The Art of Baritone Playing – Iain Parkhouse

In the fifth 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, Iain Parkhouse, principal baritone of the International Staff Band, focuses on the role of the baritone.

While names such as Derick Kane, David Childs and Steven Mead roll off the tongue when asked to nominate the top euphonium players of the generation, the same probably can’t be said if the subject matter was the baritone! That said, there are more recognised baritone players around these days than ever before, who promote their art with great distinction and have pushed the boundaries of repertoire and solo playing to new levels. It’s probably fair to say that of all the brass band instruments, the baritone has the fewest number of players who set out to become purely baritone specialists! One only has to review the last 20 years of the baritone section in the ISB to realise that not one of us – with the notable exception of the legendary Howard Bowes – was brought up playing baritone!

So, in similar vein to my esteemed staff band colleague, Andrew Garcia from New York, who suggested that flugel horn players were, in the past, where you put your worst cornet players, the baritone player has often been the extra euphonium player, cajoled into filling an important seat in the section! One of the first learning experiences I enjoyed was sitting next to Bob Blackburn, Black Dyke’s solo baritone player in the early 1990s, who gave this writer a masterclass in band playing with his beautiful, melodious sound and keen ear for balance. One of his successors, Gareth Brindle has continued to promote the role of the baritone – listen to his recording of Paul Lovatt Cooper’s Donegal Bay for evidence of his tonal quality throughout the range! My early days in the ISB taught me some vital lessons, as I sat in awe of the beautiful sound characteristics from my colleague Gary Rose and his ability to achieve a musical line in whatever he played. Katrina Marzella has transformed the once dull and boring baritone into a solo instrument where repertoire is growing year on year. Her solo CD, Katrina, has to be heard to be believed. So enough of whom, let’s concentrate on what! In the words of a dear old Croydon Citadel Band colleague, Ray Bartlett, who has long since gone to Heaven, “the baritone is a great instrument to play, you’re always involved, whether in small ensemble work in the Sunday night selection, the bass solo of most marches and the odd claim to fame as a soloist in a few major works.”

In pure basic terms, the baritone provides much of the tenor line in hymn tune playing and provides the link in timbre to the euphoniums on the one side and the horn family on the other. Add to that its mellow ingredient to the‘fanfare’ qualities of the trombone section and you pretty well understand its role. In general terms the baritone is one of the quieter instruments in the band and often struggles to be heard above its bigger brother, the euphonium, and the brighter sound of the trombones. So a big consideration for the player is one of balance, perhaps having to give slightly more than you would expect to do in certain circumstances. Don’t get me wrong, the baritone can be played loudly but, of course, there is then a danger of the sound becoming forced and in some cases ugly, if the player decides to ‘take on’ the rest of the band. This is easily done, particularly if the player is more used to trying to fill a euphonium. So the harsh rasp and zing is to be avoided at all cost!

As in all music making, whether brass band or any other ensemble, it’s very often the listening skills and intelligence of the player who is successful in being heard. Blend and balance is vital if the baritone section wants to add to the overall band sound. Modern instruments have certainly helped in recent years with the persistent problem of intonation. These problems haven’t disappeared altogether, as there are still occasions that require ‘lipping in’ certain notes (like G#) to stay in tune. However, one things I’m reasonably comfortable with is that I prefer the three valve version to the newer four-valve options that are now on the market. The baritone needs a clear, bright and distinct sound, which I believe is lost to a degree with the four-valve version. This is only my opinion, however, as I know there are players out there who wouldn’t change back! Mouthpiece choice is a factor too, with so many to choose from, with all having different pluses and minuses. I’ve used a Steven Mead 4B from the Denis Wick range for quite a while, as it is easy to interchange with my euphonium mouthpiece, but makes the higher register quite a challenge!

In terms of repertoire, Ray Steadman-Allen’s The Holy War brought Salvation Army baritone soloists to the forefront with the haunting solo line in his classic tone poem written way back in 1965. One of my earliest recollections of beautiful writing (and playing) was hearing Black Dyke solo baritone John Slinger, on the 1967 recording of Eric Ball’s Journey into Freedom. A genius in his scoring, Ball clearly understood the bright tenor sound the instrument could make and used it to great effect again in Resurgam.

More and more composers of the current era are using the distinct baritone sound to provide musical line to the contemporary music they write. Listen or play along to music from Martin Cordner, Steven Ponsford and, of course, Kenneth Downie to recognise their craft! The general rule for consistent success is to work on the sound quality through the range, something I struggle with continually. However, the work is worth the time pent by giving much-needed sonorous support when the bandmaster asks for better balance in the middle band!

So, to all my baritone colleagues, keep up the great work. Remember you play a vital role in your band and as with all SA musicians, continue to strive to be the best for the Highest!

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