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Building a Better Low Brass Section: Methods and Motivation

by Dr. Scott Garlock

Statement of the Challenge

  • No ensemble utilizing brasswinds can be successful without a strong low brass section. However, in most scholastic situations, there is a cry for more and better players on these instruments.
  • Brass players have the lowest retention rate of any of the instruments, with trombone having the highest drop-out rate of all (euphonium and tuba were not included in any of these surveys or those mentioned below).
  • In tests, researchers have found that:
    – of 526 students, only 3.3% had trombone as their first choice of nine instruments. However, only 6.6% said that trombone would be their last choice.
    – in the same study, only 51.9% could identify the trombone in aural examples.

Reasons for the Challenge

  • The lack of role models in popular culture for low brass players – there are few “accidental exposures” on the radio, television or print media.
  • The history of the portrayal of the low brass on TV, in movies, etc.
  • The effect of role models on self-esteem.
  • Numerous researchers indicate the importance of self-esteem or -concept in retention and success of band membership.
  • Inherent bias against low brass players found in method books and band music.
  • Considerations on renting and performing for the beginning low brass player. Renting a euphonium or tuba is usually out of the question. School instruments offered to the beginner are customarily not in the same class as the shiny trumpet, saxophone or flute that can be rented at the local music distributor.
  • Physical difficulties in playing the low brass.

Recruitment Techniques

  • Research tells us that:
    – after drums, trombone is considered to be the most masculine of instruments.
    – girls choose a wider variety of instruments than boys.
    – boys come to kindergarten with preconceived notions about the gender of instruments and girls attach gender during third-fourth grade. We lose students before we have the opportunity to land them in the baritone section.
  • Encourage the implementation of brass into the general music curriculum.
  • The best players on instruments are started on those instruments.
  • Bassoonists seldom have a hard time starting bassoonists. We need to focus on their beautiful sounds and roles rather than their daunting size. Work to either make the low brass equal or give it special enthusiasm in the initial presentation of the instruments.
  • The effect of establishing a tradition of low brass in a district. (James Croft and Pockets of Excellence)
  • Choosing individuals to play – save some Lake Wobegon children for the low brass.
  • Choosing the proper instruments for the beginner to play. Start tubists on euphonium, or 3/4 tuba first. Also, make sure that there is an instrument for home and for school that both function and look decent. For those large enough to play tuba, use tuba chairs. Start all trombonists on an F-attachment.
  • horn or on a specially designed horn that takes into account the size of the beginner.
  • Start all brass players on tuba mouthpieces.

Creating a Friendly Environment

  • Research indicates various reasons for choosing a particular instrument or dropping out.

Reasons for quitting an instrument

  • too hard to play
  • it’s dumb, I don’t like it
  • too big, weighs too much
  • don’t like the sound
  • it’s boring

Reasons for choosing an instrument

  • it’s awesome, I like it
  • I like the sound
  • it would be easy
  • I have a friend that plays it

NAMM survey of drops in 1992

  • 41% lost interest
  • 21% conflict or disinterested by the teacher
  • 15% stronger outside interests
  • Scholastic achievement has been shown to be just slightly ahead of self-concept as predictor of success – size of lips, size of person (obviously look at the parents first) not as important.
  • Choose music that will enable them to stay interested.
  • Utilize solo and ensemble contests as much as possible to foster low brass chamber music.
  • The ease in arranging for low brass ensembles. They need to hear how beautiful their sounds are by themselves!
  • Organize, attend or perform at local conferences, colleges or Tuba Christmas’.
  • Establish a library of recordings for role model purposes with female artists also.
  • If guest artists can not be funded, schedule regular visits to the elementary and middle school level by high school players on the same instruments.
  • Because these instruments require extra headaches on parents part – rides, etc., implement Suzuki parent involvement techniques.

What Else Can You Do?

  • Encourage instrument manufacturers and distributors to feature young attractive students playing instruments with a sense of modernism in their visual media.
  • Encourage composers to further increase the importance and difficulty of low brass parts to eliminate the mindless tyranny found in much of their parts. Are the players incapable of playing fast or are they simply never expected to?

Sponsored by Jupiter Band Instruments, Inc.