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Band Geeks Unite: A Brass Music Playlist


Photo: Mnozil Brass, who’ll be in Ann Arbor on April 14, 2016. Photo by Tibor Bozi.

Perhaps I’m biased since I’m a horn player and the quintessential high school “band geek,” but the brass family of instruments is the coolest and most versatile of them all. Brass instruments are part of iconic moments in your favorite genres of music, from Shostakovich to Star Wars, and Miles Davis to OMI. Our instruments range in size, shape, and timbre, and unlike other kinds of instruments, ours only have a few valves to play any given note.

But what do brass players do when we’re not sitting in the back of the orchestra, in a jazz combo, or stepping in time with the marching band? Well, if we’re not daydreaming about John Williams or “resting our chops” (a brass player term for “goofing off”), we’re sometimes part of brass ensembles. They’re chamber groups or small ensembles, playing anything including Bach transcriptions, holiday tunes, or Top-40 Pop.

Below are some of my recommendations if you’re not sure what to expect from a brass ensemble, or a piece that features the brass section (spoiler alert: expect the unexpected). If you’re looking for the quintessential brass ensemble canon, this definitely isn’t it, but it is a wee bit of what makes this type of ensemble so engaging and fun.

Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”
New York Philharmonic

No, this is not a brass ensemble piece, per se. However, it is a classic orchestral piece for brass and percussion that, when done correctly, should blow the doors off the concert hall. To play it is unforgiving, since it’s so exposed, but it’s the limited orchestration adds to its sheer power. It’s solemn, yet imbued with incredible energy that encapsulates why I love being a brass player so much.

Excerpt of Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever”
USAF Heartland of America Band, Offutt Brass

Everyone knows “Stars and Stripes,” the essential John Philip Sousa march that’s as American as apple pie. Normally, the iconic trio features the piccolo, but in this rendition, the tuba plays it. That’s right, the tuba. I traveled to Europe twice with a student honors band, and the entire tuba section did this. It highlights the tuba in a way you’d never expect from their usual on-beats (the “oohm” in “oohm-pah,” if you will) and large size. This version also features a piccolo trumpet, which is equally cool and fun.

“Twelfth Street Rag”
Dallas Brass

The Dallas Brass came to my high school during my senior year, and our brass ensemble had a workshop with them. It was terrifying and also ridiculously cool. We’d been playing their arrangements of pieces for most of the year, so naturally, playing Dallas Brass arrangements in front of Dallas Brass was pretty life-changing. This is their version of the classic “Twelfth Street Rag,” a classic ragtime piece that you might also recognize from SpongeBob SquarePants, albeit in its ukulele version.

“Bad Romance (Brass Romance)”
Canadian Brass

The world-famous Canadian Brass recreated the Lady Gaga classic, giving it a faster, uptempo feel. At first, you won’t be sure if a brass ensemble playing the greatest cultural artifact of 2009 will be cheesy or cool, since the style feels more “classical” than the synth-heavy, futuristic original. But fear not, Little Monsters. The Canadian Brass rendition gets progressively more Gaga-esque and weirder as it progresses, and as with anything Lady Gaga, that’s a good thing. You’ll want to listen to this as much as you listened to Gaga’s version on your iPod (because iPhones were barely a thing back then).

“Bohemian Rhapsody”
Mnozil Brass

If you take only one thing from this post, I hope it’s this. To me, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the height of human achievement, right up there with sliced bread and the Internet. Naturally, when I stumbled upon the Mnozil Brass version, I was intrigued. The septet uses their unique performance style to tackle a song that requires a high degree of (melo)drama, musicianship, and a little bit of sass. Sure, there are fewer white satin outfits than I expected, but there is plenty of singing, quirky choreography, and, of course, a little Wayne’s World-esque headbanging.

Mnozil Brass performs in Ann Arbor on April 14, 2016.

Band Photos Contest – Enter to Win Tickets!

Photos of Canadian Brass from our archives. Check out our Facebook page for larger versions of these photos & more photos!

Many of us began our relationship with classical music by participating in band in elementary school, middle school, high school, college and beyond. This week, we’re celebrating this connection with a contest.

Submit your best old band photos. Winner (selected by a panel of UMS Staff well-versed in band photos) receives a pair of tickets to the legendary Canadian Brass! Three runners up will receive iTunes giftcards.

UMS Staff Hearts Band.


(1) Via Facebook. Go to your profile. Upload your band photo, caption it with your Name and an interesting detail about your band experience, if you like. Tag University Musical Society in your caption – this is how we’ll know you’re entering.

