Wing Commander Duncan Stubbs was appointed the Principal Director for Music for the Royal Air Force in 2009. Commissioned as an officer in the Royal Air Force in 1990 he has had experience as a Director of Music for over 25 years working with several award winning Community and Youth Bands during that time.
An Assessment of Wind Bands in Britain Today
Last year I conducted a concert featuring both the Central Band of the Royal Air Force and the Surrey County Youth Wind Orchestra. During the interval I was asked the question; ”What is the difference between a ‘wind band’ a ‘military band’ and a ‘wind orchestra’”.?I jokingly replied “a Wind Band can play loud and very loud; a Military Band can play fairly loud and incredibly loud; a Wind Orchestra aspires to play musically”. I must immediately emphasize and acknowledge the crass banality of this statement and stress the answer was intended as a humorous one. However, I subsequently realized I may well have simply reinforced an attitude which still places Wind Bands as the poor relation to the Orchestra and, possibly the brass band, even after BASBWE’s 30 years of sterling effort.
Does this matter? If, as performers and conductors we aim for the highest quality in our work, of course this matters.
Can the problem be addressed? Yes, a solid foundation has been laid but much work remains. In order to tackle the issue you first have to clearly identify the problem.? If 25 years as a Royal Air Force Director of Music have taught me anything at all, it is that if you want the right answers you have to ask the right questions.
Let’s start with this one: Do you regard a wind band as a symphonic group or a chamber ensemble? I believe this question is crucial if we are to achieve the best musical results. While the two terms have clear implications the differences between them are blurred. Simplistically, let us say: ‘symphonic’ - broad and big, ‘chamber’ - intimate and small.
A Question of Approach. In October of last year I conducted the RAF Central Band in a recording titled “British ‘Classics” (Chandos 10847). From the outset I wanted to replicate the original intent and concept of the composers, building into each work its own characteristic sound. To this end I decided to use minimal forces for the Holst Suites, in effect, using a ‘Chamber’ approach. There is considerable delicacy and clarity of scoring in these suites. For the most part we used an individual player to each part and excluded all ‘optional’ instruments (see Boosey and Hawkes, edited Colin Matthews). This immediately generated a lightness of touch and clarity of texture allowing for a more meaningful musical experience for the players who then took greater musical responsibility for their individual lines. The overall aim was to generate a performance as musical as Holst’s wonderful writing intended.?Ernest Tomlinson’s delightful ‘Suite of English Folk Dances’ was given similar treatment for the same reason and was equally rewarding to play. On listening to Vaughan Williams ‘Folk Song Suite’ in its orchestral version you can hear immediately that it was conceived with a broader character in mind. The outer movements in particular have expansive sections with ‘block’ scoring suggesting close affiliation with his symphonic writing. A larger wind band was used to reflect the ‘fuller’ sound. For Grainger’s ‘Lincolnshire Posy’ we used a further step up in musical forces. Here we really indulged in the contrasts in textures and volume that his writing invites.
The point is, for this recording, careful consideration was given to the musicalnature of the finished product as required by the score. This determined the instrumentation of each work. Simply summarized:? Intimate (chamber) - Holst and Tomlinson, or Broad (symphomic) - Grainger. The Vaughn Williams fell neatly somewhere between the two.
A Question of Intonation ? (Lessons from the ‘Chamber’ Ensemble)
I was lucky enough to have had my tertiary musical education at The University of York, an enlightened music department where I learned a great deal regarding performance practice through the medium of Chamber music.? On joining the Royal Air Force this education continued as I often played on the Music Society ‘circuit’ in a wind quintet with four post graduate Royal College of Music students. The fundamentals of performance practice were thus reinforced, in particular; intonation, balance, the importance of visual communication and the ability to adjust your timbre to suit the context of the music. This latter attribute is something we work hard at in the Central Band and was particularly relevant to the Holst recording. Encouraging section principals to visually communicate also greatly improves overall ensemble cohesion. One of the hardest things for any instrumentalist to do, whether amateur or professional, is to listen properly whilst playing.? In the same way a professional wine or tea taster educates his taste buds to detect things us normal folk would never sense, musicians must continue to refine their listening skills if they are to contribute to a better overall performance.
