All About Brass Bands
So what is a traditional British-style brass band? Well, “traditional” certainly doesn’t mean stuffy, boring or old-fashioned. In fact, the Chester Brass Band plays an astonishing variety of music, from ancient hymns to familiar classics to hit pop tunes, hot off the charts. A traditional brass band is among the most versatile of musical ensembles, capable of performing baroque, classical, jazz, and even rock music.
A traditional British-style brass band uses a standardized set of instruments to achieve its signature sound. Most of the instruments have a conical bore, which lends them a warm, round and somewhat mellow timbre. This is why British brass bands sound quite different from American brass or concert bands, which favor brighter sounding cylindrical-bore instruments.
Brass bands are usually comprised of 27-29 players. The roster includes 10 cornets (including one soprano), a flugelhorn, 3 tenor horns, 2 baritones, 2 tenor trombones, one bass trombone, 2 euphoniums, 4 tubas (two each in E-flat and B-flat), and 2 to 4 percussionists. With the exception of bass trombone and percussion, all parts are written in the treble clef. This is a convention unique to British-style brass bands. The system makes it much easier for players to change instruments if needed.
Brass bands are sometimes called ‘Silver Bands’. This is because brass instruments are often silver-plated. Silver-plated horns were once much costlier than raw or lacquered brass models. Bands that could afford the pricier instruments liked to advertise their success, and the term ‘Silver Band’ became popular. Today costs are similar, and most bands termed either ‘brass’ or ‘silver’ incorporate musicians playing both lacquered and silver-plated instruments.
Brass bands originally evolved in the United Kingdom from church and military bands in the 19th century. With the introduction of piston valves and the onset of industrial revolution, brass instruments became easier to play, and affordable for the emerging middle class. Towns and villages formed bands, which quickly became symbols of local pride. Competitions between bands became common, and the first British open brass band championships took place in 1853.
Brass bands in the UK are often strongly associated with industry. Many prominent brass bands were funded by mines, mills, and factories. Several famous British bands still carry industrial names, for example the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, Foden’s Band, and Fairey Band. Perhaps the most renowned British brass band is the Black Dyke Band, known for decades as the Black Dyke Mills Band.
Today brass bands remain popular in the United Kingdom, as well as Australia and New Zealand. They remain somewhat rare in the United States and Canada, though their popularity has grown through the efforts of the North American Brass Band Association.