Bringing in a Brass Ensemble
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Visual Cue

As mentioned earlier, cues can be silent or involve some type of sound.  Many Leaders give silent cues which the Followers are forced to interpret.  The difficulty with a totally silent cue is not that the tempo is unclear but that the point in time to actually start can be unclear, especially in slow music that begins with a soft or gentle articulation.  The problem lies in the Leader not indicating where the ictus of his or her movement is.  The ictus is the exact point within the Leader’s downstroke and upstroke where the beat is articulated.  A totally silent cue means that the Followers must guess at where this is and, subsequently, when they must play. At faster tempi this is usual not a problem since most Leaders put their ictus at the bottom of both down and upstroke of the cue, exactly where most people expect it to be.  However, the same Leader cueing a slow, gentle entrance may move the ictus higher up in his or her motion and actually articulate their entrance sometime after the bottom of their downstroke.

N.B.  Conductors rarely put their ictus in the exact same place from piece to piece or even from one section of music to another.  However, their use of the hands, fingers and baton provides a level of flexibility and dexterity which allows for much faster and clearer visual communication than a brass player can achieve with the end of his or her instrument’s bell.  Because of the level of communication the body and baton afford conductors, they may change the placement of their ictus without losing the ensemble.  Not to mention the fact that they spend a great deal of time learning how to communicate through good “stick technique”.  Their careers depend on it.  By contrast, brass players spend relatively little time practicing cueing.  Also, during the body of a piece, any fluctuation in the placement of the ictus is mitigated by the many other points of reference a player can use, most notably, the already established tempo.  Even after a fermata, there is a intuitive pacing of the music that is relative to its tempo, character, decay in the room, etc.

Experienced players develop a fairly good “spider-sense” for the precise moment to play, but this can be rather precarious at tempos approaching quarter note equals 52.  Part of a Leader’s responsibility at the beginning of a piece is to indicate exactly when to come in (not just tempo) and if this responsibility is ignored it is, at the most, disastrous for the subsequent entrance and, at the least, a minor annoyance to the Followers who must make a guess and hope that they don’t come in too early or late.

Audio-Visual Cues

Cues that are supported by some type of sound appear most often with sound either on the second beat of the cue or on both beats of the cue.  I have seen cues given with sound only on the first beat. However, this tends to be somewhat disorienting since the most clearly communicated part of the cue, the part combining motion and sound, occurs further away from the start of the music, making the moment before the first note a relatively weaker point of communication.  For psychological and physical reasons, an ensemble’s intensity of communication should increase when approaching an entrance, not decrease.

What sounds are most effective?  The sound on the second beat—the beat right before the first note—is always an inhale.  This breath not only allows the Leader to take in air but also encourages the entire brass ensemble to breath together—which goes a long way to them playing together.  The sound on the first beat should be a short, soft yet accented grunt!  “What! ‘A grunt,’ you say?”  We’ll get to the grunt in a moment.  First let us examine the cue that only uses sound on the second beat—the sound of the inhale.

One Sound—One Chance

I have performed with many brass players who use this type of cue and have been fairly successful.  However, getting the entrance perfectly together is still overly reliant on the experience and ability of the Followers to quickly adjust or readjust to their interpretation of the Leader’s cue.  Remember, a Leader may reposition his or her ictus depending on the style and character of the music and it may not be apparent from the Leader’s movement alone where the ictus is.  Given the relatively gentle ‘articulation’ of an inhale, using it as the only indicator of note placement weakens the definitiveness of the cue.  Without sound on the first beat of the cue, a Leader’s breath gives only one opportunity for the Followers to determine exactly where the ictus is (this is, of course, not a problem in the midst of a piece since note placement has already been established).  Followers who interpret the Leader’s movement one way on the first beat will have only a split second to readjust when they hear the inhale placing the ictus somewhere else.  It is much more desirable to see a cue that eliminates such a risk.  A Leader should use every opportunity in his or her cue to communicate the information the Followers need—when to come in, tempo and character.  This is especially important when performing in a freelance situation or with unfamiliar musicians.  If a Leader uses a cue with only one sound, his colleagues may not complain or even perceive the extra demand on their own abilities at that moment but they will certain notice the difference in leadership when someone does give them the added clarity and direction that a sound on both beats of the cue provides.  Now let us look at just how this is done.


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