Recently,? I have been working with the students of the? Trinity Laban Wind Orchestra on? a programme of music largely comprising RAF Music Services commissions.
Throughout all of the rehearsals intonation remained a consistent issue. This is a common factor with all wind bands with which I have worked. It always appears to be more of an issue than with any other large ensemble. That raised the question: Is Intonation easier in a Symphony orchestra? ?and if so, why? Firstly, I don’t think it is any easier but I do believe the players are far better able to deal with the problem. Again: why? There are a number of reasons:
- The orchestra has a developmental history going back hundreds of years that has established an accepted and proven balanced ensemble where each instrument has a clearly defined role.
Because of this:
- There is an established hierarchy of section leaders and section groupings, whereby each individual player should be aware of where and to whom they should be listening at any one time.
From the very first lesson all string players have to use their ears to pitch any note and are members of a ‘unison’ section playing a single line requiring both listening and visual communication with the section leader.
I believe this hierarchical framework, the bedrock of an Orchestra, has yet to become established within the Wind Band. In addition, Woodwind players (I shall discuss brass players later) are taught to be soloists. Even in a Symphony orchestra the four wind principles are soloists for only a small percentage of the time.? Woodwind players are encouraged to develop a full and rich sound and to play with expression and feeling. This is clearly right and proper, but what preparation is that for a flautist or clarinetist when sitting among a large group of similarly trained individuals? They are not properly primed for the close ensemble disciplines that come more naturally to string players.
Are there any solutions? Let’s consider some specifics.
The wind band has a considerable variety of tone colours. Whilst a characteristic and highly valued strength this does mean that:
- The number of upper partials (overtones)? when many or all instruments are playing generate a rich texture full of potential ‘clashes’ particularly in the upper frequencies.
- The large number of treble instruments compound this problem.
- As the frequencies of the notes in the upper registers are ‘closer together, intonation issues become even more noticeable.
I recently heard a ladies barbershop choir concert.? The choir comprised 6 ‘low’ altos, 6 ‘medium’ altos, 4 ‘high’ altos and only 2 sopranos. The balance was superb. In an orchestra a single piccolo player or a high trumpet can be comfortably heard over a full orchestra. The lesson is, high frequencies will carry. How does this inform our problem?
As they get near the top end of their compass, flutes, clarinets, oboes and trumpets should be encouraged to play quieter, whatever their individual dynamic marking. They will then be able to:
- More easily listen to the bass of any chord which should be full and secure thereby forming a solid foundation on which to build.
- Have a better chance to hear their fellow players, hear the other instruments in the same register and better appreciate their part in the musical structure.
Another often overlooked solution is simply to judicially, sensibly and, above all musically, reduce numbers in order to better achieve the musical ends. There so often are large numbers of players in this upper realm. Fewer players will improve intonation. I am not saying turn players away (see below) but I am saying have the moral and musical courage, as a conductor with responsibility for the music, to strive for a more musical result. Your players will see you are sincere in your desire for musical improvement and , who knows, those players omitted might even be encouraged to practice in order to be the ones left playing.
A Question of Attitude. For purpose of comparison I will only consider the symphony orchestra and brass band. While the big band (and many other groups) have links regarding instrumentation these two are more pertinent.
Orchestral mentality. The symphony orchestra is the leading ensemble worldwide where instrumentalists have the opportunity for a full time professional playing career. The life is very demanding and the competition for salaried posts exceptionally keen.? The standards required are extraordinarily high and should be the standards aspired to by any instrumental student. The strings provide the foundation across all the registers. All wind parts are specifically written for a set number of players, one to a part. Brass players are written in like fashion and more often than not they have endless bars rest. Both groups of instruments are used to add their individual quality for musical reasons either as soloist, as a section or in cooperation with other. The players listening skills and their awareness of their place in the score is highly developed.? They take individual responsibility for all aspects of their playing, they know where they fit in, copious bars rests are often the norm. Collectively, nothing matches the symphonic splendor of an orchestra in full flow.
