Want to Add a Brass Section to the Band? Here’s 8 Tips for the Perfect Collab

A brass section, or horn section is usually made up of one or two saxophones, trumpets and trombones and can fit pretty much anywhere in the music landscape, but in some genres, like soul and funk, having a horn section is an absolute must. In any case, when you add a brass section to the band, you can really make the music explode. A brass section brings in extra soloists, makes everything sound thicker and fatter and looks nothing short of awesome on the stage. But… adding horns into the mix is actually a tougher process than you might think. Here, we offer up eight tips to help you form the perfect collaboration.

In Short

The most common members of any horn section will be trumpets, saxophones and trombones, and the size of a horn section can vary from two to maybe five members. Even just one saxophone and one trumpet is already a horn section and, if you do add another member, it’s highly likely to be a trombone, since it can immediately fill out the sound and give things some extra depth. What most people will be used to seeing is a five-piece horn section made up of a first trumpet, second trumpet, an alto saxophone, a tenor or baritone saxophone and a trombone. Here, every brass musician plays its own part, so you get a harmonic whole which, if the arrangements are good, can sound pretty stunning. When a five-piece horn section plays long, drawn out notes, they can weave a whole carpet of sound but often, the horn section will throw in accents to give the music some edge and really make it swing. These accents need to be ‘rhythmically interesting’ by, for example, using syncopated, off beat notes. Played tightly enough, it can add a whole lot to a song. The formidable horn sections of bands like Earth, Wind & Fire, Chicago, Tower of Power and Seawind Horns are considered masters of syncopation, and would often add the melody that made a track instantly recognizable. A good example of this is the intro of In the Stone by Earth Wind & Fire.

#1. Do Horns Fit Your Style?

Deciding whether or not your band needs a horn section depends on the style of music you’re playing. While they sometimes pop up in blues bands, you’re far less likely to come across a horn section in a rock band. But when you wander more in the direction of soul, disco, funk, swing and similar genres, then a horn section becomes an absolute necessity.

“In theory, you could leave the part of the horn section to the keyboards,” admits trumpeter Martin Hiddink. “But it will never have the same impact and life as a real horn section. The sound of a keyboard has far less attack to it and lacks that spectacular and energetic force that horn sections have. The point is to have a horn section that plays with real intention. Otherwise, you’re just losing out. Audiences even respond differently when they see there’s a brass section: ‘Wow! Real horns!’ is a comment we hear a lot. A brass section can give a band that something extra, in terms of both the sound and the performance.”

Having said that, according to Martin, there are also brass-like parts that should always be played on a synthesizer. “The intro for The Final Countdown by Europe is a classic example. Or Jump by Van Halen. If a horn section plays either of them it just sounds a bit dated and old-fashioned. That doesn’t mean it’s not done, but it’s not recommended. Those kinds of riffs are sort of bound to their original sound.”

#2. Keep it Solid

We’ve already mentioned the fact that any horn section needs to play with ‘intention’, otherwise, you just won’t get that punch of energy that the horn section was designed for. “A lot of horn players will have cut their teeth in marching or ceremonial bands,” says Martin. “So they’re often used to playing in an entirely different way. Not all brass musicians will actually be aware of this and, as a result, this can mean that the band isn’t all that satisfied with their horn section but can’t quite put their finger on why.”

While we’re not going to focus on how to make a horn section sound good in this blog, we are going to focus on the role of the horn section in a band and the collaborative relationship between the horn section and the other musicians in the band. In any case, there is something very specific and special about the musical quality of a brass section. So, why does one brass section sound better than another? Martin explains: “This has a lot to do with the attitude of the musicians involved. Every member of the horn section needs to have the same attitude – the same mood and approach to their playing. They need to be able to play as a solid, single unit so that every note starts and stops at exactly the same moment. The articulation and the placement of accents across every instrument also needs to happen at the exactly the same moment. The number one rule is that every member of the horn section follows the lead trumpet whose job it is to dictate how every note is played. If the other horn players are following closely, that’s when you get a tight horn section.”

