A Decade of Music, Friendship, and Success with the Fountain City Brass Band
By Benjamin Pierce
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to appear as a soloist with the Fountain City Brass Band of Kansas City, Missouri. I had not heard the band before but had heard great things about them. Playing with the band was an honor; hearing them play was wonderful.The FCBB owes its existence to Florida native Lee Harrelson, a euphonium virtuoso. Harrelson holds degrees from Southern Mississippi University and the UMKC Conservatory.In addition to managing the FCBB, he is a full time professor at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, MO. Harrelson and conductor Joe Parisi have led the FCBB to four U.S. Open championships, four NABBA championships, and tours to Great Britain, France, and Belgium. I spoke with Harrelson on the heels of the Band’s fourth U.S. Open championship.
FCBB founder and euphonium virtuoso Lee Harrelson
Benjamin Pierce: The Fountain City Brass Band has certainly made a name for itself in the brass band world. What do you think are the factors that contribute to your band’s success?
Lee Harrelson: The biggest contributors to the success of the Fountain City Brass Band are the dedication and talents of its members. Like most brass bands around the world, the Fountain City Brass Band is an all volunteer ensemble. Therefore all of the members, including the conductor Dr. Joseph Parisi, give up valuable time away from their families and other interests to be a part of the band. This past summer, for instance, the band rehearsed for four hours per night, nine days straight before boarding a plane for an eleven day European tour that cost each person over $2,000. No matter the venture, a collective with this type of dedication and shared vision is bound to lead towards success.
The FCBB at NABBA, 2009
Since the band’s inception there has been strong leadership and presence from the faculties and students of the Kansas City area’s numerous fine universities. When I started the band while a graduate student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music and Dance, I had the commitment and support of Tom Stein (UMKC Professor of Tuba and Euphonium) and Dr. Keith Benjamin (UMKC Professor of Trumpet), and then quickly thereafter Scott Watson, professor of Tuba and Euphonium at the University of Kansas. Other than some of my peers at UMKC that I was recruiting for the band, no one had any idea who I was but everyone knew those three guys and wanted to perform with them. Through the years the band has maintained great partnerships and relationships with area universities. In return for presenting a unique platform for both musical growth and networking for their students, the band has benefited from the universities’ stream of young talent.
BP: You organized the band as a student? What challenges did you face logistically?
LH:During the spring of 2002, I was finishing my master’s degree at UMKC and was debating whether to pursue a doctoral degree, continue on the service band audition circuit, or enter the public school teaching domain. In March I received a call from a friend from my undergraduate studies telling me that he was living in Arkansas at the time and performing with a local brass band. He raved about the ensemble, and the genre in general, and insisted that I accompany them to Cincinnati where they would be competing in the North American Brass Band Championships. With me in Kansas City and he in Little Rock, we didn’t know the best place to meet, so we did so at the St. Louis Arch and travelled to Cincinnati together from there. The first band that I heard at the competition was the Brass Band of Central Florida and I can remember telling my friend that I’d rather volunteer for a group like that than solo with the Marine Band every day. I didn’t think anything could be better, until I heard the Brass Band of Battle Creek that same evening at the gala concert. Upon returning to Kansas City I met with Tom Stein, with whom I was studying, told him of my experiences, discussed how I thought Kansas City would be a great location for a band, and together we decided that I would enter the DMA program at UMKC and start the Fountain City Brass Band.
From left: Helen Tyler, Will Hess, and Harrelson
In June of that year I had an extended conversation at the ITEC in Greensboro with Helen Tyler, then principal baritonist of the world famous Foden’s Band of England. We talked about the brass band movement and its traditions in England, and my vision for creating a band in Kansas City. The conversation led to her making her first visit to Kansas City in February of 2003 to work with the band, and the beginning of her incredible influence on the Fountain City Brass Band.
