In the ninth of the series in which some of the SA banding world’s pre-eminent players discuss the role of their particular instrument within the brass band, Martin Tiplady, principal BBb bass of the International Staff Band, focuses on the role of the BBb bass.
It was 1972 when I moved onto BBb bass. My then corps band, Enfield Citadel, took part in the National Goodwill Festival at which Dana was the special guest! Just before it commenced, Bandmaster James Williams invited me to think about the vacant BBb bass position. He had a knack of making instrumental changes that worked out well and thought that I had the build and stamina. He said it in a way that was more an order than an invitation!
My first endeavours on the instrument were shocking. Every sound had overtones and I realised how easy it was to blow straight through the instrument rather than fill it. My first BBb partner – and still very much a mentor and personal friend – was Peter Moore, a legend at Enfield. He was absent from my first rehearsal and Bandmaster Williams made no allowance for the fact that I was playing the part for the first time! Equally, Jim heaped praise on me at the end of the rehearsal. It was undeserved but the public encouragement worked a treat.
As I slowly got to grips with the part, I was urged on by the likes of John Evans and Peter, and encouraged by a cornet player and big supporter of the BBb bass, Keith Hutchinson. I also received encouraging calls from BBb bass heroes Lt. Col. Robert Redhead (later to become ISB Bandmaster) and Major George Whittingham.
In 1979, I transferred to Hendon and replaced Howard Marshall in the band. For the last 27 years, I have had Stephen Hopkins, a fine player, as my BBb partner. In 1989, I joined the International Staff Band and, for the most part, have had Trevor Caffull sitting alongside me. Trevor is the best imaginable BBb partner. His playing is as good as anyone in terms of sound, musicianship and agility. He has a massive sound, knows my strengths and weaknesses, and anticipates when I breathe and covers accordingly. He covers notes to enable a pedal, is a team worker and has great blend – qualities that are important to a successful bass line. I had some lessons with my BBb bass hero, Derek Jackson, formerly of Black Dyke and Fairey bands and the doyen of all BBb bass players. He gave me lessons in his carpet shop in Queensbury and corrected me on several matters, including posture, how to hold the instrument as close as possible and how to purr a pedal. My approach to sound and pedaling is unashamedly based on him, though I get nowhere close to his quality. He passed away 18 months or so ago but remains the BBb bass standard.
The essential qualities of playing BBb are about filling 35 feet of tubing with air and producing quality sound. It is the foundation of the band and should provide an undercurrent of sound to hold the rest of the band up. It is not about volume, but rather depth and density. Of course, a good player also needs to have technical agility but the best players – Matthew Routley (Black Dyke), Frazer Bish (formerly of Cory) and Trevor – are best referenced for their sound quality. Derek Jackson said to me that the art of BBb bass playing is to feel a note vibrate rather than to always hear it.
A while back, I heard a BBb blast his way through a programme with a raucousness that was markedly unpleasant. Notes were cracked and it wasn’t a pleasant listening experience, nor the way to play the part. Over-blowing and rifting is not to be recommended on any instrument, but on a bass it is so easy to do. If one listens to a Black Dyke CD, the bass is never overdone as the sound is so rounded. Even now, I have to be careful to produce the right amount of air and let it flow through the instrument rather than allow it to rip without touching the sides! Some players do not fill, but blow straight through the tubing, creating a thin, pinched sound. A band with a thin and edgy bass line will sound… thin and edgy! Also, the BBb bass is a determinant of tempi. It can control the tempo and the player needs to be careful not to drag, by elongating notes, or push by over-compensating for faster moving parts elsewhere in the band. It is necessary to watch the conductor carefully to respect his beat.
There are different schools of opinion about pedalling. I am of the belief that a gentle pedal enhances the depth of a chord. But like all good things, it should never be overdone, either in quantity, in the wrong place, or at a volume that offends. Whenever I play a pedal, I recall the Derek Jackson advice of ‘feel the note, rather than hear it.’ The band to which I referred earlier had a bass that played down the octave the whole evening. It ceased to have any effect. Similarly, there are bass players who play the octave without an intervening upper note. That is pointless and to be avoided at all costs. I have played the part for over 42 years and confess that it gets harder. I still have nightmares about St. Magnus (Kenneth Downie)! But it is a fantastic part. I have had the privilege of playing in three bands in which the bandmasters, James Williams and StephenCobb, are supporters of the bass line, allow some discretion regarding pedalling and strive for a big round sound. I thank them for their inspiration and leadership. I have just never got used to marching with a BBb bass!