Having just revamped a large part of my ensemble music section, I thought it would be worth talking about ensembles in a little more depth. I have two sections purely for brass instruments – brass band and brass ensembles – so what’s the difference?
In the UK the term brass band refers to a very defined formulation which includes all brass instruments except the trumpet and french horn (cornets take the place of the trumpet as the upper brass voice). Brass bands have roots going back to the Victorian period and have evolved their own unique sound and repertoire, distinctly different from orchestral brass. It is normal, for example, for all players to read their music in treble clef, with the exception of the bass trombone. While tubas may be present, it is more normal to have Eb and BBb basses which read treble clef. The term “tuba” generally refers to the orchestral instrument which reads bass clef. Some instruments specific to brass bands and absent from orchestral brass are the flugel horn, tenor (Eb) horn, euphonium, baritone, Eb bass and soprano cornet. So a set of sheet music for brass band would reflect this set up.
Brass ensembles, on the other hand, are a bespoke arrangement of brass instruments from a duet to a 10 piece ensemble and everything in between. They often reflect orchestral brass so the cornet may be absent, along with the other instruments specific to brass bands. As a result, and especially with music published outside the UK, the trombone and tuba parts are often in bass clef though publishers sometimes provide parts in both clefs in the UK. There is a strong geographical divide in the clefs, with many players in the north of England playing in treble clef as a reflection of the brass band heritage, with more players in the south of the country where the brass band legacy is not as strong playing in bass clef. Likewise tenor horn, flugel and euphonium/baritone players are more often to be found in the north.
Some brass ensemble music is written with flexible parts which allow a number of different instruments to take part, whereas other specify certain instruments and the arrangement is not flexible, so it is important to check the instrumentation before purchasing. If in doubt, ask.