The Anatomy of a Big Band

I am the Pinya: Life as a 4th Trumpet

Nadje Noordhuis

Nadje Noordhuis has a special understanding of her role as 4th trumpet in a big band. Likening the organization to the Catalonian castell, or human pyramid (of which the pinya is one human link), she revels in two conflicting musicalities inherent in her job. On the one hand, she has to be the brutal shadow of the lead trumpet—a bruiser pounding out the lower octave version of the melody as the band barrels ahead. On the other, and especially in her work for the Secret Society, she is a delicate chamber musician, perfectly matching intonation and timbre with small sub-groupings of winds and rhythm section instruments.

The 4th trumpet part is near and dear to my heart. I, like Nadje, spent much of my youth being a professional section player (with a solo here or there). Her writing here captures the energy of being embedded between a powerful trumpet and trombone section as well as the pride in understanding that this job, well done, makes the ensemble sound perfect without leaving a trace.

I am the Pinya: Life as a 4th Trumpet

There’s a running joke that my business card should list the position “4th Trumpet Specialist,” as that was the only chair I was asked to play between the ages of 14 and 34. Not even a whiff of 3rd! Prior to joining Secret Society in 2007, it was common for me to play in more traditional big-band settings, such as with Sherrie Maricle & the DIVA Jazz Orchestra (2005–2016) and my high school jazz band, which went semi-professional after the conductor, Steve Williams, left the school. It was in this band that the basics of how to be a section player were habituated. We would have regular trumpet sectionals that focused on balancing each part like a pyramid—the lower trumpets had to be louder than the lead. Following the phrasing of the 1st trumpeter was crucial.

From my experience, playing the music of Darcy James Argue requires some pretty acute skills. What’s immediately distinctive is that the rhythmic complexity is off the charts. I remember shaking with nerves in my first rehearsal. Not only was sitting in between the amazing Ingrid Jensen and Seneca Black completely intimidating, but the fear of “stepping in the hole” by playing a rhythm loudly and incorrectly was ever present. There’s no room for approximation. Thankfully, my counting abilities have probably increased a thousand-fold since joining the band.

Big Band Nadje Noordhuis
Nadje Noordhuis. Photograph by Mireya Acierto.

Similar to other organized large and small ensembles, Darcy always sends out the MIDI file and copies of each part before every rehearsal. Due to my utter hatred of practice mutes, and not liking others hearing me when I practice, my preference is to internalize the music through singing and tapping out the phrases, rather than physically playing through them. My mental practice involves counting through each measure incredibly slowly, subdividing like a maniac, and using my left hand to mimic the fingering. It’s a good chop saver method, and if the gig called for two three-hour rehearsals, the opportunity to internalize the physicality of the music can be during those times. For very tricky passages, with either unusual intervallic leaps or with complex rhythmic variety, I will play through them very slowly. My playing limits are well known to me and by reading through the music away from the instrument, new demands can usually be spotted right away.

Preparing for one specific Secret Society gig was particularly memorable, as we were to performing the music of Vijay Iyer, amongst other new music composers. In my private practice, where thankfully no one could see me, what helped enormously was creating a weird sort of dance. It involved listening to the track over and over, with one subdivision tapped out with my feet, another with my hands, while simultaneously singing through my chart. I probably spent around 12 hours preparing for that one piece, and it made a huge improvement in hearing and understanding the placement of simultaneous rhythms.

Aside from some complex rhythmic layering, Darcy often writes melody lines that are grouped across the different sections of the band. For example, one line might have me placed in the middle of a voicing between clarinet and trombone, or perhaps muted and in unison with an alto flute. Listening occurs across the band, as opposed to across the section. It calls for a subtle alteration of sound, articulation, and volume depending on the grouping. There is still the importance of balance and blend that is present in traditional bands, but throughout one piece, there may be more than 30 different groupings to listen out for. This is where the rehearsal time comes in handy—we are seated in a square shape with each section facing the middle of the room in order to hear each other as best as possible. Even though we have an amazing sound engineer that travels with us, it is often difficult to hear everyone due to the acoustics of the performance space. It’s necessary to rely on the practice done in rehearsals so the balance and blend is still on point.

My goal is to play in a way that promotes cohesion, to blend in a way that makes the section (regardless of instrumentation) sound like a united front within the layers. Wrapping my sound around the sounds of others forms a kind of musical glue, one in which individuals disappear and a richer voice emerges. As the higher frequencies cut through more easily, the lower parts need to use more air to balance out the section. In a more traditional setting, the 4th trumpet chair can be thought of as the “Mac truck of the trumpet section.” Playing loudly with a full sound an octave down from the lead player, barreling down the center of the band, is one of my favorite things to do! One ear is always on the lead part—my job is to play confidently and accurately, matching in phrasing to make the lead part easier to slot into place. As a general example, if a lead player is playing slightly sharp, then I will play slightly sharp, too. Matching whatever the lead player is doing is key—it’s incredibly tricky to play in the upper octaves, with only a tiny space to maneuver for adjustment. The lower trumpets have way more room. Striving towards a constant overall mindfulness of intonation with quick adjustments makes every section sound stronger.

Keeping the ego in check is important; if someone bluntly tells someone else that they are out of tune, it really hurts. If the section intonation is impossible to lock in, a good approach is to phrase opinions as a question: “Does this part sound a bit on the high side?” Or just put the blame on yourself: “Am I sounding out of tune?”. Everyone then listens more carefully. Mutes can pose a particular threat to intonation, so spending time working with the tuner to know how all the different mutes affect tuning is important. I’ll adjust my tuning slide many times during a gig, either to compensate for mutes, tiredness (trumpets tend to go sharp), or temperature changes.

Soloing within Secret Society is similar to that of traditional bands in that there is still the need to improvise within the vibe of the piece and in the general direction intended by the composer. However, Darcy’s compositions often present the challenge of soloing over mixed-meter time signatures, with odd length phrases, on top of layers of polyrhythmic horn backgrounds. Eek! My own improvised music tends to be significantly less active and complex. Soloing in this band stretches my comfort zone and makes me play with more energy, intensity, and range. To prepare, recording the band playing the solo section to use as a play-a-long in my practice time is necessary.

Perhaps an analogy to performing in a big band is a castell, a human tower built traditionally in festivals within Catalonia. More than a dozen people climb on each other’s shoulders to form the upper parts of a tower, but they need others to form a stable base. Similarly, all musicians on stage need to be solid with their time, and of a like mind in phrasing and approach, in order not to throw anyone else off their game. It’s about teamwork. It feels completely wonderful to be part of something larger than the individual. The power—not only in sound but in musical gesture—and the way it connects with the audience is intoxicating and addictive. The opportunity to perform and tour with this band is pretty incredible. Some of my best life moments have been on the road with Secret Society: hanging out in Brazil, Europe, and doing innovative multimedia productions in conjunction with BAM. And as long as I keep aiming to be a musician who can be relied on for time, intonation, and general musicality, hopefully Darcy will keep me in it!

I am the Pinya: Life as a 4th Trumpet