One of the great joys—and challenges—of my work at the University of Mississippi and in nearly all of my previous teaching positions is that I teach applied lessons on all of the low brass instruments (trombone, euphonium, and tuba). While universities with larger music major enrollments will of necessity have separate instructors for the trombones and the conical low brasses (if not three or more specialized instructors), positions like mine are not at all uncommon in small and medium-sized departments. While the similarities between these instruments are great enough to allow a single individual to competently teach all three, there are differences that must be appreciated and understood if that instructor is to achieve maximum effectiveness in his work. I have written about these with regard to both performance and individual instruction in several previous posts: see here, here, and here.
Today I will address how these similarities and differences affect group instruction in like-instrument ensembles. The trombone ensemble and tuba-euphonium ensemble serve as vital extensions of individual instruction on these instruments, with numerous benefits both for students’ individual playing as well as their effective functioning in ensembles both large and small. Mounting a thorough justification for inclusion of these groups in the curriculum is beyond the purpose of this post (though I may very well address that in the future), but I would like to provide readers—particularly those that have or would like to have a position like mine—with some tips on how to approach coaching and conducting such groups in a way that takes full advantage of the similarities between the two while also acknowledging and anticipating differences.
Perhaps the most obvious similarity between the two groups is that in both players will encounter much greater range requirements than in any other ensemble context. The highest parts for each instrument can reach well beyond the “comfort zones” of even advanced students, while the lowest parts will test the opposite extreme. Inner parts might also have brief excursions into extended ranges, though not with the same frequency. Hopefully the instructor will see this as a welcome challenge rather than a liability, pushing students to develop their extreme registers beyond the realm of mere exercises and into real usable range that can be played with expressiveness and finesse.
Students in both groups can also expect technical challenges that far exceed that which they will find in most other ensembles. Low brass players and teachers often lament the simplistic and uninteresting parts assigned to their instruments in many band and orchestral works; while this is a topic for another time, I often think that one reason for the high attrition rate for low brass players in school bands is that these players are bored with the music given to them while they see players of other instruments being challenged. This disparity persists to some extent even in music for advanced and professional groups. Low brass ensembles of both types provide relief from the monotony of such parts by giving players significant technical challenges to negotiate in an ensemble context. Transcriptions of band and orchestral works for these ensembles even allow players to learn to interpret the more soloistic lines they have heard played by flautists, violinists, and trumpeters, for example. Not only does this promote the musical and technical development of low brass players, but for those that will one day be school band and orchestra directors it also provides vital experience in reading and interpreting the parts for those other instruments that they will soon be teaching.
One key reason for having like-instrument ensembles of any kind is the development of tone quality and intonation. While minor discrepancies in these areas can often “hide” in heterogeneous ensembles like bands or orchestras, in like-instrument groups these discrepancies are highlighted if not magnified. Both the trombone ensemble and the tuba-euphonium ensemble provide ideal forums for students to develop greater sensitivity to these discrepancies, thus benefiting the students’ individual playing, the like-instrument ensembles themselves, and even other larger groups in which they will perform.
Finally, both groups share the camaraderie that is a special part of being a low brass player. For the most part, trombonists, tubists, and euphoniumists are people of limited “ego.” We enjoy being with one another, playing together, discussing “tips and tools,” and even helping one another to improve. Younger students always benefit from the models provided by older students when playing in these groups, while the older students provide something of an informal mentorship that might promote their own development as players and teachers.
While trombone ensembles and tuba-euphonium ensembles share a number of similarities, there are several key differences of which an instructor working with both types of groups must be aware. The most obvious of these has to do with blend and balance. In almost every case, the development of a consistent, blended ensemble sound is much easier with the tuba-euphonium ensemble than with the trombone ensemble. This is likely because the difference in bell direction between the two groups. Tuba and euphonium bells are pointed upward while playing, giving the already mellow sounds produced by those instruments the opportunity to “mix” for a split-second before being heard by the audience. Trombone bells are pointed forward, and thus any player whose volume or tone quality is out-of-balance relative to that of the group will be quickly perceived by the audience. Thus, while working on blend and balance is an important part of teaching both groups, achieving them is a much greater challenge with the trombone ensemble.
Repertoire selection, on the other hand, is more difficult with the tuba-euphonium ensemble than with the trombone ensemble. One reason for this is the age of the trombone ensemble. While the tuba-euphonium ensemble is a creature of the second half of the twentieth century, there are extant works for trombone ensemble dating back over 400 years. While composition for trombone ensemble increased greatly in the twentieth century, the existence of more and older works does give the trombone group more material from which to choose. The difficulty of choosing tuba-euphonium ensemble music also stems from a variety of technical requirements which must be met. Euphonium players might read concert-pitch bass clef or transposing treble clef; a piece that is missing one of those types of euphonium parts might pose a problem for ensembles that have players that can only read one of the two clefs. (Yes, ideally they will learn to read both, but ideals are not always achieved.) Moreover, the highest tuba parts in many tuba-euphonium ensemble works practically require the player to use an F or E-flat tuba. If all of the available players play only BB-flat or CC tubas, those works will be difficult if not inaccessible.
Cleanliness of execution is a challenge for both groups, but in different ways. The directional nature of the trombone bell makes even the slightest discrepancies in timing or articulation to be immediately apparent, while such minor faults are difficult to detect with the tuba-euphonium group. However, this also means that dry, crisp articulations are harder to achieve with the tuba-euphonium ensemble, since even very good articulations by individuals can be lost due to the group’s tendency toward muddiness.
Why I Insist on Having Separate Groups
Readers with experience teaching and/or performing in groups of both types can likely name additional items for both of these lists, but the above are some of the most obvious and important. Before closing for today, I would like to say a few words about why I insist on having separate trombone and tuba-euphonium ensembles, even when one or both groups is smaller than I would like. I have spent most of my career teaching in smaller music departments where having a larger mixed low brass ensemble would sometimes have been easier than having separate trombone and tuba-euphonium groups. Still, I have avoided having the mixed group (except on a few special occasions) for two primary reasons.
First, it is the homogeneous quality of sound which gives like-instrument ensembles their peculiar pedagogical benefits. A group of instruments with the same basic tone quality (remember, by the way, that the euphonium is essentially the tenor member of the “tuba family” and shares many or most of the tuba’s tonal characteristics) produces a very pleasing sound when players match volume, tone quality, pitch, and articulation with one another, but as I have already mentioned, the margin of error in these groups is very small, thus forcing players to develop even greater accuracy in all of these areas. This benefit is largely lost when the contrasting tone qualities of two groups of instruments are combined.
Secondly, there is an extremely small amount of literature out there that was truly composed or arranged with a “mixed low brass” ensemble in mind. Conductors of such a group usually find themselves trying to “retrofit” works composed or arranged for one of the like-instrument low brass ensembles, with unpredictable and often less-than-satisfying results. A large mixed low brass group can be pleasing when well-written music is available (three such arrangements of mine are currently in print; see here, here, and here), but with such a small repertoire and, again, the pedagogical limitations of such groups, I find them to be best saved for an occasional “treat” rather than a regular activity for my students.
Leading both trombone and tuba-euphonium ensembles can be a challenge for the single “low brass” professor, with each group presenting its own strengths and weaknesses, to say nothing of the time investment involved in leading two groups (often with very little or no “load credit” awarded for the effort). Still, doing so is musically satisfying, pedagogically necessary, and well worth the efforts invested by both teacher and students.