Brass Band Corner: The Brass Band of Battle Creek by Jennifer Rupp, with Benjamin Pierce
The 31-member Brass Band of Battle Creek has been described as an all-star band of the brass and percussion world’s elite, attracting great musicians from around the United States and Europe to play two annual concerts in Battle Creek as well as a limited number of other engagements in handpicked locations in the U.S. and abroad. Though rooted in the British brass band tradition, the BBBC also weaves in American elements such as jazz improvisation and pops, resulting in a hybrid style that makes the BBBC truly unique among brass bands.
Steven Mead in one of his frequent solo spots with the BBBC
Created in 1989 by brothers Jim and Bill Gray, podiatrists and amateur brass players from Battle Creek, MI, the BBBC has grown to cult status in Battle Creek. Concerts are regularly sold out and waiting lists are created weeks in advance. Trumpet legend Doc Severinsen, who has twice appeared with the band, says of the BBBC, “This band represents the beginnings of a new music movement in America. It’s one of the most accomplished groups I’ve ever worked with in my entire career.”
Most BBBC members come from American and European orchestras, colleges and universities, and U.S. service bands based in Washington, D.C. Most have impressive international solo careers. The band’s roster has also included such artists as famed Hollywood studio trumpeter Tim Morrison, favorite soloist of composer John Williams. The current roster includes Scott Hartman, formerly of Empire Brass, and Jens Lindemann, former member of the Canadian Brass. Renowned jazz trombonist Wycliffe Gordon is a regular BBBC member and is featured on nearly every concert.
The BBBC has performed at several prestigious venues including England’s Royal Albert Hall-the first non-British band to ever perform at the National Brass Band festival there. Following this event, the band toured the UK, performing concerts in Wales, Birmingham, and Manchester. The BBBC was the first brass band to perform on The University of Michigan’s University Musical Society Series. Following the performance in the 4,200-seat Hill Auditorium, the band set a record for CD sales in a Society sponsored event. The band has recorded nine CDs.
With a mission to bring joy, understanding, and inspiration to others through the power of music, the BBBC enjoys generous support from the Expert in Residence division of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Wycliffe Gordon solos with the BBBC
Over the past 20 years, the BBBC has developed a strong local following with hundreds of families and individuals who make it a tradition to attend BBBC performances and events. The nature of the BBBC concerts lends itself to a feeling of “ownership,” for not only community members but for band members as well. Battle Creek feels like home to many of our musicians and they look forward to playing in Battle Creek more than any other venue. While in Battle Creek, musicians volunteer their time to teach in area schools, donate private lessons, and reach out to area youth. The BBBC partners with downtown businesses on “after hours” events, helping to introduce the young professionals demographic to the music of the BBBC.
The BBBC hired Executive Director, Jennifer Rupp, in September of 2010. I asked her some questions about the BBBC and her involvement with the band.
Jen: BBBC Executive Director Jennifer Rupp
Benjamin Pierce: How are the players recruited for the band?
Jennifer Rupp: Players are recruited for the band by word of mouth from players IN the band. We take our musicians’ opinions to heart and trust that they know what players can match the caliber and the personality of the band.
BP: How did it come about that such remarkable jazz players became involved in the BBBC?
JR: We asked. J
BP: How does the audience respond to the jazz music versus the more traditional virtuosic “test pieces” from the standard repertoire?
JR: The audience in Battle Creek loves a challenge! They enjoy the more familiar popular or jazz music but love to hear classical music and new pieces too! We have always found that our audiences appreciate when we challenge them and introduce them to new composers, new works, or new styles they don’t get to hear all the time.
BP: In a traditional British-style brass band, camaraderie is a huge part of the experience. Does that carry over to the BBBC experience, being that it is a professional band?
JR: Absolutely! Without a doubt the camaraderie is what makes the BBBC so special. I really believe that the chemistry of an ensemble is what makes it successful. You can take all the top musicians in the world and put them in one room, but if they are not friends…if they don’t feel that connection….well, then, neither will the audience.
BP: Why doesn’t the band have a music director, or a regular conductor?
