The Art of Soprano Playing – Gary Fountain

Over the next few months, SA Bandsman will be asking some of the SA banding world’s most revered players to discuss the role of their particular instrument within the brass band. In the first of the series, Gary Fountain, of the International Staff and Kettering Citadel bands, focuses on the role of the soprano cornet.

Firstly can I say what a privilege it is to be asked to write an article on soprano cornet playing for SA Bandsman, and secondly, stress that my thoughts are very personal, based on my own playing experience. As such, any opinions stated are just that – my opinions – and therefore should not be perceived as being in any way right or wrong.

I started playing soprano cornet in 2002 with Virtuosi GUS Band (a Championship Section band based near my home town of Kettering). This was quite a challenge as, at that time, I was playing principal cornet with Kettering Citadel Band and second man down in the International Staff Band. Therefore, I felt I had to quickly adopt a different mentality to my playing. Those who know me well will appreciate that I do not find any form of performing an easy task, as I tend to be quite a nervous sort. I can hear you all now saying, “Why pick soprano then?”

Strange as it may seem, playing soprano cornet has been the best thing for me as, because of the nature of the part, I cannot hide, and thus have to ‘go for it‘. This brings me on nicely to the points I would consider to be worthy of mention in an article such as this. ‘Going for it‘ must not be confused with a reckless, happy-go-lucky approach to the part. The soprano cornet part or player must never become a distraction to the listener. I feel quite strongly that if that particular approach is taken, it tends to give the brass band movement a bit of an amateurish status. Interestingly, my wife and I recently went to hear the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra play in a concert in London. At no time throughout the entire concert was I distracted by an individual player, either visibly or audibly – I just enjoyed the music from the ensemble as a whole.

The soprano cornet is obviously an individual part, but the player must never lose sight of the fact that they are first and foremost a member of the cornet section and thus contribute to that section, helping out in the higher passages, and not just ‘glory hunting’. Without appearing to contradict myself, I remember having a conversation with Staff Bandmaster Dr. Stephen Cobb in the early months of my time on soprano, asking whether my playing was too loud or too quiet as he hadn’t indicated either way. In response, he commented that he trusted me to open up when the music demanded, but also simply to sit on top of the band when required. Whilst this was a slightly flattering response, more importantly, it made me realise the personal responsibility a soprano player has within the group.

I have been the principal cornet of Kettering Citadel Band for just over 20 years, in which time I have always strived to achieve a soloistic, lyrical and level-headed style, an approach I am very keen to apply to the soprano cornet part. This leads me onto the issue of mouthpiece choice. It is fair to say that soprano parts over the years have been written higher and higher, making all sorts of demands on the player. For Salvation Army soprano players, this means that we are expected to be playing top C’s and D’s for a Saturday evening festival and then the following morning are required to sit pretty and delicate on the devotional piece without spoiling the atmosphere of the moment. I am sure we are all tempted to go for the quick fix and find the shallowest mouthpiece, but I personally go for sound quality and touch, even if it means that extra effort for the higher register.

Soprano cornets, whatever the manufacturer, are notoriously susceptible to intonation issues. My personal recommendation on this is to ‘get to know your instrument‘, as each instrument has its own quirky notes. Aim to look ahead in the music and if possible reposition the tuning slide (lead pipe) accordingly. When it comes to the ‘big‘ high notes at the end of pieces, be aware of not forcing too hard, thus sending the note sharp. Always remember, the listener’s ear will automatically favour a higher pitched note, so there is no need to over-blow.

All in all, playing soprano cornet can be a real pleasure and thrill for the individual, despite the obvious performance pressure. It is an instrument that can, if not managed sensibly, destroy the player’s nerve completely, as every note played can be heard. Try to keep cool and dwell on the positives. My advice for anybody playing soprano cornet, or contemplating a move onto it, would be to try to build up a solid level of technique, but perhaps more importantly, work on the basics of air support and consistent note production, enabling a delicacy of playing style when required. I have had the privilege of playing the soprano cornet in the International Staff Band for a number of years now and hope to continue in this role for years to come, giving back to the Lord the talents he has bestowed on me.

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