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Banding Bucket List- 5 Test Pieces

I had to think a little bit harder about this list as there is a wealth of test pieces that I would love to play and there are so many that could have made this list. Test pieces can either be a joy or the bane of a banders existence. I do like a good test piece and there are many I’ve loved learning over the years and there are some…let’s just say I was less enthusiastic about, so I had to pick pieces for this list that I think wouldn’t make me die of boredom after four or so weeks of playing it. As these are bucket list pieces, I haven’t had the opportunity to perform them (yet) but I would like to think that there is enough in them to keep my incredibly short attention span occupied and enough musical lovely-ness (technical term) to make it enjoyable to perform.

So here are my top five test pieces that I would jump at the chance to play.

This is the first piece I’ve heard from Bert and what a piece to be introduced with! The subject matter of this work is the tragic attack that occurred in Brussels in March 2016, which obviously is a deeply sad event. However music has a way to express emotions and sentiment that words simply cannot and Appermont’s musical illustration of the sadness, confusion and heartbreak caused by this tragedy is simply exquisite and a perfect musical tribute to the lives sadly lost in the attack.

It starts with a haunting cornet solo with a twinkle of tuned percussion. I love the hymn-like feel to this beginning and the slower section towards the end of the piece as well as the chordal writing at the very end of the piece which builds and builds into a beautiful explosion of sound. It really shows off what we are traditionally known for- a glorious, rich sound that brings life to slow melodies.. The ending is another main reason I would love to play this piece. It is full of life, excitement and determination with rhythmic percussion, I feel this is a musical representation of the world refusing to back down to the threat of those few who to seek to rule us with fear.

One element that I love about Appermont’s writing is his brilliant use of dynamics. He can build a sound from nothing, with parts being added piece by piece to create a tide of textures and colours before suddenly taking it away in an instant. As an ensemble, it really is a tricky feat for every member to pull volume away simultaneously, as if someone as turned the volume dial down, but it is so effective when executed well. It’s a magnificent work and a fine example of how modern test pieces should be- plenty of technical challenges yet still emotive and most importantly- musical.

A Brussels Requiem performed by Cory Band

I’m not going to lie to you, the flugel solo is one of the reasons I’d love to play this piece (a fact that frequent visitors to this page will not be surprised by- I do love a good flugel slow melody in a test piece), but there are other less flugel-related reasons why I love this piece. It’s full of drama and lots of light and shade that really keeps your interest. I do rather like the pompous-ness (technical term- less academic way of saying majestic) of the opening to this piece. For some bizarre reason I imagine a tubby, snobby Boris Johnson type character bumbling along to this theme, whenever I hear it. I’m nuts, I know. If you want to see the true extent of the weird things I picture when listening to brass band pieces click here to read my review of Triumphant Rhapsody, honestly you’ll think I should be in the looney house- what can I say, I have a vivid imagination.

Anyhoo moving on.

The piece was commissioned for the Band of the Year competition by the BBC. The theme on which the piece is based was taken from Paganini’s (obviously) 24th Caprice which is set in fourteen different variations that utilises a vast array of elements which really show off all sections of the band and the potential of what a band can produce on stage. It’s extravagant, with big, bold full-bodied chords and I love the fact that the lower end of the band really has a chance to shine with this piece- it isn’t the cornets or horns constantly getting the spotlight. There is some beautifully delicate writing woven through-out the chordal movements of the lower brass, like a beautifully textured tapestry. It’s one of those pieces you have to listen to a few times to really appreciate all of the elements included…and the flugel solo is blummin’ gorgeous, in fact that entire variation is just stunning and I will never not be obsessed with it.

Paganini Variations performed by Leyland Band

On the Shoulders of Giants is just one of those pieces that gets your blood pumping from the off. No delicate, flowery or floaty writing to by found in this opening! This piece is a tribute to the diverse styles and musical elements of American brass virtuosos (virtuosi?). It implements famous works and utilises the styles made famous by these legendary brass players from across the pond.

