The Brass Academy: fun and learning for students and tutors alike
Posted on 30th November 2022 at 14:51
This month, Tom Rainer, Musical Director of The Brass Academy, tells us about their five-day music courses for young people. Tom, who is also Deputy Head (Pastoral) at the Pilgrims School in Hampshire and principal trumpet of the London Concert Orchestra, explains how the courses work for young musicians of all abilities - and why the best teachers are those who learn from their students.
Brass Academy was formed in 2011 with one simple aim: to provide outstanding courses for young brass players of all ages (8-18) and all abilities (Grade 1 to Diploma). In the past eleven years nearly 2000 players have come on the courses, many returning year after year. In fact, some were inspired enough to enter the music profession and are now returning as tutors.
One question we’re often asked is ‘why do people enjoy it so much?’ As the Director this is hard to answer and in many ways I would rather the students and staff answer this on behalf of Brass Academy. In a nutshell, if you were or are a budding footballer and were given a week to spend in the company of Ronaldo, Messi, or the inspirational Leah Williamson (who indeed did ‘bring it home’ this summer), most would bite one’s hand off. Our aim is to give pupils access to some of the world’s best brass players, to learn from them and be inspired not only by their playing but also by their personalities. While it is hard to separate the two, it is important to recognise that enjoying what you do is infectious and it is evident for all that our course is a week of fun, learning, and improving. The courses set high standards to aim for, and offer challenges and support in overcoming them. To do so while laughing and enjoying an energy that a Brass Academy brings is what makes our courses outstanding.
I was lucky to have had an incredible trumpet teacher. He often commented that the best teachers learn the most from their students and year in, year out, the tutors comment on how inspiring they find the courses. The enthusiasm that the course brings is reflected in the relationship between young, old, beginners and seasoned pros.
How it works
The structure of the week’s course includes working in an ability group each day from 9:30-11am (usually beginners, intermediate and advanced), followed by a break. I pause to comment on the breaks as one of the most interesting aspects of the experience is to see how by the end of the first break, people who have come from all backgrounds, be they cultural, geographical, age, gender, ability, have formed friendships - many for life.
The second session is based on instrumental groups: trumpets, horns, trombones and lower brass of euphoniums and tubas. Here we have the opportunity to look at more specific issues. While there are similarities – our brass instruments are, after all, just a piece of pipe(!) – there are some unique features to be drawn out, for example: where a horn player puts their hand, how the trombone slide operates (a dark mystery to the trumpet fraternity), and how much air a tuba actually needs! During this session everyone has the opportunity to play as an individual and the ensemble prepares something tantalising for the final concert - more on this later.
At 1pm comes the favourite part of the day for staff – lunch!!! Brass players are by nature hungry and have vociferous appetites. After all, we need energy…
The afternoon session starts at 2pm as everyone heads outside for some exercise. Games such as footy, cricket, rounders, and ‘ultimate chaos it’ (a course favourite) are enthusiastically played as the pupils (who are split into houses) compete. There is the traditional staff v students rounders game every Thursday. Staff have never lost. They have, however, been accused by each and every single student of cheating! I could not possibly comment…
If 1pm is the staff’s favourite part of the day, 4pm is the students’ favourite. Tuck shop is a standard and very popular feature and interestingly, although the staff claim it is not their favourite, it has been noted that tuck shop usually makes a loss when certain anonymous staff are on the course.
Once we have our breath back, it is on to sectionals for the massed piece and then everyone comes and plays together. It is essential that we all unite to perform and to bring an excellent day to a close.
Thursday morning is the individual player competition final. An outside adjudicator comes and listens to all who have made it through the early stages, which are held throughout the week. Quite often it is not someone at Diploma level who wins. One year Phil Cobb, of the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave the winner to a Grade 4 trumpeter. His reasoning was ‘as soon as you started to play, I looked around the room: everyone was smiling and tapping their foot’. It is about performance and relating to others, not who has the most experience or highest grade.
Evenings are downtime and offer activities where trying to keep a straight face is literally impossible. Whether it’s a quiz, treasure hunt, fashion show, film night or silly games (inland synchronised swimming was a particular hit), this is the time to relax and have fun.
How to take part
There are currently two courses planned for 2023: the Easter Course of 4 days, held at Aldro in Shackleford, Surrey from 3rd to 6th April and a second at the Purcell School of Music in Bushey, Hertfordshire. Further information, details and booking forms can be found on our website: www.brass-academy.co.uk and take a look at our YouTube channel to get an idea of our music making courses: https://www.youtube.com/@thebrassacademy
Over the years, we have all been inspired by the playing, enthusiasm, kindness and encouragement that everyone brings to the course. Long may it continue.
About Tom Rainer
Tom is the Musical Director of The Brass Academy and is currently Deputy Head (Pastoral) at the Pilgrims School in Hampshire where he is also the Designated Safeguarding Lead and Head of Boarding.
In addition Tom still freelances in and around London and has worked with all the major London-based orchestras, performed regularly in the West End and can be heard on radio, television and on many film scores, most notably 'Lord Of the Rings'.
The son of Salvation Army Officers, Tom spent his early years in Africa whilst his parents were on missionary duty. His music career started at the age of eight, when he was given a cornet and the chart for the C scale, and told to go away and learn it.
Some years later Tom was awarded a scholarship to study with Ray Allen at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He continued his studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and graduated in 1992.
In 1997 Tom was appointed principal trumpet of the National Orchestra of Ireland. He is currently the principal trumpet of the London Concert Orchestra. As a soloist Tom has performed at various music festivals, including the San Sebastian International Festival and was a winner in the Portabello Music Competition in 1997.
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