TOWNSEND — The Cantabrigia Brass Quintet gave pupils at Spaulding Elementary School an interactive lesson on brass instruments recently, thanks to a grant from the Townsend Cultural Council. The Council is a local agency that is supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency.
The quintet, founded in 1977 by trumpet player Robert Pettipaw, performed their “Back to Brassics” program that is meant to have children examine the different styles of music in the brass repertoire, and to investigate the instruments of the brass family.
Performers included Pettipaw and Richard Given, both on the trumpet, George Sullivan on the French horn, Robert Couture on slide trombone and Chip Halt on the tuba.
“We are five people on four instruments and we teach the children what each instrument is about, its origin and how it fits into bands and orchestras,” Pettipaw said.
“The tuba is the largest of all brass instruments, and its job is to play the lowest notes,” Halt said. Halt told the pupils that the tuba weighs 40 pounds, and if it was unrolled, would be 16 feet long.
“In an orchestra, the tuba acts like the drum, keeping the beat,” Pettipaw said. “If we’re marching, the tuba does the same thing as a drum, it helps us know when to step to march.” The musicians gave an example as they marched around while Halt played the tuba fast, then slow. “See how we follow the beat he plays,” Pettipaw said.
Sullivan then took center stage with his French horn, telling the pupils how this instrument was first made in France, and the valves were added around the time of the Civil War. “It was first used in fox hunting,” he said. “My horn is known for the beautiful sound it makes,” he added.
To change the volume of the French horn, the player must push his hand into the bell, or opening of the horn, and the sound softens the further up his hand goes, Sullivan said. He put his fist into the bell, and the children were amazed at the difference in sound. “I play the valves with one hand while I change the sounds with the other,” he said.
His horn, if unrolled, would be 12 feet long. To demonstrate, Sullivan took a 12-foot piece of garden hose, put a funnel at one end and a brass mouthpiece at the other end and played some music. “It sounds just like the horn without the valves,” he said.
Couture then talked about his slide trombone. “The slide on my trombone is a special feature that helps me to change notes,” he said. He explained the longer the instrument, the lower the pitch of the music is. “The trombone is all about expressions in music. I can make it sound like a clown laughing, or even voices.”
Pettipaw and Given both showed the pupils how they play their trumpets, which Pettipaw said is the melody of the songs. “The trumpet is the shortest of all brass instruments, and it almost sounds like it can sing,” he said.
Four of the five musicians live in the greater Boston area with the exception of Sullivan, who resides in Concord, N.H. “Over the years, the players in the quintet have changed. Some are now playing with the Boston Philharmonic, the Philadelphia and Detroit symphonies, and other orchestras all around the world,” Pettipaw said.
The idea to put a traveling quintet together to teach students was a retirement project that has taken off, said Pettipaw. “We have played all over New England, and at one point we were doing 150 school performances a year. I thought it was a good way to introduce students to brass instruments and let them see that playing can be fun.”
The musicians incorporate songs from Broadway hits, children’s movies and circus music to show how music styles differ while still capturing the imagination.