After that ITEC I drafted a letter that included a brief explanation of what a brass band was and how it differed from a brass choir. I enclosed a description of my vision for the FCBB, a business plan, and a CD containing music that I intended to perform on our first concert, and mailed it to every brass college teacher and prominent freelance musician within two hours of Kansas City. Many didn’t respond, quite a few declined but wished me the best of luck, but about enough to form half of a band gave it a shot. The first rehearsal had six trumpet players, five playing on ‘American style’ long model cornets. The Eb soprano part was performed on piccolo trumpet. We had no flugel horn, two French horns, a full trombone section, a full euphonium and baritone section (though all of us were playing euphoniums), a full bass section (though they were using F and CC tubas instead of Eb and BBb basses), and a couple of percussionists. The first piece we read was Jan van der Roost’s Canterbury Chorale, and I distinctly remember being moved almost to tears right from the beginning of the piece. Not that it was particularly good, but just from the notion that all of these musicians, many of whom made their livings as performers and educators, would give their time to be a part of such an ensemble.
Harrelson was declared Best Instrumentalist at the 2011 All England Masters Brass Band Championships
Logistically I was very fortunate in that we were provided, free of charge, the use of percussion equipment and rehearsal space at UMKC. I believe that their support from the beginning added an additional level of credibility to the foundation of the ensemble. One of the biggest logistical problems was that we started with no brass band music. We obtained a donation of older charts from Bernel Music, but I bought most of our music with student loan money. As the band grew and evolved we started to fill out the sections, use the correct mouthpieces and instruments, and buy into the more traditional brass band practices.
BP: What do you think it is about brass band playing, and THIS band in particular, that makes so many great players willing to give up their time for no pay?
LH: The music and the camaraderie of brass banding make it so enjoyable that people have been participating without pay, at all levels of ability, in the genre around the world for over 150 years. Musically there is something for everyone, from the youngest beginners and untrained amateurs to the most accomplished and skilled of professional musicians.
Conductor Joe Parisi
A few years back we had a gentleman from the City of Exeter Band (England), named Harry Rossiter, visit one of our rehearsals. He had heard of the Fountain City Brass Band and planned part of his visit to the United States around getting to see the band. Harry had no professional musical training, but had performed in his town band for over 80 years. We let Harry sit in the rehearsal on cornet and to this day I still receive emails and Facebook messages from Harry about how much he enjoyed the opportunity to see and play with the FCBB and how he hopes to make another trip soon.
In 2007, Grammy Award winning conductor and composer Bramwell Tovey was in St. Louis to guest conduct and perform with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Maestro Tovey is one of the most charismatic, engaging, and talented musicians of our time and his resume includes conducting engagements with some of the most famous orchestras in the world including the London Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. As in demand as he was at the time, he still made time to travel to England a couple times of year to conduct the Foden’s Band at major events throughout their season. My then future wife Helen Tyler, whom was on a leave of absence from Foden’s while doing a cross-cultural educational study in the United States, emailed Bram to let him know that she was relatively close by and he insisted that we travel over to St. Louis for a visit. We had a wonderful visit and it was amazing to hear how passionately he spoke of brass banding and how vast the musical colors, effects and compositional techniques were possible for the genre.
The way Harry and Bram lit up when talking about brass banding was the same, and the same look that I have seen countless times on people’s faces who are involved with brass bands around the world and with my own Fountain City Brass Band. It is a look of love, passion and genuine excitement.
In the FCBB, as I’m sure is the same in other bands, we are like a family. There are times that things are going great and times that, well we’ve all got family members that can be challenging at times, but because of the dedication that we all share and the sacrifices that we all make to be a part of such a group, there is nothing you wouldn’t do for your fellow band members. Our band enjoys getting to perform music in almost every musical style and especially enjoys performing the major works for brass, often referred to because of their roles in the various brass band competitions as test pieces. These works are incredible chamber music compositions, and the technical, dynamic, and lyrical demands of these compositions far exceed much of what we’d be asked to do, as brass players, in a wind band or orchestral setting.
Helen Tyler and Joe Parisi at the Great American Brass Band Festival in Danville, KY
Our band thoroughly enjoys the process of preparing for the band competitions. Whether you believe that competition and music should ever mix- it is debatable and I could make a convincing argument for either side- but one thing that is not debatable is the level of some of the musicians that have come out of the brass band movement and the direct correlations that can be drawn from the technical and mental demands placed on these musicians by the competition repertoire from a young age to their successes as world-class soloists and top orchestral musicians. A complete list would be too exhaustive to list, but to just name a few top performers with brass band roots; Philip Smith (principal trumpet, New York Philharmonic), Maurice Murphy (former principal trumpet, London Symphony Orchestra), Ian Bousfield (principal trombone, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra) and the euphonium and tuba world’s own Steven Mead and David Childs.
