Daniel Van Bergen Interview: Conducting Boroondara Brass, Changing the Australian Grading System and Introducing More Banding Competitions
I had a chance to sit down with Daniel Van Bergen, conductor of current B Grade National Champions Boroondara Brass, and member of both the VBL Executive Committee and Music Advisory Board. We discussed his successes with Boroondara, changing the Australian grading system and introducing more banding competitions.
Jared - Where did you start your musical journey?
Daniel - I started keyboard lessons in my home town of Echuca when I was about 6 years old. I then joined the local D grade brass band when I was about 8, and I actually started on Soprano cornet. I slowly moved my way down the band, and did most of my early playing on Tenor Horn, and when I moved to Melbourne, I went to Euphonium.
How did your schooling lead you into banding?
Being from a country background, we didn’t have a fantastic music program at school. I started conducting the school’s Intermediate program when I was in year 9 and took our Senior band when I was in year 11. I did have some great teachers, but they weren’t brass specialists.
After school, I came to Melbourne to study zoology and veterinary science. At the same time I was doing a lot of playing in music theatre and brass bands. I then had to decide whether I wanted to follow a career in veterinary studies or in music, and I decided to follow music. I went to the Victorian College of the Arts and studied both Euphonium and Conducting. I did some more conducting at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, and teaching at Deakin University, so now I am a full time music teacher.
You’ve now conducted Boroondara Band for about 10 years. How did you build it up to the band it now is? How does Boroondara keep its members up and enthusiastic to play?
Boroondara had been quite successful in B grade with both Wally Pope and Tom Paulin as conductors. When they left though, we did have a slump of performers, so when I took over, there was only about 12 people, mainly at a young age. We spent the next five years rebuilding the band.
It’s difficult attracting or keeping people attached to banding because it is a weekly dedication of their free time, and in metropolitan areas in particular, there are so many alternative activities for the public to dedicate their time to. Bands have to offer them something that they cannot get somewhere else. I believe bands should look at themselves and ask what’s unique about their band, what is the band offering and what should the band’s focus be. From there, we should look for people who meet those goals. It does take time and there are no magic solutions.
The mistake a lot of bands make is trying to hang on to everybody. Not everybody liked what we were doing at Boroondara so they moved on; that’s natural and that’s fine. Bands should be searching for people who have a like mindset. We look for players that weren’t in brass bands and were playing in music theatre, commercial playing or big bands, that may have been struggling with making big time commitments to a group. We offered support for musicians when they have shows or gigs. We taught trumpet players the mindset and technique behind playing a cornet in an ensemble. It filled a gap in the area so it attracted new players to brass bands.
That being said, we are super proud of the band we have today. We have a wide spectrum of ages across our various bands. We have more females than males in Boroondara, which is something we are pretty proud of, considering brass bands are traditionally a boys club. Our C Grade band, Harmony Brass, has been a huge success, and we have had two lot of junior groups “graduate” into Harmony Brass. We are currently looking into setting up a third group. What we generally do is we get a whole batch of beginners, or local kids in late-primary/early-secondary school and give them extra training, and once the group as a collective are up to the C Grade standard, we move them up to Harmony together. It poses longevity problems to the junior program, but the aim is to get them up to the higher bands. We have had members from that junior group go all the way up to competing in A Grade, so it’s a program that has definitely worked.
Boroondara has fluctuated between A and B Grade in recent years. Is Boroondara striding towards a stable fit into A grade?
The band has not really fit inside either grade and there has been quite a bit of discussion both in the band room and beyond about this. There is perhaps an issue with our current grading system. I would say that this is a major issue at the moment, as there is huge disparity within the top and bottom of each grade, as well as disparity of the top of one grade and the bottom of the grade above. I personally believe it wouldn’t hurt to add a grade.
The main thing with Boroondara is we want to continue what we’re doing, and that involves improving, regardless of whether we’re in A or B grade. We need to be improving not only musically, but also financially and socially. We want to keep on playing new repertoire with an exciting cinematic quality. We have a young band, with our oldest member being 40. We have some older members in our lower grade band, but the A grade is really young and we like adding some excitement to our music with choreography, new items, solos. We were once disqualified at the Bendigo Eisteddford for having a tenor saxophone solo; we like to do different things! So long as we’re improving and staying true to ourselves, it doesn’t matter what grade we’re in.
We’re under no illusions that we’d go into A grade and win. To win at A Grade at the moment, you need to be rehearsing a lot, you need top shelf English-style players across all your chairs, and you need to be able to source them across the country or the globe. That’s not something Boroondara is interested in. That’s not a criticism on the bands that do that, it’s just not what our band is about. We struggle with two rehearsals a week, because we have so many players who are committed to shows, gigs and their own lives beyond banding.
We moved up to A grade a couple of years ago and we weren’t super successful competitively, but we did other things. We won the ABC Entertainment concert, we put on successful Cabarets, and we do well with entertainment items. When it came to the really hard technical test pieces, it was not a strength that we had. It’s about finding a balance. The biggest problem we had and still do have is about finding a spot in competitions where the other bands feel that we are in the right spot. In both the A and B Grades, many bands did not feel we should be there, so it is a bit isolating for our group. That’s the biggest issue the band is having with this grading concern.
You say that you think the grading system should be changed slightly. Can you elaborate on the system you would like to see implemented?
