16

I have been learning flute for about 3 years, and we (myself and fellow flutists) are basically expected to play whatever we are presented with at the band we play in. We would be expected to play fairly complex rhythms, along with your standard multiple key signatures.

However, some of the other instrument players (particularly the low brass, and I mean whole instrument sections, not just individual people) in the band seem to have dramatically lower standards. They will often say that the piece we are playing is too hard due to relatively basic rhythms, or because of key signatures that their instruments "aren't supposed to play in" (for example, they complain when there are any sharps, or sometimes even no sharps or flats. As for what they are "supposed" to play in, I have no idea). I'm pretty sure that if I said I can't play a piece because it wasn't in the key flute is "supposed" to play in, I'd be given a reality check quick smart by my teacher.

They can even get away with not knowing fingerings for notes, something that I'd think is easier than flute, since they only have a few valves (except trombone, of course) to remember. Either way, I know that people in other sections not knowing fingerings is not really acceptable in our band once you have been learning the instrument for a while.

These people have been playing for as long as, if not longer, than I have, yet they don't seem to be expected to have equivalent skill of the other instrument players in the band. Why would this be so? Are those said instruments simply much harder to learn, or is it because of how those players have been taught?

  • 5
    I once heard a violist complain his instrument “wasn't supposed to play in F-major”. Turns out the key was actually C – he'd merely misread a grace note for a ♭. – leftaroundabout Mar 2 '15 at 13:44
  • Well my point is mainly that you should be able to play in varying keys, right? Otherwise you're pretty restricted in what you can play. – MC ΔT Mar 2 '15 at 13:51
  • I'm not due you are approaching this fairly. From my limited brass/woodwind experience, flute seems much easier than euphonium, for example, so with the same amount of practice your instrument may just let you progress faster. – Doktor Mayhem Mar 2 '15 at 14:21
  • 1
    Sounds more like your band director is either desperate for low brass players or has it in for the upper winds :-) . There's no excuse for any instrumentalist not to know the fingerings for every chromatic note. – Carl Witthoft Mar 2 '15 at 15:45
  • 4
    @CarlWitthoft That's hardly fair on a tin whistle, harmonica, or bagpipe player, whose instrument is only designed to play in one key (though accidental notes can be played by bending.) – Level River St Mar 2 '15 at 18:03
18

Brass have their overall sweet spot around 2 flats, strings about 2 sharps. That's because their layout is based on some natural notes related by pure intervals. Essentially those you can play while leaving valves or fingerboard alone.

In contrast, many woodwinds have a sort of "piano keyboard" with the difficulty being more or less that of working with "black" and "white" keys rather than having some central notes related by pure intervals. They can be designed to be comparatively key-neutral by designing them around an equally-tempered scale.

That's not possible with brass in general (of course, trombones have no issue here). And it's not usual with strings (they are tuned using pure fifths from A, and neither tempered nor alternate tunings are almost ever employed).

At any rate, the results are quite better out of the box if it's not the brass that has to play in unusual keys: while one can work with the embouchure to make uncommon scales work out well, it requires much higher skill than playing unusual keys reasonably nicely with other instruments.

