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All About Brass Bands!

Thursday, June 30, 2011
All About Brass Bands!

by Gillian Ellis

If you want to play in a traditional British-style brass band on campus while attending university, there is only one academic institution in the whole of Michigan where you can make both your dreams comes true. Oakland University. There are only five collegiate brass bands in the US.

Oakland University Brass Band (MUE 335) was founded in Fall 2009 under the direction of Professor Kenneth Kroesche who first became interested in this kind of ensemble while in grad school at the University of Michigan, when he was invited to play euphonium with the Battle Creek Brass Band which is one of the country’s finest. Although he no longer plays in the band, Ken calls the current members “luminaries of the profession.”

After graduation, Ken taught at Western Carolina University (North Carolina) and was the principal euphonium of the Smoky Mountain Brass Band, which is one of the oldest in the US. (Founded 1981.) He also joined the board of directors of the North American Brass Band Association, and after moving to Michigan to join the faculty at OU, he was asked to become musical director of the Capital City Brass Band in Lansing.

Professor Kroesche says that while OU has always had a large brass ensemble, by 2009 he felt that “the number of [brass] students and the needs of the program” made a brass band both a possibility and a desirable addition to the performance opportunities the music department should be offering its students.

Competition is a key element in the brass band world and, in addition to enjoying an active performance schedule, the OU Brass Band achieved distinction in its very first year as the 2010 Winner of the National Brass Band Association competition (Section Three) held in Raleigh, North Carolina. But Ken says, “It’s about more than competition. It’s about being part of a community of musicians who love this activity.”

And the community has deep roots. Ken’s grandfather was the conductor of a small-town American Legion band that competed nationally, at a time when such ensembles were not so uncommon. During the country’s earliest days, musical instruments had either to be made from natural elements or be imported, and so when we think of colonial times, and especially the revolutionary army, we think of a simple fife and drum corps.

But the British army used bugle horns to signal daily events and battlefield orders. So did the French who fought alongside the US revolutionaries and the Hessians who fought for the British. “The enemy appeared in open view, and sounded their bugles in a most insulting manner, as is usual after a fox chase. I never felt such a sensation before—it seemed to crown our disgrace,” said Joseph Reed, Washington’s adjutant, after the Battle of Harlem Heights.

Despite this early association with the enemy army, brass instrument signals became commonplace in the American forces, especially in cavalry units, when a loud signal was a necessity. By the Civil War, army units marched behind a brass band whose instruments, Ken Kroesche says, were of the “over the shoulder type” so that the horns faced backwards to the soldiers following them.

The large professional armies of the Civil War trained and paid musicians, and when the war ended and the musicians returned to civilian life, they often formed bands in their communities. At the same time, because of the development of US industry and the mechanization of brass instrument production, musical instruments were becoming more available and affordable. 

Given this beginning, why was the traditional brass-only band formation superseded in the US by other instrument configurations. Professor Kroesche believes the simplest answer to this question can be found in the career of one man, John Philip Sousa.

Sousa, “The March King,” began his musical career, perhaps surprisingly, as a violinist and he favored the music of Bach and Wagner. He left orchestral work to lead the Marine Band in 1880 and introduced symphonic transcriptions and changed the band’s instrumentation to make them work. Woodwind and even string instruments were included.

He founded his own band in 1892 and it became the first American music group to tour the world. Sousa’s band was a popular sensation and the instrumentation he developed and favored was highly influential among music educators and with bands across the United States. Sousa’s popularity largely explains the composition and sound of today’s typical high school band.

Meanwhile in Britain, many soldier musicians formed village and church bands as they rejoined civilian life after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Here conditions favored the continued existence of the form. As the country industrialized, employers in the mills and coal mines encouraged band activity, some historians believe because the owners wanted their employees too busy to dabble in trade union activities.

The first recorded brass band competition in Britain was in 1845 and soon after large scale events had audiences of more than 10,000, all made possible by the simultaneous development of the railway system. A competition circuit meant rules, and soon a recognized instrumentation was codified.

According to Ken Krosesche, a brass band is made up of 1 E-flat soprano cornet, 9 B-flat cornets, 1 flugel horn, 3 E-flat tenor horns, 2 B-flat baritone horns, 2 B-flat euphoniums, 3 trombones, 2 E-flat tubas, 2 B-flat tubas, and percussion.

One organization in the US remained faithful to the traditional brass sound, finding it perfect for its particular purpose. The Salvation Army first began using bands to spread their message in the late 1870s and the organization has been a potent influence in the brass band world ever since. Ken credits Michigan Salvationists with assisting him in moving forward with the OU Brass Band. He says Divisional Music Director of the SE Michigan Division, Tom Hanton, was especially generous with time, advice and practical help. Professor Kroesche is grateful for “a terrific relationship with the Salvation Army corps in this area.”

Kenneth Kroesche will play the euphonium in a faculty recital on Friday, September 23, at 8 PM. The OU Brass Band has a concert on Sunday, November 6 at 7 PM. Both are in Varner Recital Hall. To hear Brass Band music at its very finest listen to the Black Dyke Band at its Brass Festival Gala Concert, posted by Leeds Metropolitan University, in the UK.

Photo: Ken Kroesche leads the Brass Band, courtesy of Rick Smith