Ensemble… and Trumpets

Sometimes, in a quiet moment, I’ll try to deconstruct all the influences which helped to form my socio-political views on how society should endeavour to function. My mother’s progressive outlook during the Mulroney years was one of those influences. Star Trek was a huge one - the United Federation of Planets permanently cementing into my mind the ideals of a sharing, multicultural, pluralistic, civil society. The friends I have had growing up, and continuing into adulthood, both in terms of their own political outlooks and their diverse natures. But there is one thing that, only recently, I have realized had a huge influence, one that you might not expect.

Band class.

From grade 8 onwards, I was a band geek. Tuba at first, and later trombone as well. Concert and jazz bands defined my social circle during high school. I have fond memories of band trips to various not-so-far-away places. After graduation I stuck around for an extra year, just to be in band and really figure out what I wanted to do. In the end, I chose to attend college and university for the bachelor of music program. All together, that’s almost a full decade of my life where I was regularly part of a large music ensemble.

What kind of impression has that left?

When you’re playing in a large ensemble - like a concert band - there is no room for ego. Oh sure, occasionally a piece of music will have a lovely solo melody for a particular instrument, but for the most part, the ensemble is a single organism. You give yourself over to service a larger entity, almost as if you become an organ (obviously, that would be the biological kind, not the musical). You learn to sense things like tuning, timing, dynamic blending. You learn to help keep the greater whole in balance.

Anyone who has listened to a world-class symphony orchestra knows the ultimate manifestation of ensemble. Symphonic music is unequivocally unlike any other aural experience humans have produced. It is music that is intensely moving. It can be powerful or delicate, with an enormous dynamic range. But perhaps what is most amazing about symphonic music is that it’s made up of around a hundred individual musicians acting, literally, in concert - in perfect harmony, to bring to life a piece of music conceived in the mind of a single person.

That, to me, borders on magical.

And that’s why harmony, ensemble, is such an essential approach to how I interact with the world around me.

When I, in my very Canadian way, hold the door for someone a couple of steps behind me, they benefit, and may in turn hold the door for the next person. Perhaps next time they’ll hold the door for me. Sometimes we don’t make eye contact, or say thanks. It doesn’t matter. The important thing is that we moved in unison, we harmonized. And through that harmony of movement, people continually benefit. My approach is the same on a crowded train or bus. Be mindful of my surroundings, move when someone needs to get up, or get to the door. We learn to move in harmony, and over time, everyone benefits. We coexist peacefully, and we reinforce eachother.

When someone releases a door early to let it swing back in my face, or bang against my anticipating, outstretched palm, well, it’s not the end of the world. But I am nonetheless annoyed on a fundamental level. It feels like someone in the clarinet section came in too early, or too late, or with an awkward HONK. We’re all going to try to keep playing together, but you’re going to get an annoyed sideways glance.

Some may think I’m arguing for authoritarianism, or uniformity. That’s not possible in an ensemble. I mean, for practical purposes, a conductor is usually the boss - either a professional superior or a teacher. On the podium though, even a conductor has to move with their orchestra. A conductor doesn’t always maintain perfect control, they too must make adjustments based on what the ensemble is doing. A conductor would like you (either the musicians or the audience) to think that they make the rules, but at the end of the day, the composer of the music makes the rules, and the conductor makes very strong suggestions.

As for uniformity, that’s not possible because the instruments of an orchestra are intrinsically different. A flute, for example, will never be able to play as loudly as a clarinet, and neither will ever be as loud as a trumpet. But a flute can play a melody more sweetly, if the rest of the music is quiet enough for the audience to hear that flute.

When you’re in a high school band, one of the many strong suggestions that the teacher-conductor gives their students is for the brass to quiet down a bit. “There’s a woodwind melody here kids, and I can’t hear them. You trumpets are just harmonizing during this part, so pianissimo, please.”

It becomes necessary to give this particular suggestion quite strongly, and quite often, for several reasons. Reason one is that it’s easy to play loudly on brass (and somewhat harder to play very quietly). Reason two is that it’s fun to play brass loudly. Reason three is because those loud trumpets are usually being played by equally loud, straight, teenage boys who give exactly zero fucks whether or not anyone can hear the woodwinds.

Maybe you’re starting to see where I’m going with this.

There are plenty of nice trumpet players out there, I know several. In high school though, and in early college, there are also lots of - shall we say - “trumpet bros”, who are devotees of the mantra, “MORE BRASS! LOUDER BRASS!” The truly successful brass players, the ones who make it to more prestigious music schools (like universities), they are the soft-spoken types. They understood the importance of playing quietly. The importance of ensemble.

I will concede: sometimes rules need to be broken. Sometimes you need to step out and take decisive action for the greater good. But that greater good is the ensemble: you should not be taking such action out of selfishness. Nonetheless, everywhere I look, players break the harmony for selfish reasons. People block sidewalks, bus corridors, and hallways so that they can chat with their friends. They take dangerous risks on the road so that they can get where they’re going very slightly quicker. They cut into lines. They talk about what’s best for minority groups, despite not being a member of those groups. They don’t care about you, they don’t see you, and they don’t hear the ensemble. All they perceive are obstacles to finishing their trumpet solos.

Ooh, how this infuriates me.

A soloist trumpet might think that they can ignore the ensemble. Maybe an Ayn Rand quote is circulating in the back of their skull telling them to just reach for that next justifiably-selfish objective. Bullshit. We’re all a part of the community around us whether we like it or not. We’re a part of a civil society and our planet and we depend on both to survive. No one is an island (unless they live on an actual deserted island).

Occasionally, in that high school band, our teacher would be forced to ask a trumpet player to leave. Between his blastissimo dynamics and his incessantly interrupting jocularity with his fellow brass-bros in the back row, he became disruptive to the ensemble as a whole, and needed to be ejected until he could learn to behave himself. The same goes for our larger lives outside of bands or symphonies: occasionally, someone needs to be given a time-out until they can learn to interact with the world and communities around them in a constructive manner.

A brash trumpet must learn the importance of ensemble.

And if they can’t, please don’t try to promote them to conductor.

trumpet image courtesy of wikimedia commons