  • While I'm not a brass player, I've looked at the theory of brass instruments and it's quite obvious that it's impossible to make a brass instrument that's in tune in all notes. You finger either open (all valves up) or a fourth below it (valves 1 and 3 down) and you expect Valve 2 to drop a semitone in both cases??!! In theory you need 1/3 more tube for the second case, so it's entirely unsurprising that lowering by a tritone is sharp on the brass instruments. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brass_instrument Sure, you can use the embouchure, but I've often wondered how much correction you get. – Level River St Mar 2 '15 at 19:23
  • @steveverrill - on trumpet, the 3rd valve slide helps with this. – user3490 Mar 2 '15 at 21:43
  • 3
    Intonation is a very undervalued point. A lot of pitch compensation seems to happen almost subconsciously, at least for me on trumpet, so when you are playing a horn that is in tune you may find things are just easier, and you have greater range and endurance. Playing in an off-key or a horn with intonation issues will wear you out faster and affect your tone, and it can be very easy to overlook why this is happening. This is probably only more of an issue if you are already comfortable adjusting intonation via embrochure, but I'm sure it affects everyone to a degree. – Darren Ringer Mar 2 '15 at 23:19
  • If, as well as looking at the theory of brass instruments you also look at the practice of brass instrument manufacture, you'll discover finger-operated tuning slides on trumpets, and ingenious systems of "compensating valves" on the larger instruments, which contrive to make (1 + 2 + 3) MORE than the sum of 1, 2 and 3 individually. – Laurence Payne Mar 2 '15 at 23:36
11

I've been playing trombone for a while and I think I'm fairly well positioned to answer some of your points:

  • They will often say that the piece we are playing is too hard due to relatively basic rhythms...

The effort needed to articulate a distinct note is greater on a larger instrument - this complicates playing complex rhythms, as the end of one note can more easily start to get in the way of the start of the next. For trombone, combine this with the additional effort needed to reach the next slide position.

  • ... or because of key signatures that their instruments "aren't supposed to play in" (for example, they complain when there are any sharps, or sometimes even no sharps or flats. As for what they are "supposed" to play in, I have no idea).

user19212 is quite right about brass instrument construction favouring one or two particular keys. On trombone, the reason for preferring flats to sharps or naturals isn't so much a matter of tuning - it's a matter of mechanical convenience. Generally speaking, it makes sense to stay near the top of the slide and move the slide around as little as you can get away with. Except in the rare cases where you're all the way out on 7th, you can always go one slide position further out to play a flat, but if the slide is at 1st position (i.e. closed) and you need to sharpen a note, you can't go one position further in - you have to head out all the way to 3rd / 4th / 5th and switch up a register, which is more of an effort.

Also, there's a matter of familiarity - if most pieces you play are written in the keys that favour your instrument, it becomes harder to navigate an unfamiliar key. I find it much easier to play a G flat major scale than an F sharp major scale even though the two are enharmonically equivalent. Both keys are fairly uncommon, but I'm familiar with the flats more than the sharps.

  • They can even get away with not knowing fingerings for notes, something that I'd think is easier than flute, since they only have a few valves (except trombone, of course) to remember. Either way, I know that people in other sections not knowing fingerings is not really acceptable in our band once you have been learning the instrument for a while.

This sounds like something that depends mostly on the standard of the ensemble you're playing with, and what their expectations are. Having said that, there are usually at least 2 fingerings / slide positions where any one note can be played on most brass instruments (by using different registers) and sometimes it makes sense to use a different one, e.g. to avoid moving the slide or to allow for better tuning. Also, due to variations in construction of some brass instruments, there may be even more options to consider - e.g. some tubas have a 5th valve.

All of these are issues that can be overcome with sufficient practice, obviously.

9

The amount of air that a flautist is moving and a lower brass player is moving are substantially different. It's much quicker to articulate on a flute.

Also, you have to barely move your fingers to change notes, where brass has to move the full height of the piston. When it comes to knowing the fingering, flutes look up a flute fingering chart, and they're done. It's the same for two octaves and then the upper register is still related to the fingering of the lower octaves. A tuba has to look up the right sort of fingering chart - B flat vs. E flat, three/four/five valves, compensating vs. non-compensating. And some of these overlap in some places and differ elsewhere, and a G might be different in every octave, for example.

Other have discussed the mechanical restrictions on brass.

6

There are a couple of factors here.

Some instruments are similar, but vary in terms of their technical difficulty

For example, if you were to compare the flute, clarinet, oboe, and bassoon, the flute has the least amount of variation between registers, required alternate fingerings, and keys in general. The clarinet has more keys, different fingerings across registers, and slightly more resistance on articulation. The oboe requires regular use of half-holes and unintuitive fingerings and has a much higher pitch variability. The bassoon has the most complex fingering system, high pitch visibility, and more physically difficult to perform fingering shifts.

