Have Euphonium Will Travel by Steven Mead
Editor’s Note: This article by Steven Mead appeared in a slightly different form in The British Bandsman, Issue Number 5045, June 1999. Our thanks to BB Editor, Peter Wilson, as well as to Steve Mead, for permission to reprint the article in this form in the TUBA Journal
It must seem to readers of the TUBA Journal that I’ve been travelling with my euphonium for hundreds of years as many have been hearing of my exploits for some time! Well I enjoy my playing and have in the last 12 years or so been able to concentrate on professional solo playing around the world, while still trying to keep my feet on the ground and look after my family, teaching private students, writing and other commitments at home. My ‘job’ has evolved; it was never advertised in the paper but I instinctively moved my career into a position where I was able to play the euphonium as much as possible and make a living from it.
When I left school in 1980 I was told that I’d never earn a living from the euphonium unless I joined a military band, so why not play the trombone or tuba? I stuck to my guns and, after three years at Bristol University in the southwest of the UK and then teaching training at the beautiful city of Bath, moved to the Midlands to get a ‘real job’ teaching at deFerrers High School in Burton on Trent (a fine brewing town!!) and playing with the Desford Colliery Band. It goes without saying it was a fantastic time, with Desford Colliery achieving unprecedented success during the mid-eighties, winning the National Brass Band Championships 1987- 89. To have joined the Band at this time was indeed fortuitous; the atmosphere in the Band was electric, and the public acclaim and resultant publicity quite extraordinary. I practiced my euphonium at school from early morning. Then, as soon as extra-curricular activities were finished around 6pm, I went directly to the band room or stayed at school until 9 p.m. to practice. (I was single then!!)
Practice makes you lucky (so they say), and I’ve never lost the urge to play. I’m a practice junkie, unfortunately. It paid off then and still does, as the solo engagements started coming in, mostly as a result of the exposure I was getting with Desford and particularly through the BBC Best of Brass . The travelling initially had to fit precariously between Band and school commitments and soon there were not many gaps, as the Band was really busy in the mid-eighties. I also enjoyed early traveling with the Young Ambassadors Brass Band for some years, at school vacation time, although I usually needed a week to get over those trips, as anyone who has played with the Band will testify!! The regularity of the solo concerts increased to the point where, in 1989,1 left Desford to concentrate on nurturing something I seemed to enjoy and for which the demand was certainly there. The high school headmaster was incredibly supportive and allowed me far more time off than he was ever really able to justify to other members of staff. I will be forever grateful to him for allowing me to be able to make the adjustment from high school music teacher to full time euphonium soloist and teacher at schools such as the Royal Academy, Birmingham Conservatoire and now more the ever, the RNCM in Manchester.
My schedule each year, on average, sees me out of the country about 150 days, incorporating about 75 concerts and workshops. It has developed year by year, and I meet many young players who wish it could happen for them overnight. Believe me, it doesn’t. One needs to have the following attributes to prepare oneself for a life style where no two weeks are ever the same, leading to what is sometimes a nomadic existence in foreign airports and hotels, constantly worrying about getting practice time and the euphonium not getting any knocks. (Incidentally I never ‘check’ the euphonium as luggage. I’ve seen too many instances of destroyed brass instruments courtesy of the airline companies. Whatever they say, they really don’t care, and if you arrive at a destination with a smashed bell or jammed valve you have serious problem. I use a gig back and a smile !! In about 20 years of travelling I’ve never had a serious problems with the airlines but my secret is never to give my instrument to anyone else. A simple but effective plan.)
So, cultivate the following:
a. belief and self confidence that you have something that people want to listen to
b. love of playing on stage and in particular the constant practice needed to maintain and develop skills, not just in bursts, but daily in large amounts
c. a capacity for organization; it can be a lonely business , particularly so if you turn up at the wrong place, on the wrong day, without the right clothes, with the wrong music, with nO’One to meet you. Maybe I’ve had a charmed life but a little foresight and a modicum of communication skill goes a long way, believe me.
The main features of travelling/touring.
