Chamber Music Corner
Michael Forbes, Associate Editor
Synergy Brass Quintet: Tubist Jesse Chavez
Jesse Chavez, tubist with Synergy Brass Quintet
The other day, I had the fabulous opportunity to hang with members of the Synergy Brass Quintet as they came to my town for an evening concert on our local concert series. They are interesting guys and getting to know more about them and Synergy prompted me to author this Chamber Music Corner column. The following conversation with tubist Jesse Chavez reflects the impetus of our conversations.
How did Synergy form? What were some early indications that this group had something special that would go beyond your traditional gigging brass group?
Synergy Brass formed back when Jon Hurrell (horn) and Bobby Thorp (trumpet) were in college. Synergy, like most groups, started as a student ensemble. The guys in the group needed a way to fund their different “activities,” so they would go out in front of the Boston Public Library and open a case. They did this frequently, since they made quite a bit of money. That was really the beginning. I believe what took Synergy from a regular gigging quintet to one of the premier groups in this country was a vision and desire to be more. There are lots of things that go into making a professional group, like musicality, technical facility, intonation and good time, but the most important part is the drive to succeed. Most groups never get past the first few steps because the members aren’t willing to make the sacrifices that you have to make to get any farther. These guys made those sacrifices, and it’s paying off.
Who are the current members of Synergy, where did they go to school, and describe some of the challenges of your current turn over.
The current makeup of the group is Bobby Thorp and Rachel Rodriquez on trumpets, Jon Hurrell on horn, Jordan Witt on trombone, and myself on tuba. Bobby studied at The Boston Conservatory, University of Maryland, and Boston University. Rachel studied at West Texas A & M and then University of North Texas. Jon got two degrees (Horn performance and Composition) at Boston University. Jordan studied trombone at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Eastern Kentucky University, and SUNY (State University of New York)-Purchase. I studied tuba at Tennessee Tech University and Arizona State University.
I would say the largest challenge with member turnover is really just getting the new member through the initial learning curve. This group is busy and touring almost all of the year, and it can take awhile for new members to get used to the touring lifestyle. The other challenges involved are just getting used to performing from memory all the time. Oftentimes, people are only used to giving a few concerts or recitals in a semester, so it can feel odd to give a concert every night. After getting used to these aspects of our job, everything else is just the regular parts of being in a chamber music group: learning to play together, work together, and live together.
Please give some anecdotes and/or reviews of the various concerts/venues that you have performed in, and what kinds of repertoire you feel works best. What did Synergy gain (musically or otherwise) from such an extensive tour schedule (some 271 concerts in 2007!)?
I would say one of the highlights of my time with the group was going to Japan. Not only was it great to see a completely different culture, it was also great to see the really positive reaction of the audiences over there. While we were in Japan we gave master classes and performed concerts at three music conservatories. In our regular season, we perform at all types of venues, from elementary school cafeterias to large concert halls. We have found that the best type of music for our audiences is what most people would consider “pops” classical music, i.e. things that people can recognize and whistle the tunes. Synergy actually started life as a new music ensemble, but they realized that a program of all new music was not what a general audience wanted. We do still try to include at least one piece of new music on our program every season but we keep the repertoire to music and composers that people will know like Bach, Rossini, and Mozart. In addition, a portion of our shows are dedicated to jazz.
Jon (horn) really describes our situation best as to why we play the music that we do. He says, “As musicians we listen to music all day, so we appreciate music that is less traditional because it is different for us. But most people listen to noise all day, so when they go to a concert they want to hear ‘pretty music.’”
What role does Synergy play in each of the different members’ musical life? I imagine it is the main thing, but do any of you get to do other gigs? Do you ever juggle chamber music commitments with other professional engagements?
Synergy Brass is on the road roughly ten and a half months out of the year. This is our main job. We do all have other musical interests, though they take a back seat to the quintet. The idea is to work very hard on this project so that we can diversify later on. We all have solo projects in the works, and any time we are not on the road with Synergy we will often take that time to play our instruments in other capacities.
