Megan Stapleton Interview: Being President of VBL, Nationals 2018, Regrading and the Future of the Victorian State Youth Brass Band
I was fortunate enough to sit down with VBL President and long-term Moonee Valley Brass Band member Megan Stapleton to talk about her role in the VBL, Nationals 2018, the regrading process, the Victorian Youth Brass Band and plenty more!
Jared: Where did your banding journey begin?
Megan: I was playing music at school already (Penleigh and Essendon Grammar School). I played violin and piano through primary school, and when I reached year 7, we had a compulsory music program where you had to learn an instrument you didn’t already play. I had no idea what to choose but my best friend said she was going to try trombone so I went “Why not?!” and tagged along. But then I just fell completely in love with it. I forgot about piano and violin after that.
I played for a few years at school and then my mum found an ad in the local paper that Moonee Valley Brass Band was calling for members. She said “You’re home on Monday nights; off you go!”. I joined with all my siblings, so there were four new members to the band. None of them play anymore. I’m still playing with Moonee Valley.
Do you have any memorable lessons or experiences that have stuck with you throughout this journey?
When I was at school, Eric Klay, who at the time played Bass Trombone with the MSO, came to do a masterclass. He got us all to play, and he told me I had the perfect embouchure for trombone, which didn’t mean a lot to me when I was sixteen. But his encouragement made me realise I could actually play well and that I do have ability. That gave me self-belief that helped me pursue it further.
You’re still playing with Moonee Valley Brass Band in the Trombone section since you started back in your schooling days. What keeps your love of the community brass banding program?
Firstly, I love music. It has always been a part of my life since I was little. There’s something about sitting down to play music for the first time and it sounds fairly rubbish usually, and then working it up to a great final performance.
But it also that great sense of community. You make friends in the group that become a second family. There are nights when even I say “I should just stay home” – everyone has those days! – but when you are there, you have so much fun.
You were once a player with the Victorian State Youth Brass Band, and you then went on to be a mentor and committee member. What direction would you like to see the youth band program going in?
I loved the State Youth band. I made so many friends there in banding, but there weren’t the same opportunities to keep in contact with the other members. So between rehearsals, I could write to them, but I couldn’t jump on Facebook or email like kids can these days. You came to rehearsals not only for the musical opportunities but also to see your friends. Nowadays, that urgency isn’t there any longer, as you don’t need to come to Youth Band rehearsal to see these friends. Also, there wasn’t a great chance for younger players to sit on principal chairs, as a lot of older members would take up those chairs in the competing bands. The Youth Band was to give developing kids an opportunity to sit on those higher seats.
Things have changed now. Bands are younger and are giving kids more opportunities. I think the Youth Band is an important part of the Victorian banding scene but it needs to find what its purpose is in 2017. I think that is something we haven’t found yet. I’d love it to still be there – not just for historical reasons – but I think it’s important to give everyone an opportunity to play and be challenged in higher roles. We just haven’t been able to run it in a way that will encourage kids to come along recently. That has been really tough.
Personally, I would love to see the band equally filled of kids of all ages, with beginner players alongside strong confident players. When I joined the band, I couldn’t read treble clef as I had only learnt bass clef at school. But at Youth Band, I could sit on first trombone chair alongside strong players and learn how to become a better player. Recently, we’ve had a lot of younger developing kids come but we haven’t had those more experienced kids in their late teens/early 20’s bracket that help encourage the younger players. When you have a band full of 9-year-old beginners who are struggling to learn, you can’t play as a band. You need those older musicians to help.
You are now entering into your 6th year as President of the VBL. What has it been like leading the Board? Have you had any great successes that you have enjoyed in your position?
It has been tougher than I expected. I love the VBL but it doesn’t get the support from the banding movement in Victoria that it used to. I know the 2012 Nationals were tough for the VBL financially. A lot of bands people say they’re too busy with their own bands and they can’t contribute with the VBL, but they don’t realise that they can contribute even a couple of hours and make a real difference.
