How to Conduct Brass Players
I got a call from a youth symphony conductor a few years ago. She asked, “Why do my trumpet players sound so tired and scratchy at the end of every concert?”
“Do you have a warm up rehearsal where they play the all the music right before the concert?” I asked.
“Don’t do that!”
This conductor had a good reputation and had been conducting the youth symphony for decades. It never dawned on her that playing first trumpet in a Tchaikovsky symphony might be tiring and difficult for a young - or any player. Doing it twice in a span of a couple of hours borders on silliness. Its like asking someone to warm up for a marathon by running a marathon. Yet this happens thousands of times a week, all over the world.
Playing a brass instrument is different than any other kind of instrument. We make the sounds with our bodies. There is no reed, no string, nothing to hit, scrape, bow or pluck. Our challenges are quite different from other musicians. Playing a brass instrument feels different every time you play. You can be playing just fine and after a few moment’s rest find that your lips have gotten a little tired or swollen and all of a sudden it feels quite different.
It is also different than other instruments because you can’t tell by looking at the player what note they are playing. You can look at where a violinist has their hands or what keys a flute player has down and know what note they are playing. But each fingering on brass instruments could be used to play a dozen or more notes. In the high ranges you can play a chromatic scale without changing the valves.
Brass players put an enormous amount of strain on tiny little muscles that were not designed to do much of anything other than keep your mouth closed when you drink. We spend hours using the little muscles around our mouth.
It’s like trying to carry a heavy suitcase with one finger. At first it seems impossible but with practice we gain strength and efficiency. Even after many years we can’t keep the suitcase above ground for more than a few minutes.
When our chops are tired or we play something poorly written (or twice in one afternoon!) then it feels like the suitcase has a thin handle and it hurts.
Why brass players miss notes
If you bow an open violin string you are going to get a G, D, A or E. You will only get those notes. On a wind instrument you can see which fingers are down and that will define the note. On a keyboard the notes are visible and the same note comes out every time.
Not so on a brass instrument.
In the high range of a brass instrument you can play a chromatic scale with no valves. You can play more than a dozen notes with each fingering. We change notes using the speed and focus of the air and the tension of the lips - nothing you can see or quantify.
Since there is no visual cue of what note is coming out the player is guessing on every note. It takes courage!
It’s no wonder we have trouble plucking the right note out of thin air and even the best players wind up missing, nicking or clamming notes frequently, especially in the high range. It’s harder when the notes are high, low, loud, quiet or skipping intervals.
Horns tend to miss more notes because they play higher up in the overtone series. When a trumpet player plays C (third space) in the treble staff the next open note above is the G at the top of the staff. On an F horn the next open note is D, then E then F# then G.
But that doesn’t mean it feels good to any player when a note is missed. No one wants the right notes to come out more than the player.
Things that make it more difficult for us to play the right notes
Poor rhythmic ensemble
Room temperature (too hot, too cold or varying quickly)
How to help
- Don’t rehearse tiring passages over and over. Brass players don’t get better if they just repeat the same music over and over. The music is much simpler and the players don’t need as much rote learning as string or wind parts. You shouldn’t be afraid to ask brass players to repeat a section but you have to be aware that it might tire them out. Consider working on short excerpts instead of long passages.
- If you have to have a ‘warm up rehearsal’ demand that the players leave out tiring passages and rest more than they play. Non-professionals have a difficult time as they feel that they have a duty to play every note on the page. Professionals have a response if a conductor asks why they aren’t playing: do you want it now or at the concert? That should be your attitude too. Many union contracts forbid rehearsals on concert days for this reason.
- If a player misses a high note the last thing you want to do is to yell at them. They want to play the right note, they practice to hit the right note and they are more frustrated than you that the note didn't come out right. Your attitude should be ‘what can I do to make it more likely the right note will come out?’ Maybe you adjust intonation or balance or make sure your beat pattern is really clear so there are no timing problems.
- If you can, have different players play principal on the different pieces of a concert. In a professional orchestra it’s not unusual to have a principal, an associate principal and an assistant principal. The principal will play first on the pieces with the most prominent parts or a solo. The associate will play first on the pieces the principal doesn’t play in. The assistant plays when the other principal wants to rest during a piece. In a youth symphony or school band it’s much more common to have one player cover the first part by themselves.
- Know what helps or hurts acoustically. Be careful what you put right behind the horns. If you put a timpani right behind them the energy from that drum will go right into the horns’ bells. It will make them tire out quickly (and many won’t realize why) and will make them less accurate. If you put the trumpets on a riser in a live hall they may wind up trying to play too quietly.
- Work on intonation. If I am trying to play A440 and the person next to me is playing A445 their sound will go into my bell and keep my note from speaking, or it may crack or simply be very tiring to play. If that person is in tune with me and we both play A440 then their sound will make it easier to play. Pros rarely get really tired at the end of a show but if they sit in with a youth symphony or church orchestra their embouchure will be destroyed in 5 minutes. Work on making the brass section in tune with itself and teach them to play the perfect intervals in tune and your section will sound much better.
- Give cues. Lots of cues. Check everywhere the brass has more than a few measures of rest and help them come in. Orchestral brass parts can have very long rests in them (hundreds of measures is not unusual) and help finding an entrance is frequently necessary.
- Teach the players how to cheat. Professional players do this all the time. We are constantly asking the other players in the section to cover some notes for us so we can get a break or take a breath. In places where the parts are doubled we frequently take turns.
Band v Orchestra
When joining a youth symphony almost all brass players will have experience playing in a concert band. Playing in an orchestra is quite different. There is no drum line to help you keep the tempo, players are more spaced apart and you are likely to play your own part rather than sharing with another player. Add to that the different style of play and sound, the need to transpose, etc. and you can see how it can be an overwhelming experience at first.
It’s especially helpful to set up your orchestral brass section so they can see each other. Having them in a long straight line is easy to draw on your stage setup but is problematic for young people. They will get lost more often and won’t be able to balance the sound as easily.