To repeat: the start and end of every note needs to be super-tight. “When a horn section isn’t keeping things tight, then usually the problem doesn’t lie in the start of every note, but in the endings,” says Martin. “There are plenty of horn sections that struggle to end notes cleanly. It’s only through a lot of experience – a lot of playing together and listening closely to each other that they’re going to get better. On top of that, every member needs to accept that, on stage, the lead trumpet is the boss. The only time to discuss things is during rehearsals. At the same time, the lead trumpet needs to have an approach to the music that the other musicians can get on board with, and needs to be able to play really consistently.”

#3. Mutual Understanding

What kind of challenges does a band face when adding a horn section to the line-up? “Not every band expects what’s coming,” answers Martin. “You’re adding a new group of musicians to the mix, one that already operates as a unit. Often, they’ll share the same kind of performance experience, which doesn’t necessarily match up with the experience of the rest of the band. This can cause some problems.” Yet, a lot of these potential problems can be easily overcome by building a mutual understanding.

It already helps a lot if you just know each other’s musical background and understand that playing as part of a horn section is an entirely different game than playing the drums, the guitar or bass and so on. “Take a look at the music that you’re going to be playing together,” continues Martin. “Usually, every musician in a band has their own individual parts – parts that they’ve usually figured out themselves. This isn’t true of the horn section. Instead, they’re handed an arrangement that someone’s already worked out, so every note has to be just so. A horn player can’t deviate from their part, otherwise, the arrangement won’t work. Basically, whatever’s written on the paper, you have to follow to the letter. Most of the time, you’ll actually have the arrangement in front of you as you play, whether you’re rehearsing or playing a gig.” This is an entirely different way of playing music than playing the drums or bass. “The other musicians in a band play from memory, so they would never be seen on stage with sheet music in front of them. The guitarist, bassist and keyboard player also have the freedom to deviate from their original parts. As long as it still serves the music and fits the style, then anything goes. If a member of the horn section starts throwing in variations, it just makes a mess of things.”

#4. Horn Sections Use Sheet Music (For Good Reason)

It actually annoys some musicians that brass musicians almost always play with sheet music, even when performing, but there are plenty of really good reasons why, according to Martin: “It has a lot to do with the musical roots of a lot of brass musicians. Most of them grew up playing in ceremonial bands or ensembles, which always play from sheet music. That’s how a lot of these musicians are trained. The other musicians in your average band have entirely different musical roots. A lot of guitarists, for example, learn to play their instrument by ear and often can’t actually read music.”

As well as training, there are other reasons why brass musicians stick to sheet music. “The brass section needs to run through an array of different parts, often too many parts to just remember off the top of your head. Making sure that every note is tight and on point is also essential, so it’s just better to focus on that rather than trying to remember your parts. Also, the musicians that aren’t leading the brass section are often playing fairly illogical melodic parts, which are really hard to commit to memory.” So, you should never tell the brass section to learn their parts by heart, then? “It’s a much better idea to just accept that they have to work differently.”

Blazerssectie aan je band toevoegen? 8 tips voor perfecte samenwerking

#5. The Form of a Song is Different

Another possible bump in the road is communication, since the rest of the band will experience the form of a song differently from the brass section. If you look at the parts the brass is playing, it’ll be split up into sections headed by letters A, B, C, D and so on. Often, the bars are also numbered. Those letters and bar numbers are a song structure guide, letting the musicians know where they are in the song. For the other musicians in the band, things usually work differently since they split the song into the intro, the first verse, the chorus, the solo, the break after the second chorus, the bridge and so on. “So, if the drummer says ‘from the guitar solo’, the rest of the rhythm section knows exactly what they’re talking about,” says Martin. “But the brass section has to figure out which part that is, or which bar number to go from. Meanwhile, those letters and numbers mean nothing to the guitarist and bassist. You can end up wasting a lot of time and hassle trying to figure things out.” According to Martin, though, it’s up to the brass musicians to sort the problem out. “You need to be able to see further than your own part and maintain an overview of how a song fits together. For example, it’s a good idea to note down the parts where the chorus, verses, solos and other sections lie. This will make communicating with the rest of the band a lot easier. I mean, you can’t expect the bass player to know where bar 39 is.”

