A Brief Guide to Getting Started
By Ashley Cumming
Great high school band programs are fantastic for horns: we can play in the wind ensemble and orchestra, and we have some pretty cool solos for when we go to contest. But one of my favorite kinds of music rarely shows up before college: chamber music! Someone once called chamber music “a conversation between friends,” and I agree. We hornists arguably have the most variety in chamber music than anyone else: we can play in brass or wind quintets, with strings, and in groups of all numbers with wacky combinations of instruments: from horn, tuba and piano to horn, oboe and piano, to horn and harp or marimba! The horn is one of the most versatile instruments, and we have plenty of chances to shine – and performing is so much less scary when you share the stage with your friends!
So you want start a group – great! Now the big question – what kind? There are two main groups that the horn plays in: the brass quintet and the wind quintet. In the brass quintet (horn, two trumpets, trombone and bass trombone or tuba), the horn gets to play beautiful melodies, act as harmony or percussion, and pair with all the other instruments. This is a great group because you are all brass instruments and can make a beautiful blended sound. Check out quintets by composers like Victor Ewald and Malcolm Arnold – the first quintets ever for brass quintet – to get your group started! In the wind quintet (oboe, horn, flute, clarinet, bassoon), you have a very important job of trying to blend with many different sounding instruments, but you get to shine in a very special way. Anton Reicha and Franz Danzi wrote many quintets that you can download for free off of imslp.org as a great starting point. If you have many friends that want to join in, there are groups for that too: groups of 6-8 winds are called Harmoniemusik and play very beautiful pieces. You can also play in a brass choir, called that because it sounds like many voices singing together.
Okay, so you’ve got your group – now it’s time to rehearse! It is always good to practice together regularly – try and set aside an hour or two each week to meet up. Because chamber music is all about how all the different parts fit together, it is best to learn your part by yourself before going to your rehearsals. I like to listen to a recording so I learn how my part fits in. When the music is tough, I also try the ‘slow-downer’ app on my smartphone to slow the music down to play along. Running rehearsals is the trickiest part, because you usually don’t have a teacher or conductor to tell you what to do. But that’s why you grow so much from chamber music – you learn how to rehearse, how to listen, how to nicely help one another out, and how to put together concerts. Always remember, if everyone has a voice and is contributing to the decisions, you will all be much happier. Don’t be afraid to speak up when something doesn’t work or makes no sense- others probably feel it too. But be sure to acknowledge everyone’s hard work – it’s a courtesy to say something nice before you say something constructive. For example: “Hey, we are all playing with good timing, it sounds very good together! But can we check our intonation on those chords?” Avoid pointing fingers so no one’s feelings are hurt: “My dynamics here say forte then piano – does everyone else have that?” Also, use as many tools around you as you can – metronomes and tuners are your friends. Also, ask a teacher to coach your group when they can.
Finally – you’ve got the music, now where to play it? Did you know that many state solo and ensemble contests have chamber music categories? Also – play concerts at your church, in your living room, at school, or before the local symphony concert as a pre-show! The great thing about chamber music is you can go anywhere and fit in almost any setting – the first wind and brass groups started outside!
Enjoy your experiences playing together – you will learn so much playing with others, and make great friendships while doing it.
Ashley Cumming tours the USA as the hornist in Bay Street Brassworks, a brass quintet with percussion, as well as playing principal horn in the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic. She teaches at Marian University in Indianapolis and is a doctoral candidate at Indiana University. For more information, please visit www.ashleycumming.com.