Arranging for Brass Quintet (Part 1: Why?) by Chris O’Hara

Originally published to


One of the greatest strengths of the modern brass quintet is its versatility. Few other ensembles can convincingly perform music from the Renaissance through jazz and rock. This being said, the brass quintet is at a disadvantage in regards to its relatively small repertoire of original music. Instead of seeing this as a negative, it can be seen as an opportunity for arranging works throughout music history.

For the professional brass quintet, unique and original arrangements can be the one of the main things that sets the group apart from the pack. We are all familiar with the great arrangements of the Canadian Brass. Their iconic arrangements of tunes such as Just a Closer Walk with Thee, The Saint’s Hallelujiah, and Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor are instantly recognizable to brass players around the world. Likewise, the arrangements of Empire Brass, Boston Brass, or any other top quality ensemble help to set them apart and bring out the best of those ensembles.

Going back to the CB arrangements for a moment: Because of the Canadian Brass’ success, not just as performers, but as marketers and as a business, their arrangements have been available to brass players for decades. Due to this availability, countless quintets have performed these arrangements, and even when done very well (Spanish Brass: Luur Metals are known for playing CB arrangements from time to time and doing them quite well), they never sound “right,” unless they are played by the Canadian Brass. Why is this? Basically, because those arrangements were written specifically for a particular group of players, even though some *most* of the players in that group are no longer the same, they still play it the same.

Every quintet has its own strengths and weaknesses and each member within a quintet has his/her own strengths and weaknesses; a thorough understanding of these is the best way to create arrangements that help a group sound its best. Early in my career, I realized that I was neither Fred Mills nor Ronald Romm of the Canadian Brass; I have different skill sets than those fine players. Therefore, the arrangements written for them were not necessarily best suited for me or for my group.

An ensemble must ask itself: Does the horn player have a solid high range? Is the trombone player good with fast technical passages? Could the tuba player be a virtuoso? Do both trumpet players have a solid and extensive range as well as good endurance? These are only a few of the questions you should be able to answer about your group. If a group is lucky enough to answer “yes” to all of these questions, then the job of an arranger is a little easier. However, if the answer to any of these questions is “no,” then that provides an arranger with valuable information about which parts to give to which instruments. A complete knowledge of a group’s collective and individual abilities and liabilities is a necessity, especially for an ensemble that performs regularly.

As the genre of the brass quintet becomes increasingly popular, ensembles can no longer afford to be cover bands playing the arrangements of other groups. Those arrangements are designed for those players, and they have already been performed by those players, whether the Canadian Brass, Empire Brass, Boston Brass, Alliance Brass, or others. The best arrangements set an ensemble apart because they are arranged specifically for that group.

To get things going in a quintet, or just help build your library quickly, purchasing arrangements is always a great option. As I mentioned earlier, countless quintets have purchased arrangements and use those, from the Empire Brass to the Spanish Brass (more during the early years) we have all done it. However, there is no substitute to help bring an ensemble to the next level than original arrangements.

In part two of this article, we’ll discuss more specific arranging techniques and suggestions for getting your own arrangements in the works. In the meantime, you can find my arrangements at

Did you need more information? Let us know what we can help you out with! 

Click Here

Join our Community & Download the Denis Wick App! 

Get the weekly Buzz blog, This Is You podcast, as well as our library of recordings, clinics, podcasts, videos, and product information.

Join the conversation