A unified brass section is a glorious thing! But a brass section that’s out of balance, tune, or tone can be more reminiscent of a college football game than the glorious concert band sound you’re striving for—develop your brass section’s sound by testing out these three tips!
Air, Air, Air
The feedback wind players receive most often is in regards to air: more air, faster air, support with your air… but rarely do we provide our students with more information than that. To a young brass player, the idea of increasing anything with air often just turns into blowing faster and likely losing large amounts of embouchure support while doing so! Instead of asking for “faster” or “more” air, ask your students if they can create a denser air stream (more quantity of air, but blown at the same speed). To move air densely, the front of the tongue will come down and they will engage more in the corners of the embouchure. Dense air may sound similar to the idea of moving warm (or hot) air, but helps students identify that the speed and volume of the airstream are just as strong!
A dense airstream supports sound quality and is more conducive to using rounded vowel shapes (“Ah, Oh”), which add color and volume to the sound. Ask your brass players to explore how using a denser airstream impacts the oral cavity/mouth shape they use. Closed mouth shapes like “Ee” and “Uew” are not conducive to this type of air movement, and students using constricted oral shapes will find this new approach to air encourages other elements of their mouth shape to open up.
What does your sound sound like?
It’s easy for students to self-evaluate pitches, rhythms, and dynamics, but when was the last time you asked your students to evaluate their sound quality? Ask your brass players to listen to the sounds coming out of their bell: Do they like their sound? Is the sound consistent, or does it get better/worse depending on the range or volume? Do they sound like their neighbor? How can they sound more like their neighbor?
Next, bring attention to the “less important” parts of the music: Does every off-beat sound the same? Is each note in the bassline equally sonorous? Regularly check in with the brass section and ask what they hear. This will help reinforce the idea of listening to their sound instead of playing off muscle memory.
Brass players are often curious students, and with parts that aren’t terribly involved, they have a larger capacity for intellectual engagement in their music-making. Every note your students play can and should sound amazing: the off beats, counter melodies, repetitive bass lines, and all the other parts we ignore to prioritize melodies. What becomes tricky is remembering to hold all voices accountable for making beautiful sounds the whole time! By bringing attention to the quest of musical excellence on “unimportant” parts, we remind our students that they should always be paying attention to the sounds that come out of their bells.
Balancing the Brass section
The best brass sections are always listening and adjusting to what they hear around them! With younger musicians, it’s important to encourage them to listen not only to their own instrument group but also to the other instruments within their family (i.e. the whole brass choir!)
In addition to encouraging section listening, work with your brass players to hear how their line fits into the full brass choir: Can your trumpets hear the bass line? Do your trombones and euphoniums know what the horns are playing? Practice building listening skills by isolating each part and polling students to decide where each instrument belongs in the texture. Then, pair melody and bass voices with harmony parts to ensure each instrument group understands its role in the brass ensemble and how each part interfaces with the ensemble as a whole!
Give your brass ensemble frequent opportunities to play as a section (without the winds and percussion). Ask them if they feel the group is playing as a team or a collection of individuals. Let them decide what a good brass section sounds like: repeat passages with a heavy bass line emphasis, stronger mid voices, then melodic emphasis and allow your students to choose what the ideal brass section balance should be. This can also be done through the lens of tuning and chord balancing. The more you can open their ears to what’s going on around them, the easier it will be for them to fit into not only the section sound, but the band sound as a whole!