I’ve examined a number of different brass quintets, quartets, and tuba quartets in this column and each of them have strong opinions about what it is that they’re trying to do and how they go about doing it. What about yourselves? What can one learn about your experience on the road and the variety of so many venues that you play? How are you received in America vs. international venues?
Synergy’s motto is “Redefining classical music for a new generation.” A big part of what we do is work with school-age students to help promote classical music and try to keep the new generations interested in this music that has been with us for so long. With our evening concerts we really strive to bring the average man back to the concert hall. Often, people who may be less knowledgeable about the “traditions” in classical music will feel ostracized when they try to attend a concert, so they do not usually go to more than one in their lifetime. The problem is that the traditions that many people hold to so strongly in the classical music world are not that old. In the times of Mozart and Beethoven, symphony concerts were treated like rock concerts are today. Our idea is to get people to feel that way again when they come to a classical music concert in hopes that they will go to see another concert after we are gone.
There are so many things that can be learned from going on the road. Learning to pick up your instrument and play the show whether you’re having a “good chop day” or not is something that you learn quickly in this group. I played a concert last season while I had food poisoning. Also, it is common that we are not always performing in an optimal space under optimal conditions. Learning how to make the music speak to your audience regardless of the problems is a priceless experience. It is sad that very few touring music ensembles exist any more, because most of the people that we admire today as being legends cut their teeth on a similar tour schedule as Synergy. As I mentioned about Japan, we have been accepted very well in other countries.
In terms of earning an actual salary from life on the road in a chamber music group, do you find that you guys are getting the fees that you think you deserve? What does a beginning professional group need to consider in travel/housing costs vs. obtaining reasonable artistic fees for the work one provides either in educational clinics or evening concerts? For example, are there times when beginning groups need to settle for little or no fee in order to simply keep busy? Where did Synergy draw that tricky line?
If you’re starting out and you want to be a professional group, my advice is to take every performance you get offered. Even if they are all free. In the beginning it is most important to get your name out into the world. If you are unknown, then you can’t expect anyone to want to pay for your concert. When Synergy started, they would do “freewill concerts” at churches. They would offer the church a free concert and then take donations at the doors afterwards. The other piece of advice is to hold on to whatever money you do make. It can be very tempting to get a check for a concert and just divide among the members and head down to the pub. Don’t do it! It can take a lot of money to get a chamber music group off the ground from a business standpoint. Take most of your money and put it into things that will help the group profit. Once the group is making more money, then each individual member will reap those benefits. Synergy is in a second or third phase of this game. Our fees, while not astronomical, are plenty to cover all the costs of running the group and giving a salary to all the members.
What are the future goals for Synergy—long term and short term? Tell the readership more about your recordings.
Actually, most of our primary goals are already being met at a certain level. From this point, we want to do what we are doing better and bigger. For short-term goals, we are currently working on having a bigger presence in Europe (we have a concert in Switzerland scheduled for this summer) and continue to increase our profile in the U.S. As mentioned, our main mission statement is “Redefining Classical Music for a New Era.” We are trying to get a whole new generation of people back into the concert halls. That is our main long-term goal, and we’re working on it one concert at a time. Also, each of us as individuals have goals we want to work on as musicians, and a goal is to help everyone in the group achieve their personal goals. As the group completes its goals then that will be when the touring and all can slow down a bit and individual’s goals can start to become a focus.
Synergy Brass Quintet
Are you guys managed? Please speak to the pros and cons of management and/or how to get that kind of relationship started.
This group has been managed in the past. Most people think that the way to make it in this business is to get a management company. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. When this group had management, it was paying out lots of money every month as a retainer fee for the management but not seeing very much return. When you are trying to tour constantly and your manager only books six shows for the whole year, that is a problem. As of this point, we handle our own bookings for shows in the U.S. We just recently started a relationship with a management company that is working on international engagements. I think that if you are in a group that does not tour very often then management can be a good option. You will still have to do it for yourself for awhile until you can establish your name, because no real management company is going to take a risk on a group they aren’t sure can make them money. The way to really get what you want with management is to do it yourself until the companies start coming to you!
