ABRSM has published Shining Brass, two volumes of newly-commissioned pieces for brass players. Andrew Stewart spoke to some of the musicians and composers who worked on the project to find out what’s so special about these new books. In the distant past my school’s music teacher invited his new class to ‘have a go’ at playing a brass instrument. I managed to extract sounds from the band cupboard’s only trumpet but was persuaded that my talents were best suited to the Eb horn. After many lessons and hours of practice, I began to wonder why everything I played appeared to have been arranged rather than written for the instrument. My teacher ducked the question; instead, he convinced me that it would be wise for me to convert to the mighty Eb bass. I soon discovered that newcomers to the brass band’s top tuba were also raised on transcriptions of light classical tunes. The combination of limited repertoire and heaving a monster instrument home to practise soon curbed my enthusiasm, which was revived only after I took charge of the school trumpet.
A step forward for brass repertoire
Since these early experiences, the range of engaging and finely crafted new music for brass students has been fairly slow to develop. Shining Brass promises a welcome step forward for brass repertoire. The two-volume anthology, complete with part books (including a CD of backing tracks and full performances) and separate Eb, B and F piano parts, was commissioned by ABRSM to coincide with the launch in July of its new Horn, Eb horn, Baritone/Euphonium and Tuba syllabuses. The first volume was conceived for students preparing for Grades 1 to 3; its more advanced sibling explores the musical and technical measures set for Grades 4 and 5. Every Shining Brass piece is presented in versions for treble-clef, bass-clef and Eb tuba bass-clef readers. Parts for Bb tuba bass-clef are also available for free download. Each of the Shining Brass books features 18 pieces written by seven composers who know what it takes to motivate young brass players. They have produced works in a striking diversity of styles, with compelling melodies, memorable titles and enormous potential for use as concert, practice and teaching pieces. The list of composers spans everyone from Philip Sparke, one of Britain’s most prominent brass band composers, to such rising stars of the wind and brass world as Tom Davoren, Peter Meechan and Lucy Pankhurst. Shining Brass also includes works by John Frith, Timothy Jackson and David A. Stowell. The books contain many pieces set on each of ABRSM’s four new Brass syllabus repertoire lists, offering students and teachers the affordable option of using just two books for Grades 1 to 5.
The how and why of Shining Brass
Shining Brass was commissioned after ABRSM consulted Nicky Daw, Head of Worcestershire Youth Music’s Brass and Percussion Faculty – who had been involved in the creation of ABRSM’s Music Medals for young brass players. Nicky’s candid views on ABRSM’s brass provision were sought and honestly delivered. ‘I said that ABRSM’s approach to brass was in need of a complete overhaul,’ she recalls. ‘I was concerned, for instance, about the high cost of many of the pieces on the syllabus. When ABRSM suggested creating an affordable collection of pieces that could work for all brass instruments, I was delighted. Shining Brass evolved out of ABRSM listening to teachers’ views and responding positively to them.’ Nicky notes that she had no doubt about the best composers for the job. ‘I knew exactly who to ask. I knew their styles and was confident that each would deliver. And they did!’ She points to the collection’s rich musical mix and to the inclusion of challenging, accessible and relatively simple pieces. ‘Shining Brass offers a fresh approach to music for brass players. The wide range of compositions means that every child, whatever their ability, has the chance to play music of the highest quality.’ ABRSM’s Editorial Director, Robin Barry, suggests that the cross-brass approach addresses an eternal problem of the available repertoire for brass band instruments, often conceived for the orchestral trumpet or trombone before being re-branded for Eb horn, euphonium, baritone or Eb bass/tuba. ‘Shining Brass includes quality works for all players and instruments,’ he observes. ‘It will be very interesting to see how the brass teaching community responds. The style of the music is attractive and approachable, but also fresh and contemporary. I’m very happy with the way the project has developed.’ After receiving first drafts from her chosen composers, Nicky Daw and her teaching colleagues played through each work and returned a list of comments to the composers. The solo lines, revised and polished, were subsequently recorded by players from the Royal Ballet Sinfonia and English National Opera Orchestra and top brass bands such as Leyland and Black Dyke, while Lindy Tennent-Brown, former Junior Fellow at the Royal College of Music, and Harvey Childs, staff pianist at the Royal Northern College of Music, set down recordings of the piano parts. ‘We did our homework and checked that everything worked,’ Nicky explains. ‘There are optional passages for trombonists in one of the Grade 5 pieces, for example (in readiness for the next revision of the Trombone syllabus), as well as ossias for students playing on instruments with a fourth valve.’ The pieces in Shining Brass, she continues, fill many gaps and cover the spectrum of what works for each instrument. ‘I wanted really good generic pieces because I was tired of seeing trombone music republished for baritone or euphonium, or French horn music republished for Eb horn! This new collection has something to reflect each instrument’s identity.’
From the composers
Tom Davoren was determined that each composition should work equally well on all brass instruments. The composer was able to call here on his experience as a tuba player to fashion six Shining Brass pieces. ‘I believe educators have a responsibility to offer students the most complete musical experience possible,’ he comments. ‘It’s important for young brass players to experience the same variety of musical styles as any string, keyboard, wind or singing student. ABRSM's new Shining Brass series succeeds in presenting original works in a wide variety of accessible styles within an exciting contemporary framework.’ Tom adds that he aimed, above all, to write music that brass students can relate to and enthuse about. ‘By creating short pieces that are pleasing, perhaps even catchy to the ear, which explore the unconventional in accessible ways and contain extra-musical inspirations, I hope students’ musical experiences will broaden as they play their way through each book.’ The tailor-made repertoire of Shining Brass, observes Lucy Pankhurst, promises to catch the hearts and minds of beginners and developing students alike. She is particularly delighted that the book contains irresistible new music suitable for her instrument, the Eb horn. ’It’s very exciting to have such a vast influx of new pieces!’ As a teacher, Lucy understands the value of matching the choice of repertoire to each student’s needs. ‘I wanted to address issues I had encountered while teaching, such as the difficulty of selecting the right exam pieces for individuals. This is often tricky. It can be difficult to find music with the qualities required to engage students which also presents an achievable challenge. Shining Brass has been crafted to meet these requirements. It adds some fantastic new pieces to the repertoire and offers students an attractive path into contemporary music.’ John Frith regards Shining Brass as ‘a dream come true for many brass teachers’, although, he adds, some may take time to adjust to the idea of a cross-brass collection containing pieces for ABRSM’s early grades. ‘This approach promises to be fairer, more straightforward and varied. Having taught brass for 30 years, I truly believe this collection represents a step forward.’ Robin Barry, Nicky Daw and the team of Shining Brass composers, he continues, have assembled an anthology that delivers ‘graded and varied challenges within the context of each well-defined level of achievement. Shining Brass promises to be a leader in raising standards and offering pupils and teachers a host of new challenges in a great variety of styles. The time is right for this new initiative. Quality control has been paramount in the minds of those behind the project and, wearing my composing and brass teacher hats, I wish it every success.’
Andrew Green is a writer, broadcaster, producer and reviewer, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Hertfordshire, UK.
This article was originally featured in the May 2012 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.