When Buglers go on Holiday, they play Trumpet

September 30, 2016 at 10:30 am

Nothing says TGIF like a fun, light piece by Leroy Anderson – makes me want to make a martini and do a white-man dance.

“Bugler’s Holiday” is a piece loved by trumpet players, for obvious reasons. The abundance of trumpet-players in high school and community bands means that this piece gets a lot of plays, and the better players get a chance to show off a bit. The piece’s title is a bit of a misnomer; the three solo parts need to be performed on a modern trumpet, not a bugle. A bugle is a very simple brass instrument – essentially just a coil of metal tubing with a mouthpiece on one end and a bell on the other. This means the only way to change pitch is by increasing the air pressure – to oversimplify, “blowing harder”. Other brass instruments control pitch both by air pressure and with aids that actually increase the length of the brass tubing. A trombone is the easy example – push the slide out, and the air is travelling an extra four feet of length, lowering the pitch. Valved instruments like a tuba or horn follow the same idea; instead of adding tubing by moving a slide, the player presses a valve which forces the airflow through little coils of extra tubing, cut to a specific length for precise pitch finding. Valved brass instruments are only about 150 years old (that’s quite young in the instrument world).

So how did valved instruments play in different keys before they had valves? A French horn without valves can realistically play about 10 usable notes covering 6 different pitches. Players fixed this shortcoming by carrying around boxes of “crooks” – lengths of tubing that they would attach to their instrument, one at a time, to change the key in which it would play. Then, using air pressure, they could nab whatever pitches were necessary. When the key changed, so did the crook. This was slow and clunky, but it worked; it must have been a great relief, however, when valves came onto the scene.

Too confusing? Head spinning? Time for a holiday.


Serenata for a Friday

August 5, 2016 at 10:30 am

Every Friday, there’s a special hour in my house. We call it “gin o’clock.”

Gin o’clock is a special time, and calls for special music. Nothing too serious, nothing too loud, too fast, too slow, too anything. I think today’s gin o’clock song du jour will be Leroy Anderson‘s swanky Serenata.

Anderson’s name isn’t huge in music textbooks, which tend to favor the progressive and experimental composers of the 20th century. He wrote for many genres, but is best known for his short, light orchestral pieces which are truly all-purpose – they work as background music, you can dance to them, drink to them, or just listen. How about a little more respect for one of America’s greatest?


Hee Haw

July 29, 2016 at 10:29 am

Donkeys are universally goofy. Their iconic braying has inspired composers to set “hee haw” in a number of works. There’s the amorous braying in Mendelssohn‘s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream“. There’s some good mockery in Saint-Saen‘s “Carnival of the Animals“, where the composer draws a connection between these dumb beasts and “people with long ears” … IE, music critics. There’s a charming Christmas tale by Rutter, “Brother Heinrich’s Christmas” about a donkey who wants to sing in the choir, and ends up contributing a well-timed “hee haw” to cleverly complete the carol In Dulci Jubilo.

But by far the smartest musical Hee-Haw is American composer Ferde Grofé‘s Grand Canyon Suite, which has a whole movement based on this delightful “ass-motif“. This movement perfectly paints a bumpy donkey ride in the beautiful American western landscape.