Erin Ellenburg: Western Brass, playing with Footscray Yarraville and Tackling Problems within Australian Banding
I had a chance to sit down with Erin Ellenburg, Musical Director of Western Brass, cornet player of Footscray Yarraville Band and Conductor of the Melbourne Youth Orchestra Junior Concert Band. We discussed the development of Western Brass, playing with Footscray and tackling issues in Australian banding!
Jared: What first got you into banding?
Erin: I’m originally from the United States, starting off as a classical trumpeter in concert bands, orchestras and chamber music. When I was about 30, I came across a local brass band, so I thought I’d give it a go. It was perhaps the world’s worst brass band. It was appallingly bad. We had dudes in the back taking out their hearing aids to play. But it was certainly a bit of fun. That was where I met my wife, who’s from Australia. When she had to move back, I came back with her. From there, our local band Footscray heard that my wife, her daughter and myself all played cornet, so they invited us along in 2014, and I’ve been there ever since.
You are currently playing back row cornet with Footscray! What do you love most about the back row cornet role, and do you think it is undervalued?
I really love playing harmonies and supportive parts. I find it interesting, but challenging, because it focuses on low tessitura playing, and really focuses on the technicality of playing a lot of third-valve heavy material. It’s nice to sit in the warm, enveloping sound of a strong cornet section.
Footscray have a really amazing cornet section, but in general, I do believe that the back row section is overlooked. Back row cornet roles generally still require strong players, because of the skill and technique needed to play the low tessitura passages successfully, but the spots are generally filled with the weakest players of the cornet section. At contests, I will see a lot of bands pushing back row parts up to its front row section, and the back row sitting out for the passage. It changes the texture of the music, and it isn’t respectful of the back row musicians, because it doesn’t give them a chance to prove themselves as capable performers of their parts, nor does it allow them to develop as individual performers.
It all comes down to bands driving to win at all costs. They don’t worry about whether the contest is a positive experience or whether its players feel rewarded for their efforts; it’s more about doing all it takes to win. It’s not a particularly healthy mindset.
What’s it being like being led by a strong female conductor like Phillipa Edwards?
I loooove playing under Phillipa. If I left Footscray, I’m not sure if I’d ever play with another band, because she and Footscray have set the standard so high for me both musically and culturally. Phillipa is a bit of a trailblazer, and has helped pave the way for women to take leadership roles in the band community. I think Phillipa does an amazing job. She has a really hard job; conducting a band at that level is difficult for anyone.
Brass banding is still a boys club, especially at that high level. There's still a bias, maybe an unconscious bias, against women in banding. I don’t think people are actively going out and being sexist. Phillipa is a generation above me, and so she has had to deal with this a level more than I have had to deal with, so I think she has a doubly hard job because of that. Despite this, she does an absolutely amazing job.
Footscray Yarraville is an A grade band; Hyde Street is its Junior Band who has been succeeding in the lower grades as well. Recently, Western Brass has been formed and slotted between the two bands. How did Western Brass come about?
Western Brass started as a collaboration between Hyde Street and Footscray as somewhere to go for kids who had grown out of Hyde Street, but not quite reached Footscray’s standard. These players were just getting lost to banding, so Western Brass was formed as a bridge. Also, it acted as a way for Footscray players to challenge themselves by doing different things. For instance, some of Footscray’s back row players play front row at Western Brass, or they play alternate instruments. One of Footscray’s horn players plays tuba with Western. It’s just another way for us to reach another area of the Western suburb community. That’s how it all started.
Bit of a silly question but Footscray and Hyde Street both have a blue, red and white colour palette in their uniforms, but Western Brass’ colour of choice is bright yellow! How did that come about?
eBay! We needed uniforms and we had some old Footscray uniforms, which were maroon, but there weren’t enough for a full band. But then someone on eBay found the Nowra Town Band were selling their entire set of uniforms for $600! They even came with shirts and pants, but I couldn’t manage to convince the remainder of the band to wear them (the pants have a gold stripe down the side, and the shirts are pale yellow)! So now we just go all blacks with the yellow blazers. As a new band, there is so much that needs to be purchased, so sometimes you have to go with the frugal option. But in the end, as a whole ensemble, it looks really good; or that’s what I tell myself!
You’re the musical director of Western Brass. What kind of standard players are you looking for? Are you looking at returning bands people who haven’t played for a couple of years, or upcoming players that might be too old for the junior band? What role would you like Western Brass to have?
If someone was willing to learn an instrument and hadn’t played an instrument before, I’d be happy to give them lessons so they could join the band. Really, Western Brass is open to anyone. We’re in C Grade, but we’re more on the lower end of C Grade, because we got moved up quickly from D Grade. Anyone who wants to come and have a play, and can commit to rehearsals, we’re happy to have you on board! We have an age range from 12-70, so everyone’s welcome.
