you might consider includes:
Additionally, you might have some accomplished high school players visit the new students and play short demonstration pieces for the class. These demonstrations need not be overly refined or difficult—played “in person,” the bass parts of “stands tunes” are often impressive and exciting to young students.
Even after taking all of these steps, chances are that far more students will be interested in playing the drums than in playing low brass instruments, but you might at least dispel some negative stereotypes that students might have.
2. Choose Players Most Disposed Toward Low Brass
As you move into actually assigning instruments to students, continue to actively promote low brass, especially when you encounter students that appear to have physical or attitudinal characteristics that might dispose them toward succeeding as low brass players. When testing students on different instruments, encourage students that make good initial sounds on low brass instruments to choose one of those instruments. If a student is especially eager to try and to play trombone, euphonium, or tuba, that choice should be honored unless testing the student on these instruments reveals that he or she is unlikely to be successful.
Teachers can be as guilty as students of stereotyping players of different instruments. While some of these stereotypes might be informative—for example, tuba players need to be of a sufficiently large build to handle a large and heavy instrument—do not allow these to limit your thinking about potential players too much. Not every successful tuba player is a “fat boy with pimples,” or even a boy for that matter—Philadelphia Orchestra principal tubist Carol Jantsch is a fantastic player!
It is, of course, difficult to determine which students might grow up to be of sufficient size to manage a larger instrument, based on their appearances at age ten or eleven. The parent meeting is very helpful in this instance. If little Johnny is 3’2” tall but really wants to play the trombone, you might wonder if he will ever grow up to reach fifth position, much less seventh! But, if at the parent meeting you discover that Dad is 6’6” and Mom is 6’8”, chances are Johnny will grow into that trombone just fine.
3. Select Challenging Repertoire
Moving on to working with players beyond the beginning stage, if you want your low brass players to develop high-level performing skills as well as retain them long-term, make a special effort to choose performance repertoire with interesting low brass parts. So often band literature at all levels will include challenging material for the flutes, clarinets, and trumpets, while the trombones, euphoniums, and tubas are sitting in the back playing whole notes, or perhaps “oompahs.” To a certain extent, good orchestration makes this necessary—a piece that is thickly scored with challenging figures for the low brass throughout will become very cumbersome for the listener—yet it sometimes seems as if composers and arrangers for young bands simply expect low brass players to be incapable of the technical accomplishments expected of their peers on other instruments. A “chicken or the egg” question follows: is writing for low brass usually simplistic because players are incompetent, or are they incompetent because more is not expected of them? (The answer to that question might be “Yes!”)
In spite of whatever obstacles, it is possible to choose pieces with at least occasional challenges for the low brass, and perhaps even short features. Seek out such repertoire. The high brass and woodwind players will welcome the respite from bearing the responsibility for all of the melodic material, the low brass players will be spurred to greater technical achievements because of the demanding music you have chosen, and you might just prevent your low brass players from dropping band entirely out of boredom.
4. Provide Chamber Music Opportunities
Even the best band repertoire choices will not eliminate the disparity in difficulty level between the parts written for “melodic” instruments and those written for low brass players. Pursuing chamber music is good for players of all instruments, but is especially beneficial for low brass players, as this provides greater technical challenges than those normally found in band parts, and thrusts the students into musical roles that they are often unaccustomed to filling in a full band context. While there is not a tremendous amount chamber music available for middle school and high school-level low brass players, some such pieces do exist. Hickey’s Music Center, Just for Brass, and Cimarron Music Press are good places to start when looking for music to purchase.
Band directors are usually overworked, and the suggestion that chamber music opportunities be added to a program can seem like just “one more thing to do.” This being the case, have students “take charge” of their groups. Provide repertoire and some minimal coaching, but encourage students to take an active role in the musical development of a chamber group. This prevents such groups from becoming burdensome to band directors, and pushes students to even greater levels of achievement and interest.
5. Promote Private Lessons
Furthermore, encourage low brass students to take private lessons on their instruments. The more players of every instrument a program has studying privately, the better that group will be. Again, this might be more true for low brass players than for others simply because those students are not getting the consistent diet of technical and musical challenges that players of some other instruments receive from their band music. Students studying with good private teachers will not only perform their band music better, but will also learn solo repertoire and perform better on all-state auditions and the like, thus gaining even further opportunities to perform more and better music. The possibility of performing better college scholarship auditions should also provide an impetus to private study—the lessons just might pay for themselves, at least in part.
In spite of all of these advantages, most students and parents will not pursue private study unless encouraged to do so by their band directors. A brief word and the suggestion of a name or names of qualified teachers will go a long way, and benefit both individual students and the band program as a whole.
6. Make Students Aware of Opportunities and Resources
So often we as teachers wrongly assume that students are aware of the opportunities and resources available to them. Just this week a student asked me how I knew so much about who the “big” players are and “what they are up to.” When I told him about low brass-related organizations and publications I was astonished to learn that he was entirely unaware of these—and this was a university music major! How much more will middle and high school students not “know about stuff” if we as teachers do not tell them! Students that express great interest in knowing more about their instruments and those that play them should be made aware of the resources available to them. A simple suggestion of a few websites will likely incite motivated students to weeks or months—or a lifetime—of reading, learning, and practicing. You might begin by referring students to the International Trombone Association or the International Tuba-Euphonium Association. Some additional links and resources are available on my faculty website at the University of Mississippi.
7. Start as Many Low Brass Players as Possible
Finally, and returning briefly to considerations related to beginning players, start as many low brass players as you possibly can. Even diligently following the above suggestions will not completely eliminate attrition—remember that students that are well-suited to low brass are often also proficient athletically, and the choice between music and athletics is frequently an “either/or” decision rather than a “both/and” one. Experience tells us that a smaller percentage of low brass players will continue in band for their entire middle and high school careers than will players of other instruments, and this likelihood should be prepared for as much as possible. Nevertheless, taking the above steps will at least help to prevent low brass students from dropping band out of boredom, and you will wind up with better players in those sections as well!