My proudest moment with the VBL would be starting the BandStand Sunday event down at Federation Square. The bands have truly embraced it and the feedback from the crowds have always been fantastic. The VBL was known for its contests, which do take a lot of planning time, but we weren’t known for much else. So we had been talking for a while about what we could do to encourage more opportunities. We wanted to offer bands something they couldn’t just do for themselves. After 2012, we had no money, so we were also on a budget. Brenton Burley suggested an event at Federation Square and it snowballed from there.
The first year was a great learning experience but the weather was perfect and the feedback was great, so the VBL knew it had to become an annual event. We were hoping to run two in 2016, but Federation Square booked out so fast that we could only have one weekend. In 2017, we’ve decided to run just the one again around late-October/early-November, as Nationals 2018 is just around the corner. It’s always been fantastic to see bands from all over Victoria with all levels of skill come together for one day of performing. We’ve actually had to turn bands away because we’ve had so much interest.
You do mention the 2018 Nationals, which will be in Victoria next year. Can you give any information about what might be planned for 2018?
The planning started so long ago, it’s hard to believe there’s still another 12 months to go. We asked everyone to send ideas as to where they’d like to see the Nationals held. There was an overwhelming response to have the event in the city at locations like Hamer Hall or the Arts Centre. The main issue is that the Nationals is just before the Melbourne Comedy Festival and everything is booked. The cost aside, we couldn’t even get into those venues. The only alternatives were the Recital Centre and the Iwaki Auditorium, which were both perfect sized venues and have great acoustics. Both of them, however, turned around and said that they couldn’t confirm availability until January 2018. My blood pressure couldn’t take that level of stress! Hence, we had to rule them out, and we know people will be disappointed, but there was nothing more we could do.
So we looked around and we’ve tried to get as close to the city as we can, and we have come up with the Hawthorn Town Hall and MLC. There is a good 7-8 minute brisk walk between the venues but it’s the closest we can get to quality venues within a close vicinity to one another. The NBCA has signed off on the venues, so they have been locked in! We will have information packs at the 2017 Nationals in Launceston.
In regards to the Street March, it will be in a similar area. We haven’t locked down specifically where yet. We’re thinking in front of the Hawthorn Arts Centre, but stopping well before the tram comes at Glenferrie Road. That being said, it’s all to be confirmed, so don’t start practicing yet!
For the Test Piece Selection for 2017, there was a bit of backlash regarding the repetitive appearance of certain solo items and that some test pieces weren’t challenging enough. Could you explain how these pieces are actually selected?
This is an exciting question for me, as everyone sees the VBL as some dark organisation like the CIA that no one knows anything about the internals. But that’s not the case. It’s just really lots of processes and no one really asks how these processes actually happen.
When a National is at each state, that state’s Music Advisory Board (MAB) is responsible for choosing the pieces. Often you can get a sense of what they’re going to pick based on what they picked for their state championships. There is a lot of music to look through, so it is important that State Committees start looking as early as possible. Here in Victoria, we have already started looking for 2018, and have assigned some pieces both for bands and for solos. These aren’t locked in though and no hints! We have to have them all ready for the June NBCA Conference.
The MAB usually only meets 3 or 4 times a year but when we are picking pieces, there’s a lot more correspondence via email. We also try to make sure that we have both a score and a recording to look and listen to before making the decision. Once the pieces are picked, they are sent to the NBCA for approval, who get the National Music Consultative Committee to look over all the selections and sign off on them. They act as a second check. Every committee does the best they can, but there’s always room for improvement.
There have been complaints about the NBCA rule about permit players and whether a player can play with another ensemble if their own band is not going. What suggestion would you make to players who may be frustrated by this rule?
Firstly, I think rules should always be followed, and if you don’t like a rule, don’t just complain about it; try to change it! Victoria has for many years puts up the suggestion to the NBCA to remove the ABA Rule (also known as the 18 Month Rule). This rule impacts on Victorian bands who share players and the bands have asked us to get it changed. Many of the other states don’t want this rule changed though, as they have that requirement in their own state rules. It’s up to us to convince the other states if we want to get this rule changed.
