Brass Band Corner: Sonic Brass – Arizona’s Youth Brass Band
by Dr. Deanna Swoboda
Music Education for a Lifetime of Learning
Music Education can be exciting and fun! There are more and more opportunities being presented for young tuba and euphonium players to improve their playing skills through brass banding. The Sonic Brass from Mesa AZ is among the finest young brass bands comprised of high school and college aged students. The Sonic Brass was founded in 2004 by Michele Kalo. In addition to being a fine hornist and conductor of the Scottsdale Community College Band, Ms. Kalo is the Founder and Executive Director of Sonic Arts, a performance-based music education organization. Since its inception in 2004, Sonic Arts has expanded to include six ensembles: Sonic Brass, Sonic Seniors New Horizons Band & Orchestra, Sonic Boom, Sonic Youth Ensemble, and Sonic Horns. Michele is also a full time member of the Salt River Brass, a Community Brass Band located in Mesa, AZ. Her passion for playing in a brass band combined with her talent and expertise as a band director and entrepreneurial musician has inspired the formation of The Sonic Brass. I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Kalo about the origin of and mission for the group.
Deanna Swoboda: When, how, and why was Sonic Brass formed?
Michelle Kalo: The Sonic Brass was formed after I played a concert with our parent organization, the Salt River Brass. I was asked to join the SRB in November of 2003 and played my first concert in December. I had fallen in love with brass band immediately. I had never played in a brass band before that time. The music was stylistically diverse and demanding. It was awesome! I had always loved the vibe of playing with a community ensemble. At the time, I was the Director of Bands at Horizon High School and I thought students would really enjoy a brass band experience as much as I did. I collaborated with Mesa Community College and the Salt River Brass to start a brass band targeted at high school and college students. I used my income tax refund money from the previous year to create Sonic Brass. I began with a logo, forming an LLC, mailers, posters, and a website. I mailed invitations to every brass and percussion student that auditioned for the Arizona All State Ensembles through their respective High School directors. I sent posters and informational letters to over 100 high schools. I counted on my colleagues to distribute the invitations and put up my audition posters. I also was given the opportunity during an All State Band rehearsal in the spring to explain what Sonic Brass was and when auditions were. I was fortunate to be able to provide the students the opportunity to work with world-class musicians Sam Pilafian and Patrick Sheridan. Both Sam and Pat had been affiliated with SRB for many years and they were excited to help the younger brass band movement grow in the Valley.
Mesa Community College was excited to offer brass band as a college course at their campus because it was a unique course that no other campus in the state was offering. Sonic Brass was also a wonderful way to get high school students on their campus so they could experience what the college had to offer in their music department. Faculty members would often guest conduct or offer master classes/sectionals throughout the year to the students. Students were happy to receive college credits for participating in Sonic Brass.
DS: What is the mission of Sonic Brass?
MK: To bring the brass band experience to as many student age brass and percussionists as possible and to elevate the level of brass playing in the Valley.
DS: Who plays in the group and what is the audition process?
MK: Sonic Brass is comprised of high school and college aged students. We have had several semesters where a few adults have performed with the group as well. One of the eldest members of SRB was also a member of Sonic Brass for several years until his health no longer permitted it. I have had a community member request to join Sonic Brass for a year when he was returning to his instrument after a 20-year hiatus. During our last two seasons I had a parent of a Sonic Brass member playing in the ensemble as well.
Everyone that is a member of Sonic Brass must go through an audition. I hold auditions over two weekends at Mesa Community College, in the spring, for the upcoming season. Students are asked to prepare a selection that demonstrates their musical capabilities. In addition, they play scales and are asked to perform a short sight reading excerpt. The auditions are conducted by members of the Salt River Brass.
DS : I had an opportunity to speak with one of the Sonic Brass euphonium players, Blake Stillwell. Blake played trumpet in the band last year and was recruited to play euphonium for the upcoming season. I asked Blake a few questions, including: How has Sonic Brass helped you improve your playing and musicianship, what is the most challenging aspect of playing in the ensemble, and what is the most rewarding aspect of playing in the ensemble?
BS: Sonic brass has helped me to achieve a higher level of musicianship and technique on both trumpet and euphonium. Until recently, I believed I was just average on euphonium. Last year, participating in regional solo competition, I received a 5 high score overall, on trumpet, and I am now sitting in the solo euphonium chair for Sonic Brass. I love working with Michele Kalo and the rest of the band.
The most challenging aspect last year was the high level technical demands of the music. I wasn’t used to playing so incredibly fast (tempo and technique). I was the only player on second trumpet, which was a different experience. Switching to euphonium this upcoming year will provide the challenge of being a soloist and being more of a leader. I had solos in my high school band, but this is a band of the top players in Mesa, so I’m kind of nervous about that. But I’m ready for the challenge!
The most rewarding thing about playing in Sonic Brass is that I never leave rehearsal thinking, “oh, we did that again.” I feel like I learn something new at every rehearsal, and that is really cool.
DS: What is considered appropriate repertoire for the ensemble? How do you select the repertoire for Sonic Brass?
MK: The Sonic Brass performs a diverse repertoire, from jazz to traditional brass band music to orchestral transcriptions. I select the repertoire based on the strengths and weaknesses of the ensemble. I always want to showcase our outstanding sections or individual musicians. The band has been fortunate to have several outstanding musicians and we have featured a number of them as soloists in front of the band. For many of those students, it is their first time performing a solo with an ensemble – a wonderful learning experience! One season we had an outstanding trombone section and I featured them performing a trombone quartet of the Super Mario Bros. theme.