BP: Would you care to elaborate on Helen Tyler’s influence as you formed the band, and your relationship with her?
LH: I first met Helen at the International Tuba & Euphonium Conference in Finland (2001). We only spoke for a short while there, but needless to say she made quite an impression on me. I treasured the time that I got to spend with her at conferences and competitions over the next few years and always looked forward to the next time I’d get to see her. With her visits and then sabbatical to the U.S. during the first few years of the band she was able to monitor the progress of Fountain City and always had a wealth of input to offer from her experiences in some of the top UK bands.
Since moving to the U.S. Helen has not only been an inspiration, mentor and stellar performer with the FCBB but she has helped introduce the next generation of students to the brass band genre through her founding of the Fountain City Youth Brass Academy. Each year she organizes a Brass Expo that is a free clinic with members of the FCBB’s educational team. The one day free event see students of all ages and abilities perform in brass bands and ensembles, participate in master classes and clinics with many of the FCBB’s university educators and perform in concert with the Fountain City Brass Band. In the spring of each year she recruits and organizes the Fountain City Youth and Fountain City Academy bands for middle and high school students, which run for ten weeks. Her passion and dedication to establishing and youth band movement are both inspiring and contagious. In her latest Brass Expo she had over 150 brass and percussionists on stage at one time.
As for our relationship, I’ve often thought that if there were a huge market for the unlikeliest of baritone/euphonium romances that our story would be a best seller, perhaps leading to a better way to fund our brass band habit. We’re both pretty private people, so I’ll just say it was an unlikely journey that brought us together and we were happily married on July 1st of last summer.
BP: Next year will be FCBB’s tenth year. Do you have any special anniversary plans?
LH: The biggest thing that we have planned is our tenth anniversary concert. The concert will be in mid-October and will feature important pieces from the band’s repertoire and audience favorites from the band’s first ten years. We are also planning to invite everyone that has played with the group to join us on stage for the final piece.
The FCBB at the Whit Friday Brass Band Contest in England
BP: Are there any plans for a FCBB recording?
LH: We have two professional recordings already to our credit. The first was recorded in 1997 and is entitled Celebration (Doyen). As the title indicates the recording is a celebration. The music on the CD includes music that we performed during the 1997 calendar year which saw the band take its first trip to the United Kingdom and win it first North American and U.S. Open Brass Band Championships.
The second recording, Over the Rainbow (Egon), was recorded in England late in 2009 during the band’s historic return to the U.K. that saw them become the first non-European band in over fifty years, and first American band in history to win a brass band competition on UK soil at the Scottish Open Brass Band Championships.
BP: Brass band activity seems to be increasing in the USA. Dave Zerkel has started a brass band at the University of Georgia, for example. What advice to you have for someone starting up a band?
LH: It just makes perfect sense. The demands on the brass performer in brass band literature far exceed those of our mainstream ensembles, such as the concert band and symphony orchestra. The educational benefits of such an ensemble are far reaching. With the wealth of quality literature for bands of any ability level, why would we not offer and encourage our students to take part in such a group? When properly introduced to the genre, students’ interest is sky high. Take the pioneering work that Kevin Stees has done with the James Madison University Brass Band, for example. The group started as a brass ensemble, but has evolved into one of the finest brass bands in the United States. No doubt Dave Zerkel has seen how well this, paired with his relationships with the Brass Band of Battle Creek, helps with the overall development of the students, not to mention the recruiting benefits. I’m thrilled that he has started a band at UGA, one of the top schools in the country, as it will no doubt introduce countless incredible young musicians to the genre. I strongly believe that we are at the beginning of the brass band movement here in the United States at the community, university and professional levels. I also believe that the movement will be led by tubists and euphoniumists.