#6. Make Space

It’s pretty obvious, but the fact is that, as soon as you add a brass section to the lineup, you’re going to need a bigger stage. The members of the brass section need enough space to stand next to each other, otherwise, they won’t be able to deliver a tight performance. Brass musicians can stand fairly close together, but they need a lot of space in front of them, giving them enough room to actually play their instrument and to set up a music stand. It’s also better for the other musicians not to set up too close to the horn section, since an earful of trumpet or trombone won’t help them to put on a great show. Often, the brass section will stand on a raised platform towards the back of the stage because, visually, this has the most impact. The bells of a saxophone and trumpet tend to point upwards, but the sound of the trumpet and trombone is projected forwards and often slightly downwards, so if you’re standing in the firing line of all of that, the decibel levels can get pretty unbearable. “This is easy to solve, but weirdly a lot of brass musicians fail to pay attention to it,” says Martin. “All you need to do is set up a small plexiglass screen just in front of the bell of your instrument. As an added bonus, since the sound bounces off the screen, the musician can actually hear themselves better on stage. When you’re playing in a loud band, it can actually be tough for brass musicians to hear themselves, so setting up a little screen can be a massive help.”

#7. Playing Brass is Hard Work

Just like vocalists, brass instruments don’t come with a volume knob that they can just turn up so they can hear themselves better. “If the band is loud, then the vocalist and the brass instruments sing and play louder just so they can hear themselves. Even a great brass musician can only keep that up for maybe three songs before they’re exhausted. As a band, that’s something you really need to keep an eye on,” advises Martin. Playing any brass instrument is hard, physical work, so it can be really exhausting to rehearse the same song over and over again, especially if it includes some tough parts.

The set list order is also something that really needs thinking about, since placing a bunch of louder or faster numbers one after the other will only burn out your brass section. “Don’t expect your brass section to be able to run through a Kool & The Gang medley and then get through an Earth, Wind & Fire medley straight after. Even for seasoned professionals, that’s going to be too much,” says Martin. With this in mind, it can be a relief to know that, in most bands, the brass section doesn’t usually play on every song. However, there is a downside to that. A row of musicians standing doing nothing during a song can look a bit off. “If they’re up for doing a little spontaneous dancing, then great. But that’s not a given and forcing your musicians to dance is a really bad idea. If there’s no brass for a song or two, then it’s better to just let them leave the stage. I once watched as the trombonist in a band stood texting on stage. It really wasn’t cool.”

#8. In Together, Out Together

Brass musicians have a reputation for being the last to arrive at rehearsal and gigs and being the first to leave. And then, sometimes, they’ll forget some of their gear, even though they have far less stuff to carry than say, the drummer. “That’s something I’ve heard a lot,” admits Martin. “It largely depends on what kind of band you’re working with. In a professional band, things are more businesslike. Personally, I think that, whenever possible, everyone should get ‘in together and get out together’. This makes sure that everyone arrives on time, that you wait for everyone to be ready before you leave, and you help each other out along the way. This also does the atmosphere and band relationship a lot of good.” But there is some sense to the horn section arriving late. “The brass always comes last during soundcheck – that’s if they get to sound check at all. It’s often the case that the sound engineer spends too much time on the drums and bass, leaving no time left to check the brass section. So, if you do expect the brass section to turn up at the same time as the drummer, they’re often forced to hang around with nothing to do for three hours. If they had to leave work early to get to the venue on time, that’s going to lead to some issues.”

In short, a little mutual understanding can go a long way when you’re adding a brass section to a band. What you’ll get in return is a super-tight horn section that can really blow the sound of a band wide open.

See also…

» Brass Wind Instruments From High to Low
» Tips To Keep Your Brass Instrument In Pristine Condition
» How To Enhance The Dynamics Of Your Music
» Want to Play Tight? Then Nail These Exercises
» How to Play Great Solos Over Chord Progressions

» Wind Instruments
» Mutes
» Mouthpieces
» Reeds
» Wind Instrument Stands
» Wind Instrument Cases
» Wind Instrument Maintenance Gear
» Metronomes
» Tuners

No responses

No comments yet...

Leave a Reply