Ethnomusicology at Home

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ February 19th, 2013. Filed under: World Music Studies.

As I continue “doing ethnomusicology at home” my most recent engagement is within a Western Art Music ensemble, a surprising domain for a World Music researcher. The ensemble is a British brass band and I participate as a cornet player and an “amateur” musician. I have no interest in playing a brass instrument per se, only in participating in a British Brass Band.

It is a perfect successor to my study of (and participation in) another iconic English working-class avocation, morris dance. My interest in the British Brass Band began as a chance encounter with the movie Brassed Off, which is based on the story of a brass band and its players swept up in the collapse of its patron, a member of the coal-mining industry, during the years of Thatcherism. Morris dance and then the British Brass Band also provides me with plenty of grist for my Anglomania.


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I am living two lives simultaneously – the “participant” in me is actively and wholly committed to the success of the ensemble by striving for perfection of my own part within the group. And as an observer, I am looking at the “familiar”, a Western Art Music Ensemble, as if it were Other. For those of you who are new to ethnomusicology, anthropology and related disciplines, the Other, or more properly, Others, are normally found in the realm of ethnic communities “from away” where compositional and performance features are often quite unlike anything in the West. By contrasting ensembles in the West with musical groups and soloists from elsewhere I engage in a kind of cultural triangulation championed by writers such as Bruno Nettl (Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music) and Christopher Small (Musicking).

Western music-making ensembles often come out of triangulating comparisons with a fearful list of failings. But, I want to find the original value of Western Art Music instrumental ensembles buried under centuries of encrusted convention instead of simply dismissing Western Art Music ensembles as cultural anachronisms. I should say “re-find” because my youth was filled with junior orchestras and bands that thrilled me. Later, as a young man, I examined my treasured Western Art Music ensembles, questioning the autocratic role of the conductor and the passive nature of the audience. Were the spectators concentrating, or lost in thoughts about work and family? And if they were concentrating, what were they concentrating upon – the structure of the form, and its unique take by a long-dead composer, or the back desk of the first violins who don’t seem to work quite as hard as the first desk? Knowledge about harmony and structure was information we struggled to learn, like novitiates in an esoteric cult. Given that most members of an audience have no idea what a sonata or rondo form is, even if it jumped up and bit them on the nose, do they understand the logic of the music on a subliminal level, or are they immersed in a fantasy that promises enlightenment if they simply listen to Western Art Music often enough. In the meantime, I imagined that they take comfort in the certainty of an acquired, heightened status, simply by witnessing a Western Art Music event.

Such are the existential rants of a young man.

Below are a few, very preliminary observations I’ve made about the British Brass Band experience. In a later posting, I’ll comment on its variation found locally, and in North America generally, with an aside on the sociology of playing in an amateur ensemble.

The British Brass Band

The British Brass Band is a specific type of brass ensemble, not just a collection of high and low brass instruments. Further, the British Brass Band has its own distinctive culture, a characteristic that is valued as much as its music repertoire. Jeremy Paxman (p. 22) adds it to his list of quintessential English touchstones.  England has its fair share of professional brass banders, but the overwhelming general membership participates at the level of avocation. Still, there are some that will claim their volunteer work in a Brass Band is their vocation, while their day-job is the avocation. The shining silver coating of the brass instruments (hence the synonym, Silver Bands) symbolically contrast with the coal-dust enveloping the bodies of the miners of northern England, home of the greatest brass bands in the world. Even today, companies and villages each have their own bands which compete vigorously in national brass band competitions that are the equal of the national sports leagues. In fact, English brass banders perform in competitions far more often than on the stage.

The British Brass Band is a member of the world-wide dissemination of brass band ensembles, from Romania to Indonesia (Tanjidor), New Orleans to the Ivory Coast. Each in its own way is boisterous and exuberant. Some are polished; all are joyful.


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The Instruments

The instrumentation of the Brass Band sets it apart from other large brass ensembles, particularly with their use of cornets instead of trumpets, and tenor horns instead of French horns. The baritones and euphoniums are distinctly different, as opposed to the generic concert band baritone/euphonium. Many of these instruments have a rather modest cultural capital (Pierre Bourdeau) in Western Art Music circles. For example, the tenor horn is called the “peck horn” because of its allegedly lowly musical contribution. And yet, in the world of the British brass band, the large variety of brass instrument types are highly valued for their subtle shades of timbre, in the same manner as a pallet of spices.

Brass instruments in general make extreme physical demands, even when played with restraint. Playing a brass instrument resembles long distance running where the forces of effort are in constant war with the forces of fatigue. I can play the flute for hours, but the cornet is entirely a different matter; once the mouthpiece goes up to the mouth, the clock is ticking before facial muscle exhaustion sets in, sometimes within minutes. Playing a brass instrument seems to me to be similar to any athletic venture that requires constant muscle development and toning. Miss a day of workout; lose a week of ability.

