Why you should put together a brass quintet or chamber group

Setting up a chamber group and playing as part of a small group can be one of the most musically fulfilling things that you can do.  Performing in a quintet allows you to get into the nitty-gritty of musical interpretation and gives a lot of scope for experimentation.

Brass Quintet 1

This picture of Alba Brass is attributed to Andy Farrington

Due to the work of Philip Jones, the PJBE, Monzil Brass, Canadian Brass and Empire brass (to name but a few), there is currently more music available now than ever.  The music is also much more socially accepted which makes getting an audience for your concerts a little easier.

The music available contains a wide array of arrangements and original compositions that can provide variety and contrast.

Now, obviously, being part of a quintet is not always a bed of roses.  Interpreting and developing your own musical thoughts about a piece of music is one thing, but within a chamber group it will be important to be able to discuss and take on board the ideas of others.  A chamber group needs to have a group of people with a common aim or goal that are able to work with each other.  Within every piece it will be necessary to understand who is required to lead the piece in terms of dynamic changes, tempo and style.  Very often it will be the 1st trumpet player who leads in and stops the ensemble as it easiest for them to show tempo, dynamic or style with a simple look and wave of the bell.  However, this obviously changes very regularly within every piece of music.  Sometimes the agreement as to who does what is clear cut and obvious, and at other times it will require much more conversation.

Even though ideas about interpretation, particular ways of approaching a change in tempo (such as rallentando or accelerando) it may often happen differently during performance.  The key factor is learning how the people in you group will react and pre-empting what it is they will do.  This will sometimes happen exactly as you expect, and sometimes will require some real-time and quick response and adaptation.

Playing as part of a small group is a fantastic way of developing the skill of ensemble playing.  It is possible to focus on accuracy of rhythm and co-ordination of ornaments (hemiolas, grace notes and turns for example).  This will allow the ensemble to be rhythmically tight.  Following this there is the opportunity of focusing on balance and intonation.  Balance is very important, as one instrument is often required to stand out more than the other.  This is not always easy to understand from within the group and can sometimes require the assistance of an outside listener of a recording.  Developing good intonation and tuning as an ensemble is crucial, and achieving this requires a good ear.

Playing as part of a chamber ensemble can be very musically intimate.  Working closely with four other musicians requires an understanding and awareness can create a real sense of magic.  Of course playing as part of an ensemble is a very rewarding challenge and will provide lots of enjoyment.  The effort given to developing awareness of interpretation and the understanding of how other react musically will provide a real range of musical opportunities.

A step-by-step approach to setting up a brass quintet:

  1. Decide on your own reasons for starting a group, and what you hope will be the main focus of the group (gigs, recordings, goals)
  2. Think about potential music (are you looking for a specific focus like only looking at original compositions, or playing arrangements of classical music only?)
  3. Develop arranging skills if necessary (this is always a great idea and could save a lot of money)
  4. Have a selection of pieces ready before the first rehearsal that you know are fun to play and not too challenging.  This will give you and the rest of the group a chance to listen to each other and begin working out how you all work together musically
  5. Find your group and organize a first rehearsal
  6. Give your members an idea of what the group’s aims could be
  7. Before the rehearsal, work out what equipment you need, and what other members of the group will need to bring with them
  8. During the first rehearsal, decide how often rehearsals will take place
  9. During the first rehearsal, decide where rehearsals will take place
  10. During the first rehearsal, discuss any thoughts or ideas about how the group could develop or if there are any other ideas people haven’t already shared
  11. After the first rehearsal go to the pub and get to know each other

Setting up a group can be a challenge, but as discussed above it is something that can provide great benefits, both musically and socially.  There are hundreds of ways of approaching this and will vary with your own personal situations.  There are some simple steps that should make the process a little simpler, but also stop some problems from occurring before they happen.

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