Blast from the Brass: a section-eye’s view of The Planets

Guest post by APO trumpeter Dr. Helen Julia Minors

The way us brass players feel about playing in APO can be summed up using the hashtag #APOlove, and this is no more the case than during sectional rehearsals when we get to spend quality time together as a section. During every group of rehearsals which lead to a concert, the instrumental sections of the APO separate. No, we have not fallen out with the strings, or woodwind! This time spent in instrumental sectionals is when we can focus on specific technical and musical challenges for the brass. But, how do we do this? What do we do in sectionals? First, we decide who goes where. In this case, the brass (trumpets, trombones, and tuba) were joined by the French horns. Sometimes they choose to go with the woodwind as they often play with them as much as with the brass. In addition, we had one of our timpanists, David, without whom we could not have worked on matching our melodies with his rhythmic repeated ostinato. Second, we plan what we need to work on, in other words, the trickier technical sections of the music, or the passages that are subtle and so require greater care and balance of dynamics (volume and sound). In this rehearsal, trombonist Charles also kindly brought along some recording equipment so we could go back and re-listen to our rehearsal to improve learning.

The joy of sectionals though is also to get to know your section, in that we share laughter when things don’t go quite right, even gently mocking each other in a supportive way. In the case of the brass, quite often these manifest themselves in rather loud collective errors – it is good that we get these out of the way prior to the concert day! The stereotype of the brass being loud, brash and competitive beings comes out in the jokey atmosphere but, as this sectional showed, we are all a sensitive lot. In working on some choral-like sections with the horns, Tom, playing 1st horn, notes, ‘we [the horns] play in synergy’, emphasising the importance of working as one body, breathing together and listening to each other. Picking up on this, Di, our tutor, remarks how the music of Jupiter in The Planets ‘is the stuff dreams are made of for horn players’, before challenging them to play the riffs cleanly, without splitting any notes. ‘Evidently nobody’s ever told you the one about how to make a trombone sound like a horn’, replies Tom, ‘You put your hand in the bell and spilt half the notes!’ More hilarity ensues when the trumpets practice a quiet accompaniment bit, which sounds like a dance playing off-beats (imagine ‘um-cha um-cha’ music), and the whole trombone and horn section, accompanied by our timpanist’s waving arms, decide to bob up and down in tempo to Di’s conducting in support!

The team spirit is strong as we tackle more technical challenges. John and Alison in the trumpet section note that the volume and pressure we’re using to play the ostinato in Mars is ‘just too much… we’ll never balance’. Nigel, our bass trombone player, asks the trumpets to ‘tone it down, no one will hear me over you!’, as Pete, our tuba player, utters a subtle ‘hear hear!’. The volume can, in all the excitement, become a competition, and toning it down is of particular relevance to the event for which we’re preparing. We’re playing The Planets not just once, or twice, but three times in a single day (after a shortened final rehearsal) as we offer two relaxed performances in the afternoon prior to our evening concert. ‘This is going to kill the horns’, agree Alexis, Lizzie and Benedict (only half-joking!). We need to work on stamina and balancing how much energy and pressure to give each section of the music. In a hall like The Great Hall at Reading University we do not need to push the volume – the room is lively and our sound bounces off the walls with ease.

Di takes us through the opening movement of Mars in detail, as we worked on balance, passing around the main rhythmic ostinato and melody, ensuring we play the passage in a similar manner to the previous player. Trombonist Stephen encourages us to be consistent or to ‘carry on the synergy’ which Tom had previously referred too. To this end, Peter and I on 1st and 2nd trumpet, respectively, decide to share out the higher, more strenuous rhythmic parts from the first part to ensure we work together as a team and manage our stamina as “team trumpet”.

In our small sectional room, we had to really work on reducing dynamics: Di first requests, then kindly instructs us to ‘fit to the size of our goldfish bowl’. The final balancing will happen in the concert venue, and we will respond to our conductor’s simultaneously funny and helpful remarks, such as the one from the morning’s full orchestral rehearsal to not sound to “Coronation Street” (a bit too much singing vibrato for the passage we were playing) and to add to the “Primordial soup”, as Andrew described one of the orchestral textures we’re aiming for in the last movement, Neptune the Mystic.

We have nice banter in the sectionals, which helps us support each other through making our performance better. Although the atmosphere is light-hearted at times, the application and concentration that goes into working together as a section makes a real difference when we rejoin the full orchestra. It’s a cliché, but when you add us all back together, we really do become more than the sum of our parts.