Are brass instruments just too much for today’s youth?

To be honest, learning to play any instrument requires dedication, perseverance and time.  Very often the squeaks, honks and other unattractive noises that come from a beginner brass instrumentalist can be the instant off button for a would-be musician.

Little_Cello_PlayerSome instruments are just easier to get a sound out of than others.  You would expect to get a far better sound from a trumpet more quickly than a flute or violin for example in most cases.  (Yes there will of course be exceptions to the rule!)

So for the everyday teenager, the prospect of making a fairly rubbish sound for quite a while, and then be ridiculed by his or her peers must surely provide the biggest turn-off for a new beginner from the age of 11 or so upwards.  Now if the instrument of choice were say an electric guitar, drums or bass guitar then things start to turn out a little differently.  The mention of these instruments comes with a degree of kudos and the mention of them is seen as cool or whatever the current colloquial version of the word may well be…

So, with peripatetic lessons declining and less of a focus on music and music-making in schools from our current educational secretary, our teachers need to focus on a few important factors.

1)   Generating interest of brass instruments from KS2 (junior/primary school)

2)   Getting students used to hearing a wider variety of music (recorded and live) from KS2

3)   Increasing take-up rate of brass instruments

4)   Increasing retention rate

5)   Develop long term musical awareness, not just an exam factory of ABSRM grades, through ensemble playing

euphonium-93850_640So, generating more interest.  This is a tricky one, as generally it will fall to the school’s instrumental teaching staff.  They may well be peripatetic and employed privately or employed through a Music Service. But to increase exposure the only real way of doing this is to provide demonstrations.  This will require the support of the music coordinator, and/or teaching staff and possible assembly slots.  Tying all of this in can be fairly difficult and will depend on teaching commitments.  The other issue with this is that this will require more input from the school’s teaching staff to continue to push the point home.  From speaking to any primary school teacher, it becomes all too clear that although this seems like a simple request it is not the easiest thing to make happen.  Primary school teachers have been under the microscope with lots of policy changes and ever-changing schemes that are generally never fully seen through, and an impossible daily array of subjects and the next important fad insisted upon by the powers that be.

Really the emphasis will lie with the instrumental teacher and this is something that needs more facilitation by individual staff and music services.  Never easy, but the increase of input will usually result in more teaching work so it seems like a win-win situation for the instrumental teacher.  Following up after the demonstration is crucial, and the onus for this should really lie with the instrumental teacher.

euphonium-93884_640Listening to a wide variety of music is very important for any musician, but in my opinion it is essential for any human being. How has a civilised Western culture allowed itself to become so nonchalant toward such a rich history of music?  To the average person the greatest composers in history have been consigned to the past and given little reference or value.  Mentioning Bach or Mozart will usually ellicit the response that the composers are heard of but that is about it.  Attempting to discuss any other composers that may well not be quite so well known is often a complete waste of time.  Worse still is the reluctance to even listen to the music with any degree of acceptance.  I have increasingly found this to be true when speaking to adults (those that consider themselves to be unmusical) and alarmingly is the case with the majority of secondary age school children.

Very often just the thought of listening to music provokes a response of boredom or lack of interest from a variety of school age children.  Over the last few years when starting to teach GCSE students I have asked the question, ‘Who has ever been to a live brass band, orchestra or chamber concert?’ This has averaged out at about 15% of the class.  So school trips are a definite must, unless the parents are willing to be proactive.  There in lies the issue.  Trips are so difficult to organise within a primary or secondary school, and the process of hoop jumping is becoming more and more embroiled in school policy.

The take up rate of instrumentalists appear, from my own experiences, to not really be that much different to how it has been during the past 10 years or so.  There are obvious peaks and troughs, but it does seem that the larger brass instruments are falling out of favour within the secondary school.  It seems that euphonium, trombone or tuba are, and will probably always be, a bit of an acquired taste.  The difficulty comes in initially getting the right students interested in playing a brass instrument and then thinking ahead to the possibility of moving them on to one of these lower instruments.  I guess that this issue is faced by woodwind and string teachers who may well have less students playing bassoon and double bass than they do flute or violin for example.

Getting them interested in the first place is paramount, and that can only really be done through educating and demonstrating.

Retention of new brass players is also important, as this is the only way we can euphonium-93874_640ensure that new generations of instrumentalists exist.  The only real way of keeping students going is to provide good quality education that is not only based on passing exams, but allows the student to develop musically.  This is not simply through just playing the music that the student chooses to play all of the time, but through a challenging, but approachable, broad repertoire base.  The student needs to understand that progress is not really a continuous upward line, but more a series of peaks and troughs and that it may well feel at times as if things are getting worse.

Braces pose a number of issues for brass players and I have covered this as an obstacle in a previous blog.  Click here to read more on this subject.

Getting students involved in ensemble playing from the earliest stages is essential.  It will often provide students with the chance to develop musically at a faster rate and can help to build confidence.  However, I really am not a fan of shared instrumental lessons within the cramped timetable of a school peripatetic teacher.  Lessons in groups of two, three or more can work very well and prove to be cost effective if the lessons are given adequate time, students are on the same instrument or if the lesson is treated as an ensemble rehearsal or workshop.

So, is it the beginning of the end for the future of brass playing?  Well I think not, although times may look tough I kind of get the feeling that things have always looked a bit tough.  Where there is a level of commitment from local instrumental teachers delivering quality tuition, instrumental making will always pull through.  It may be a slightly darker time for the growth of the brass fraternity in the UK, but I am sure that things will be in a far better place in the next five to ten years.

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Are brass instruments just too much for today’s youth? — 3 Comments

  1. At least in the U.S., kids don’t seem to want to do anything that takes any work. Just play on their cell phones all day. Learning an intrument, building models, anything that takes time or work is out the window. It’s a sad commentary. I like your ideas. Hopefully, it will bring/keep more youth into learning an insturment.

  2. The ideas you have are really good. How would you suggest developing younger players interests in different types of music? Some Trumpet/Cornet players I teach love to play a brass instrument – especially theirs – because they can play loud and the tune and really “whack it out.” It is then almost always impossible to get them to play simpler and quieter music and even more so to enjoy it as they don’t understand brass instruments can sound at their best when they do this and that it is a more impressive skill. I know they are young (start of secondary) and it may come with age, but how would you suggest it?

  3. Emma,

    Thanks for your comment. I have had a think about this and I understand exactly where you are coming from. In the past I have had some students that have felt that loud, harsh, high and brash was the most fun and it seemed that they had only one real dynamic level. Basically their playing was either on or off.

    I have tried working with these students away from the instrument and discussed controlling the air flow more fully. One exercise I use is to have a lit candle (make sure you won’t set the fir alarms off first!) and ask the student to blow out air in a controlled way so that the flame bends in one direction, but never gets blown out. I then ask them to apply the same principle to playing the instrument.

    Usually the transformation is absolutely magical and they find a beautiful tone hat they didn’t know that they had. I highlight (with much praise) and then work on something called wedge notes. I get the students to attempt to get the sound to appear from absolutely nothing, so it is really difficult to tell where the note really starts. The note then crescendos up to a maximum volume and then back down again dying away to nothing. It should be really difficult to tell if the note has really stopped!

    This highlights the range of volumes available and gives me something to work with. When I refer to the quieter dynamics I do so by recalling the beautiful, centred tone that was produced and talk about the quality of sound that the student makes when they go for the quieter dynamics.

    If you have a particularly competitive student you can then challenge them to see who can play certain pieces the quietest.

    These things have worked for me in the past – have you tried anything different to this that works?

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