It takes a three-part approach when training low brass players to be contributing members of any ensemble. These activities should be developed simultaneously, as each activity opens the doorway to improvements in the other two areas. This is truly an integrated system, not a sequential one. The improvement of one ingredient will not amount to success until the others are improved. There is no importance to the order in which we discuss these activities. They all need to happen !


1-Ear Development  ….

The ear of a young low brass player will develop quickly if a program of general and specific listening occurs.

As discussed previously, the band will rely upon the low instruments for pitch and dynamic stability.

Your ensemble can only grow as much as the low players can hear Accurately !!


General Listening to me means making our students FANS of music by “listening to the good stuff”. I remember very well advice given to me in my freshman year of college by Professor Jerry Coker at the University of Miami Frost School of Music,”I believe you remember every sound you’ve ever heard…So be careful what you listen to !!”

I believe the best place to start is by giving young low brass students Military Band recordings to hear professionals playing their parts. This gives the students a compass for developing their concepts of sound production and musicality.

Today’s young students can be guided in their listening by posting audio materials online. Many teachers are asking their students to join their listening lists on music applications. Quick discussions comparing different tracks start the development process toward critical listening and musical taste.


Specific Listening work can start when doing work on the basics like mouthpiece BUZZING (discussed in Blog #2c). Doing call and response between the teacher’s principal instrument or keyboard and the low brass students’ mouthpiece buzzing causes increased accuracy in buzzing exactly what the students hear. Growing from one note call and response to whole melodies recalled while buzzing, this activity based ear training is valuable.


MEMORIZING  any music helps low brass players to develop their tonal memory. The ear goal on these “ungainly” instruments is to Hear It before you Play It. I can recall my middle school band director Mr. Foster preaching,” If you don’t hear it, ANYTHING might come out of that thing ! It’s like owning a big dog….things are much better if you train it !”


An investment in SINGING is always a portal to better ears for playing instruments.

Singing improves the “software” driving the “hardware” (instruments). The idea of singing together has the effect of equalizing the playing field across the ensemble, which makes young low brass players able to interface with their musical colleagues without a “background” stigma attached.

I remember many teacher comments about “playing  it Together like we sang it Together”. I remember that singing always meant to stop thinking about the “sections” of the band and to hear both “near and far” across the ensemble during the activity points. Even the youngest low brass students can benefit very much from one line melody singing ( with accompaniment, or with drones, or a cappella  ). The greatest bottom players learn the melody whenever possible to shape their bass lines such that they frame said melody nicely. This reminds me of Mr. Foster telling us that our low brass job was often to make others sound great !


It doesn’t take very long for the “Specific” exercises to enhance the young student’s “General” listening experience.  I vividly remember hearing a Marine Band LP on the school stereo system after school in 7th grade and hearing “in 3D” for the first time ! I could “see” the space between the instruments and place where the sections were in the Marine Band. That day was the first time I tracked the tubas, euphonium, then the trombones, and up the score to the piccolo.

When sharing this phenomenon with Mr. Foster, he told me to see if I could find 3 different trumpet parts being played, and demonstrated that by singing along with each of the parts in a march track as I tried to hear each line. These “ear games” continued within our tuba/euph.  section throughout middle school. Today, posting tracks for listening with “extra credit” assignments to enhance the aural experience is a level lifter!

In my experience, low brass players who participate in such activities gain more centered sounds. This is because the large and approximate target called low Bb, for instance, becomes a more pitch positive “bulls eye” as the student goes deeper into these listening activities.


Next time we will talk about breath training for young low brass players.

About the Author

SAM PILAFIAN is tubist and arranger for Boston Brass, Educational Ambassadors for Jupiter Band Instruments Corporation. He also holds Jupiter appointments as Artist, Clinician and Chief Design Consultant. He is a Professor in Practice at the Frost School of Music, University of Miami and was a founding member of the internationally renowned Empire Brass Quintet (1971-1993).He has also recorded and performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Lionel Hampton, and Pink Floyd. As a solo jazz artist, Sam has recorded fifteen CDs. His long career has earned him an Emmy® for Excellence in Instructional Video Production, the Walt Disney Award for Imagination and Innovation in Design, World Championships as a teacher in both the open and world class of Drum Corps International, the Walter Naumberg Chamber Music Award, the Harvard Music Association Prize, the University of Miami’s Distinguished Alumni Award, the Brevard Music Center Distinguished Alumni Award, the Robert Trotter Visiting Professorship at the University of Oregon and the annual Outstanding Teacher Award from the Arizona State University. As an arranger, composer and recording producer, Sam has recently produced and written for Joseph Alessi (New York Philharmonic), the Boston Brass, the Brass Band of Battle Creek, the Academy (of Drum Corp International), and the United States Air Force Band. Sam is the coauthor with Patrick Sheridan of the best-selling pedagogy texts and DVD’s “Breathing Gym” and “Brass Gym”. Professor Pilafian previously served for over forty years on the faculties of Boston University, the Tanglewood Institute, Berklee College of Music and Arizona State University.

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