Recruiting & Retaining Low Brass Players
Tips for making low brass hip again
Many teachers struggle to recruit low brass students. The remedy is an overhaul of practices that may be working against your desired outcome. You need to build a culture whereby playing a low brass instrument is perceived to be a good choice, with a certain amount of status attached. You also need to put systems in place whereby low brass students feel musically fulfilled and supported. Here are some tips that will help achieve this.
How to counteract preconceptions and ignorance when recruiting
Saxophone, flute, and trumpet are part of popular culture, but how many people know what a euphonium is? Even when people do know what a trombone, euphonium or tuba is, low brass instruments are not usually considered “hip.” Furthermore, research shows that these instruments are perceived to be masculine. You are trying to convince students to play instruments that they might not know exist; probably won’t think are cool; and probably won’t appeal to 50 per cent of your student body (girls). We have to counteract these perceptions and ignorance. Here are some ways to do that:
1. Make low brass look cool
Utilise guest artists, clinicians, YouTube clips, and posters to portray low brass instruments in a positive manner. Carefully control what role models younger students see at school, and don’t promote popular instruments. If you have poor instrumentation in your ensembles, don’t have your band play at assembly and feature a saxophone soloist, for example. Feature a low brass soloist instead. If you don’t have a capable student, get a guest soloist.
2. Make low brass appear selective
Recruit your low brass players from the “best and brightest” applicants. Let it be known that the top students get selected to play low brass. This gives some status to the students who are the “chosen few.”
3. Treat low brass players well
Regularly ask for volunteers to switch to trombone, euphonium or tuba. If you treat your low brass players well, and emphasise the importance of these instruments, students will want to play them. Some are attracted to the idea of being special (i.e. there is more status to being the only euphonium player than one of ten alto sax players). Others have a sense of civic duty and want to do what is best for the ensemble. Don’t switch euphonium players to tuba (unless you have excess euphonium players). Flute to tuba is a good switch (they both use heaps of air). Trumpet to Eb tuba works well too.
How to encourage low brass players within the ensemble
How often do you tell the whole ensemble how important the low voices are? Do you choose repertoire where the low brass get interesting parts to play (maybe even the melody)? Consider these points:
1. Select low brass-friendly music
In addition to interesting band repertoire flexibly scored, quality chamber music is fantastic for low brass players, as it takes them out of the back row and allows them to play the melody. If you can’t form a brass quintet or tuba/euphonium quartet, what about a tuba, bari sax, euphonium and tenor sax quartet?
2. Provide additional support
Are your low brass players exhausted from trying to balance up to multitudes of flute/sax players, only to be told that they are “dragging” or not playing with good tone? If you don’t have enough low brass players, support them in band with the addition of a keyboard bass (with an appropriate sounding low brass “patch”). For example, the Yamaha PSR-E453 playing the French horn patch in the tuba register, works really well. Bass guitars are not the best substitute for low brass, as they do not have the ability to sustain sound or make effective crescendos. If you have too many flutes, saxes, etc., make some of them sit out in sections of the music where they are just too much. This educates the students in terms of balance and blend. It might also make some consider a career change to instruments the ensemble needs.
3. Consider grouping needs
Trombone, euphonium, and tuba players need to develop good brass fundamentals. That doesn’t mean they always need to be in a lesson group with other brass players. Low brass players can benefit from being grouped with low reeds. This helps with pitch and helps their ensemble playing, as they will develop confidence and a sense of teamwork with the other low voices. A single low brass student in a group of trumpets, for example, might feel conspicuous and not want to stick out.
How to make life practically easier for low brass students
These instruments can be heavy and awkward, so here are some practical considerations you can make to assist them:
1. Size matters
Have appropriate-size instruments (and mouthpieces) for students. Several compact tubas have come on the market in recent years. Consider baritones (smaller than euphoniums) for primary school students. Eb tubas are smaller, more versatile, sound less “muddy”, and are easier to pitch on than Bb tubas.
2. Consider transportation
To make life easier for students, gig bags, cases with wheels, tuba stands (for students who have trouble reaching the mouthpiece), and chairs that have enough room from front to back so the tuba doesn’t slip off the front of the chair should be considered. Do you have enough instruments so that students could have an instrument at home and one at school? This makes life easier for the student/family. Less transporting also increases the lifespan of school instruments. Or is it possible for students to practice at school some days to minimise the number of times the instrument needs to be transported? Students who use public transport often appreciate this option. When taking your band on excursions, students who play instruments larger than a tenor saxophone should be exempt from having to carry equipment other than their instrument.
The importance of being patient
Don’t expect to fix your lack of low brass overnight. Changing culture takes time. If you are consistently starting low brass players every year, and if you are careful not to work against your own best interests, you can improve your low brass situation in a year or two.
WORDS BY: Dr. Heather McWilliams
Heather McWilliams earned a Ph. D. in Curriculum & Instruction (Music Education) from the University of Wisconsin — Madison in 2003, before teaching tuba, euphonium, band, and music education courses at American universities for more than a decade. She has taught instrumental music in Queensland and Western Australia. Heather currently works for Education Queensland. She is also a freelance conductor and clinician.