“The James Madison University Brass Band”
The JMU Brass Band is one of only a few collegiate brass bands in the United States. Formed in the fall of 2000, the band has developed quite a reputation. Director Kevin Stees is currently the Professor of Tuba and Euphonium at James Madison University, where he has been on the faculty since 1985. In addition to performances with the JMU Brass Band, Stees directs the Massanutten Brass Band and performs with the Madison Brass (quintet-in-residence at James Madison University), the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival Orchestra, and the Wintergreen Music Festival Orchestra.
I sat down with Stees to discuss the Brass Band at JMU.
Benjamin Pierce (BM): What was your inspiration to begin a brass band at JMU?
Kevin Stees (KS): When I began working at JMU in 1985, in addition to my duties with the studio, I inherited the JMU Brass Ensemble. The instrumentation of the group, like most brass ensembles, was dictated by whatever piece we were preparing. Our repertoire included pieces for orchestral brass, Phillip Jones style music, and works for a larger Summit Brass sized group. The ensemble really started to take off and grew in quality and popularity with the brass students. I had so much interest that I ended up forming a second brass ensemble. It was due to the increased student participation as well as the need for new and different literature that I eventually changed the brass ensemble into a brass band. Honestly, however, I think the real inspiration came from my own experience as a member of the University of Illinois Brass Band. The group was formed by Jim Curnow while I was an undergrad. I had only one semester in the band, but it is very possible that that experience was the true seed for the idea of forming the JMU BB.
BP: How does the brass band fit into the curriculum at JMU, i.e. does it fulfill large ensemble requirements for the students?
KS: Brass band at JMU is an elective ensemble. Only the wind bands and orchestra fulfill our large ensemble requirement, meaning that everyone in the group is there purely for the love of brass banding. Often times, the band is yet one more ensemble on top of their already busy schedules. Luckily for me and for the band, the students are very interested in what we are trying to do, so they keep coming back for more.
BP: Has the band been active in NABBA and other national and/or international competitions?
KS: The band has been involved with the NABBA Championships since the 2003 contest. Our results have been:
2003 Open Section (we hadn’t yet purchased all of the standard instruments)
2004 1st Section (Honors) 1st place
2005 1st Section 1st place
2006 Championship 2nd place
2007 Championship 2nd place
2008 Championship 4th place
2009 Championship 3rd place
2010 Championship 2nd place
2011 Did not compete
2012 Championship 3rd place
The band also participated in the 2010 U.S. Open Brass Band Championship with a 4th place finish.
In 2008, the band received a 6th place finish in the Brighouse March and Hymn Tune contest in Brighouse, England.
BP: Wow, that’s quite a record. What do you think are some of the benefits, for tuba and euphonium/baritone players in particular, of playing in the brass band?
KS: One of the most obvious benefits of brass band playing to my students is the sheer number of low brass players it takes to outfit a brass band. As I mentioned previously, the group started out as a brass ensemble. That type of ensemble allowed for, at most, two tubas and two euphoniums. Often times, no euphoniums were needed at all. Now with the brass band, I can use at least eight of my students in the band.
More specific benefits include development of technique, multiple opportunities for solo work (as a soloist and from within the band), development of lyrical/singing playing, exposure to outstanding and challenging literature, and working on reading treble clef (as well as learning transposition skills). This type of playing also affords the students the opportunity to experience new music in a completely new setting. New quality works are being written for brass band all of the time. Finally, brass band musicians are required to play in styles and fulfill rolls in the ensemble outside of the normal requirements for brass players. They need to develop styles of playing and the dynamic range (mostly softer) normally covered by other sections of a wind band or orchestra.
BP: If you were to create a “mock audition” using brass band repertoire, what would be, say, five excerpts you would use for tuba, and five for euphonium? Do you think it would be worthwhile to add these to collegiate players’ practice repertoire even if they’re not active in a brass band?
KS: Using brass band repertoire, some pieces that would work well for a mock audition are:
Sparke- Year of the Dragon
Sparke- Dances and Alleluias
Sparke- Harmony Music
Wilby- Paganini Variations
De Meij- Extreme Makeover
De Meij- Extreme Makeover
Sparke- Variations on an Enigma
Bourgeois- Concerto Grosso
Wilby- Vienna Nights
This is by no means a list of the top pieces to use, but just some that I think have some very challenging moments for the low brass. Some folks may wish to use older standards and there are certainly many to choose from. There is a good book of older excerpts titled Our Heritage. I believe there are volumes for baritone, euphonium, and tuba.
I do believe that brass band excerpts should be included in a college student’s practice repertoire. There is so much great literature that offers both musical and technical challenges. Much of it is far more challenging than most of the wind band or orchestral literature I played and studied.
BP: I know that a big part of brass banding has traditionally been the camaraderie. With the JMU brass band being an actual course, do you find that it still maintains that social aspect?
KS: While the band at JMU is an actual course, the level of camaraderie in the group has remained one of the most appealing aspects for the students. In rehearsals, I often discuss how special it is to rehearse and perform with 30 great musicians who happen also to be great friends. I think the close knit nature of this band is one of the contributing factors to our success and provides a unique level of music making for the band. A similar situation would be something like a brass quintet. It is that level of friendship and familiarity with one another that allows for some very expressive performing.
BP: Anything else about the band….
KS: We had a great tour of Austria with the highlight being our ITEC performance. The band especially enjoyed performing the three new works by Aagaard-Nilsen, Meechan, and Scott. We certainly enjoyed working with all four of the soloists.
I’m hoping more colleges start brass bands in the near future. I suspect that many brass musicians don’t think of brass band as being very worthwhile due to its predominantly amateur status throughout the world, but the literature is amazing. Sure, we have more than our share of light pops tunes, but the serious concert/contest music is brilliant. Other than in a tightly knit brass quintet, I’ve not ever experienced the level of commitment, dedication, and camaraderie like I do in a fine brass band.