Brass Band Corner by Danielle VanTuinen
Stephen Allen and the Rutgers University Brass Band
Dr. Stephen Allen gained national diplomas and awards in Great Britain on euphonium from a young age and played with many of the best brass bands in the world. In 2010 he premiered the Gareth Wood Euphonium Concerto. His PhD (DPhil) at Oxford University was on the music of Benjamin Britten, on whom he has published widely and is considered a world authority. Since living in New Jersey, USA, Dr. Allen has become Associate Professor at Rider University, creating a new BA in Popular Music Culture in 2012, and Professor of Euphonium at Rutgers University where he also founded the Rutgers University Brass Band in 2010. He also founded current National Champions of North America, The Princeton Brass Band, in 2004 and was invited to become Professional Musical Director of the Lancaster British Brass Band, PA, in 2010. He is currently the two-term President of the North American Brass Band Association.
Danielle VanTuinen: How are players chosen or recruited for the Rutgers Brass Band?
Stephen Allen: Surprisingly there was such an interest in this group that there was no form of recruitment; the students were itching to play in a brass band. The students were excited that “word of mouth” was all that was needed to get more students interested in this ensemble. Mostly the students are undergraduates with a couple of graduate students sprinkled in.
DV: What kind of music does the ensemble play?
SA: As a so-called British-style brass band we try to steer a very careful line between the mainstream music and what is traditionally played in a brass band. So we play a good combination of the new and the old. There is certainly a strong educational component to the repertoire we perform, in both the literature and the varied styles of approach.
DV: Does the band have a regular music director and conductor?
SA: I am both of those, but we have had a couple people come in as guest conductors. We’ve had professor Darryl Bott, the Associate Director of the Wind Studies program at Rutgers University, as well as Dr. Kraig Williams, the Director of Bands at Rutgers University. Occasionally a student has been able to conduct in rehearsal and we definitely have created solo opportunities for students in the band that otherwise don’t really exist. I think this is invaluable for a modern conservatory experience.
DV: How many concerts does the Brass Band put on each year?
SA: Currently we are performing two concerts a year. Each concert is paired with the Rutgers Wind Ensemble-the premiere Rutgers band-which turns into an incredible recruiting tool for the school. The role of the brass band with the wind band and symphony program as well as the new focus on chamber groups is absolutely invaluable. We are also starting a new youth brass band in the spring of 2014 through the Rutgers Extension Division-so there is an eco-system from youth, through university, into the adult brass bands that perform and compete at the highest national and international standards.
DV: How did you become so involved with brass banding?
SA: The original reason I even began playing a brass instrument was because I had asthma, so the doctor told me to breathe/blow through something. That something turned out to be a euphonium. In a sense, I learned to play the euphonium through the help of the brass band; I also chose to attend colleges and conservatoires that provide a very high brass concentration.
DV: How would you advise teacher/educators of the benefits of a brass band?
SA: I think the most important thing that a brass band brings to these students is the idea of melody and singing through the melody. Many times, in symphonic bands, the brass instruments get the supportive lines below the woodwinds and won’t understand the idea of the musical line and phrase because they aren’t accustomed to the concept. Usually the brass section is used to add weight of sound. Throughout the brass band, the aspect of vocal and singing style is very important to the ensemble as well as blend, balance and dynamic range, especially the softer dynamics and diminuendi. This style of playing really seems to connect to the audience, as if a vocalist were to sing the same given line. Brass band playing is a totally different kind of experience from a symphonic brass ensemble-almost as different as strings and percussion.
There is a big difference-although a very complimentary one-between a brass band and a symphonic band. A brass band consists of all conical brass except for the trombones. Since these instruments have so much in common, they can produce sounds that are cohesive and mold together homogenously, a balance that most ensembles strive for throughout their sections. Educators should be aware of what a brass band can give to its participants: there is a focus on high levels of sight reading and technique, supporting the sound through the phrase, connecting phrases throughout the sections, and so on. Not only do the students get a better concept of sound and where it’s going, but students that participate in brass bands also develop unrivaled skills in sight reading. The material typically performed in a brass band far surpasses the level required in most other settings. Knife-edge balance (a famous orchestral tuba player once observed how brass band ensemble playing is unrivalled in any other setting), a wide dynamic range, and an idea of vibrato and how this technique can judiciously improve the playing of certain phrases, is essential. The whole concept is based upon how we make air move to the maximum musical advantage and for the brass player the brass band experience is invaluable to this end. Not only does this genre better the playing of the individual player, but it has the ability to help ensembles scattered throughout the musical world.
DV: Is the Rutgers U. Brass Band a traditional ensemble?
SA: We try to stick to the more traditional repertoire, but we are currently using French horns (instead of Eb alto/tenor saxhorns) within the ensemble due to the instruments that are available. Steve Dillon has been a tremendous benefactor, donating six cornets and music to the band. I don’t seek to impose a British style on the students, but to allow the natural aspects of indigenous American sounds and techniques to flourish too.
DV: When first forming this ensemble, did you have much support from the University?
SA: At first there wasn’t much support although Darryl Bott was, and Kraig Williams was especially, enlightened and shared with me how they saw the overall benefits to the students and to the band program-not least in adding (even reclaiming) this certain vocal style that is so distinctive. Certainly audiences took to it madly and the students have become addicted. We started this ensemble every Wednesday at 7 am without attaching a credit to the class; we had full attendance every week, even though people were very skeptical. Each and every student did this for fun, responding to the power of the music being played. I am very much hoping that support for the Rutgers University Brass Band, and brass bands in the school and university system across this great country, will continue to grow, not in rivalry but in mutual support.