05 February 2020

The Farce of Low Brass

Image result for Gerard Hofnung tuba cartoon"
copyright Gerard Hoffnung

A discussion about graded music exams with a group of students included a strong contribution from one who was a bass trombone player.  She told of how being forced to play “dreadful repertory” for graded exams had almost prompted her to give up the instrument altogether.  She complained that she was obliged to play for the exams studies and technical work which served no relevant purpose so far as she could see and, worst of all, perform “bits of unnatural musical rubbish by unknown 20th century composers” because there was no core repertory apart from orchestral parts.

Having had to endure countless low brass graded examinations, my sympathies were wholly with her.  As an examiner your heart sinks when someone stumbles into the room struggling under the weight of a tuba.  You know you’re in for a hard time.  For a start, tubas have no standard when it comes to tuning or clefs, and the first thing you have to do is ask them what key their instrument is in and what clef they play from.  Even at grade 8 few know this (surprisingly, few tubists – as they like to fashion themselves - know one clef from another, or even what a clef is).  That’s usually 10 minutes of a 20-minute exam gone before a note has been played.  And then you have all that nonsense about “C major tongued, E flat major slurred, G harmonic minor mixed articulation”, which is as nonsensical to the candidate as it is to the examiner.  But the heart sinks when it comes to the pieces, for you know there will be an inappropriate transcription (usually Panis Angelicus) and a couple of hideous scraps of pointless solo music by some inconsequential 20th century composer who has a mission either to prove that the tuba or bass trombone are as valid a solo instrument as the violin, or to screw as much money as he can from gullible, cash-laden examination boards.  With the bass trombone it seems that whatever they play resembles nothing other than a bear growling as it performs its natural functions in the woods.

But then I thought again.  There is no worthwhile solo repertory for low brass, simply because these instruments exist to fulfil a very different function from that of a violin or other solo instrument.  Without them, much orchestral repertory would not exist.  Can you imagine Wagner, Elgar, Strauss or Mahler without tuba or bass trombone?  Brass bands need them like human beings need air and water.  What is a US marching band without some lycra-clad poseur inserted in a Sousaphone?

Tubists and bass trombonists have to live, and they cannot live by bottom lines of climax points in Holst and Hindemith scores alone.  The US idea is to get musically literate tubists and bass trombonists (not by any means a natural pairing) to write their own pieces so that players can have something which is playable in a solo capacity. These pieces are not real solo repertory, for you never hear them in major concert venues; rather, like mysterious religious cults, bands of secretive low brass players gather together in some forlorn recital room, and admiringly listen through these US-commissioned pieces much as organists collectively gather for an out-of-tune performance of Buxtehude Chorale Preludes or a shrill, mutation-laden expose of a Clerambault Messe.  And, like organists, they have their own set of heroes and superstars of whom the rest of us have never heard.  It is a total closed door to the rest of us, and only serves to highlight the elitism of low brass players (and organists). 

In the case of the UK tradition, things are done very differently. Low brass players, accepting their place as outcasts from respectable musical society, have their unique repertory generated largely by the graded exam system.  How can you offer a range of graded exams to an instrument without there being legitimate repertory to play?  So it is commissioned and created especially for certain skill levels, as dictated by the requirements of each grade of assessment.  And because of that, it is nearly always musically dire.  In order to have music to play, low brass players must live with this unendurable rubbish.  It’s a vicious circle; if you want to play the instrument, you have to play bad music, and playing bad music puts you off playing the instrument.

Without the graded music examinations and their demand for fresh repertory for every conceivable instrument, those instruments would not feature in the exam syllabuses and, as a result, because of the way instrumental education is done in the UK and those countries which adopt that system of music education, children would never learn low brass.  The sad fact is that in many countries (with Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia top of the list) children ONLY learn instruments in order to undergo graded exams; even if, a select few of them then progress into the real world of instrumental performance.  We have to have exams for tuba and bass trombone in order to keep the pool of players topped up for orchestras (where those instruments play a vital role). 

So my hapless bass trombone student has to face the fact that bad repertory is part of the inevitable consequence of playing an instrument which was never intended to be thrust into the limelight of a solo role.   Whether it’s a failing of the graded examination system or not, I am not sure, but it is an inescapable - and definitely farcical - consequence of it.  

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