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How to Include and Engage Horn Players in Your School Rock/Popular Ensemble

So you have a small class with mostly horns but a couple of kids play guitar and drums, or a group with lots of rhythm players and a couple of horns. You think “It would be really cool to get a rock group going or some type of horn band or at least try to get these horn players involved in my rock group.” Then you ask yourself, “How do I do that? I don’t have the time to arrange charts, I can’t find them anywhere, and I’m not even a horn player!” Chapter 4 of my book has a small section about horn players in a rock setting but being a horn player in a rock band called The Sidewalks, I have much experience with this. Here is what I know:

If you’ve read my book, Rock Coach, or some of my other posts about rock music learning, or perhaps even my column in the CME Journal you would know that to teach rock music in an authentic way you have to give up some control. This means letting the learners do a lot of the learning by having them compose, arrange, and improvise on their own. It even means letting go of the note-reading or chart safety-blanket. Don’t get me wrong, notation is important but not more important than copying, ear playing, going by feel, composing, and improvising. Reading music can actually get in the way of music making and can be distracting in a performance and quite literally creates a wall between you and the audience. In a real rock setting—especially in an original band—horn players do not have music to read, it is all copied, composed, and arranged with the other band members in a spontaneous and natural way.

So you have a small class with mostly horns but a couple of kids play guitar and drums, or a group with lots of rhythm players and a couple of horns. You think "It would be really cool to get a rock group going or some type of horn band or at least try to get these horn players involved in my rock group." Then you ask yourself, "How do I do that? I don't have the time to arrange charts and I can't find charts anywhere, and I'm not even a horn player!" Chapter 4 of my book has a small section about horn players in a rock setting but being a horn player in a rock band called The Sidewalks, I have much experience with this. Here is what I know:

How to Include and Engage Horn Players in Your School Rock Groups

Playing a Horn in a Ska-Influenced Alternative Rock Group

We sometimes learn cover tunes that would fit a band with a horn section like “Final Countdown” or “Uptown Funk” and sometimes we don’t but we will add a horn part to make it our own. A fine example of this is our ska-alternative rock arrangement of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” There are no horn lines in the original but we were able to make some that worked! When we learn a cover, we learn everything by ear because—let’s face it—there are no charts for these tunes and the time you wasted looking for charts could have been spent learning it by ear. This will be a very authentic learning experience for your students. In addition, they need to be immersed in the by-ear-learning processes to be successful musicians outside of school. We owe it to our learners to give them this opportunity. This process might take longer but you may also be surprised by how quickly they will learn it. If they are a beginning group, give them the first note if you know it and have them figure out the rest. As long as it doesn’t go too high for your brass players, note names don’t really matter if they can figure it out by ear. I have a section of my book that helps learners figure out parts by ear using a step-by-step process. If they need to write it down to remember it, have them write out a part in short-hand notation. Note-names or fingerings will suffice. We do this in The Sidewalks when needed. The three horn players in the group are perfectly capable sight-readers but have no need to utilize that skill in this group—It hinders our creative process.

Some Ways to Think About Adding Horn Lines Without Using “Charts”

When learning a cover with obvious horn lines already we:

  1. Learn the parts by ear. If there is one part, we all learn it. It can be very cool when different horns learn the same line a play it in unison. For example, a trombone and trumpet playing the same parts are already going to be in octaves which is a neat enough effect that help to beef up each other’s sound. It is also quite stylistically appropriate. There are sometimes counter-melodies that can also be easily picked out with practice. If you have two parts at once (like a melody and a counter melody) and you have three horns, have two of them play the melody in octaves and one of them play the counter-melody. More advanced groups will be able to play in any key quite easily. A beginner group of brass players might have to have the tune transposed for range.

  2. Once we have the parts learned by ear sometimes we will add some parts to make it more interesting. The first part we might add if we are trying to make it our own are horn pads. The term pads refers to a synthesizer term that means, essentially, backing chords. They usually have a very cool effect on them that fade into the background but add a very neat sound to the overall mix. These sounds are the opposites of synth leads. Our horn pads are usually always played in the chorus. When coming up with some pads for the chorus, what the chords are may not even matter if you already have your guitarist playing the chords. I just go with what sounds good at that section. Overthinking what chord you are playing can get in the way of finding a good arrangement. You might get some really thick sounding chords with some suspensions that really add to the music. If it sounds good, keep it–if it doesn’t, don’t.

If we are learning a tune that has no horns to try and make it our own, we:

  1. Have the rhythm section jam it out and figure out each section to the song. While they are doing this, the horns try and find parts that would work well on the horns by listening to the track. Opening melodic material and small shots or backing vocals a-la “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele also work well for horns.

  2. Add horn pads in the chorus. As mentioned earlier, don’t overthink it. Also, it might take a while to establish exactly what it is you or your learners want in this section but that is okay, this is part of the creative process.