Personally (separate from my role on the VBL and Music Advisory Board), I believe there is currently five standards in Australian banding, and thus, there should be five grades. That poses problems for smaller states where there are not enough bands in the state to promote a competitive state competition in each grade. However, I believe this would mainly be at the top end, around A and B Grade. At the Nationals this year, there were 14 bands competing in B Grade and a distance of nearly 100 points between first place and last. With that many bands and that big a marking difference, I think that adding an additional grade at the top of banding would produce fairer competitions.
I’d like to see committees adding a “Championship” grade band for the bands that are really at the top of the game and can put in all the rehearsals. Some of the test works at the moment, there are parts that very few Australian players can come close to achieving, let alone a whole Grade’s worth of players. Those bands who can put in the amount of time to play these parts should be able to be pushed by these great test pieces. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that there are some fantastic bands in A and B Grade, like Geelong West Brass, who do fantastic work for their community and fluctuate between A and B grade competitively, that have outright said they are not interested in competing in the same grade as these elite bands who can invest so much time into top parts. It’s too much pressure and commitment for many groups. I think there are bands like that across the country. I think a rejig would ensure that each band can competitively fit into a grade without facing the pressure and commitment issues that some of the top Australian bands do face.
How do you balance being a conductor of Boroondara with your commitments with the VBL and Music Advisory Board?
This is one of the biggest problems we face in banding; everybody involved has personal interests. It can be really difficult, especially when we have big issues like the regradings the VBL did two years ago, to keep my band’s interests out of the discussion. The mentality I try to use is that, if we do the right thing for everybody for the long term, it will be the right thing for my band as well. Am I always successful? Probably not, but that’s what I strive towards. Since we were upgraded to A Grade, I have been a little less active on the VBL Committee as to points of concern for Boroondara. The VBL will ask me for my opinion, and I’ll give it and then try to back away from the conversation and not be involved in the final decision.
That being said, bands get caught up in what the VBL does and what the competitions do. We have to remember that it is actually what goes on in our bandrooms and what happens with our people that dictate how successful our bands are.
Do you believe there should be a wider selection of competitions in Victoria, or should bands be looking beyond the common routine of only attending the Nationals and States?
I think there should be more competitions. I would love to see a competition in Melbourne. There is no metropolitan Melbourne brass band competition, and almost all competitions require a fair bit of travel. I love Bendigo, Ballarat, Traralgon, but there’s always travel. Some bands travel to Mt Gambier, or look to other State competitions to keep their competitive playing up. Boroondara is always looking for more events to do. We’ve been to Tasmania and New Zealand a couple of times.
However, it is hard, because, at the moment, the mindset for competitions is that you have to be over prepared. It makes it hard because bands don’t have the ability to do six competitions a year. I would personally like to see more competitions to compete in, so that if you have only four weeks to prepare, you use those four weeks as best you can. It makes for good experience and learning. The worst thing a band can do is sit in a room and only play to themselves.
I think a little more flexibility in choosing repertoire at competitions would be good. Of course, we need to maintain the standard of test pieces, so that they are stretching bands technically, because that is very important for the growth of Australian banding. However, to see some more entertainment, that would be great. We need to change the mindset that bands will be able to perform at their absolute best at every competition. There is so much pressure with regradings and funding to maintain a certain grade. It is all about balancing all these factors out and maintaining the positive mindset of the band itself.
At the 2017 Nationals, Boroondara selected Hannibal by Mario Bürki as their Own Choice. How did Boroondara choose this work?
I do a lot of research, looking for something that is going to stimulate the band. Every now and then, we revisit the classics, because they are fantastic pieces of music, but we really like doing something that the band hasn’t played before. I found “Hannibal”, sat on it for six weeks and thought it was too long, at 20 minutes in length. It was going to be difficult to maintain the stamina to play through a piece of that length. In the end, we chose a very short march (about 90 seconds) and we probably lost a few points for choosing that march, but I think we had to make that choice to ensure we could get through the Own Choice. There definitely has to be a trade off at contests like the Nationals.
After deciding I wanted to try it, I wanted the band to do a play through and get their response to the music before I tell them anything or show them a recording. I like to get their reaction to new pieces and after the first rehearsal, I knew this was the piece for the band. When we try something, I like to look at both the band’s playing reaction and their physical & emotional reaction as they play through a work. I can feel from the front how they’re responding. When we tried Hannibal, we tried two other pieces as well, and sometimes I will put in a piece I sneakily know they won’t like, just to best gauge the band’s response. A lot of it is about what I like to, and I do make the final decision, but I do strongly value their opinion.
Boroondara will still be in B Grade at this year’s Victorian States, but are looking likely to move up to A Grade at the end of the year. What is Boroondara’s game plan going into the next 12 months?
We are looking into quite a few things at the moment. We often collaborate with an improvised comedian named Andrew Strano. We have a Cabaret night with him in November this year. That is looking to be really exciting!
We will also be competing at the National Championships in Melbourne next year, obviously! We are also looking to travel to Hong Kong at the end of next year for a brief tour. Due to the versatility of our band, we are hoping to cater to the crowds over there with some Western-style music. It’s still early in the planning but hopefully we’ll get there!
Furthermore, we’re looking into doing a CD of Australian compositions, which was a project we started a couple of years ago, which we unfortunately put on hold because of funding changes. We’ll be getting a wide spread of composers to write for the band to feature on a single album, which should be really exciting.
Thank you for your time today, and all the best with the Victorian State Championships!
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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.