Fletcher Mitchell Interview: Navy Band, Contest Solo Test Pieces and International Euphonium Performances
On November 14th 2016, I was fortunate enough to interview Fletcher Mitchell, world renowned Euphonium soloist and member of the Royal Australian Navy Band. We discussed being in the Navy Band, his international performances, solo repertoire at Contests and finding the right instrument for each individual.
Jared: What first got you into brass banding?
Fletcher: My family all played different instruments, not necessarily brass. But I was lucky in that my local primary school band had a brass band, not a wind band. We had a teacher who played in a brass band in the community, and he had started a brass band at school. When I first went to play, they said I wasn’t old enough as they held the limited instruments for the older kids. Luckily, I had a baritone at home, and the school was happy for me to play on that. I was lucky that I had use of an instrument at home, and it happened to be a brass band at school. It all went from there!
You started off on baritone, but you’ve ended up on Euphonium. How did you know it was time to change?
It was a natural progression for myself. Just like going from third cornet, to second, to solo cornet as your ability increases, there’s a natural progression from second baritone to first baritone and then euphonium. Baritone has easier parts in school ensembles, but as my abilities got better after playing for a year, I naturally progressed up the line to first baritone and then Euphonium.
How would someone starting out in a brass band know if they’ve found the right instrument for them, or when it is time to try something new?
It’s difficult to say. There is a natural feeling. But as a teacher, I could sense that a student wasn’t quite doing well. It’s usually a progression thing. You’d notice they’re struggling with register, like a cornet player struggling with higher notes or trombones struggling with lower register. Even at a beginner level, it’s about the quality of sound that you can hear. You can hear in a beginner whether the instrument suits them or not.
Why did you choose to stick with the Euphonium, considering it is fairly niche to brass and wind ensembles, in comparison to Trumpets or Trombones?
I always really enjoyed the sound of the Euphonium. The word Euphonium comes from the Greek word euphonos meaning “well sounding” and naturally has a warm tone. And while trumpets and trombones can play in various ensembles, the Euphonium can play many styles.
In brass bands, I enjoy having those huge, soaring, horn-like orchestral lines over the ensemble, but then also have the technical ability to play unison lines with the solo cornets. It can add weight to the trombones sound or even double tuba lines. For myself, it is almost a pivotal spot within the band, and I have always enjoyed the varied role it has in the brass band.
Within a wind band, it is almost the same. It can double and add weight to the horns, add colour to the saxophones, and it is also frequently used with the double reeds, which produces a great sound. Again, it can add weight to the fourth trombone or tubas. I just love the varied roles it can have, and I find that really enjoyable.
You’ve been playing in brass bands since you were young. What is it that you love so much about brass bands or brass ensembles?
I love the technical requirement of the Euphonium in a brass band over that in a wind band, and it plays a much more soloistic role. But I can’t look past the homogenous sound of all the brass instruments in a brass band playing together, that makes such a powerful and rich sound. A lot of my work now is with wind bands and Navy bands, but my most enjoyable moments are when the brass has a brass choir moment. Even though we’re playing in a wind band, it is that style of brass playing that I love. I played Pines of Rome with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra last weekend, and when the brass was playing that large homogenous sound, the tingles still kick in.
So if someone’s a band member and wants to take that next step playing solo, even at an international level like yourself, what steps should they be taking to become a soloist?
It’s about looking for opportunities. Like almost everything in music, it’s about being in the right time at the right place, and having the right opportunities to do that. You need to go out and seek opportunities. I would suggest approaching your band director with a suggested solo, and they’ll give opportunities to do that. It could also be a matter of making small chamber groups, like a tuba quartet, and taking the lead within that. Once again, it is about finding opportunities to do that kind of thing.
You joined the Royal Australian Navy Band in 2007. What was that experience like, to step up from community and education ensembles to a professional, full time ensemble?
It’s been just on ten years now. It’s been different to what I thought. There’s a very quick turn around in music. I went from brass bands where we work on national works for three months, and a lot of time is poured into those works. In the Navy band, there’s a lot of performances. For instance, in the Melbourne band, we’d do around 150 performances a year across our various ensembles, including the wind bands, big bands, rock groups and chamber ensembles. We’re constantly being pulled in so many different directions. Even in one day at work, we’ll have a concert band rehearsal for a gig we have on the Saturday, but then in the afternoon in big band, we’re rehearsing for a gig we have on the Sunday. That was the biggest learning curve. We have to put 60 to 90-minute concert repertoire together in only two or three rehearsals. It was challenging to come from community bands where we have a lot more time to work on material. But then again, community ensembles are made of amateur performers, who have day jobs and don’t have the opportunity to practice or play all day, every day. In the Navy, you’re always in form because you’re always playing.
So would you suggest bands-people looking for a career in music to join defence bands?
The special thing about defence ensembles is that you’re working with the same people all the time. At Nationals contests, I’ve always enjoyed that you’re with the same group of people for four days; eating, sleeping, playing cards, doing everything together. There’s a great deal of comradery. That’s the good thing about the Navy band. It’s like that most of the time. You develop lots of great friendships. It’s very much like being in a family. That is a huge plus with the defence band.
