In the third 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, Andrew Garcia, for eight years a member of the New York Staff Band and a featured soloist at ISB120, focuses on the role of the flugel horn.
Everything that I learned about playing in an ensemble I learned from the flugel horn. To play this instrument in a brass band is to be paired with an unrelenting instructor that demands nothing less from its performer than a constant awareness of one’s surroundings, as well as an unimpeachable knowledge of the unique and ever-changing role that it plays within the brass band. But while its demands are great, the rewards are certainly greater, as it ultimately transforms the player into a more sensitive performer and a more mature musician in general. I had the unique privilege of playing flugel with the New York Staff Band (NYSB) from 2003–2011, and it was there that my sincere, yet informal, study of the instrument began.
One comes to appreciate through playing in Salvation Army bands that most ensembles tend to avoid selecting repertoire from a single, isolated time period. Instead, a more balanced selection is pursued, often creating a chronological cross-section of the Salvation Army canon. The NYSB was no different in this pursuit, and so it was that I was able to trace the lineage of the flugel horn as an emergent and evolving voice within the brass band score. The earliest days of the flugel horn in the brass band appear to be humble ones – most often duplicating the lines of the back row cornets or perhaps the upper horns. Its role was mostly one-dimensional, existing only to creating a link in timbre between the cornet and horn sounds and, therefore, the level of critical responsibility that the instrument held was very little. I remember discussing as much with Lt. Col. Norman Bearcroft (Retired), to which he remarked that in the earlier days of SA banding, the flugel was “where you put your worst man.” (Nothing keeps a man humble as much as belonging to a heritage of incompetence!). Whether it was the dubious talent of those who were chosen to fill these positions that prompted early composers to camouflage them within the score or the other way around is not for me to guess.
Suffice it to say that, slowly but surely, time wore away the mutual distrust between player and orchestrator to the point where we eventually behold a re-imagining of the flugel horn’s role within the brass band. I think specifically of that great wealth of timeless Army music that emerged in the early 1960s as a point where, just occasionally, the flugel would have brief introductions into a more versatile, independent role. Those few moments of precarious exposure in The Holy War were treasured ones and being able to lead the opening of My Comfort and Strength left me pining for that next opportunity to prove my mettle. If we fast-forward to today’s band, we see not just glimpses of responsibility, but vast swathes of musical territory in which the flugel horn is either a notable soloist, or an independent and significant voice within a smaller ensemble. What a history, indeed, to see the flugel transform itself from an instrument to which players were exiled to one that they were elevated to!
It is worth mentioning that it is not only the heightening of musical responsibility that has characterized the evolution of the flugel horn, but also the way in which composers have revolutionised its role within the band. Where once its place was uniformly defined as a liaison between the cornets and horns, I now feel as though I can sympathise with the words of Christ when he said, “Foxes have holes, and birds have their nests, but the son of man (or flugel horn, in this case) has no place to lay his head.” So it is with the flugel that constant changes of colour and orchestration can leave one feeling like a musical nomad, constantly on the move from one instrumental combination to the next. This undoubtedly produces a unique challenge to the player, as we are called on to be constantly aware of, and sensitive to, these changes.
The more experience that I gained within this new landscape, the more I realised that I not only had to know with whom I was playing at any given moment, but that as a result I had to change my own approach to playing the instrument. For example, I discovered that while playing with bright instruments such as cornets or trombones, I needed to play with greater strength so that the darkness of the flugel tone would add more warmth to the brighter sound. Conversely, while playing with a mellower group such as horns or baritones, I learned to step back and blend into their sound, allowing my own tone to be enriched. It truly finds resonance in the words of Paul where he said, “To the Jews, I became like a Jew to win the Jews. To those under the law, I became like one under the law…” Although in this case, one could say, “To the cornets I became like a cornet” or,“To the trombones I became like a trombone.” To put it briefly, playing the flugel horn is nothing more than the art of trading the virtuosic for the versatile, the ability to take a step back and survey the landscape of the brass band as a whole, all the while embracing the unique identity of a philosopher-musician. At its perfection, it is a delicate balance in which nobody notices when it’s there, but everybody misses it if it’s gone.