My main advice to anyone wanting to start a band is to go for it. It is a lot of work, but the rewards are well worth it. Somewhere in our bylaws it is stated that the Fountain City Brass Band is inspired by, but not bound to the traditions of famous British brass bands. As with any genre of music that you attempt to perform, the more knowledge that you have of the subject matter the better prepared you will be for your performance. Do all that you can to learn about the intricacies and nuances of the brass band tradition and let your sound and brand evolve from it.
BP: Surely no one in the band invests more time than yourself. What’s in it for you?
LH: That’s probably true for my band, but every band has someone that does the things that I do for Fountain City. I have given a lot to my brass band, but have been overcompensated in return. The life-long friendships that I have made, most notably my wife, within my band and others, the opportunity to perform exciting music that I love throughout the United States and Europe, and countless other resulting opportunities that I might never have had, such as being featured in the ITEA Journal, are just a few wonderful things that I’ve gotten out of brass banding. The Fountain City Brass Band and promoting the development of brass banding in the United States are two of my strongest passions. I think everybody hopes to in some way leave their mark on the world. If the Fountain City Brass Band is to be mine, I couldn’t be prouder.
Lee Harrelson is an Assistant Professor of Music at Missouri Western State University. At Western he serves as coordinator of the music theory program and head of low brass studies. Dr. Harrelson is the Founder/Artistic Director/Solo Euphoniumist of the Fountain City Brass Band (2007-2008-2009-2010 North American Brass Band Champions) and euphoniumist in the internationally acclaimed Twisted Steel Quartet. Harrelson received his undergraduate training from the University of Southern Mississippi and graduate degrees from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Some of Lee’s more notable accomplishments include: Winner 2009 North American Brass Band Championships Low Brass Slow Melody Prize, Winner 2006 North American Brass Band Championships Low Brass Technical Prize, Winner 2005 U.S. Open Brass Band Championships Best Soloist Prize, Winner, 2003 International Women’s Brass Conference Solo Euphonium Competition, Winner, 2002 and 2004 Kansas City Music Club Scholarship Competition; Winner, 2001 National Association of College Wind and Percussion Instructors Solo Brass Competition; Second Place, 2001 Music Teachers National Association Collegiate Artist Brass Competition; Semi-finalist, 2001 Fischoff International Chamber Music Festival as a member of the Fountain City Brass Quintet; Semi-Finalist 2001 William C. Byrd Young Artist Competition; Semi-Finalist 1999, Leonard Falcone International Euphonium Festival; Prize Winner, 1997 Southeastern Tuba and Euphonium Conference Solo Euphonium Competition. With Twisted Steel, Lee won the 2000 International Tuba & Euphonium Conference’s International Quartet Competition in Regina, Canada.
Harrelson is very active as a soloist and clinician, including numerous appearances throughout North America and Europe. Lee has performed with the MahlerFEST Orchestra, numerous regional orchestras and wind bands, the Kansas Brass Quintet, The New Theatre, the Eagley Brass Band (UK), and is a founding member of Twisted Steel and the Fountain City Brass Band. Harrelson spends two weeks each summer on faculty of the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Michigan. As a proponent of brass bands in America, Lee serves on the Board of Directors of the North American Brass Band Association.
Lee Harrelson is a Besson Performing Artist.
Nate Gay is a graduate of the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and Southwest Missouri State University, with a Bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies and a K-12 Teaching Certificate in music. Nate is a member of several ensembles including the Fountain City Brass Band, Critical Mass Tuba-Euphonium Quartet, and the Great Plains Brass Quintet. His achievements include: 2nd Place in the 2009 Leonard Falcone International Euphonium Competition, 1st Place in the Great Plains Regional Euphonium & Tuba Conference Solo Euphonium Competition, and winner of the 2006 & 2008 U.S. Open Brass Band Championships Best Soloist Award. Nate and his wife Arah live in Gladstone, MO.