JR: The BBBC does have a music director. Jim and Bill Gray, the founding directors, have been responsible for the programs from the beginning. We choose to have a different conductor at each concert to keep things fresh for the musicians and the audience. The Grays also feel it is important for the band to have exposure to great conductors from all over the world and not become too settled into one particular style or interpretation of the music.
BP: Why does such a great band play so few concerts?
JR: The BBBC only plays two concerts per year because of everyone’s schedules. Everyone in the band is busy with his/her own professional career. It is very hard to coordinate 31 schedules and get them to all line up more than twice per year.
BP: How did you get involved w/ the band? Had you done administrative work previously?
JR: I have always been a fan of the band. My husband, Chris, is a band director and played in the Marshall Community Band with Jim Gray so we have known the Grays for years. I was the part-time Executive Director of a small non-profit in Marshall when the opening was posted for the position with the BBBC. I was ready for a full time position and this seemed like the perfect fit! I was over the moon when they told me I had been chosen for the job. I still pinch myself every day.
BP: What is your typical day like?
JR: A typical day for me is never typical. I am never quite sure what each day has in store. I am the only staff person. Most symphonies have dozens of front office staff. I am responsible for the day-to-day operations of the business. I also wear the hats of marketing representative, grant writer, web master, social networking coordinator, graphic designer, education program director, booking agent, travel agent, community relations manager, and fund development coordinator. I guess it is a good thing I like to be busy!
BP: Do you know if there are many such opportunities out there for folks who want to work in the music field?
JR: I think there are opportunities out there for people who are passionate about the music field. I think the key to finding that position is getting involved with your local arts organization by volunteering. Show them that you are sincere and dedicated to the organization. Most of the time, positions are created to fit people the organization values.
Conical Low Brass of the BBBC
Utilizing the traditional British-style brass band instrumentation, the BBBC employs four euphonium players (two play baritone) and four tuba players. Since the band’s beginnings, plenty of fantastic players have been featured in the lineup. Aside from the current roster, other players in a recurring capacity have included Sam Pilafian, Pat Sheridan, Lance LaDuke, Matthew Tropman (former Executive Director), and Andy Duncan, among others.
Gail Robertson, Baritone
Gail Robertson earned her BA degree from the University of Central Florida and a MM in Euphonium Performance from Indiana University while serving as graduate assistant to Harvey Phillips. She performed with the Tubafours at Walt Disney World, Orlando where she served as musical supervisor/chief arranger and produced a highly acclaimed CD, Tubas Under the Boardwalk. She has recently resumed her doctoral studies as a University Distinguished Fellow at Michigan State University, studying with Phil Sinder and Ava Ordman. She has taught on the faculties of the University of Central Florida, Bethune-Cookman University, the University of Florida, Valencia, and Seminole Community Colleges and remains active as a teacher, adjudicator, composer, arranger, and free-lance artist.
Demondrae Thurman, Baritone
Professor of Tuba and Euphonium at the University of Alabama, Demondrae Thurman has a firm international reputation as a euphonium soloist having performed in France, Germany, England, Norway, Romania, and throughout North America. Many of America’s premiere colleges and universities have hosted him as a performer and teacher and he continues to be in high demand. Also an active chamber musician, Thurman plays first euphonium and trombone in the highly regarded Sotto Voce Quartet. He has recorded with Sotto Voce and has also recorded two solo CDs, Soliloquies and Songs of a Wayfarer. Thurman has been involved in instrument design, working with Miraphone to produce the 5050 Ambassador Edition euphonium.
Steven Mead, Euphonium
With over 75 solo performances per year, Steven Mead’s schedule sees him touring almost constantly. His remarkable solo career follows the successes he achieved as a member of several of the UK’s leading brass bands. Mead has recorded a vast catalogue of solo CDs and has created Bocchino Music, which now produces and distributes his albums. As an innovator for the low brass world in general, he has been the Artistic Director of all six of the National Tuba/Euphonium Conferences held in the UK. He was also the Artistic Director for ITEC 2012 held in Linz, Austria. As a teacher he is Senior Tutor in Euphonium at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, UK. Students from all around the world come to study with him in the UK and many of them have gone on to enjoy top professional careers. Steven Mead has been an artist and clinician with Besson for many years and has been responsible for the design and development of the Prestige euphonium. He has also worked with Denis Wick Products to develop the Steven Mead series of brass mouthpieces.