  3. Might add a horn solo in the bridge or pre-verse. To really make a song include a horn, give them a solo.

Basically, you need to think about your horn section in a rock group as a keyboard or synthesizer. Anything a synthesizer typically plays, will work well as a horn line.

Write Your Own Music

Songwriting and composition are natural extensions of playing rock or any popular style. Try having your group write their own music. It could be terrible if they are new to it, but that’s okay because composition and songwriting are messy activities. You have to start somewhere. It could be amazing, they and you will never know if they are never given the opportunity. Think about it this way: If you’ve never made a mistake, you will never come up with anything new! One of the best ways to include your horn players into your rock group is to have them write their own material. This way, finding material isn’t an issue and writing a separate horn line isn’t either. All learners are exploring and taking time to formulate a song together and will complete their parts at relatively the same time. However, I find that in my group, The Sidewalks, the rhythm section typically writes the chord structure and form before the horns are able to hammer out parts. We will definitely be able to find riffs based on their chord structures but find it difficult to solidify parts until the song’s structure is complete. On occasion, one of us will come with a good horn riff and the rest of the band will write around us. It really depends on what ideas you have floating around.

But What About the Theory?

If you are still concerned that they are not learning enough theory, after they have a song written, tear it apart and have them figure out what they are actually doing in the song theory-wise. If you are going to do this though, it needs to happen after the song is written. This is the most effective way to learn theory with regard to chord spellings and/or roman numeral analysis. You should never try to have your learners theorize during the writing process unless there is an extremely teachable moment that cannot be ignored. Over-theorizing during the writing process will hinder their creativity.

Simple ways of theorizing during the songwriting or song learning process are just to speak in theory terms constantly. For example, if you are explaining a rhythm to a drummer, use the rhythm language they are used to. For drummers, the counting system is the most effective but if they know another system, use those words. Another way to keep it simple that would be very appropriate is to write rhythms with note-names or chord symbols to help remember the songs. Take a look at the Nashville Number System to see what I mean. This system is used among the Nashville music scene and is a much more informal and short-hand way of writing out music but with a theory mindset.

But Wait, My Group is All Horns and One Drummer!

What if your group is all horns and a drummer? Check out “Lucky Chops” on YouTube. They make their own arrangements of rock and popular tunes and I guarantee you they don’t have charts for them. This makes arranging a bit more of a challenge because there is no harmonic base (guitar or piano) to play from. However, it can be done! They can look up guitar chords for the song online and together, as the facilitator, you can help them form the harmonic structure and go from there. During this process, teachable theory moments will pop up everywhere.

Are There Any Particular Scales or Modes to Learn?

Rock and popular tunes are almost never in popular horn keys like Bb or Eb. This is because rock and popular music are mostly dominated by guitars which like to play in sharp keys like G or A. This means that the wind players in your younger groups will have to forget what they already know and learn other scales. At the very least, they should learn a few notes from popular guitar keys. More specifically they should learn:

  1. Some pentatonic scales (1-2-3-5-6) in popular guitar keys like E, G, and A.

  2. Minor pentatonic (1-b3-4-5-b7) and blues (1-b3-4-b5-5-b7) scales in popular guitar keys like G, E, and A.

  3. At least one Mixolydian scale (1-2-3-4-5-6-b7).

  4. At least one Dorian scale (1-2-b3-4-5-6-b7). If you have them learn a few of these they work well in place of minor pentatonic and blues for solos.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Some can be learned by ear, and many will be learned in context. There is no better way to learn a scale or mode than to improvise with it. I understand how easy it is to theorize on a wind instrument because there are no obvious patterns like on guitar and you end up having to memorize all notes in every scale instead of scale patterns. There is a balance for sure so think about it like this: Jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong once said when asked if he could read music “not enough to hurt my playing” (Woody, 2012, p. 83).

A Note on Beginning Brass Players

Your beginning brass players will have only a limited number of notes. They likely won’t even have an entire octave. The first five or six notes of any of the diatonic scales would be plenty for them to learn. In most cases, the catchiest of melodies and parts only have a maximum of five notes anyway.

To Conclude

Adding horns to your rock group may not be easy unless there are horn lines already but it can be done in an extremely authentic way. Thinking of your horn section as a synthesizer and forgetting about finding charts for them to learn is a good place to start. Much of the learning in popular styles of music is done without notation. As a teacher-facilitator, learning to “let go” of control or charts can be one of the biggest hurdles to overcome but out learners deserve to be given the chance to create something new to help them learn real-world musical skills. Do you have any other ways that you incorporate horns into your rock or popular ensembles? Or perhaps you have a question about what you’ve already read? Feel free to leave a comment.

Until next time, Happy Musicking!

A version of this blog post was published in Creative Musicking: Practical, Real-life Ideas to Get Your Learners Creating Their Own Music (Steve’s Music Room, 2020).

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