Finally, for the tubists reading this column, what advice do you, Jesse, give to young tubists seeking out a professional performing career in chamber music.
Practice, practice, practice! I know that is probably the most clichè answer, but it’s the most true one. I wish there was some golden formula for how to make it but there isn’t. Great players go without jobs everyday, and that is sad. Let me just throw out some quick ideas that have guided me.
1. Work aggressively at making yourself the best player you can be, and people will see that. If you can’t play in time and in tune, you might as well just go home. I know that seems too basic, but that is where it all starts. If you can’t play in time and in tune, then no one cares that you can play “Flight of the Bumblebee” upside down, with no hands, while gargling water.
2. Play all the time. While I was in college, I took every opportunity to play that I could. The more experience you have behind the horn, the better prepared you will be when it comes time to actually make money doing it.
3. Some of the best advice I ever got was “Do good work.” Be easy to work with. If you are a diva and difficult to handle at gigs or in rehearsals, then people will not want to work with you no matter how good of a player you are. In chamber music especially, a big part of what we do is working with the other people in the group. If you’re hard to work with you won’t get the gig.
4. Have a goal, and go after it. When I was in college, people would always ask what I wanted to do for a career. Other than teach, the thing I always said was that I wanted to play in a world-class brass quintet. And now that is what I do. That goal was always in the back of my head, and it drove me in everything that I did as a musician. If you don’t have some clear goals for yourself you won’t have that inner drive pushing you to make the tough decisions to become a better player.
Those are the things that I believe have made my career possible. Again, I wish there was some more simple and guaranteed way to make it. Strive to be a musician, not just a tuba player. If you can really say something to people when you play, that is powerful.
Jesse Chavez is anative of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and his first music lessons were on the piano when at age seven. He began composing and arranging in his teens, and also played in a rock-n-roll band, where he played drums, lead guitar, or bass, depending on the needs of the group. But as a high school freshman, he decided to join the marching band, and since you can’t march with a piano, he was encouraged to take up the tuba. He’s never looked back. Two years later Jesse was an All-State musician, attended the prestigious Tennessee Governor’s School for the Arts, and began planning a career in music performance after he founded his first tuba quartet. Two years after that he was attending Tennessee Technological University, where he studied with the internationally recognized tubist R. Winston Morris and was on the dean’s list all four years. During this time he performed, toured, and recorded with the acclaimed Tennessee Tech Tuba Ensemble—including performances at Carnegie Hall, the National Adjudicators Invitational, and the U.S. Army Band Tuba-Euphonium Conference. During this time his college quartet studied two summers with the acclaimed Sotto Voce tuba quartet.
After his graduation, Jesse played with Tech’s 40th Anniversary All-Star Ensemble at a performance at the Midwest Clinic in Chicago and was invited to compete at the Aeolus International Competition in Düsseldorf, Germany. He began work on his master’s degree with Sam Pilafian at Arizona State University and had completed a year of study when Synergy Brass came calling. He continues to work on his master’s degree long distance.
Jesse’s teachers include R. Winston Morris (TTU, Sinfonia, MJT), Sam Pilafian
(ASU), Demondrae Thurmon (University of Alabama), Nat McIntosh (Dallas Brass), and Marcus Arnold (Jack Daniels Silver Cornet Band). In his spare time, Jesse composes and arranges for both small and large wind ensembles. Jesse is a Conn-Selmer and Denis Wick London artist; he plays Conn tubas and Denis Wick mouthpieces and mutes exclusively. He can be heard on the AAR label.
For additional information on Jesse and the Synergy Brass Quintet, please visit synergybrass.com.
Dr. Michael Forbes teaches Music Theory, Composition, and Low Brass at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. He has previously served on the music faculties of the University of Nebraska-Kearney, Illinois State University, Mary Washington College, Columbia Union College, Frederick Community College, and was a tubist with the U.S. Army Band, “Pershing’s Own.” As the bottom tubist with the Sotto Voce Quartet, Forbes enjoys performing and recording exhilarating chamber music with his colleagues in America’s premiere tuba-euphonium quartet.