Broden Ford is a familiar face around Victorian and Australian banding, and has played percussion with ample brass bands at contests. I had a chance to sit down with him and discuss the role of percussion in community banding, his Box Hill Academy of Percussion and conducting Whitehorse Brass.
Jared: Let’s start from the beginning. Where did your banding journey begin?
Broden: The whole family has been banding for a very long time. My dad is a well accomplished conductor; my mum was a really great cornet player in her day. We grew up in Bendigo, and the family played with the local brass band. Dad was the conductor and mum was the principal cornet player. Rocking up to rehearsals, I would watch the percussionists and I knew that was what I wanted to do. I’ve never played a brass instrument; I just went straight to percussion.
When and where did your percussion journey begin?
There of photos of me in nappies bashing sticks on the ground, and there’s some cracking photos of me with a mullet playing chopsticks on the table. I was four when I had my first lesson, which was with Kevin Symonds, the ABC Showband drummer back in his day. At the end of the lesson, he went to his garage and pulled out some drums, cymbals and stands and just gave it all to me. That was my first drum kit! It was a great way to get started.
So when did you begin banding competitively?
When I was about 15, dad was conducting at Kew Band and he invited me along to play. I couldn’t really read music but he was pretty keen to get me involved. It was probably the best thing I could have done, as it gave me an opportunity to be mentored by some of these great percussionists. In 2005, when I started, Kew was in A Grade and I remember 4BR predicting Kew as second favourite to win. It sure was something for me to come in to, considering I couldn’t read a note. We didn’t do as well as we hoped though. I did stay at Kew for the next 10 years.
Step forward to 2017, and you played with four different bands at the Nationals. How do you go from not being able to read a note in a leading A Grade band, to playing with four bands from around Australia?
There were a number of roadblocks, like my lack of ability to read music, when I was playing with Kew. So to progress, I just tried to do as much playing as I could, with bands like Boroondara and Geelong West, to play under different conductors playing different styles of music. At the time, I thought I was merely building up my skills of reading and playing, but I was inadvertently networking. I started saying yes to most things, which makes it difficult to say no sometimes. I do understand, however, that there is a shortage of percussionists and all bands need a helping hand every now and then. I’m usually pretty willing to accommodate!
Recently, you have set up the Box Hill Academy of Percussion. What was the idea behind starting up this development group?
There are a lot of great developing percussionists out there who are currently at school, but for whatever reason, don’t make it into community banding. I’ve been a bit dumbfounded as to why this crowd wouldn’t be interested in playing percussion in community ensembles. As a percussionist in community banding, there’s always something to do. For concert bands or brass bands, ensembles are missing the colours of strings (or woodwind instruments in brass bands), so composers turn to percussion for that variation in tone colour. There’s usually a timpani part, plus tuned and auxiliary percussion.
To solve this problem, I thought that, if we can’t attract players, community banding should make their own. By recruiting children and adults who are interested in percussion, we can build up a new generation of percussionists. I built this junior program which I started out in Traralgon last year, and it had immediate success. We started March last year, and by August, we had one of the first participants playing at the State Championships with the senior band. That is a pretty big step for someone who only started learning percussion 6 months earlier.
I wanted to replicate that with my home band, Box Hill. The Box Hill Academy of Percussion is in its very early stages, and we are still trying to recruit some more members. We’re hoping to grow to about two groups of 10 that we can develop. I’ve also been hoping to develop this idea at different bands. I’ve spoken with Dandenong and Footscray, and I’d also like to get something going at Darebin. This is a key focus of mine recently, but I’d really love to see it grow.
As we are just getting started, we are using the Tradition of Excellence books, which are extremely comprehensive and useful. Because these books are also being employed by the Box Hill Academy of Brass, we can join the groups together if we want to form a junior band. I also do a lot of musical games with the group, and work on technique and music theory. I do also write some percussion ensemble arrangements, considering the ability of the players and the instruments we have available.
So what type of players are you looking to recruit?
The obvious candidates are young beginners, but we’d also be happy to take on adults who might have played percussion at school but haven’t played for a number of years and is looking to get back into music. The Academy is a great place to start or find your feet again. The nature is that students will progress at different rates, and will each come to the program with a different understanding of what percussion is or a different standard of musicianship. Anyone can come along, and when they’re ready to progress to the next step, I can recommend that they move to competitive banding, whether that be through Box Hill, Whitehorse or another band closer to them.
What impact are you hoping Percussion Academy programs like this might have on banding?