Benjamin Pierce, Euphonium
Benjamin Pierce is an accomplished low brass artist and teacher. He is a professor at The University of Arkansas, where he teaches a studio of tuba and euphonium players and directs the tuba/euphonium ensemble. Pierce has notably been the winner of some dozen international tuba and euphonium artist competitions held in the United States, Japan, Germany, Finland, South Korea, England, and Italy. He is a frequent soloist at home and abroad performing many solo recitals as well as concertos with such ensembles as the premier United States military bands. Pierce has performed baritone, bass tuba, and euphonium with the Brass Band of Battle Creek. He is Editor in Chief of the ITEA Journal.
Marty Erickson, Bass Tuba
Formerly the principal/solo tubist with the United States Navy Band in Washington D.C., where he served for twenty-six years, Marty is now Lecturer of Tuba and Euphonium at Lawrence University. He has been the principal Eb Tubist with the Brass Band of Battle Creek since 1992 and is a founding member of Millennium Brass, The Symphonia tuba-euphonium ensemble, the Monarch Tuba-Euphonium Quartet, and the Tuba-Percussion duo, Balance, with percussionist Alison Shaw. Mr. Erickson has performed as a soloist/clinician throughout Western and Eastern Europe, Japan, Scandinavia, The United Kingdom, Bermuda, Cuba, and in 48 of the 50 United States. Keen to serve, he is a Past President of ITEA and is currently running for ITEA President once again. Marty is a clinician/design consultant with DEG Music Products, Inc., and performs on the Willson 3400S Eb Tuba and Erickson Signature mouthpieces he helped design.
Les Neish, Bass Tuba
Les Neish has become one of the leading tuba players of his generation. His endeavors as a tuba player have gained him recognition as a soloist, chamber musician and educator throughout the world. He gained a First Class Honors degree, a Professional Performance Diploma, and a Postgraduate Diploma with Distinction from the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester. After graduating from the RNCM he was taken onto the staff as a chamber music coach and tuba tutor at the RNCM Junior School. Neish has pushed the boundaries of tuba playing, being the first ever tuba player to be awarded the Worshipful Company of Dyers Award for Wind and Brass at the Royal Overseas League Competition and the being the first player to perform a solo tuba recital at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. His debut solo CD Salt of the Earth was received to great critical acclaim, winning Brass Band World and British Bandsman Solo CD of the Year Awards and receiving airtime on BBC Radio 3.
Phil Sinder, Contrabass Tuba
Philip Sinder is Professor of Tuba and Euphonium, Chair of the Brass and Percussion Area, and a member of the faculty quintet at The Michigan State University School of Music. As an advocate of new music for the tuba, Sinder has commissioned and premiered several works including pieces by David Gillingham and Charles Ruggiero. Sinder is a former faculty member of the Shepherd School of Music and Rice University. He is currently a member of the board of trustees for the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp and the Leonard Falcone International Euphonium and Tuba Festival. Many of Sinder’s students have gone on to prestigious performing and teaching careers of their own.
David Zerkel, Contrabass Tuba
David Zerkel is Professor of Tuba and Euphonium at The University of Georgia, and is in the midst of an active career as both a performer and educator. He has performed as a featured soloist at countless workshops and symposia and has performed as a solo recitalist at many of the leading colleges and conservatories in the United States. Although the tuba is his primary instrument, he enjoys the challenge of keeping active as a performer on the euphonium as well. Zerkel has performed as a member of the United States Army Band and the United States Army Field Band, both located in Washington, D.C. He has performed with many orchestras including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the National Symphony, the Baltimore Symphony, and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. His students have distinguished themselves by winning major competitions and positions with professional performing organizations.
A full house at the W.K. Kellogg Auditorium for the Brass Band of Battle Creek