A very curious debate simmers over the use of vibrato. In the early decades of the 20th century (and possibly before that) every English brass band instrumentalist played with vibrato, creating a total effect akin to a string orchestra. But somewhere along the way, the brass banders, mostly in the south of England, gave up on the sound quality and adopted the “wall of straight sound” that seems to come from American (Chicago) school of Brass playing. Further, the vibrato was scorned as a virus derived from “jazz” as heard, for example in the sound of Louis Satchmo and his generation. Essentially, the aesthetic of vibrato as an expressive device has been devalued by the encroachment of an outside (read “American”), globalizing musical culture. In its defense, the straight tones of a brass ensemble resemble a pipe organ in full voice. There is no doubt that straight tones allow a kind of perfection of tuning that is without peer, where major and minor thirds are tempered for the real sound from the world of physics, instead of equal temperament. There is, however, one member of the brass band genre that has insulated itself from the outside force of the straight sound and continues to use vibrato with impunity – The Brass Bands of the Salvation Army. Like the British Band culture of long ago, the Salvationists are also deeply rooted in English working class culture, providing an alternative to the grinding life of hard (or no) labour. Even today, their outreach program of social assistance is second to none.

Another striking convention is the use of treble clef in all music notations, from the highest (Eb soprano cornet) to the lowest (BBb bass). With the exception of the bass trombone. Mysterious. Be that as it may, the use of the treble clef means that anybody in the band can switch instruments, and still play effectively, if needs be. The one rather odd exception is the trombones who read treble clef, and yet still have to gauge the length of the slide for each note. Only trombonists can do that. Although the possibility of moving from one instrument to another is available to the players, the reality is hampered by the demands of the different size of mouthpieces. When I played a baritone for a couple of weeks, I could not make a single sound on a cornet! It was alarming. However, there are superstars in the British Brass Band world, seen in videos on the internet, who play multiple instruments on stage as soloists, so it must be possible.

Sometimes I see the band as a composite of two, overlapping groups – high and low brass – reminiscent of pipe organ designations like 4-foot rank, 8-foot rank, and the behemoth 16-foot rank. This distinction is provoked by the curious term of “tenor” horn. From the vantage of the low brass, it is an alto horn, but from the view down from the high brass, it is a tenor voice. And, just as the cornet is the dominant solo voice of the high brass, the euphonium is the soloist within the low brass choir. It occupies exactly the same range as a baritone, but unlike the largely cylindrical bore of the latter, the conical bore of the euphonium gives it a darker timbre. The baritone, when seen from a distance, looks like a tenor horn. It can also be identified as a trombone, folded up for convenience, and equipped with the standard 3 pistons. They share the same type of mouthpiece. Most curious of all is the flugel, which can also be identified as a piccolo tuba.

The repiano cornet is the most enigmatic brass instrument for me. It sits beside the flugel player, acting as a kind of stand partner (they usually share the same music, albeit with occasional divisi high and low melody lines), and yet it shares the role of solo-playing with the solo section, albeit at different times.

The cornet – heart of the brass band

A “cornet” is not a “trumpet”. I discovered that mistaking a cornet for a trumpet is blasphemy in the brass band world. Although they have structural differences, which includes the engaging “shepherd’s crook” in one of the bends of the cornet, if the truth be told, they sound almost the same when played in their comfort range. But it seems to me that a cornet can never re-produce those extreme moments of trumpet bravura and even excess a la Doc Severinsen. It is as if the cornet emulates the traditional reserve of the English citizen. Regardless of this acoustic modesty, the champion players and even the rank and file achieve unimaginable technical virtuosity.

Even the pronunciation of the word “cornet” is subject to some disagreement between England and North America. Compare “aluminum” and “aluminium”. In England, the word is pronounced CORnet (cf. TRUMPet), not corNET (cf. corNETTO, the curved renaissance wind instrument that is a blown like a trumpet, and played like a recorder).

After several years of practicing in the cracks of the day, I moved up to the “solos”. The term “solo” is an anachronistic term for the cornet players playing the first parts. Those parts are usually very, very high in tessitura, making what I believe to be unreasonable demands on the players. (I’m probably the only one who feels this way.) The result of this demand is the most amazing cooperation. The 4 or so “soloists” will take turns playing very difficult high-note passages, sometimes resulting in only 2 players performing, while the other 2 pause for 8 bars or so to let the blood come back to their lips. Nothing is written in the music to indicate this strategy, and the players very rarely discuss it among themselves. It just happens, almost organically. I originally thought that we were alone in this strategy, but I have observed soloists in other bands do exactly the same thing. Mind you, in the high-level bands in England, the soloists don’t need that sort of strategy; they truly are a collection of concert soloists.

The British Brass Band culture

Perhaps the most vivid cultural component of the Brass Band in England is the club-like camaraderie, the defining sub-text in the movie Brassed Off. The close-knit associations are not surprising given the vast amount of group practice an English bander will volunteer – as much as 12 or so hours a week, in off-hours. Traditional bands were all-male affairs, so they had an overtone of testosterone and a penchant for pubbing after banding. Some practice halls in England are even equipped with a bar. Today bands have opened themselves to women. And naturally, women are excelling, particularly in the realm of baritone (Katrina Marzella, Kristy Rowe) and tenor horn (Sheona White).

In a future posting, I’ll describe some impressions I’ve gathered from 11 years in a local brass band, perhaps one of the most satisfying experiences of the 2000s for me.


Andew Duncan (2005) Scoring and Arranging for Brass Band

Trevor Herbert, editor (2000) The British Brass Band: A Musical and Social History

Christopher Small (1998) Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening

James Spradley (1980) Participant Observation

Bruno Nettl (1995) Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music

Jeremy Paxman (1998) The English: A Portrait of a People

Ian Buruma (1998) Anglomania: A European Love Affair

Matthew Riley (2004) Musical Listening in the German Enlightenment

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