I believe the rule shouldn’t exist, as one of the key strengths of the Victorian contests is the number of entrants we are getting. Since those rules changed, we are getting record number of bands (over 30 bands at state contests!). Our Victorian rules are a real asset to banding, as bands can borrow players when they’re needed. They encourage people to play, and we have received plenty of positive feedback from our bands.
Some people will argue that removing the rule will lead to band-stacking. The VBL decided to look into that allegation, and we kept a record of all players that weren’t traditionally from a band they played with. Very few bands take advantage of the rule;. The bands that do find themselves re-graded and all of a sudden the players they used are no longer available as they’re competing in that grade. That is how the grading program is supposed to work.
This might be a good opportunity to ask about how the grading system works. How do the VBL choose which grading a band should have?
There’s been a great deal of discussion about banding in Victoria in the last 12 months. The system of grading is explained in the VBL rules which are available online. At the end of the competition year, the MAB meets to make regrading recommendations. The Executive then make the final decision, as they are elected and can hence be held accountable. The MAB listen to bands in contests, particularly the state contests. The VBL has a spreadsheet containing the last 5 or 6 years of contests, to track how bands have performed in the last two years or so in each of their grades. Their suggestions are voted on by the Executive and any movements are sent in a letter to the relevant band informing them of their regrading.
If you see a band is persistently winning in a grade, that’s usually a good sign that they’re ready to go up. That being said, these jumps can be quite large, and the MAB need to ensure they won’t be disadvantaging a band by pushing them up. The VBL understand what a big deal it is for a band to move up or down a grade. Informing bands of their regrading is one of the hardest parts of being on the VBL committee. Most bands that are informed, though, can usually see it coming.
In the past, Victorian bands didn’t move very often. This became frustrating for other players, as they could see the same bands winning that were obviously ready to move up a grade. Players would wonder why they were working so hard when they had no chance of winning. There were a lot of grades with too much spread within them, and that is not helpful for bands. I’ve tried to make the regradings more frequent. At the end of 2015, the VBL regraded 11 bands, a huge increase from the usual one or two.
If bands do have a problem regarding rules, grading, test pieces etc., how can they deal with their concerns?
The VBL do appreciate people writing in to us to let us know what their problems are. We do value feedback, like our anonymous surveys after the state contests. However, when we receive complaints without any real suggestions as to how to resolve the problem, that becomes hard. Just like when a band will rant on social media but then not send a delegate to a VBL meeting to vote on actual changes. What we really appreciate are suggested solutions to the problems that are arising in the banding world. We did have one band submit a five-page, nicely broken down suggestion regarding the regrading of bands, and we really appreciated the amount of detail and thought that went into it. That was fantastic and, although we didn’t employ all of it, it did inform our conversation that led to the solution. I’m not suggesting all bands send in five-page proposals, but a couple of lines that identify the problem and demonstrate a well-thought out solution will always be helpful.
And finally, what does Moonee Valley Brass have planned for the year ahead?
We always do State contests every year. Last year, we did do a collection of concerts as part of the ANZAC Centenary, but it did result in a great deal of fatigue for the band. So in 2017, we’re keeping it pretty light, and just doing the States, plus a major concert in May. This year, our concert is themed on magic, so it should be very exciting. There’s talk of getting a magician involved and hopefully making the whole band disappear! Additionally, we will do a fundraising concert in October. We do have a nice spread out year, but our main focus will be towards the 2018 Nationals. We have never not done a Melbourne Nationals.
Our development band will be competing for the first time in Traralgon this year. We have had a couple of members play at the solos in the past but we think they are ready to go as a group. The band has already started working on the pieces, and the band is really excited to go. We have a young girl on percussion who is about 8 years old, and she’s barely taller than a cymbal. But then we have a gentleman on flugelhorn in his 80s, who has just come back to music. That is the best side of banding, where you are uniting generations to come together to play music and have fun.
If you know any Australian musicians that you believe should be interviewed, please pass their details onto me! You can do that by contacting me here or emailing me.
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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.