James Brice Interview: Conducting North West Wind Ensemble & Castle Hill RSL Youth Wind Orchestra and the Future of Concert Banding in Australia
Following the 2019 Australian National Band Championships, I was fortunate enough to speak with James Brice, musical director of Open A Grade National Champions North West Wind Ensemble and Junior A Grade National Runners Up Castle Hill RSL Youth Wind Orchestra. We discussed James' approach to conducting wind ensembles, the high grade Australian wind ensemble scene and the future of community banding.
Jared: What was your first instrument and where did you first learn your instrument? What first introduced you to wind ensembles?
James: I began my musical studies on euphonium at 11 years of age, whilst in Year 7 at my local high school, Moorabbin City Technical High School as it was known at this time in Melbourne. At school, I automatically joined the school Band program, comprising of two Concert Bands (Junior & Senior) and, when appropriate to do so, I also joined our Brass Ensemble.
During my 3rd year of playing (midway through Year 9), I joined a local brass band, this being the Brighton Municipal Brass Band, and discovered the treble clef!
On the commencement of my time at Melbourne University, I was fortunate to re-discover Concert Bands, such beginning my exposure and connection to large Symphonic Wind Bands/Orchestras, and in doing so paved the way for my successful appointment as Principal Euphonium, Trombone and Tuba with the RAAF Air Command Band in Sydney from 1996-2007.
Where did your conducting journey begin? What was your first concert, and how did it feel standing out the front?
I began conducting/directing ensembles at 14-15 years of age, first through the Brighton Municipal Brass Band, as an opportunity arose to start up a Beginner Band program, initially comprising of 6 players. This quickly lead to leading sectionals with the Brighton Municipal Band, together with opportunities to run rehearsals at school also.
My first concert conducting appointment was as a ‘stand in’ conductor for the Chelsea Concert Band, whilst in Year 11 at school. This was a 50 minute community concert, in which I met the players at the performance! How did I feel…? Well, it’s safe to say that my train trip to the gig looking over the scores was exciting and focussed! This is how it all began, and I loved every minute.
Since then, you have enjoyed a very successful conducting career with the Castle Hill RSL Youth Wind Orchestra (Junior A & Open B Grades), North West Wind Ensemble (Open A), Knox Grammar School SWE (Junior A & B Grades), Concert Band (Junior C Grade) and Yr. 7 Wind Band (Junior D Grade) winning 55 State & National Championships over the past 15 years. How do you prepare the band so that they can always perform successfully on stage?
There are many aspects to this. However, one central ingredient I feel is important to share is in building motivation, aspiration and belief from within the ensemble. People invest in things they care about, and together with a thorough and positive approach to the teaching elements associated at every level, students and community musicians of all ages can achieve amazing things. Taking the time to truly understand the composers' intentions of their music is essential, and sharing this with your players as early as possible in the process is key to the very best outcomes.
Representing the music with an emphasis on producing the best possible sounds, quality of tone, attention to the clearest and cleanest articulation, interest and adherence to dynamic contour, great balance & blend within & between the sections/lines, and finally having the courage to interpret the music is essential.
In 2019, the North West Wind Ensemble reclaimed their Australian National Open A Grade title. How did you find the competition in the Open A Grade?
The quality of ALL of the performances in Open A Grade Concert at this years’ National Championship was exceptionally high, with a thorough depth of preparation evident from all three bands. The test piece ‘Metropolis 1927’ by Peter Graham (Wind Band edition) provided an opportunity for all bands to present Australian premiere performances of this Wind Band edition. This was also the case in 2006 for the 7 participating bands in Brisbane with Peter Graham’s ‘Harrison’s Dream’.
One of the greatest aspects of this years’ Nationals was the venue. The Brisbane Town Hall, like all concert stages, offers challenges for all ensembles. However, the reward of this magnificent ‘world-class’ venue cannot be under-stated. Further to the tremendous acoustics, large performance area, excellent lighting and percussion equipment, the volunteer staff are to be congratulated for their brilliant hospitality and assistance.
This year's major set work was 'Metropolis 1927' by Peter Graham. How do wind ensembles respond to works written for the brass band idiom that are later adapted for wind ensemble?
Whilst I cannot comment on behalf of other bands, I can most certainly share my thoughts and experiences from my players and the reaction from our audiences. ‘Metropolis 1927’ was exceptionally well received by our players, as the composer is thoroughly knowledgeable of the characteristics and tone colours that are available across both Brass & Wind Bands. Obviously initially written for Brass Band, the Wind Band edition has be presented with the additional aspect of reflection together with creative foresight and alternate tone colours. Equally demanding for both genres, the technical demands and musical aspects of Metropolis 1927 instantly appealed to our players. We even purchased an ‘industrial siren’, which will also come in handy for those early morning starts for our annual music camps I’m sure!
