Chamber Music Corner: Four Star Brass
By Mike Forbes, Associate Editor
The Four Star Brass, named after the four star general at Scott Air Force Base, General John Handy, is actually a tuba/euphonium quintet plus percussion that is quickly becoming quite known through their regular tours and recently released recording, Debut, which is included as a supplement with this issue of the ITEA Journal. The group is a chamber ensemble embedded in The United States Air Force Band of Mid-America—one of twelve regional bands within the Air Force. Stationed just outside of St. Louis at Scott AFB, the Band of Mid-America is comprised of 60 full-time professional musicians. While their primary touring area is the Midwest, the band regularly supports Air Force activities around the world. Their largest ensemble is a 45-piece Concert Band, which tours every other month of the year. During the alternate months, the Concert Band breaks into a Jazz Ensemble and several chamber music groups that all tour independently. This provides the Air Force with greater visibility, and this author can only imagine how healthy and beneficial this kind of chamber music element can be for the individual musicians in the band.
Four Star Brass pictured with Patrick Sheridan and Gene Pokorny
As for the formation of Four Star Brass, Technical Sergeant Tom Vincent tells me that, “At the beginning of 2002, we found ourselves in the fortunate position of having three tubas and two euphoniums in the band. One of the tubas went to our brass quintet, and the remaining four of us started 4 Star Brass.” In their present configuration, however, Four Star Brass consists of three euphoniums, two tubas, and a percussionist. “Adding the third euphonium really increased our flexibility,” adds Vincent. “It gives us a fifth voice if we need it, and if we do not, it allows one of us to play percussion, to sing or narrate, or just to catch a break on a long program.”
In finding the group’s overall chamber music mission, they knew right from the start that they needed to be musically accessible to a wide range of audiences. “All of our small groups have to be extremely versatile,” states Vincent, “we may be called upon to perform for a military ceremony, a professional conference, a kindergarten class, and a retirement community…all within the same week!” They wanted to be able to approach musical idioms not normally associated with tubas and euphoniums and do so in a musically satisfying way. Moreover, they felt that they needed to add some variety to the texture and timbre of the group to help break up the sameness of low, conical sounds. “The way we addressed all of these concerns was to add a percussionist to the group,” explains Vincent. “While not completely unheard of, the combination of low brass and percussion is sufficiently rare to attract attention and gives our group its own distinctive sound.”
The members of Four Star Brass all come from varying backgrounds and experiences and all claim to be very fortunate to have found one another in The U.S. Air Force Band of Mid-America. The group leader is Master Sergeant Joel Rossi. A native of Monongahela, Pennsylvania, Joel is a 24-year veteran of the Air Force. Joel actually won a position with the Air Force Ceremonial Band in Washington, D.C. straight out of high school but chose instead to accept a position with the Band of Mid-America. He considers playing with the Four Star Brass one of the most enjoyable experiences of his career. In addition to the euphonium, Joel often performs as a vocalist with the Band of Mid-America.
Technical Sergeant Tom Vincent is the group’s musical director. Tom grew up near Chicago, and he recalls that the highlight of the Midwest Clinic for him each year was listening to the Matteson-Phillips Tubajazz Consort. He holds a Bachelor of Music from Lawrence University and a Master of Science degree from Eastern Illinois University. Tom has been in the Air Force for 18 years, 13 of which he has spent playing euphonium next to Joel. “In the studio, I realized how much our sounds have grown alike over the years. On playbacks, I often couldn’t tell if it was Joel or me playing!” Tom is also an active freelance trombonist in St. Louis.
