Habits for brass bands to avoid
With great interest I read the article 'When is a D.C. not a D.C.?' (Issue 36, May 2014) in which Stuart Hall explored the issue of why SA bands do not generally observe the instruction of D.C. (It. ‘Da Capo’ – translates ‘from the beginning’), commonly found at the end of a march.
Reading this article brought to mind other erroneous interpretations of music that through experience I have seen commonly applied in SA banding. When asking the question “what erroneous interpretations/annoying habits go on within brass band music?” on social media recently, I received more than 50 replies highlighting a whole range of frustrations – the most representative of these were around dynamics, tempo and intonation.
All of these are prevalent within hymn playing and journal music. However I’ll focus on hymn tunes and two issues I observe as commonplace in that area (though much of what follows will translate into journal music, too). The first is the prolonging of the final note – even when a fermata (pause) is not indicated, and the second is an undirected slowing down of the last few bars.
I had not given much consideration to these idiosyncrasies before until one Christmas when as a corps officer at a corps without a band, I secured the services of brass students from a nearby music college to help with carolling. The quintet, which of course played to a very high standard, came fresh to the New Christmas Praise book. It was fascinating to hear each item presented at the written tempo with the correct number of repeats, a precise reading of dynamics and, noticeably, sustaining the final note as a pause only when it was indicated. Most of the final chords therefore sounded too brief to me because of what I have become accustomed to within the SA, but of course the students were playing what was written.
Let’s look at the two issues more closely. First of all the fermata (It. - translates ‘stop’) indicates that a note should be protracted beyond its written note value. I would contend that for most in the SA, whether singing, playing or conducting, it has become second nature to extend the last note of almost every piece of music, even when it is not indicated on the page. The interesting thing is that of 1,121 tunes (870 songs & 251 choruses) in the current tune book, only 60 (5.4%) have a written final fermata.
Next is the slowing down at the end of a verse when not indicated. In my experience this is as prevalent as the fermata issue, but thankfully most seem conscious of its overuse.
Applying a rallentando can be useful e.g. combining with a crescendo to effect a grand finale, but must be used sparingly. As somebody who sits outside of a brass band as often as he sits within one these days, I can testify that when a band repeatedly slows down the last few bars of verses in every song, it is monotonous to the ear and therefore a potential distraction in worship.
Cultural influence/Church tradition
Why are these traits so commonplace? I can think of two contributory factors. First, is that these peculiarities extend beyond the arena of the brass band. Andrew Blyth (Assistant Music Director & Head of Music Editorial, UK&I Territory) suggests that applying a rallentando and extending the final chord has been widespread within western culture (in Bach Chorales for example) and within the church, where these and other trends seem to have been handed down from the Lutheran tradition.
Andrew’s response to why only 60 tunes have a final fermata is that when publishing a tune book, the editor references original documents to ensure that the reproduced version is as accurate as possible. In some tunes fermatas are retained for copyright purposes, even though in this part of the denominational spectrum they may not normally be observed.
The second factor is unconscious habit. By now the comment I suspect readers will be bursting to make is that of course bands and bandmasters have to have creative licence; their role is to interpret and bring to life the composer’s written instructions. And this is absolutely correct. At a technical level, interpretation is how music becomes more than just notes on a page. And I suggest that at a spiritual level it is how SA bands can create further opportunity for the Spirit’s voice to speak through music.
My argument though is that if a band or bandmaster relentlessly slows down every tune at the end of each verse, or recurrently elongates the final chord when not indicated, then it is possible that the reading has slipped beyond conscious interpretation into unconscious habit.
Within the movement we live with the effects of unconscious habit in music all the time and two dangers of musicians succumbing to this are that first, the otherwise vibrant colour of music is presented as mediocre blandness, and second that involuntary distractions are created in worship when the role of musicians is to do entirely the opposite.
But there are measures that can be put in place to counter these habits. The clinical ‘back to basics’ approach of the student quintet might not always be appropriate in worship (after all to do this with ‘And above the rest' (TB 5) would mean that the last note is just one beat in length!), however approaching music in this way from time to time in rehearsal could be a worthwhile exercise; stripping away interpretation and bringing musicians back to the original blueprint. The technique could be particularly useful in journal music too as an approach to long-established classics for example, where perhaps years of habits and misinterpretations need to be wiped clean.
Music leaders can be thorough in preparation too; looking at the words of songs beforehand and studying related scripture. They can be aware of the needs of the congregation and most of all, adaptable to the leading of the Spirit - whether it comes through meeting leaders or our own heart and mind.
The Salvation Army’s tune book is a wonderful compendium of traditional hymns, carols, folk melodies, national anthems, chorales, plainsong, songs from musicals, canons, praise & worship songs and concert hall melodies. Let’s continue to give these tunes conscious interpretation and not allow unconscious habits to make them sound the same.
This article was first published in SA Bandsman magazine and references the 1986 SA Songbook and Tunebook