Bringing in a Brass Chamber Ensemble

by Kenneth Amis
Tuba player of the Empire Brass

As a tuba player, I am rarely responsible for giving the cue to an ensemble to begin a piece.  Accordingly, I have spent many years following the cues given by others and have spent countless hours teaching students in brass chamber musicians how to effectively bringing in their brass group.

Apparently, preparing to blow into a length of pipe while clearly cueing to others the time and tempo at which to begin a piece of music is not something that comes naturally to most humans.  Even with professional musicians, the success of a cue can be more a result of luck and the memory and experience of the players who follow the cue than the expertise of the person giving it.  Learning and teaching students how to give a perfectly clear and undisputable cue at the beginning of a piece is a matter of acknowledging the various technical requirements of a cue and utilizing techniques that most directly address them.

It is more common to have a verbal count-off at the beginning of a jazz or popular piece of music piece than it is in classical music.  In fact, a performance of classical music is rarely begun with a verbal count-off.  In a classical chamber ensemble, it is up to the top voice or the player with the melody (henceforth, referred to as “Leader”) to indicate to everyone else (henceforth, referred to as “Followers”) the exact time and tempo at which to begin playing.  With less experienced Leaders, this can result in a series of uncoordinated gyrations that confuse rather than clarify.  Even in professional situations, a successful entrance does not presuppose a clear cue. Before Leaders become comfortable with the effectiveness of their cues, they should consider that a successful cue may, in fact, be the result of;

  1. the ability of the Followers to guess well
  2. luck
  3. the Followers’ being familiar with and, subsequently, having learned how to cope with a particular Leader’s cues
  4. the Leader’s inability to hear that the cue is actually not successful (this could be a result to a lack of ear training or particularly bad performance conditions, e.g., bad concert hall, noise night club, etc.)
  5. any combination of the above reasons

In actuality, it is only the Followers’ who know the real reason behind a cue’s success.  Indeed, part of a Follower’s job is to “catch” whatever cue is “tossed” and, in professional situations, he or she will try to do so without outwardly criticizing the quality of the cue (at least not to the Leader’s face).  However, musicians tend to enjoy and respect those who make their job easier rather than more precarious and, for this reason, you may want to consider the following.

 
 

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