Bum Notes from the Brass

When are passages difficult?

We began the rehearsal with the 1st movement of Mendlesohn’s #3. We got as far as the 8th bar and started again, and again, and yet again. Why? Because Wes thought that we were not good enough. Why? What made this slow passage hard for us to play?

Normally, it is usual to think of a passage as hard because the notes are at the extreme end of our range; or the tempo is too fast. Sometimes the notes are hard to read, for example: it can be very hard to work out the rhythm with many dotted semi-quavers or triplets etc.; and the actual note required may be hidden with accidentals. (My particular bête-noir is when consecutive notes are shown differently but are in fact the same note – e.g. an A flat followed by a G sharp. Many a time I have wished my hands round the throat of the idiot that did this!)

Take a look at the following examples.



These are the offending opening bars – and no, it’s not just me who has difficulty, the problems are across the board.

The next example is from Messiah (to be performed in a couple of weeks by the Ashford Choral Society) and was pronounced by our conductor Dr. Mark Deller as the most difficult passage in the entire piece.



In both cases, the music is seriously slow, which causes identical problems for all players and singers – we must all sustain our notes without any variation of pitch, or dynamics. In your mind, conjure up an image of a candle flame that is still, not fluttering in a draught.

We must begin each note without kicking it, or slurring it, and when it comes out, it must be perfectly in pitch and dynamic to blend musically with every one else. And we must move together – which is difficult in itself, playing notes and looking at the conductor at the same time. When the orchestra has about 30 members, the choir 100, you can see why that guy with a white stick is important.

It takes hours of personal practice to bring our muscles to the state were we can each start and then sustain these notes. Which is why Andre (the Siberian horn player – another story) practices long notes for 3 hours everyday. Playing together also needs its own form of practice – listening to each other and looking at the conductor.




About rogerpinnock

Chairman of Ashford Sinfonia
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