As a university low brass instructor, I have a vested interest in seeing thriving low brass players in the school music programs around me. While I want to see and hear great playing in schools simply because I want school bands to flourish, more selfishly I want those bands to produce great players that will one day join my studio at the university. I have had the privilege of working with some very fine students over the years both at the high school and university levels, but my broad observation has been that cultivating serious and accomplished low brass players is a challenge for many programs. The following are some ideas that I hope will help to both explain and improve this situation.
“Prepare the Soil:” Make Low Brass Appealing
Cultivating a strong low brass section begins well before students start playing or even select instruments. Few students will have had much exposure to the trombone, euphonium, or tuba prior to enrolling in band, so students may need to be convinced of their desirability. When introducing new students to band instruments, 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. Additionally, you might have accomplished high school players play short demonstration pieces for the class. Played in person, the bass parts of “stands tunes” are often familiar, impressive, and exciting to young students, though “real” solo pieces or etudes are preferable where possible.
While these steps might not generate an overwhelming preference for low brass, some students will be interested, and you will at least dispel negative stereotypes that students might have.
Choose Players Most Disposed Toward Low Brass
When testing students on different instruments, encourage those 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 extremely unlikely to be successful. Students that will play low brass instruments need to not only have compatible embouchure characteristics but also must be of sufficient stature to manage large and heavy instruments. Gender stereotypes are unhelpful, as are those associating instruments with personality types or identifying players of certain instruments as somehow socially awkward.
It is often difficult to determine which students might grow up to be of sufficient size to manage larger instruments based on their appearances at age ten or eleven. The initial parent meeting can be very helpful in this regard. A small-statured student who really wants to play the trombone will necessarily raise doubts, but if you see that one or both parents are very tall, chances are that the student will grow into that trombone just fine.
Select Challenging Repertoire
Moving beyond the beginning stage, if you want your low brass players to develop and retain high-level performing skills, make a special effort to choose performance repertoire with interesting low brass parts. Many band pieces at all levels include challenging material for traditionally melodic instruments, while the trombones, euphoniums, and tubas are left sitting in the back playing long notes, rhythmic ostinatos, or “oompahs.” Good orchestration makes this necessary to some extent—a piece that is thickly scored with challenging figures for the low brass throughout will become frustrating and cumbersome for both performers and listeners—yet it sometimes seems that composers and arrangers expect low brass players to be incapable of the technical accomplishments demanded of their peers on other instruments. A “chicken or the egg” question follows: is writing for low brass usually simplistic because players are incapable of more, or are they incapable of more because of low expectations? (The answer to that question might be “yes.”)
Seek out pieces with at least occasional challenges for the low brass, and perhaps even short features. The high brass and woodwind players will welcome the respite from bearing the responsibility for all of the melodic material while the low brass players will be spurred to greater technical achievements because of the demanding music you have chosen.
Provide Chamber Music Opportunities
Pursuing chamber music is good for players of all instruments, but is particularly beneficial for low brass players. This can be an effective means of providing these students the greater technical challenges that their band parts lack, while thrusting them into new musical roles to which they are unaccustomed. Furthermore, have students take charge of their groups. Provide repertoire and some minimal coaching, but otherwise insist that students be responsible for their groups’ musical development. This prevents such groups from adding additional items to directors’ schedules, and pushes students to greater levels of leadership, achievement, and interest.
Promote Private Lessons
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. As with chamber music, the benefits here are particularly profound for low brass players because of the inconsistent diet of technical and musical challenges in their band music. Students studying privately will not only perform their band music better, but will also learn solo repertoire and perform better on all-state auditions, thus gaining further opportunities to perform more and better music. The possibility of greater college music scholarships might help to win over parents skeptical of assuming the extra expense. Additionally, the vastly expanded interest and capabilities for online teaching in the post-pandemic era mean that location is no longer an obstacle to private instruction for those with high-speed internet access.
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. Experience tells us that many low brass players will decline to continue in band for their entire middle and high school careers, perhaps choosing athletics instead, and this likelihood should be prepared for as much as possible. Nevertheless, taking the above steps will at least help to generate both achievement and interest, leading to more and better low brass players continuing in music throughout their high school careers and beyond.