Most of the repertoire that we perform comes from the Salt River Brass library. We are very fortunate to have access to the more than 3000 titles the SRB library holds. I have also completed a few arrangements for the band.
DS: Does Sonic Brass own a complement of brass band instruments?
MK: Sonic Brass does not own a complement of Brass Band instruments. Students perform on the instruments they have. This past December (2012) I acquired our first instrument for Sonic Brass. The conductor of the Salt River Brass, Patrick Sheridan, donated a new Jupiter flugelhorn to our ensemble.
DS: How do you teach brass pedagogy within the context of rehearsal?
MK: We spend at least 15-20 minutes of our once a week, 2-hour rehearsal on breathing exercises from The Breathing Gym. We are able to talk about playing from a relaxed state, dynamics, articulation, and performance preparation. Our warm ups are heavily based on exercises from the Brass Gym which cover tone, flexibly, micro tuning, technique, and tuning. We also have a heavy focus on scales and interval training. I often reference these exercises during rehearsal of passages posing challenges.
DS: How do you organize your concert season? Do you program thematic concerts?
MK: Our concert season usually consists of about four to five concerts. We perform two concerts with the other Mesa Community College instrumental ensembles and two concerts with the Salt River Brass. Sonic Brass has also performed at the state convention and at a few other engagements. Most of our members are heavily involved with their respective school ensembles, so adding more concerts becomes a scheduling challenge. The groups perform at churches, retirement centers, and at the Mesa Arts Center. Admission is by donation when we perform at a church. Our concerts at the Mesa Arts Center are billed under the Salt River Brass, so patrons buy a ticket to attend these events. No themes…diversity!
DS: Please discuss the relationship between Sonic Brass and Salt River Brass Band.
MK: Patrick Sheridan and Sam Pilafian were extremely active in helping to recruit and teach in the early years of Sonic Brass. They used their reputations to help attract wonderful players when the band was in its genesis. Their early involvement helped Sonic Brass develop a respected name for itself. Several other members of the band volunteered their time to help students learn transpositions or read in a new clef. Salt River Brass functions as the fiduciary agent for Sonic Brass. Salt River Brass also provides unlimited access to their library, lessons, master classes, and sectionals from SRB members, and SRB member help with Sonic Brass auditions. Salt River Brass also provides two concert venues each year. The SRB Board provides snack food for the students during the concerts that we share at the Mesa Arts Center. Several former members of Sonic Brass have moved on to become members of Salt River Brass. Salt River Brass has an open rehearsal policy for Sonic Brass members and for anyone looking to observe a rehearsal.
DS: What is your vision for the future of Sonic Brass?
MK: I would like to see Sonic Brass develop into a larger brass band. I would like to grow all of my sections. I would also like to develop a junior high level ensemble.
DS: What are the rewards and challenges for a conductor of a student brass band?
MK: The rewards are always student related for me. Watching each student have their “light bulb” moment throughout the course of the year is what I teach for. I love hearing about their successes, whether it is a playing success or a life event. I take such joy from hearing how Sonic Brass fits into what makes them who they are. I personally look forward to every rehearsal even though our rehearsal begins at 4:45pm and I have been teaching since 7:30am. They have a contagious energy for music that I love sharing in. I enjoy exposing young musicians to wonderfully well written literature that is stylistically diverse. I love presenting something new and different to them.
I believe my biggest challenge with Sonic Brass is scheduling. The students in Sonic Brass come from all directions and all different schools with their own sets of concerts and required school functions. Some of the students are traveling over 40 miles one way to attend rehearsal or a concert. Each student’s school schedule comes first. Sometimes their school schedules conflict with Sonic Brass rehearsals or even concerts. Finding adequate substitutes can be very challenging. Rehearsing without all of the members due to conflicts or health reasons is also challenging. This past season I lost my entire euphonium section for six weeks due to bronchitis.
DS: What do you do in addition to conducting the Sonic Brass, and how do you fit it into your busy life?
MK: In addition to conducting the Sonic Brass, I conduct another community ensemble at Scottsdale Community College, the Scottsdale Concert Band. The band has approximately 80 members and performs four concerts a year in the Saguaro High School Auditorium. I am the third conductor in its 37 year history.
I am also currently teaching 3-8 general music and band in Chandler at Athlos Traditional Academy. I write for several local high school marching bands, work summer marching band camps, and arrange music for the Salt River Brass and local area concert bands. I also started the Sonic Seniors which is a part of the New Horizons International Music Association. Sonic Seniors will be in its seventh year this coming September. Sonic Seniors is a concert band for people who are over 50 and are either returning to their instrument after an extended period of time or who are playing an instrument for the first time. I also maintain a private high brass studio.
I find that I make time for what I really want to do and I never find the time for things that deep down do not hold my interest. I believe that when I am the most busy (conducting, teaching general music, arranging music, practicing my instrument, and playing with SRB), I am at my best. All the diversity that I have in my regular schedule assists and helps develop the other parts. Because I am involved in writing music, I am constantly evaluating scoring, checking line writing, and ear training. Because I continue to play in an ensemble, it helps me relate to my students while I am standing on the podium. All of the pieces come together to make a complete picture. I believe it is also important to find some balance to a busy professional life. I find balance through spending time with family, eating well, exercising (I am a Bikram Yoga addict), and hiking. Maintaining balance helps keep everything calm, focused and moving forward.