The first movement Fanfares, is built from, you guessed it, a truck tonne of fanfares from around the stand. However it is a world away from the harsh, dare I say, irritating sound of the fanfares you hear at the royal weddings (I blummin’ hate those long trumpets- this is coming from a girl who wanted to be an army musician- not sure they’d take too kindly to me insulting fanfare trumpets, would they?). Instead this is a full throttle intimidating battle cry from the trombones. A rare opportunity where they are let off the leash (which is more dangerous than an atomic bomb- I’m surprised roofs haven’t been blown of contest venues when this has been played). It’s taken from Bruckner’s 8th Symphony and provides an exhilarating start to this musical adventure. This is followed by a slower section known as the Elegy which is a smooth, lyrical, jazz section influenced by the style of Miles Davis. It’s some of my favourite writing in any test piece. It’s so laid-back, suave and I want to say sexy. Is that allowed? Are you allowed to describe part of a test-piece as sexy? Well I am, it’s the only way I can describe it, it’s a fit piece of jazz- if it was a bloke I’d marry it.

The finale is full of energy and requires a lot of technical skill (I dread to think how the hell my brain would keep up with the amount of notes that are crammed into this movement. The triumphant energy at the end of this piece is just overwhelming in the best way. It’s definitely one of those pieces where you would just feel shattered at the end, but awesome.

On the Shoulders of Giants performed by Cory Band

This piece was almost not on this bucket list, as it was the set test piece for the British Open in 2017, which I was due to play at and was in the rehearsal process for when my struggle with anxiety and depression forced me out of playing for a little while. It was a real shame because I really loved this piece and was looking forward to performing it. It’s based on the horrific mining disaster in Courriers, France, where 1099 miners were killed in an explosion and is incredibly descriptive and moving. I especially love the use of percussion and rhythm in this piece as it really paints a vivid image of the industrialised scene of a coal mine. You can hear the picks and shovels against the coal face. You can hear the hustle and bustle of mining life. It’s a real clear musical illustration.

The big chordal theme that is repeated, is intimidating and gives a listener a sense of fear although nothing compared to the fear the miners must have felt everyday. This evocative way of writing makes for a truly immersive listening experience. Not only can you clearly see the image the composer is trying to create, you feel the emotions of the characters in this story. The hymn section that leads us to the end of the piece is fitting for it’s purpose. It’s beautifully melancholic. If it is possible to musically describe grief in a stunningly beautiful way, Delaruyelle definitely achieves this. It would be a real pleasure to finally get the opportunity that I had to miss two years ago.

Fraternity performed by Eikanger-Bjørsvik Musikklag

This series has not been sponsored by Peter Graham, I promise. I mentioned in the first post in this series (click here to read) my love for The Torchbearer and it just had to take the top spot. I feel the The Torchbearer is a perfect example of excellent modern brass band writing. It is based on a theme from The Torchbearers by Eric Ball, an example of classic brass band repertoire, yet it has been reimagined and extended with modern writing that stretches the capabilities of the modern brass band, yet with so much musicality and great lyrical writing, which could have come from the pen of Ball himself.

I feel we need more pieces like this on the contest circuit. Writing that is still technical but musical. Our brass band composer predecessors managed it and I know time has moved on and we have players who are capable of much more than some of the older pieces can test- but it doesn’t have to sound like an Arban exercise! Dynamics, slow melody playing, playing musically- still challenging and much nicer to listen to. It has enough technical elements to stretch any player, believe me. I thought I’d have a look at the solo cornet part in my personal practise this week to challenge myself and let’s just say there were more expletives than right notes when I tried to sightread it! However Graham has managed to pair this technical and sometimes virtuosic elements with sections of pure musicality, which I think some modern pieces just simply miss. From it’s hauntingly beautiful opening to the passionate and deeply emotive ending- it is a stunner of a piece. My soul is as black as a miner’s lung, but this definitely a piece where (if played well of course) would definitely make me shed a tear approaching the final note.

The Torchbearer performed by Black Dyke Band

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