Archive for May, 2012

The Quintessential Ensemble Performer

May 15th, 2012

The path to professional brass playing can be confusing and intimidating. Although learning solo repertoire is an important component of musical development, ensemble performance pays the bills. Most instrumentalists perform in some type of large ensemble, which can augment the needed skill set, but with a gradual trajectory. Chamber groups are excellent vehicles for enhancing ensemble skills, and for the brass performer this means participating in a brass quintet. Performers of any age and experience level can, and should, start a quintet.

Forming a group is easy, but selecting the right personalities to match the goals of the ensemble can be tricky. What type of experience do you want to have? If you are creating a quintet to further basic ensemble skills, you might not want a hot-shot hustler player involved. If the quintet is being formed to perform pops repertoire for high school audiences, then having high-energy personalities willing to engage younger students with humor and staging should be a priority. The key to a successful experience is having like-minded individuals working towards a clearly defined common goal.

The biggest mistake I see in quintets that are just beginning is they tend to focus on performing and getting “gigs” before basic fundamental skills are established. The first order of business should be learning how to rehearse in a productive, efficient manner.

  • Is the group practicing more than once a week, recording rehearsals, and listening back to them?
  • Do you have clear short and long-term goals both in terms of music you are working on and basic skills to improve upon?

It is important to plan practice sessions with your quintet just as you would for your individual development. Set aside a small amount of time each rehearsal to work on basic skills before moving on to repertoire. During a 2-hour rehearsal, you might only spend an hour or so working on actual music, filling out the rest of the time with creative exercises to improve listening, intonation, rhythm, dynamic contrast, sight-reading, and any other fundamental musical skill that needs work. The abilities developed in rehearsal aren’t useful unless they can be applied to a piece of music.

Picking a variety of works to study is important; don’t get stuck in a single genre or difficulty level. Find music to play that is basic and can be highly polished, but also explore repertoire that is advanced and will push your limits. Expand your vocabulary stylistically as well, so you are capable of playing pops tunes, serious contemporary compositions, and everything in between.

Performing is a skill that must be improved carefully and thoughtfully. Start performing too early and too often and you risk having multiple bad experiences that might leave your confidence shattered. For younger groups, repeated, polished performances of a single work can increase comfort on stage. However, if you avoid putting your quintet under pressure you will never learn to think and adapt quickly to what can be stressful and uncomfortable performance environments.

To develop “gig” smarts, most experienced quintet musicians would agree that weddings and church gigs have a steep learning curve and demand cool, clear thinking under pressure. Weddings seem to always have a moment or two that teeter on the brink of disaster, but these experiences will serve you well.

Rehearsing and performing with a brass quintet is rewarding and if done thoughtfully, can dramatically improve ensemble skills. Using these tools to fullest advantage demands hard work, balance, and most of all, planning. Stay focused on your goals and use your continued improvement to lead the way toward musical fulfillment.

– Jacob Cameron

*Originally posted as part of the Encore Music Publishers “Encore Newsletter”

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