While all four of these instruments are capable of performing similar feats of dexterity, in general it is slightly easier to play very fast, technical pieces on the flute, and also slightly easy to perform acts of transposition because of register symmetry.

Some instruments have difficulty tiers based on entirely different mechanics

For a very obvious example, consider a flute vs. a piano. Some of the challenges in flute (tone production, articulation, intonation) don't even exist when playing piano, while conversely the flute player needn't worry about multiple concurrent moving lines, pedaling, or consistent key pressure.

In other cases, players control similar factors using different mechanisms. Compare, for instance, the flute vs. the violin.

Tone production:

  • Flute: Breath support, embouchure, tongue position
  • Violin: Bow, controlled by right hand and arm

Intonation:

  • Flute: Angle of air, embouchure, length of instrument
  • Violin: Left hand finger position on string, string tension

Articulation:

  • Flute: Tongue, breath control
  • Violin: Bow pressure, angle of hair, bowing speed

Note Selection:

  • Flute: both hands work together to play one note
  • Violin: one or more fingers work together with the bow to play one or more notes

As you can see, all these mechanisms are very fundamentally different, so the kinds of things that are "hard" on flute might not be the kinds of things that are "hard" on violin, or on brass instruments.

Some players are just not often presented with challenging parts

For a mixture of legitimate acoustic reasons and less legitimate ignorance reasons, many composers don't write very demanding technical parts for certain sections. Your tuba and euphonium parts are far more likely to play stable, consistent rhythms in a more narrow range, while higher instruments are more likely to get moving, technical parts because it's easier to hear moving parts on the top of a chord, and also because that's what they're most familiar with. Yes, it's kind of circular.

That doesn't mean that they are incapable of doing these things, or even that their instruments are poorly suited for them. It just means they are less likely to have experience with them if they're not practicing outside of rehearsal setting.

Conclusion

While there are differences in technique across instrument sections, none of these are excuses for playing in different key signatures or counting complex rhythms.

Modern wind instruments, including brass instruments, are fully capable of playing in all keys. String instruments are also fully capable of playing in all keys. While there are some keys that are "easier" than others for most instruments, if anything it's actually less work to play in distant keys on brass and strings than on woodwinds. All the ratios between notes are the same, regardless of what key you're playing in, and the intervals between those notes are much more apparently reflected in the fingerings for brass and string players than for woodwind players.

Yes, it's harder to jump around and tongue fast on brass, but it doesn't take very much searching to find virtuosi playing Flight of the Bumblebee on just about any instrument. This is not to say everyone needs to be able to do that, but key signature complaints are just them being lazy. Go practice your scales, learn your pedal tone fingerings, and work on some counting, low brass!

1

To my ears, this is not about the instruments but about people. What I hear the brass players saying is more like "this is a difficult rhythm and I am too lazy to spend the time to learn it", or "this is a difficult key and I am too lazy to learn to play it".

It would be a completely different thing if the player said "this is too difficult for me right now, let me work on it a few weeks and if does not work out then, maybe we could find something easier to play".

The person that should take of this is the band leader. It might be true that the brass players are weaker, and the music is a challenge slightly above their competence. At the same time he tries to challenge the flutes to raise to their challenges. Balancing this kind of different levels in an orchestra is not an easy thing to do.

  • I want to somewhat agree with this answer. While there are many points that can be made as to why brass has it harder than woodwinds for some parts I think using excuses like "it's too hard" is always the wrong approach and should not be accepted or enforced by the teacher. Playing in a band should be about learning and overcoming these "too hard" parts. You need them for there to be a challenge and improvement. – Carpid Nov 2 '17 at 8:36

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.