All change – Playing outside

Playing outside – what’s the big deal?

what-brass-players-want-playing-outsidePlaying outside is a regular occurrence for any musician that plays in a brass band. All of those bank holiday weekends and summer fete jobs are upcoming in many of the countries brass bands. The start of the season can often be a little unsettling and many people can find the variety of venues (official bandstands in a park, under a large gazebo or just simply in the middle of a field!) difficult to work with.

In a rehearsal room it is easy to become lulled into a false sense of security in terms of who you listen to, the different instrumental parts that you rely on or how the balance feels. Sitting in the middle of a field can easily feel like a million miles away from what you are used to in terms of balance, sound or ensemble when sat in the band room.

The conductor is obviously crucial in these circumstances and they will have a clearer view of how things sound, togetherness and balance. As an instrumentalist, it is important to ensure that you keep an eye on what is going on around you and look for important cues or information from your conductor.

What problems can you face?

The problems that you can easily face when playing outside include the following:

1) Wind, rain or other wintery conditions.
2) Cold, excessive heat or glaring sunlight.
3) Feeling that the sound you make is being sucked up into the air and disappearing and uncertainty about the balance, personal volume or section volume.
4) Loss of ensemble because it becomes difficult to hear the parts you normally hear.

How can you overcome the problems easily?

1) Wind, rain or other wintery conditions.

what-brass-players-want-playing-outsideMost brass bands will have a designated member that will be in charge of the peg box or peg bag. Just in case, it is always a good idea to carry four pegs in your case. They can be left there all year as they will not take up much space and could be a real life saver in an emergency! Another problem with wind is that it can blow your stand over – especially if you have pegged the music to it. To avoid this, set the legs of the stand so they are as far apart as possible and have one of the legs pointing toward your foot. If you then put your foot over the leg of the stand you know that should a sudden gust of wind arrive your stand will not act like a kite and take off. Rain can be a real problem and can easily destroy a whole set of music. This can also easily be dealt with by having a band set of clear, thin plastic or perspex sheets that can be pegged over the music should the rain decide to pour. This will save the band music and potentially prevent a massive cost to replace lost or damaged music.

2) Cold, excessive heat or glaring sunlight.

To help with the cold, make sure that you have as many layers as possible. Band jackets may not always be the height of fashion but they are useful for keeping you warm on a chilly day. If the venue is particularly cold and you are playing in the winter it may be worth investing in a plastic mouthpiece. This will feel a great deal less painful on the embouchure and allow for easier playing. You could also run your normal mouthpiece under very hot water before you are due to play (not always possible) and use it to warm up your lips and other facial muscles.

With exceptionally hot weather it can be very difficult to keep playing to the best of your ability. Hopefully you will have jackets off and short sleeved shirts (not always possible in some bands) and have the benefit of a gazebo or other covering to play under. Unfortunately this is not always the case and you may well be simply placed in the middle of a field for a couple of hours. Ensure that you have a hat and a pair of sunglasses handy just in case. Always carry a bottle of water and put this by the leg of your chair and keep hydrated. During the break search for some shade and make sure you have a break from the sun to avoid sun-stroke or heat related issues.

3) Feeling that the sound you make is being sucked up into the air and disappearing.

If you are playing bass, or any other instrument where the bell faces upwards it can be more difficult to gain a real awareness of the volume of the sound that you are making and how this balances with the rest of the group. The most important thing to do in these circumstances is to watch like crazy and trust your conductor completely! They will have the best understanding of how the balance is working (or not) and will be best placed to cue you as to what is needed. Very often you may need to play a little louder than you are used to in certain circumstances. As a bass player, I have always been advised to play louder rather than softer and to drive the beat forward.

4) Loss of ensemble because it becomes difficult to hear the parts you normally hear.

what-brass-players-want-playing-outsideWhen you are playing outside, in an extremely reverberant church or a flat, dry acoustic, the conductor will need to make alterations to a number of elements of the sound, balance and ensemble. It may, for example be necessary to slow the tempo slightly for faster music in a church or an extremely reverberant space so that clarity and definition remains. The conductor may decide to ask for more from particular sections in certain acoustics as certain frequencies may be dull, or too lively. The only real way of working through this is to trust the conductor and respond as best you can and also to really tune in to those around you. Find a particular player in the group that you know you can hear clearly and will be on the beat and in tune consistently and try to lock in with them and the conductor. Practice this in the band room with different members of your group and you will begin to find out much more about the music you play and improve your overall awareness of ensemble, balance and tuning.

Hard work (sometimes) but rewarding (always)!

Playing outside can sometimes feel like a real slog and dealing with an extremely reverberant room can often be perplexing, but these different experiences have so much to offer. Getting your group out into different venues keeps not only the brass band movement alive, but also music itself. This is always something that is worthwhile and allows many people to experience live music, often for free, and will help to ensure the longevity of brass band music for future generations.

what-brass-players-want-playing-outsideWhat problems have you encountered when playing in different venues over the summer holiday period or during Christmas?

Share your ideas, advice and tips for others below by adding a comment.

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