Right before our principal cornet player plays a tuning pitch, there is a sound that signals the band that it’s time to get to work. The sound is keys crashing together and falling onto a surface. At the start of every rehearsal of the James Madison University Brass Band the conductor, Professor Kevin Stees, drops his keys on a stand in front of us that holds a stack of scores. This simple act has significance that radiates to every individual member of the band.
The number one Brass Band in the world is the Cory Band. They reside in the U.K., where brass bands originated, and are some of the best musicians internationally. To hear them play is an experience one doesn’t soon forget. Do want to know what is even more special about them? The band is not their full time job. They make time before and/or after work/careers to practice their music and the fundamentals of their instruments. They drop their keys off at the door. They grab their instrument. They get to work.
To become a member of the James Madison University Brass Band you have to audition. The beauty of this is that any student, including non-music majors, can have to opportunity to audition and participate. The group is primarily music majors. In fact, many listeners might assume that it is all music majors. For those who know that this is false, they may wonder what it is like to be a non-music major in such a rigorous band. It’s simple: we drop our keys. We get our work done in our regular classes, other extra curricular courses, then make time for an activity we love: playing our instruments and being in brass band. The band rehearses Monday and Wednesday for around an hour. On Fridays we rehearse almost two hours. We aim to practice every day. You have to really love something to put so much time into it. Our love drives our time management and passion to succeed as an individual in the ensemble.
Stees makes one thing clear: he is not there to wave a wand at musical monkeys. He is our musical facilitator. As musicians we are trained to read music and the variety of markings that go with it. This does not mean that we always read it perfectly or acknowledge notes or markings all the time. The majority of the time he will have to point things out, like any other conductor. Either way, it is clear that he makes music WITH us. It is not a “Stees vs. the band” mentality, but a “Stees is a member of the band”. Mr. Stees treats everyone in the band equally. He does not segregate us into two groups; people who go to school for music and the others. There is a certain expectation that he holds for everyone. This expectation is well known by every member and we all work hard to meet it. Due to Mr. Stees’s support and skill as an educator (as well as hard work from the members of the band) we usually meet this goal. We: the individuals who want music as their career and those who want it as an avocation.
Two of the three non-music majors spent their freshman years as music majors. Being a music major is no easy path. This is a big misconception among non-musicians. Music majors don’t just sit around playing their instruments or singing; there is so much more to it. The work is simply different than other classes on campus. A pre-medicine student might spend two hours working on a lab assignment, while a trumpet performance major would spend those two hours on their instrument. One is practicing an etude they were assigned for that week by their applied teacher while the other is running samples in a centrifuge. There is one major difference between the two people: the future doctor might also have a rehearsal later.
I personally remain in two ensembles on campus while working on classes for my degree in health sciences with a health studies concentration (music and pre-medicine minors). These two ensembles are the Marching Royal Dukes and the James Madison University Brass Band. I have been a solo cornet for a year and a half in the brass band, previously holding the positions of repiano, co-principal, and principal in the local, and only youth brass band in Virginia, the Massanutten Youth Brass Band during high school. I am not the only member of the band who stays busy with music on top of our major classes. Our resident business major is our principal tenor horn player of the JMU Brass Band, but plays solo cornet in the Massanutten Brass Band. One of the other tenor horn players, Stephen Poehailos, is a computer science major and is additionally in the JMU Wind Symphony. I asked Stephen comment on being in the JMU BB without pursuing a music degree: “Music making has been a hobby of mine since I started playing horn in 5th grade, and being in this ensemble has allowed me to push that hobby even further by trying something new that I never would have experienced in the places I had grown up. The fact that everyone is here because they want to be encourages me to put my best foot forward and strive to make great musical moments with wonderfully-talented people. Computer Science work can be stressful at times, so being in the brass band has given me the chance to take my mind off of that work, thinking instead about the music I’m making and the people I’m with. This allows me to come back to my work later with a sense of invigoration that I can’t get from other sources.”
Everyone wants to be in the band. Nobody is forced to participate. We make a choice. People carry the ideology that you have to be a professional musician to be successful or happy in music. Or maybe you even need a four year conservatory degree from a place like Curtis or Julliard. This is false. Over the course of my one full year of being a music student at James Madison University I learned many valuable musical skills. Skills that would definitely have helped me if I decided to be a music educator, wanted to get a high level degree in performance, or gain crucial knowledge for composition. However, the most important thing that I learned is that you don’t need a degree to tell you to practice. You don’t need a degree to play. You don’t need a degree to get good gigs or be in a world class ensemble. You just need to have the passion to succeed and the work ethic to make it happen.
Being a non-music major in brass band is difficult, but also a well thought out choice by the individual members- inherently driven by our passion for music. We are a close-knit group of people that want to be challenged musically, whether that is for our own personal pleasure, career, or both. People in the group will become music educators, doctors, performers, and accountants. That is the beautiful thing about music. We all may have our own musical lines in life, but at the end of the day, harmony will bring us together.
Drop your keys. Get to work.
Ana Jermstad is a sophomore health sciences major at James Madison University and a member of the JMU Brass Band.
JMU Brass Band