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Brass Band Test Piece Solo Tips

For this blog post, I am going to give some tips that will help any soloist prepare for the challenges they may face in a brass band test piece. Whether preparing for a concert or a contest, I hope that these tips can help players of any standard.



Grimethorpe


As an example, I have recorded an excerpt from my favourite test piece, Dances and Arias by Edward Gregson.


I have very happy memories of playing this piece. I once played it with the Birmingham Conservatoire Brass Band, with my wife, who I had only just met, also playing in the band.


I also played it in 2004, with The Staffordshire Band, conducted by Steve Bastable and we won The Pontins Championships. I was awarded the best soloist prize for my part in the performance.


Here is my recording. I have included images of the notation in the video.




In almost every brass band test piece there will be a solo for the principal cornet and euphonium. A lot of test pieces also have solos for other instruments and some hardcore test pieces also have solos for players that play a 2nd part (cruel you may say).


Playing your solo part very well can make a huge difference in the final contest result but due to this, it can also put those players under a lot of pressure. This is when you have to call upon your own practice and your own mental power!


Your Practice Routine


It is essential you have a good practice routine that covers all the basic fundamentals of technique, sound and range. You need to know that you are at your best and more importantly, that you are doing something (ideally everyday) which is helping you continue to improve. We can always breathe deeper, play louder, faster, higher, with more clarity, with a better tone etc so you need to be actively working on all areas of brass playing if you want to do any brass band test piece solo part justice.



Your Mindset


For me, this is a bigger one than practice. I have suffered from anxiety in the past, and if left unchecked it can easily creep up on you. When preparing for any performance, there can only be positive thoughts in your mind. You have to be the guardian at the gate, and do not let negative or damaging thoughts in. Confidence comes from your routine and your own practice. If you know you can do something on your instrument, then you will have no doubt about doing it on stage.



Nerves On Stage


Everyone feels nervous on stage. Doesn't matter who they are or what they tell you. On the occasion that I seem to feel way less nervous, it makes me worry, I like the nerves because I know it makes me concentrate. Some of the very best performances I have ever given in my life, have been those where I felt my most nervous. You have to teach yourself that nervous feelings are normal. I even go so far as to say to myself sometimes that 'nervous feelings make me relax'. This is a powerful affirmation if you think about it.


Your Weaknesses


I used to feel that I had weaknesses, and dreaded having to play certain test pieces which I knew (or wrongly believed) would test my weakest areas. If you have a good practice routine, then you will have no weaknesses.


That being said, some test pieces might have something extra, something a bit more extreme which you have to deal with. It might be playing incredibly quietly, or a much higher note than you want to be playing or something very technically demanding. Find the root of that area and work on that separately to your routine. Use the Arban or other study books to support what you need. Maybe you need to triple tongue in the test piece, so focus on that area more.


For example in Dances and Arias, the euphonium solo has a loud high Db (treble clef). See picture.


Solo Euphonium

There is only one way to approach this. Make sure you are regularly practicing much higher, to the point where it actually makes this note feel low. The same can be said about the extreme low register that is required at the end of the solo. So, because of the massive range required, I would make sure that I work on my range every day as part of my routine.


Next I will list some tips that can be used with any test piece

solo you are working on.


Tip 1

Transpose the solo up a tone. Practice playing the solo at a higher pitch than is required.


Tip 2

Do performance practice. Run the whole test piece through from start to finish, imagining you are on stage. Do this in the same location every time and take a mental note of what you can see. Maybe your wallpaper or a photo on the wall. When you are on stage for real, visualise that you are just at home.


Tip 3

Practice your solo at half tempo. Include all dynamics and style. Never increase the tempo until you can play it perfectly every time!


Tip 4

Memorise your solo parts. You never know when your music might fall of the stand (haha, sorry, not funny). Subscribe to my blog to get a free performing from memory pdf which can help.


Tip 5

Ignore mistakes. Believe that mistakes make you play better. If a mistake happens on stage, move on, pick yourself up, grow in strength. Remember that life and family are more important than a brass band contest. Your loved ones will still love you if you split a note. The best of us have done it, just accept it, learn from it, allow it to make you work harder for the next contest.


Tip 6

Make the music harder. Work on your solo at a faster (or maybe slower) tempo. Change the rhythms, make the rhythms more awkward by using dotted or swing rhythms. Increase the size of intervals. Play it all slurred or all tongued depending on the nature of the solo. Do extra things to it so that when you play it normally it just feels easier to play.


Tip 7

Play the test piece through with a practice mute, playing everything as loud as you can. This will be a massive stamina challenge but like with tip 6, it will make it feel easier. Word of warning though, avoid using the practice mute at all in the week leading up to the contest. The final week should be when your practice is simple, one daily run of the test piece should be enough. If you cannot play your part in the week leading up to the event, then you really are in trouble.


Tip 8

Following on from tip 7, set a goal of perfecting the test piece, note perfect at least one week before the contest date. In the week before the contest, all you need to do is a little warm up and a run of the test piece. Wear your uniform at home while you do this! You can also record yourself and listen back with a critical ear.


Tip 9

Do some fitness. Keeping fit and healthy is important anyway, but when you do your test piece run through, right before your solo entry, try doing some press ups or run up and down the stairs. Then, play your solo and continue the rest of the run through to the end. It will not feel great! However, on stage you will not be doing this extra thing and it can help you practice what it feels like to play while your heart is racing.


Tip 10

On the day of the contest, don't do anything different. If you are not used to drinking 10 pints of beer, definitely do not do this the night before either, no matter how tempting it is!! Get up, eat your usual breakfast, do your usual warm up. You will have played the test piece so many times by now that a little rehearsal on the day and then one main event is the easiest thing you will do. Force yourself to do everything calmly and slowly. Talk less, walk slowly, breathe slowly etc, it will make your body remain under your control.


I see players flapping their lips all day, doing strange superstitious rituals and opting to play everything very softly during the rehearsal. This is the worst thing you can do. Just stick to your own routine, the contest day should be about enjoyment and music making. Don't suddenly miss bits out or play at different dynamics, your brain won't understand what you are doing. Socialise and enjoying the day, or go for a walk by yourself, if we do not enjoy playing our instruments then why do we bother?!


Good luck!!


I hope this is useful. Let me know in the comments what your favourite brass band test piece is.


Thanks for reading ❤

Mark Glover

8/2/24

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