Recent Research


As I continue “doing ethnomusicology at home” my most recent engagement as a participant observer is within a Western Art Music ensemble, a surprising domain for a World Music scholar. The ensemble is a British brass band and I participate as a cornet player and “amateur” musician.

I am looking at the “familiar” as if it were Other. The Other, or more properly, Others are the many world music instrumental ensembles where remarkable compositional and performance features are quite unlike anything in the West. For example, many world music instrumental ensembles perform repertoires with interlocking musical components, often without the aid of a conductor. They enjoy audiences who are active participants rather than passive observers, described as the Western Art Gaze. By contrasting ensembles in the West and elsewhere, such as in the above brief example above, I form a cultural triangulation, first proposed by Christopher Small in his book Music.Society.Education (1977/2007). Western music-making ensembles often come out of these kind of comparisons found wanting. Rather than simply dismiss Western Art Music ensembles as cultural anachronisms, I am interested in finding the vitality of Western Art Music instrumental ensembles that lies buried under centuries of encrusted convention.

Below are some preliminary observations I’ve made as a participant, beginning with the trivial, and ending with the significant.

The character of a British Brass Band

The British Brass Band is a specific type of brass ensemble that is immersed in a distinctive music culture that has made its way around the world as one modest component of the much larger British Imperialist agenda. My interest in the British Brass Band movement was stimulated by two personal pleasures – my unabashed anglomania, and a chance encounter with the movie Brassed Off, the story of a brass band and its players swept up in the collapse of the coal-mining industry, their employers.

The Brass Bands of England and their working-class culture was a perfect successor to my study of (and participation in) English morris dance, also rooted in the working class. The shining silver coating of the cornet (overlaid upon the brass body) mythically contrasts with the coal-dust of “the pits”, the coal mines of northern England, home of the greatest brass bands in the world. 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 instrumentation of the Brass Band sets it apart from other large brass ensembles, particularly with their use of cornets instead of trumpets, tenor horns instead of French horns, and distinctly different baritones and euphoniums, instead of the generic concert band baritone/euphonium. Each of these instruments has 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 instruments are highly valued as distinct yet subtle timbres by the players and their audiences, in the same manner as a broad pallet of spices.

Learning to play a cornet.

A “cornet” is not a “trumpet”. Mistaking a cornet for a trumpet is blasphemy in the brass band world. A trumpet can sound like a cornet when it is played in its comfort range and with a deep mouthpiece, but a cornet can never re-produce those extreme moments of sonic 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.

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. This musical battleground is completely unknown in many other Western (and world) music instruments. Acts of creative expression on brass instruments are measured and confined by the limitations of the body under high-stress physical conditions.

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 gave up on the sound quality and adopted the “wall of straight sound” that comes from American (Chicago) school of Brass playing. Further, the vibrato was scorned as a virus from “jazz” as heard, for example in the sound of Louis Satchmo and his generation. Essentially, the iconicity of vibrato as an expressive device has been completely devalued by the encroachment of an outside, globalizing musical culture. There is one brass band genre that has insulated itself from this outside force and continues to use vibrato with impunity – The Salvation Army Bands. They too are deeply rooted in English working class culture, once acting as saviours of the working class. Even today, their outreach program of social assistance is second to none.

Participating in an amateur music ensemble

In a community brass band like the kind I am playing in, there is an interesting range of awareness of the British brass band legacy, beginning with some members (like me) who are intensely aware of the familial lineage, all the way to players who are entirely unaware and unconcerned about the past. Some of the latter musicians are in the band simply because the times of the rehearsals are convenient and the repertoire, consisting largely of marches and arrangements of western classical music, is enjoyable. Is the contribution of the latter members any less significant than the historically aware players, given that everybody plays to their fullest abilities?

An added dimension is found among middle-aged players who are in the midst of a second life as an amateur musician. Not only must they confront their musical limitations, they must also come to grips with physical demands that heighten their sense of age, for good or for bad.

It is a very sobering experience for a professional instrumentalist, trained in the tradition of Western Art Music, to participate in an ensemble comprised of amateurs. (I should add, however, that learning to play the cornet, instead of playing my first instrument, the flute, propels me right into the state of amateur). The pool of players is often comprised of adults who are hobbyists, perhaps learning a music instrument later in life, or in their youth long ago. Although membership in a recreational musical activity may appear to be a viable alternative for professional performers and career music students who want to play music without the pressure of the workplace, most chafe at the thought. They are trained to excel, while amateurs simply hope for the best.

If professionals musicians are not in the top five per cent of their expected level of expertise, the practical consequences are devastating. Their career can collapse or their entry to the professional world via an audition can fail. Their career alternative may even be limited to menial labour for lack of a plan B. Parallel with this life-threatening consequence is the desire to be “musical” although the proportion of one to the other, and the relationship of both, has barely been researched. I can think of only one monograph, Stephen Cottrell’s Professional Music-making in London: Ethnography and Experience (Ashgate, 2004).

The lack of information about the life and times of the professional instrumentalist is in stark contrast to the sociological and musicological world music ensembles where the motivations for performance have been minutely recorded in a form of “thick description” prescribed by Clifford Geertz. Even the relationship of the hierarchical music parts are identified as the musicological corollary of the varying levels of technical ability.

Regardless of the pressures to succeed, professional musicians describes the environment of the amateur ensembles as tepid if not torpid when compared to their high-octane culture.

Within non-audition amateur western art music organisations in the West, avoidable mistakes and limited technique are often shrugged away with a sheepish grin or a judge-not-lest-ye-be-judged stance. Those who have every intention of doing well and yet cannot, no matter how hard they try, can be a serious liability and detriment to the ensemble. They challenge the conductor’s patience and mandate to provide an enjoyable listening experience for their home-town audience. “Amateur” becomes a synonym for “mediocre”.

The simple question is this. How can a motley ensemble of amateur musicians be motivated to excel, without threat of expulsion or financial reward? Can the composers of western art music craft performance experiences for the benefit of players and listeners alike that more closely resembles the instrumental ensembles in world music?

No doubt the same questions, rephrased to fit the context, are at the heart of amateur popular and folk music ensembles as well.

The question of exemplarity and mediocrity, and other related conundrums, are at the heart of a new academic study called Serious Leisure. Robert Stebbins of the University of Calgary has taken the first step with his textbook Serious Leisure: A Perspective for Our Time (2007), a website, and a graduate program. Given the crisis of audience attendance experienced by many professional music organisations, it would seem that this academic direction is crucial to the future of music-making. Music-makers are the core of music listeners.

Bring on the new ology: sociomusicology.

Spam prevention powered by Akismet