Obviously, it’s a full time wage, which is not very common for a lot of musicians. They’re very good with flexibility to do outside work. They’re quite supportive of doing outside work. It reflects well on the defence bands to have their people out there doing solo work with other groups.
In 2013 and 2014, you attended the International Euphonium and Tuba Festival and Conference respectively. What’s it like to be in a room with all the leading musicians in your niche field? Is it daunting? Exciting?
It is very much both of those. To have all likeminded people at the top of their field, to talk about their instruments, new music they’re playing, upcoming performances etc., it’s truly fantastic. To then have them come to your performances and give you feedback, especially from 2014 onwards when I started playing Australian music, was really really good.
It’s also daunting to be playing in front of the top people in the world. It’s always going to be daunting. But it’s very much about sharing the music. Now that I perform a lot of Australian music overseas, I’m going to share the music to the world. That’s the way I approach it. I’m not trying to impress anyone with this or that: I’m trying to impress them with the compositions of Australian, through my playing.
You’ve now played and premiered plenty of Australian works on an international scale. What pushes you to support Australian music on the global scale?
On the first trip when I went to the US in 2013, when I spent the week there and I had a chance to speak to a lot of college students who attend these sort of festivals, a lot of them couldn’t name an Australian composer of any music. Some might name Percy Grainger and that’s it. It was after I came back that I decided I wanted to increase and broaden the knowledge of the fantastic composers we have in Australia. Even within Australia, there has been a big push in the last five years within banding to play Australian music, so I’m trying to be a part of that, within solo music. So when I returned in 2014 for ITEC, I did all new music. I had music specifically written for me to play at that conference.
It is a bit of a niche market, with only a few Australians travelling and performing. I think it’s important to do that, as we’re very isolated here. We’re a fair distance from other countries to come and perform, in comparison to United States where they can travel across states, or in Europe, where it is cheap and easy to perform in other countries or Asia. To come to Australia to perform is difficult, and the same goes for spreading our music out. I think it’s really important to get our music out there.
When the Test Pieces were announced for the 2017 Nationals in Launceston, there was a bit of backlash regarding some of the solo items. In particular, there were concerns that there was a great deal of repetition in the selected works over the years. Would you like to see more music written for brass band specific instruments, like Baritone, Tenor Horn and Flugelhorn?
In a banding sense, certain instruments are more prone to being soloistic instruments, like the Cornet and Euphonium. Composers naturally write towards instruments that suit that role. Instruments like tenor horn, baritone, even through to trombone and tuba, there is going to be less repertoire to choose from. But, if you look at those instruments, like the tuba, with piano, they are a lot more soloistic. It’s a lot easier for a tuba to cut through piano accompaniment than brass band, in that style of work. It’s something that I think could be looked into. If contests are having trouble finding flugelhorn or tenor horn works, they should look into commissioning something. It is contentious using trumpet or cornet solos for flugelhorn, or soprano cornet solos for tenor horn. Everyone’s going to have different opinions on that. Perhaps new composers looking for opportunities could look into filling that void, and take the initiative to write solos for tenor horn or tuba, and then submit it to contests. It’s something that can be done from both ends. Contests could be commissioning, and composers should be attempting to fill the void.
Where do you see the Australian banding scene going in the next couple of years? Would you like to see it going in a certain direction?
I look at the banding scene with an educational point of view. If the bands are good and strong and have good programs, such as a beta program, so long as that circle continues, I think Australia is fairly strong. We can probably take our eyes off the prize a bit. We tend to concentrate on the top level, but we really need to support the D and C grade bands, the school programs and even the beginner bands that don’t yet compete. That’s obviously the future of where we’re going. If we are short minded and only look at the top level of banding and almost ignore what’s below that, we could be in a lot of danger. Things like the VBL’s recent Bandstand Sunday was fantastic, giving all bands across all stages a place to perform, without focussing on grades. We saw a few bands there that aren’t competing or are at a beginner level, and that’s a really important level to be supporting.
And finally, what should we be expecting from Fletcher Mitchell in 2017 and beyond?
Basically, it will be more of the same. I’m really happy with what I’ve been doing. I haven’t been doing many performances this year, as I’ve been flying between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane for work, but I am looking at doing some more performances next year. I’m going over to Japan, where I will do some performances with some bands, do some teaching and I’ll do a visit to the Yamaha factory. I’m in the middle of finalising a trip to Singapore where I will do some work with a brass band there and do some school workshops. I’ll also be doing some travelling around Australia. I grew up in a regional town with a small brass band, so I’ve always really enjoyed going back to those regional areas. I’m looking to that more in the next couple of years. I’ll be heading off to Adelaide and to Tasmania, heading out to the grass roots. I’ll be working with lower grade bands, as well as performing with the higher grade bands. There should be a few new Australian works as well, but really it’s more of the same.
Fantastic to hear! Thank you for your time today and good luck with all your work in 2017!
If you know anyone who may be interested in being interviewed about their role in the Australian music scene, please tell them to get in contact! Looking to do more interviews of some fantastic musicians in our industry!
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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.