The bottom player in the group from Evansville, Indiana, is Airman First Class Matt Kuebler. His undergraduate degree is from the University of Kentucky and his Master of Music degree is from Indiana University. Matt has also done doctoral work at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Prior to joining the Air Force in 2001, Matt performed with the Columbus Brass Quintet and the Jack Daniels Original Silver Cornet Band. He is married to the newest member of Four Star Brass, Airman First Class Shawna Kuebler. Shawna hails from Union City, Ohio and holds a Bachelor of Arts (Euphonium Concentration) from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. She has done graduate work at Indiana University and has studied bodhrán at the Riley School of Irish Music. Shawna enlisted in the Air Force in 2002.
The group’s percussionist is Technical Sergeant Ron Johnson. Having grown up in Brookfield, Missouri, he did his undergraduate work at Northeast Missouri State University and earned a Master of Music degree from the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Ron joined the Air Force in 1993 and has served in Nebraska and Germany prior to his assignment with the Band of Mid-America.
A group with the instrumentation and performance goals of Four Star Brass cannot rely on off-the-shelf arrangements. The person primarily responsible for providing their custom tailored arrangements is Staff Sergeant David Hartung. David was raised in Frankfort, Kentucky, attended Morehead State University and later earned a Bachelor of Music Performance degree from the University of Kentucky, where he and Matt Kuebler were classmates.
Four Star Brass in performance with Patrick Sheridan
David says of his arranging method, “In an effort to avoid the usual SATB/ TTBB voicing, I like to use a layered voicing technique. This approach helps the group from sounding muddy (everyone does not play all the time) and keeps the integrity of the original composition. Most importantly, I try to hear the arrangement as would the audience. I start by making a framework for the orchestration: small (1-2 players), medium (2-3 with drums) and large (everybody). This helps with building the tonal structure of the chart. I use the large orchestration sparingly because it demands so much of the listener. Instead, I prefer to use counterpoint and implied harmony to help in building the large orchestration. The trick then is to use the sound of each instrument to its fullest. For example, the tonal differences between the large tuba (B-flat, C) and small tuba in the low range can help with orchestration. I use the small tuba for bass lines when I want the orchestration to be small or thin, like under a jazz solo. The large tuba is added when depth is needed or as counter lines are added. If the small tuba can stay away from the ‘bottom notes’ by staying in the middle register while playing the bass lines and wait for the large tuba to play them, it can be an effective illusion for the listener that the orchestration is larger. The best example of layers can be found in my adaptation of Big Noise from Winnetka. Listen for the layers and small to large orchestration. Would that tune work if it were written in a strict SATB style?”
Four Star Brass has performed at the 2003 Army Tuba-Euphonium Conference and at the ITEA Midwest Regional Conference held later that year at Ball State University. They shared a recital with Pat Sheridan at McKendree College and again joined Pat during the Band of Mid-America’s holiday concerts at Symphony Center in Chicago and Powell Hall in St. Louis. They also tell me that they were featured at the Harvey Phillips-ITEA 30th Anniversary Tribute Dinner at Indiana University. Having toured Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Illinois, they are now looking forward to a tour of Arkansas in November. Andy Anders is organizing a regional low brass conference for them at Arkansas Tech on November 2nd where they will perform for many of the area’s high school and college students.
The Four Star Brass went into the studio in June 2003 and recorded their first CD, Debut, which they have generously donated to the ITEA Journal readership (please find your CD enclosed!!). They have received nothing but terrific responses since the CD’s release last December at the Midwest Clinic. I personally have found the recording quality of Debut to be among the very best in the industry!! The Four Star Brass hopes you enjoy the CD with their compliments.
In closing, Technical Sgt. Vincent has the following to say about Four Star Brass: “Many people are surprised that the Air Force offers this type of group. Actually, Four Star Brass is the result of some incredibly fortunate timing of military assignments, excellent group chemistry, and supportive leadership at the Band of Mid-America. The one constant in the Air Force is change, so we know that it will not last forever. While it does, though, who could ask for a better way to serve?”
If you’d like to learn more about Four Star Brass, send them an email at email@example.com. To inquire about opportunities in the Air Force Bands call their nationwide toll free audition information hotline at (888) 519-9866.