Brass Band mentality. I remain somewhat uncomfortable with the league tables and the competitive nature of the brass band world, but I firmly believe that the musical training required for this approach provides an excellent bedrock for large ensemble playing. Soloists are acknowledged, and indeed, specifically challenged as part of the competitive process. However,? any rubato or individual license is subject to rigorous censure as they remain subservient to the goal of winning the contest. ? Good! This means every individual, no matter what their rank or status must be aware of the whole.? There is a set number of players for the ensemble and, usually through strong leadership (the conductor), the players have a collective goal to perform the piece to the band’s best ability aiming to satisfying all the technical and musical elements required. Furthermore, given the uniformity of tone and note production and the established balance of the brass instruments, I might argue intonation problems are less acute.
Wind Band Mentality.?The symphony orchestra has a definite professional purpose that drives its goal for the highest of standards. The brass band has a definite competitive aim which drives its goal for performance qualities. What drives a wind band?
The National Concert Band Festival is making an excellent contribution in carrying forward the winds band’s cause.? When considering the groups taking part it is apparent that there are two common themes underlining the formation of the groups; social (ie. the community bands) and educational.? I would suggest the main purpose of the wind band and, indeed, the drive behind its evolution to date, is primarily educational. Surely there can no finer or higher ideals as the drive to educate must also be the drive to achieve high standards. All too often non musical issues take precedence over musical ones and wind bands may lose sight of their musical goal.
A Question of Balance. Here we come to the heart of the matter. The wind band is an open and inclusive organization. All are welcome and all the wind bands I have conducted invariably have a positive vibe and everyone is there to enjoy themselves. This is, of course, the essence of music making and always is its greatest strength.? But, all too often I come up against a recurring? problem.? Some pieces do not have a bari sax or, perhaps an E flat clarinet part, is there a alto clarinet part? cornets or trumpets, or both? Sound familiar? What do we do? “Let the bari sax double the bass line” or “alto clarinet can play the alto sax part”.
A Question of Numbers. There is often a flock of flutes. How many clarinets should there be? Are there too many trumpets? I believe there is a simple and very straight forward answer to all of these questions but it requires courage on the part of the conductor and a willingness on the part of the players to put music first. In short, adjust the numbers playing (ie the balance) as the music dictates, varying the numbers of players within the piece if need be.? If the composer didn’t write for bari sax, then don’t use a bari sax, maybe the composer didn’t want one. If the flute parts require light, piano playing, reduce the numbers for that passage. These are musical considerations and, if players are then left counting bars, they must accept that is what the music requires.
So What? So what does all this mean?? Where does it leave us? Should we seek for the wind band to be on a par with orchestra?? Yes, we must always strive to improve. Improvement brings the highest rewards and can only increase our musical satisfaction, why else do we take an instrument out of its box? The wind band is still a comparatively young ensemble and continues to develop. Composers are writing more and more for a set instrumentation which eases the problems outlined above and helps the conductor significantly.? The National Concert Band Festival is providing a vehicle to drive standards. Military Bands, as the only full time professional outlet for wind band musicians, must strive to set the standards for all to aspire to. This is my challenge.
Approach and Attitude. The wind band is a collection of a wide variety of instruments offering a wealth of tone colours with the potential to create a huge breadth of style and emotion. This is its strength which I believe has yet to be fully utilized.? This variety of instrumentation is also its potential weakness as players lack that firm identity (as in the symphony orchestra and brass band) of exactly where they fit and what musical part they contribute to the whole.
I firmly believe a chamber ensemble approach is essential. The wind band is a conglomeration of several different chamber groups ? it is not, inherently, a coherent symphonic whole. However, herein lies its strength. Conductors should work closely with section leaders to encourage them to lead more and, in turn, link each section through the band, thereby generating closer lines of communication throughout the ensemble. In this way, developing musicality and laying fundamentals of musical performance can progress. Furthermore, musical courage and responsibility is essential in a director to make those musical decisions to employ chamber size forces as dictated by the music to provide the full range of musical contrast that embrace and enhances the symphonic ideal.
If we are to ‘compete’ with the Symphony orchestra and not be second fiddle (no pun intended) then we must continue to persevere.? The challenge is to utilize a chamber approach in order to embrace the potential versatility of the wind band and thus produce a coherent symphonic performance.? Continue to build the quality repertoire,continue to champion the best works, but above all, (and I here refer you back to the opening question of this article) : ?”What is the difference between a ‘wind band’ a ‘military band’ and a ‘symphonic wind orchestra’”.?Answer:? It doesn’t matter, so long as they all aspire to be as musical as possible.