In recent years, the Open A Grade has been tightly fought by a small handful of bands. Would you like to see more concert bands at the National events?
As I see it over a 15 year perspective, I could list the following 10 Wind Orchestras and Concert Bands who have regularly participated in State and National competitions, perhaps not every year, however the following ensembles have most certainly been seen and heard and continue to appear in these arenas.
Interestingly, from the list of ensembles, the decision to enrol/enter into these State & National Championship opportunities ANNUALLY, varies dependant on the musical objectives, personnel resources and financial investment/commitment from the players each year.
What I can say is that Community bands such as our Castle Hill RSL North West Wind Ensemble choose the prioritise the National & State Championship dates, and have done across these 15 years. We enter and participate, choosing to invest in the benefits that come from participation and the National & International exposure that arises from these performance opportunities, in great venues that would otherwise cost a great deal more from ONE organisation to source/hire for the performance opportunity.
For me, this is the single greatest benefit…. SET Dates on our annual performance calendar, in a great venues, for an appreciative audience (both in attendance and online) with modest costs for our organisation. The costs however come from interstate competitions for each individual member, for which, in addition to being a ‘personal’ decision, is most often influenced by the culture of the ensemble. True community bands, such as ours, are made up of community musicians, drawing from a wide range of ages, professions and stages of life, who LOVE the opportunity to play music, at the very best level, enriching their interests, skills, aspirations and over-arching musical development.
There has been great debate about the Street Parade event at the National Band Championships. Concert bands are not required but are invited to participate, while brass bands are required to. As a wind ensemble leader, do you believe more wind ensembles should be involved in the parade in some capacity?
This is a great debate for which can be discussed from many points of view.
Firstly, I believe it’s important to look at both traditions and equitable opportunities. Brass Bands have a strong and rich tradition with the Street March aspect of the Nationals. When watching the interaction of the crowds and participating bands, there certainly appears to be a strong case for this to continue.
The schedule for when this occurs, however, most often falls on the Concert Band Stage Performance Day. As such, we have an equitable issue of how brass bands would feel if they were required to march prior to their concert event.
Perhaps this radical suggestion may offer a different point of view.
For me, personally, I strongly believe that integral to this topic would be to look at Brass Bands performing their program in ONE session, just like the Concert Bands. If this was to occur, there would naturally be additional time gained for which, with careful scheduling may present opportunity for ALL Bands to participate in the Street march – AFTER their on stage events?
Both of your ensembles also enjoy an extremely busy concert program throughout the year. How do you attempt to balance competitive events with concert programs?
Both our Castle Hill RSL Youth Wind Orchestra and North West Wind Ensemble thoroughly enjoy the opportunities in presenting balanced annual programs for our members and supporters, comprising of Community Concerts & Fundraisers, Corporate Engagements, Community Support, Marching engagements such as ANZAC Day, Relay For Life and Christmas Parades, educational programs (community and global), Professional and Independent Recording projects and of course State & National Competitions!
I am a firm believer that busy bands have happy musicians!
Are there any pertinent concerns you have with the banding movement as it stands in Australia?
I believe there is a national topic of ongoing recruitment that should be addressed, in pursuing an ideal titled ‘Music For Life’.
Issues arise from a lack of national promotional material for which, if developed, would increase the education and awareness for school leavers for ongoing pursuit in increasing the national growth and recruitment into the musical arts.
With professional development, initiative and topical awareness, we could develop resources that would promote inclusiveness for fellow artists/musical programs, coupled together with national financial support and leadership in which to develop this vision. Each year, thousands of school leavers, head into their next stage of life, having had years of support and inclusiveness in their school or community programs, for which community music organisations have opportunities in which to build much stronger connections.
I think it is safe to say that Community Bands are not blessed with recruitment & resource specialists in which to provide professional materials and connections in which to engage and inspire connections with these school leavers. Nationally, I believe our ‘Arts’ could be provided with significantly increased resources in which to help enrich the creative and cultural interests of our young adults.
What is planned for NWWE for the remainder of 2019 and beyond? Are you looking into attending Perth in 2020 for the Nationals?
Currently both Castle Hill RSL North West Wind Ensemble and Youth Wind Orchestra are busily preparing for our Mid-Year Concert, titled Pictures, Places and Planets, to be held in the ‘Phipps Auditorium’ Hills Grammar School on Saturday 6th July, 7.00pm. Following this we have our 2019 NSW State Band Championships on the last weekend in August, followed by concerts in October (NWWE) and December (YWO & NWWE), Christmas Parades throughout November. We are also currently investigating our options for one or both bands to attend Perth in 2020.
Thank you for the conversation, and good luck for the remainder of 2019!
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Jared has written articles for the British Bandsman, as well as local community radio stations 3MBS and Radio Monash.