To Pedal or not to Pedal? - Is it the Question?

11-Jun-2008

Alan Morrison poses one of the most pertinent current questions in banding.


MorrisonThe recent round of Area Contests once again threw up several interesting questions not least the one involving bass sections and the use of pedal notes when not written by the composer. 

Having been a cornet player all my musical life I have always been involved at the other end of the band and so this question has not really bothered me from a playing point of view. 

Wonderful sounds

However having played for bands like Grimethorpe and Brighouse I have often been wowed by the wonderful sounds that can come from the bass section of such calibre bands, particularly when one or more uses the pedal tool to great effect.

After such a moment, a glance to the player concerned would always see a smug grin of satisfaction come across the face having achieved such a glorious sound. There is no doubt that pedaling can add a wonderful colour to the whole sound of the band and provide a hidden depth and sonority to the overall effect.

1970s Black Dyke

In my early years of top-class banding the first band to really make an impact on me was the great Black Dyke Mills Band of the 1970s. I listened intently to all three National hat-trick winning performances between 1975-7 and can remember being stunned at the wonderful warmth of the sound that the band made, particularly in 1976 on The Wayfarer. This performance made a lasting impression on me and as a conductor now I strive to achieve the same sound.

Broaden sound

Many years later I was in discussion with Major Peter Parkes about the way that band achieved such a sound and he told me his opinion was that the foundations were laid by having a wonderful sounding bass section and a distinctive Principal Cornet player. He also confided that one bass player was an absolute expert at pedaling and he used that trick as often as he could to broaden the sound of the band. 

Now, I am not suggesting that this is where it was invented, or that they were the only ones to do it, but I do have to admit that when done selectively and discreetly the effect is almost spine chilling.

Invention

It would be interesting to know who first invented pedaling and why? 

I can`t provide any definitive answers but at a guess I would say it probably coincided with the invention of a fourth valve for basses around the 1960`s, perhaps coupled with the drop to low pitch and bigger bored instruments. Bass players probably suddenly found themselves with a new toy and with a previously impossible scope and range.

It is now commonplace in band performances particularly in the upper sections, but is it correct and should it be penalised in contest performances if not written?

Festival Music

This years Area piece Festival Music by Eric Ball, for me, highlighted this phenomena and the differing level of usage by our Championship Section Bands. This piece is widely accepted as needing to be performed in the style of Mozart, ie very light in texture and almost like chamber music. 

To add an octave to the bottom of the score makes it musically incorrect, particularly in the faster moving outer movements. It really can muddy the waters of what in actual fact is a superb example of brass band scoring.

Usage

I listened to several complete contests and found four levels of usage of pedaling:-

1) None at all
2) The occasional note
3) Whole phrases, but not consistently throughout, mostly confined to the second movement
4) Consistent and blatant pedaling throughout the second movement and also some usage in the outer movements

At this point, having conducted a band in Yorkshire, let me lay my cards on the table and `confess` to what I allowed in my performance.

When to and when not to

Like several other bands, Brighouse are lucky enough to possess four quality sounding, balanced bass players that produce a wonderful sound. All can produce fine pedal notes, but in particular one BBb Bass player is a renowned expert at it. He is an expert, because he knows when to and when not to! 

Occasionally I have to say to him, `not there or what about one there` etc but between us we would like to think that it is very discreet and just adds colour without distracting the listeners attention from the main lines. I would say I fell into category 2 of the above list.

Ethos

There is no doubt that some conductors could not resist the temptation to use it more widely and for me it really did affect the overall ethos and texture of the music in a detrimental way.

In our inexact science of adjudicating, pedaling is just one more subjective area for adjudicators to be inconsistent. Some will like it and some will not! Having said that I would bet that there is not one adjudicator on the ABBA panel of about 60 that cannot identify it when it happens. Consequently their subjectivity will decide individually how to react.

I was very interested and bemused to read an article recently that stated “Most EEb Basses sound louder than BBb basses due to pitch. Inexperienced adjudicators should be careful not to accuse a band of pedaling when, in reality, the bass section is well balanced and you can hear equal amounts of both BBb and EEb bass octave” What a load of codswallop?

If a player is playing one octave below it is easy for anyone to hear. 

Well balanced

Well balanced basses do not produce some optical or aural illusion that makes them sound an octave below and it is an insult to suggest they do. It is easy for any adjudicator to hear and bands should not blame the adjudicator, (and try to discredit), when they are found out and therefore criticised and penalised. 

This also throws up the question, are some conductors aware that the basses are indulging in this practice. Perhaps they get so used to hearing one performance over and over again in rehearsal that it just becomes accepted to them?

Get away with it?

As a cornet player, if I had played something an octave higher than written there would be a public inquiry and hanging. The same with soprano players, although why they would want to escapes me. However the point is that we tend to play what is written and would not dream of anything else, so why do bass players think they can get away with it?

There is no doubt that this subject is open to debate and there maybe no rights and wrongs involved, just a matter of taste, but perhaps it is more like the forbidden fruit and the question of temptation. 

I would suggest it is right and very effective in its place, but in other places could be very, very wrong!

Alan Morrison

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