Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Always a bride, never a bridesmaid

[from left to right: Dave, Karen, and Andy - Fountain City's regular trombone section. Not pictured: Will, our reinforcement]

As some of you may know, I'm a performing member of the Fountain City Brass Band (FCBB), based in Kansas City. The ensemble was formed as a so-called "British" brass band, meaning that it follows the division of players most commonly used in the local band culture of the United Kingdom. Today, the bands typically perform in one of two styles: the entertainment concert and the competition concert.

Works classified under "entertainment" label are usually fun and appealing to a wide portion of the audience. Film medleys, folk tunes, brief mood sketches, and featured solos all contribute to a typical brass band concert. The brass band has a fair amount of original literature composed specifically for that instrumentation, but it shows no hesitation in also borrowing works from other styles, such as opera airas and orchestral symphonies.

The contest literature is a completely different animal. Always arranged specifically for brass band, the pieces are often called "test pieces", because they are designed to test each player individually and the group as a whole. The actual difficulty of the pieces varies widely, but all are designed to be challenging to an appropriately skilled group (sometimes at the expense of "listenability", it must be said).

Last weekend, the FCBB boarded a bus for Louisville, KY, the location of the 2009 North American Brass Band Association competition (known informally as NABBA). While there, we competed in the highest tier of competition (the Championship Section) and won. Much celebration ensued. This victory marks the third annual victory at NABBA for the FCBB. Combined with two victories in the annual fall contest called the U.S. Open, it gives the band five championship wins in our last five contest appearances.

Of these victories, I've participated in the three most recent, having been performing with the band for just over a year. I was fortunate enough to be called into service at the last minute when for last year's NABBA contest after the previous bass trombonist got blizzarded into his airport and couldn't escape.

The upshot of this is that every time I've gone to competition, we've won! Should I be fortunate enough to stay with the band into the fall, that WILL change. The band is bound for competitions in the UK and the much stiffer native competition there. At Brass in Concert, we'll be there to share the stage with Black Dyke Band and Cory Band, reckoned to be two of the finest bands in the world. Black Dyke has been in existence in one way or another since 1815, Cory since 1884, and the FCBB has existed for seven years. Everything is younger over here, you see.

This contest at NABBA was something. I personally got to be treated as the most minor of minor celebrities. After the first competition piece on Friday night, many people from the audience and bands mingled in the lobby. I received much praise, for not only our band, but also the four members of the trombone section, and even for my own performance. It was very flattering.

The second night, much the same happened, only more so! Other FCBB people were laughing and telling the story of how it took me forever to cross the lobby, due to all the people stopping me to praise our sound and my sound. I signed no autographs (as one friend joked) but I did receive praise from other distinguished members of the American band society; people whose reputation and names I know well.

It's amazing to be arguably at the top of the heap of an American section of musical style. Unlike Madonna or Bruce Springsteen, however, we don't get a whole lot of financial rewards from our success. In fact, it mostly just costs us money. I'd venture to say the vast majority of pop artists aren't listed as 501-3C charitable organizations. It costs the band thousands of dollars just to make appearances at these continental contests, to say nothing of what it will cost to transport 40 people plus instruments to the UK and back.

I still say we should get a sponsorship from H&R Bloch or Sprint or other big Kansas City business. Unfortunately, in the current lean economic times, nobody is that interested in floating lots of money. There are wonderful dreams of fantastic operating budgets and corporate sponsorships, but that's still mostly wishful thinking. There's no lack of trying to kick start an appreciation here, though.

It's a good group of lads and lasses, though. We have the tall and the short, the thick and the thin, the mirthful and the melancholy. And together, we make a beautiful music.

Though, there is this annoying bass trombone sound every now and then...


  1. Congratulations! Now I can say "I knew you back when..." :-)

    Any recordings floating around out there?

  2. The group did record a CD in 2007, which is still waiting to go to press. However, I'm not playing on it, so it's of no value to any friend of mine. :)

    There may be other ... less straightforward ... means of hearing the latest recordings. We shall see.