(To tag us, you’ll have to first ‘Like’ our page. Then, type ‘@’ followed by ‘University Musical Society’ into your status update, along with the rest of your caption, and you should see our page appear in the drop down menu. Select our page to tag us.)

(2) Via Twitter. Upload your photo, caption it with your Name and an interesting detail about your band experience, if you like. Tweet your photo @UMSNews.

(3) Contest period: November 14-18. Winners and runners up selected November 18, 5PM.

Questions? Comment below.


11/12 Additional Events

Several additional events will also be presented as part of the UMS 11/12 season, and can be purchased as part of the choose-your-own Monogram Series.

Subscription packages go on sale to the general public on Monday, May 9, and will be available through Friday, September 17. Current subscribers will receive renewal packets in early May and may renew their series upon receipt of the packet. Tickets to individual events will go on sale to the general public on Monday, August 22 (via and Wednesday, August 24 (in person and by phone). Not sure if you’re on our mailing list? Click here to update your mailing address to be sure you’ll receive a brochure.

Audra McDonald
Friday, November 4, 8 pm
Hill Auditorium

She may be a Juilliard-trained four-time Tony Award-winning singer and actress who has released four solo albums and performed with every major orchestra in the US, but Audra McDonald is not one to rest on her laurels.  McDonald returns to the concert stage after her last UMS appearance in 2005; since that time, she has made her Houston Grand Opera debut, won her fourth Tony (for A Raisin in the Sun), played Olivia in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at The Public  Theatre Shakespeare in the Park, performed at the White House for President Obama, and spent four years on the ABC series “Private Practice.” Her break from the television series allows her time to return back to her musical theater  roots, including this Hill Auditorium concert.

Canadian Brass
Sunday, November 27, 4 pm
Hill Auditorium

Five tremendous brass musicians — each a virtuoso in his own right — form the legendary Canadian Brass. With an international reputation as one of the most popular brass ensembles today, Canadian Brass features brass standards as well as a wide-ranging library of original arrangements created especially for them, including the works of Renaissance and Baroque  masters, classical works, marches, holiday favorites, ragtime, Dixieland, big band, Broadway, and popular songs and standards. This Thanksgiving-weekend concert is sure to start your holidays off with a bang.  The hallmark of any Canadian Brass performance is entertainment, spontaneity, virtuosity and, most of all,  fun.

Handel’s Messiah
Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra
UMS Choral Union
Jerry Blackstone, conductor

Saturday, December 3, 8 pm
Sunday, December 4, 2 pm
Hill Auditorium

The Grammy Award-winning UMS Choral Union (2006 “Best Choral Performance” for William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience) launches the holiday season with its signature work, Handel’s glorious oratorio Messiah.  An Ann Arbor tradition in the beautiful surroundings of Hill Auditorium, these performances are ultimately the heart and soul of UMS, connecting audiences not only with the talented people on stage, but also with the friends and family who attend each year.   Start off your holiday season with a spirited “Hallelujah!”

Sweet Honey In The Rock
Friday, February 17, 8 pm
Hill Auditorium

For over three decades, Sweet Honey In The Rock has used her voice to celebrate our collective humanity, singing about the challenging issues of racism; social, economic, and environmental injustice; equal rights and greed that seem to be pulling our nation apart.  The group has built a distinguished legacy as one of the most celebrated ambassadors of a cappella music, fusing five scintillating and soulful voices with the texture, harmonic blend, and raw quality that is indigenous and true to authentic a cappella music.  In the tradition of artists in action — this is the group that sang on the steps of the Supreme Court on behalf of the University of Michigan’s affirmative action case — Sweet Honey taps the spirit, encourages audiences to think, asks them to reflect, and inspires them to make a difference in their communities.

American Mavericks
San Francisco Symphony Chamber Concert
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Meredith Monk and Joan La Barbara, vocals

Sunday, March 25, 4 pm
Rackham Auditorium

This final concert of the four-concert San Francisco Symphony American Mavericks residency features 17 musicians from the San Francisco Symphony performing chamber music. The festival celebrates the creative pioneering spirit and the composers who created a new American musical voice for the 20th century and beyond. American mavericks explored every sound that a full orchestra could make, but they also composed fascinating, and invigorating, chamber music. This concert features intriguing chamber works from composers whose music will shape the decades to come.

Meredith Monk | New Work
Lukas Foss | Echoi
Morton Subotnick | From Jacob’s Room
David Del Tredici | Syzygy

Return to the complete chronological list.