It goes back to my original point that percussionists sometimes end up playing with lots of different ensembles. There is a shortage of percussionists in banding. You get the likes of Stephanie Gilfedder, Steve Semmler-Farr, Adam Grigoropoulos and myself who end up playing with four or five bands at each competition. I’m not saying it isn’t plenty of fun, but it is tiring, because you have to attend a lot of rehearsals and put the time in on all your parts. We get to the end of a Nationals campaign, and we need a holiday to recoup. Sometimes we lose sight that banding is a hobby. I’m hoping that Academy programs will help percussionists who are currently playing with multiple bands at competitions, by providing well developed percussionists across Victoria. It’s really important for bands to have their own percussionists. It’s healthy for the band itself, and it should be encouraged across all banding.
I think bands should be doing whatever they can to recruit their own players who are there weekly. I also think bands should be responsible for ensuring that their banding environment is a place that is understanding of percussion and engaging for percussionists. This is something bands sometimes don’t do particularly well. Whether the solution is to cap the number of guest percussionists at competitions, it’s difficult to say. In the short term, it may have some detrimental effects, but in the long term, it would be really beneficial. Bands would be searching for their own players, which can only be encouraged. However, if bands could come to that understanding on their own, then that would be responsible management of their own bands. However, there will always be the odd band here or there who needs a hand, so I probably wouldn’t lean towards a rule change, but it would be helpful to me to not have to say no to as many bands.
Apart from setting up development ensembles like the Percussion Academies, how else can bands recruit and retain percussionists?
One really valuable resource is instrumental teachers from schools within the band’s community. This goes for brass and woodwind players as well. There are a lot of great teachers out there, who want their students to keep up the music after they graduate from school. It may be unrealistic for high school students to join a community band when they are overloaded with extracurricular activities within their own schooling, plus their academic studies. However, when they graduate, if bands were building a bridge to speak to these teachers to encourage students at an appropriate level to come and play with their band, bands can be reaching a demographic that might be missing out on community banding. It’s a shame that these kids are missing out, because community banding is a great way for the student to keep up their musicianship, while the band generate their own young percussionists.
You are also the current conductor of Whitehorse Brass, who recently won the D Grade at the Bendigo Eisteddfod. How has the band reacted to the victory?
The philosophy behind Whitehorse is a bit different to most competing bands. Whitehorse hasn’t really been constructed to be a competing band. Even with the Nationals in Melbourne next year, it is unlikely that Whitehorse will attend. It has been set up as a transitional point between the Academy group and Box Hill City Band, our competing band. Whitehorse is intended as a fun, social environment that allows people to come and enjoy their music, while also allowing younger players the opportunity to develop their skills before transitioning into Box Hill.
To answer your question, we weren’t necessarily going for the win. We merely rehearsed our best and tried our best. I’m a fairly competitive person and will always put my best foot forward to make sure everyone was prepared as best they could be, but I don’t think any of the players were necessarily expecting to go to win. We had a lot of ten and eleven year olds who had come through our Academy program who played with us, and going to Bendigo was more for them to ensure their development. We have some members who aren’t interested in competing, and prefer not to put that added pressure on themselves. Whitehorse strives to strike a balance, and give everyone an enjoyable environment to play in.
Most bands primarily focus on the National and State Championships, but it is worthwhile having competitions, like the Bendigo Eisteddfod, where bands have flexibility as to their repertoire?
I think it is nice and important for banding. Whitehorse really exploited that contrast of repertoire by playing three varied pieces. We’re most interested in playing in our community and playing concert repertoire, which is what we got to do while playing at Bendigo. Traralgon is similar, as it is a concert style program, which allows bands to play repertoire that its players are interested in and suits the standard of the band. Furthermore, contests that are entertainment orientated suits the direction of bands like Whitehorse Brass.
Where you like to see banding going in Australia?
We might need to have a whole other conversation to get through everything! In terms of percussion, I would love to see a growth in participation. I’d love to see all bands with at least two or maybe three of their own percussionists that engage and turn up week to week, that would be awesome. That means that, at contests, when they need four players, they only need to find one player rather than all four. That would be a tremendous outcome, and if we achieve that in the next five to ten years, that would be awesome. That’s definitely where I’d like to see banding go in the next couple of years. There are some really great things happening in Australian banding at the moment, but for sustainability, we need to focus on growing numbers.
Thank you for your time today and I look forward to seeing your Percussion Academy program grow!
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Jared loves to share his passion for music and artists through music reviews and commentaries. These include a selection of reviews written for community radio stations 3MBS and Radio Monash.