N.B. I have never witnessed the techniques I’m about to describe used by a string or woodwind group. Although these techniques would work for them, string and woodwind ensembles have their own performance tradition which appears to work well for them. In my experience, the relative subtlety and brevity of their cues provides insufficient preparation for many brass ensembles. The following techniques, used by the Empire Brass Quintet (reportedly passed down from Leonard Bernstein) have proved successful for literally hundreds of brass players.
Ready, Breathe, Play
An effective and efficient cue for brass players consists of two beats. A beat can be equal to a quarter note (crotchet), a dotted quarter, a halve (minim) or even a whole measure depending on the time signature, tempo and character of the music. The first beat of the cue tells the ensemble to get ready to breathe. As you can see below, a one-beat cue doesn’t give a brass player enough time to react and do a healthy and rhythmically precise inhale.
The second beat is where the group actually breathes together. In classical music performance, a Leader tries to avoid giving more than two beats since it is often unnecessary and runs the risk of breaking the audience’s concentration on the music by immediately drawing their attention to the more technical aspects of ensemble playing.
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