This summer, the James Madison University Brass Band traveled to the city of Kerkrade in the Netherlands to compete in the 19th World Music Contest. The group was invited to represent the United States of America in the Championship Division of the international contest, competing with five of the most elite bands in the world. These bands include: Brass Band Willebroek from Belgium, Brass Band Schoonhoven from the Netherlands, Valaisia Brass Band from Switzerland, Black Dyke Band from England, and Hauts-de-France Brass Band from France.
The JMU Brass band is a collegiate group consisting solely of student members. Being a collegiate group poses challenges that other competitors do not face as professional ensembles. Notably, our ever evolving performer roster and the turnover that the semester audition based ensemble experiences proves challenging for long term retention and growth. Each year, our veteran members graduate and new members take their place, bringing with them a clean slate and working diligently to maintain the excellence of their predecessors. Upon accepting the invitation to attend the contest, the band, under the direction of Kevin Stees, assembled nearly every weekend for rehearsals for six weeks before coming together for a daily rehearsal camp in the week prior to traveling. We spent much time rehearsing, recording, and carefully reviewing each performance so that we could bring with us the best possible product as representatives of JMU and of the United States.
On July 4th, 2022, we flew from Washington, D.C. to Amsterdam, NL on our first leg of the once in a lifetime trip. From Amsterdam we flew to Dusseldorf, DE from which we would travel by charter bus to Kerkrade, NL; However, we encountered an obstacle upon landing in Düsseldorf: three tubas had been lost in transit! With very little information regarding the whereabouts of these instruments, we were forced to leave for Kerkrade and continue with the itinerary as planned. The mystery of the missing tubas proved to be both a low and a high of the trip. We spent each morning rehearsing for the contest at a local community center before spending afternoons sightseeing in the cities of Maastricht, NL, Kerkrade, NL, and Aachen, DE. Each of these rehearsals saw three of our five tuba players buzzing into mouthpieces and singing their parts until the day prior to the performance of the test piece when the tubas were rescued from the basement of the Düsseldorf Airport. The horns were packed into a small taxi and driven the last leg of their journey, making for a highly anticipated reunion, a more well-balanced ensemble, and three very happy students!
Highlights of our exploration in the city of Maastricht include shopping, traditional street food, warm baked goods, and a sunny river boat ride to the Belgian border. In Aachen, we followed a guided tour through the city where we had the option of drinking from the Elysen Fountain (Elisenbrunnen), a sulfurous fountain with rumored healing properties. A favorite moment of many of the students was the guided tour of Aachen Cathedral within which the body of Charlemagne lies, alongside many relics rich with religious and historic significance. These experiences combined with fantastic performances in Kerkrade as part of the festivities of the WMC made for an amazing trip full of new sights, sounds, tastes, and smells.
On the evening before our first performance, we joined a very passionate and celebratory crowd to watch the opening festivities of the WMC in the Kerkrade town square. Favorite moments in Kerkrade included street performances by local and area groups and a parade of marching bands, some of which saw performers riding bicycles with instruments as large as tubas and bass drums! The main stage, called the Blow! Stage, at the heart of the city, hosted performances by the World Youth Brass Band and other fantastic groups, setting the tone for our own performances in the contest that spanned the following two days. The students were able to attend the performances of several of the other Championship Division bands including Black Dyke Band and Valaisia Brass Band, further inspiring us and energizing us to have a performance representative of our championship status.
Our rendition of the test piece, Contest Music by Wilfred Heaton, and of our own choice program left an impression among the audience and the judges, as well as several publications that professionally review and rank performances within the band realm. The publication 4barsrest wrote that JMU, “showcased their emerging top flight credentials under Kevin Stees, as they under-lined their considered set with a reprise of Paul Lovatt-Cooper’s ‘And From the Darkness…’ which was recently used at the North American Brass Band Championships.”
Overall, the trip was a great success for all involved and proved to be a truly incredible and unforgettable experience. Nothing makes a band closer than traveling internationally, battling jet lag, searching for missing tubas, and performing on stage with some of the greatest bands in the world.
JMU Brass Band