Let’s start with a fundamental truth, the music business is a people business. If you treat people in a friendly way and you are professional in your approach and do what you say you are going to do, you may well return to that band, town or country again. 1 have made so many friends through my travels I could and will one day write a book about it all. The funny stories are too numerous to mention: like being asked to play a short concert on a jumbo jet to Japan when the plane was not too full and the stewardesses were curious about what a euphonium was. (I did play, by the way!) I was chased by a guard dog at the back of Auckland airport who took exception to me practicing one evening on my way back from the New Zealand Band Championships in 1990. Touring stories last in the mind for a long time and most people who tell you stories of “when their band went abroad” often tell you about everything except the concert! It’s good to stay focused on why people invite you to play.
Being a seasoned traveller, you do find ways of looking after yourself and ensuring that not only are the concerts are successful, but you return home safely in one piece and that your family recognize you when you do! Travelling is not all glamorous, and the effects of jet lag are very wearing on the body. Dehydration, hotel life, waiting for planes to arrive, air traffic control’s desire to keep you safe and usually late, meals when you don’t want them, socialization when you’d rather be asleep, practice when you should be sleeping, sleeping when you should be practicing are all anti-glamour features of the tourer’s world. Often there is animated conversation going on around you in a language you don’t understand, and you try to make conversation with people who speak only 4 or 5 words of English. Keep smiling, never let them see you’re tired or stressed. They are not paying you to be stressed!!
So, a check list of important things to do:
• When a band or organization asks you to play, check the dates carefully. People who double book/cancel are remembered. Once you’ve agreed to do something, do it. Period.
• Agree upon all financial matters in writing from the outset and be scrupulously clear and honest with money at all times. I’ve heard of so many UK bands abroad who have had ‘misunderstandings’ with their hosts over money. Who pays what is not a taboo subject and shouldn’t be treated as one.
• If you are a soloist, sort out what you are going to play in a timely manner, and if you promise to send piano/band accompaniments to your hosts, do it. The same goes for promised publicity material.
• As a soloist, you usually will be accompanied by the host band. Pick repertoire sensibly and check on available rehearsal time before the programme is agreed. If you are going to do bizarre tempi, it’s a good idea to advise the conductor before you get to the 20 minute run through just before the concert.
• Be pleasant with people. Often the concert organizers or band are a little on edge, as they want to do a good job just as much as you do. A little give and take goes a long way.
• You are there to play for an audience: think about how you’ll make a rapport with them. Looking good on stage is a good start, there’s no excuse for shabby appearance. None of us can get away with Nigel Kennedy style ‘stuff’ yet, so don’t try! Be courteous on stage. Stage etiquette needs to be learned just as much as the music if the audience is going to enjoy your performance.
• Resist the temptation to eat and particularly drink constantly the moment you leave your home country. For many brass bands on tour it’s the non-stop boozing that inevitably leads to ‘snags’. The best time for relaxation/socialization with your hosts is after the concert. Call me old-fashioned but playing and drinking do not go together.
• Thank people. Don’t offer too much ‘advice’ unless you’re asked for it. Don’t tell the band they need a new conductor with him sitting there looking at you (it’s really happened, but I won’t tell you which soloist it was!) As I said earlier, it’s a people business. They want to share in your enjoyment of music making as well as for you to play to a full house in the concert.
What spurs me on is the buzz I get from a concert that hits the mark, be it a concert for a town wind band in southern Germany where it seems the whole of the town has turned for the annual concert or a youth fanfare band in the north of Holland or a University Brass Band in Tokyo or a concerto with an orchestra in a large American city or a concert with a small Salvation Army Brass Band. Each can be memorable for different reasons. I always hope that people will remember the concert for a long time, and if they see you in 5 or 10 ten years time, they’ll talk to you about it and remind you of what you played, what you said , and/or what you were wearing. It’s a great feeling to know you made a lasting impression.
Live music is the best thing in the world. Even in the computer age we live in there will always be a demand for musicians to be on a stage performing for people. The communication can be electric. Its unpredictability makes me practice hard for each concert, every one is important. As musicians your best advert is the quality of the music you make and every time you leave your home area you represent yourself, your band or town and your country. I feel I’m the luckiest person I know, having a job that takes me around the world making music for people. The sacrifices are huge even though it is a chosen career, and I know it won’t last forever. One day I’ll get a real job again.