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About British Brass Bands


The unique sound of the brass band sets it apart form other performing ensembles which use brass instruments. The brass band has a mellower and richer sound featuring cornets instead of trumpets, E-flat tenor horns instead of French horns and English bore baritone horns.

The standard instrumentation is as follows:

One E flat Soprano Cornet serves as the piccolo voice. It requires a delicate touch and is used frequently as a soloist or to add brightness to the cornet tutti sound.

Four B flat Solo Cornets are the lead voices in the ensemble. The use of four cornets permits players to switch off on parts that are frequently continuous throughout the entire piece. Divisi parts are also frequent.

Two B flat Second Cornets and two B flat Third Cornets fill out the cornet choir.

One B flat Repiano Cornet is the "roving middle linebacker" of the section. Often used as a solo voice or doubling the Soprano Cornet in unison or at the octave. The Repiano is also used to add weight to the other cornet parts.

One B flat Flugelhorn serves as a bridge to the Tenor Horns. It is a frequent solo voice and is often used as the top voice in the horn family.

Three E flat Tenor Horns (Solo, First and Second) often perform as a choir with flugelhorns and baritones. The Solo Horn is a frequent solo voice. Also commonly referred to as the Alto Horn in the United States; it is an upright, three valve instrument with a lighter sound than the French Horn.

Two B flat Euphoniums are the predominant solo tenor voices and also function as tutti enforcers with the basses.

Two B flat Baritones are often doubled with Euphoniums but work best as lower extensions of the Tenor Horn section. As separate voices, their ability to blend and add a middle-low voice without heaviness is a unique feature of the brass band.

Two B flat Tenor Trombones provide punch and drive because of their cylindrical construction.

One Bass Trombone is both a low support for the trombone section and an additional weight to the tubas.

Two E flat Tubas and two B flat Tubas give composers an extraordinary flexibility in dictating the sound of the bass part. The lighter quality of the E flats can have all the Iyricism of the Euphoniums while the fatter B flat Tuba sound adds weight. In octaves or fifths, the section can give the brass band an incredible richness of tone.

Percussionists cover the entire spectrum of percussion instruments.

British Brass Band History

The brass band dates back to the early nineteenth century and England's Industrial Revolution as an outgrowth of the medieval waits (public musicians). With increasing urbanization, employers began to finance work bands to decrease the political activity with which the working classes seemed preoccupied during their leisure time. Thus, the brass band tradition was founded. Fervent discussion has always ensued as to which band was founded first. Certainly the two bands with the longest traditions are the Bessies O'Th Barn Brass Band and the Black Dyke Mills Brass Band.

Taking advantage of improved mechanical skills and the rise of conservatoires and music departments at universities, the standards of instrumental technology and performance quickly improved. By 1860 there were over 750 brass bands in England alone. Although these bands were not fully comprised of brass instruments until the second half of the nineteenth century, the tradition developed to the present day current instrumentation of cornets, flugelhorn, tenor horns, baritones, trombones, euphoniums, B flat and E flat basses and percussion.

Contests are the lifeblood of the brass band world and rivalry has always been strong, cash prizes providing additional incentive. Nineteenth-century politicians hired bands to enliven campaigns and challenges often followed. By the 1840s, a thriving local contest circuit had grown.

Today two major championship events are held each year in England; the National Championship and the British Open Championship. The National Championship is only open to bands from England, Scotland and Wales. This competition ran sporadically in the nineteenth century from 1856, but was firmly established by Sir Arthur Sullivan in 1900. The Open Championship invites bands from all countries and has been in existence since 1853, the first winners being the Mossley Temperance Saxhorn Band. Both major championships are held in the fall each year, are fiercely competitive, and it is a great honor to win either of these competitions. The time commitment is very extensive with the top bands rehearsing at least three nights a week prior to the championships, and often every night the week before the competition itself. Youth brass band competitions are similarly well established, providing quality players for the adult bands as the young members mature, thereby continuing the tradition.

Brass bands in Great Britain presently number in the thousands with many of the bands having origins prior to 1900. Originally the bands were funded by coal mines, mills, and many today retain corporate sponsorship. To this day, the bands use only non-professional musicians who in former years were usually employed at the sponsoring company. It is a testament to the quality of performance in the brass band tradition that many players are able to secure professional positions as a result of their brass band experience. Indeed, several professional brass musicians in this country began their education in the brass band world, New York trumpeter Phil Smith and Chicago trombonist Michael Mulcahy being two good examples.

English brass bands are also popular in Japan, Australia and New Zealand; and in recent years a large number of brass bands have started in several European countries. If you plan a trip to England, be sure to find a brass band concert to attend.

What makes the brass band unique? All the brass music (with the exception of the bass trombone) is scored in treble clef, a characteristic that over the years has allowed for remarkable freedom among certain bands, making the transition from one instrument to another somewhat easier. The number of members (instrumentation) is rigid, usually limited to between twenty-eight and thirty players, but the repertoire is unusually flexible, with concert programs consisting of anything from original works, orchestral transcriptions and featured soloists to novelty items, marches, medleys, and hymn tune arrangements. With the exception of the trombones, all instruments are conical in design, producing a mellower, richer sound, yet one that has wide dynamic and coloristic variety. The term "brass band" is not entirely accurate, since brass bands also normally include up to three percussion players who are called upon to play as many as twenty different instruments depending on the demands of the music. Standard acceptance of more than one percussionist in the brass band is really a phenomenon of the last forty years, but one that has added immense challenge, interest and variety to the sound.

Although brass bands were an important part of life in nineteenth-century America, they were superseded by larger concert and marching bands. However, many fine historic brass bands are still actively performing today. During the course of this century the Salvation Army were predominantly responsible for maintaining the brass band tradition in America through their music ministry. Only in the last fifteen years has a brass band resurgence begun in North America. The formation of the North American Brass Band Association (NABBA) has been crucial and influential in the renaissance.

"Brass Bands are one of the world's most wide spread forms of amateur music performance" Original works from Gustav Holst and Edward Elgar to modern-day composers such as Philip Sparke, Edward Gregson and Joseph Horovitz have resulted in a growing and dynamic repertoire. American composers such as James Curnow, William Himes, Stephen Bulla and Bruce Broughton all got their start writing for brass bands of the Salvation Army and are currently writing brass band music in addition to their other compositions for band, orchestra and film scores.

There are presently several hundred brass bands in North America, many affiliated with NABBA, and it is not only exciting to see the tradition making a return, but also such a valuable and unique contribution to the rich musical heritage of this country. Brass Band Music There is a massive catalog of music available for brass bands spanning every conceivable style. Luckily, outside of Test Pieces, the cost is more reasonable than for wind band. Brass band music is unique in that all parts, with the exception of bass trombone, are in treble clef. This concept developed during the nineteenth century enabling self taught musicians with no formal training to move easily throughout the band. There were too many variations at the time for bass trombones, which is why it had to be notated in concert pitch. All parts, again with the exception of bass trombone, are also notated in Bb or Eb. In other words, no matter which valve instrument you are playing, written C below the staff will be open, D will be 1 & 3, E will be 1 & 2 and so forth.

Courtesy of American Brass Band Association