My conception of Western Brass is a place for players to develop and improve, but more for their own sake, and the purpose of making music together as a group. It’s not so much a means of feeding Footscray with players, but that is a nice side effect. But overall, I want Western to be successful in its own right. Whether that be through contests or performances, I don’t really mind. Contests are nice because they give a band a set date and a target, and a means to measure a band’s progress from year to year.
With such a wide range of musical experiences, how do you push a band forward and ensure each player is being pushed in their own way?
Selecting good repertoire is a big part of it. Most of the music comes from Footscray or Hyde Street’s library, but there’s very little middle ground regarding difficulty. So generally what I do is feature soloists as much as possible, particularly for concerts. Generally, we’ll do five or six solos for a concert, so it allows the players that want the challenge an opportunity to push themselves, while the other players play much simpler parts.
Another way I push my players is encouraging everyone to play in the VBL small ensembles section of the State Solos or at Traralgon. By getting the players to play duets or trios, it lifts the players sense of responsibility for their own parts. Playing chamber music is one of the best things you can do as a musician.
So Western Brass is currently working towards the State Championships. With the Nationals being in Melbourne next year, will you be intending on competing?
Because Western Brass is made up of so many players who play with other bands, we don’t yet have enough players to be able to compete under the NBCA rules regarding permit players. The Victorian State rules are fantastic, and really allow all the bands to compete. But at a National level, the limit of two permit players would leave us without our flugel, soprano, tuba, solo horn etc. It would pretty much wipe the ensemble out entirely. At the moment, we’re hoping to recruit more players, especially because the Nationals are in Melbourne next year. However, it will take some serious, difficult recruiting.
Do you personally believe the Nationals’ rules need to change to be more accommodating, like they are in Victoria?
I see the importance of having rules, especially with regards to band stacking. It would be unfair for Western to perform with all our principal chairs filled with A-grade players. However, I would like the option of entering Nationals in a grade as a “non-competitor”, where you can receive feedback and the experience of playing at that level against the national standard. I think that would be nice for bands like Western, where you can’t put together a full band, but you have been judged to be a certain grading standard. I don’t think there’s one answer for the band stacking, permit player problem, but it would be nice to have some more flexibility.
With problems like band stacking, grading or test piece selection being raised frequently in the banding world, what steps should be taken to find solutions to certain bands’ frustrations?
Everyone has an opinion on a lot of these issues, but no one wants to get involved. No one wants to be a delegate, or attend the VBL meetings, or serve on the committee, but everyone wants to get on Facebook and have a sook. People who have concerns about banding in Victoria or Australia, and wish things were being done differently or are wondering why things aren’t being done differently, get involved! Join your band’s committee, join the VBL, go to the delegates meetings. Submit your feedback. Don’t be an armchair director! You don’t have to be an expert, anyone who cares can get involved!
Where would you like to see Western going in the next couple of years?
I would like to see most sections fleshed out, so we’re in a position so we could put together a concert with a month’s notice. I am happy with Western being in C Grade, and I don’t think we are ready to step up. I’d much prefer we develop as an ensemble, and become a competitive band in C Grade. Banding and music is a hobby for most members of the band, and it is called “playing” music for a reason; it should be fun. It’s for that reason I’d prefer Western Brass keeps on having fun, whilst still developing their skills in a lower grade. I want it to be enjoyable for everyone.
Where would you like to see banding going as a whole in Australia?
I think the community engagement is super important. It sometimes gets lost, especially at the higher levels of banding. Back in the day, every Sunday, you would have had a brass band playing in the bandstand at the local park. I think it is good for the health of the band to think it is the band of its own community. If the community considers them part of their cultural identity, then the council is more likely to fund the bands, plus concerts will attract greater crowds. I think all it takes is getting out on the bandstand, playing some marches and solos or even just an open rehearsal. Western Brass does that sometimes, and I’ll get kids to come up and “conduct” pieces that don’t really need a conductor. The families get a video and it shows that we are an interactive, community ensemble.
Otherwise, I would like to see more programming and commissioning of female composers. Historically, brass banding was more of a male area, but now females make up nearly 50% of banding. It would be nice to see the repertoire that we play reflect this change. For kids especially, the music people play needs to reflect them. If young girls at Hyde Street, for example, don’t see female conductors, soloists or composers, they won’t know that they can become those things. It limits the potential growth of banding. Women are writing music, but we just don’t know about it because, either it is not being published or no one’s playing it because they don’t know of the piece. If band leagues seek out compositions from all minorities, as in not dead white guys, it will make our repertoire richer, because the music is evoking the world through different lenses.
Thank you for your insight today and all the best with the development of Western Brass in the years to come!
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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.