Helen Tyler studied with Steven Mead at the Royal Northern College of Music before joining the Black Dyke Band, with whom she toured Bermuda and Canada. After two years at Black Dyke she accepted the offer to join Foden’s Brass Band on solo baritone. In June 2001 Helen traveled to the International Tuba and Euphonium Conference in Finland to perform with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. This was the first time a baritone player had been a featured artist at an ITEC. Following this, she has given many lecture recitals on the baritone both in Europe and the USA. One of Helen’s main ambitions is to expand the profile and repertoire of the baritone both within the brass band tradition and other wider musical circles.
David Dimmit (baritone)
Second baritonist David Dimmit has been playing with Fountain City since April 2011. David’s euphonium studies began when he was in the third grade under the tutelage of his grandfather, a fellow euphoniumist and brass-band enthusiast. As an ensemble and solo player David has given performances at such venues as the International Tuba-Euphonium Conference, the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic, and Lieksa Brass Week. David holds a B.M. in euphonium performance from Truman State University where he studied with Kansas City Symphony tubist Steven Seward, and a M.M. in euphonium performance from UMKC, where he studied with Thomas Stein. David is currently pursuing a D.M.A. from UMKC.
In addition to his studies and work with the brass band, David cultivates his love for rock music by keeping an extensive record collection and playing electric guitar and bass.
Scott Watson (solo Eb bass)
Scott Watson in now his 26th season with the Kansas Brass Quintet, an association that dates back to 1979. His solo efforts can be heard on their CD titled “Rare Breeds & Dog-Eared Classic.” From 1999-2011, Watson served as President of the International Tuba Euphonium Association and currently serves on their Board of Directors. Professor of Tuba and Euphonium at the University of Kansas, he is an acclaimed soloist, clinician, and chamber musician.
Tom Stein (Eb bass)
Thomas G. Stein, tuba, is Professor of Tuba and Euphonium at The University of Missouri- Kansas City. A native of Michigan, he received the Bachelor of Music (with high distinction) and the Master of Music degrees in Tuba Performance from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Prior to coming to Missouri, Stein taught at Central Michigan University, The University of Colorado at Boulder, and The University of Southern Mississippi. He has performed with numerous orchestras, wind ensembles, and chamber ensembles: Mississippi Symphony, principal tuba; Colorado Mahler Festival Orchestra, principal tuba; Colorado Festival Orchestra; Aspen Festival and Chamber Orchestras; Detroit Symphony; American Tuba Euphonium Quartet; Twisted Steel Quartet; Missouri Brass Quintet; Capital Brass; and the Colorado Brass Quintet to name a few. Stein is very active throughout the United States as a recitalist, clinician, soloist, and has been a guest artist in residence at several universities and academies. A tremendous number of his former students now hold full time teaching and performing positions.
Jamey Mitchell (BBb contrabass)
James Mitchell holds a Bachelor of Science in Music Education from the University of Alabama, where he studied with Michael Dunn, and a Masters of the Musical Arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he studied with John Stevens. During his tenure at the University of Alabama Mr. Mitchell was a member of the award winning University of Alabama Tuba Quartet, a recipient of the I.T.E.A. Solo Tuba Artist Award at the International Tuba and Euphonium Conference in Minneapolis, MN, and a guest performer and soloist with the Jack Daniel’s Silver Cornet Band. While at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mr. Mitchell assisted in studio instruction and enjoyed an active freelance career in the upper midwestern region. Most recently Mr. Mitchell was the Principal Tubist with La Orquesta Sinfonica de Salta in Salta, Argentina. He is currently a tubist with the Twisted Steel Tuba Quartet, a member of the Fountain City Brass Band, and Director of Orchestras and Assistant Director of Bands at Blue Springs South High School in Blue Springs, MO.
Charles Page (BBb contrabass tuba)
Charles Page is currently pursuing a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Kansas. He holds a Bachelor of Music Education from the University of Southern Mississippi and a Master of Music degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Charles is active as a private instructor and clinician for students from the elementary to collegiate level. He currently holds a teaching assistantship at the University of Kansas working with the Wind Ensemble and athletic bands and has served as faculty at the Midwestern Music Academy in Kansas since 2008.
Charles’s playing can be heard on the albums Celebrations and Over the Rainbow by the Fountain City Brass Band, Derivations and American Landscapes by the University of Kansas, and Thoughts of a Cow by Scott Watson.
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