I was fortunate enough to meet with Michael Mathers, Musical Director of City of Greater Dandenong Band, to discuss the introduction of the Mather family prize for most entertaining turn at the 2017 Nationals Street Parade. We also discussed Nationals 2017, tips for aspiring drum majors and what the City of Greater Dandenong Band has planned this year.
Jared: Where did your musical journey begin? Has there been any progression through the brass band instruments throughout the years?
Michael: My oldest brother Ray wanted to learn to play the drums. My mum rang Kew Band out of the phonebook. Ian Mathers started giving my brother drum lessons. I was aged around five or six. I started on drums but I was too little to carry all the gear. I got convinced to pick up something smaller so I took up the cornet. Since then, I’ve played every instrument except trombone in the brass band at some stage. Horn is my favourite but cornet is probably the instrument I am best at.
J: What has kept you hooked to brass bands?
I just love it. It’s probably because I got into it at a young age. I made some really good friends early in my journey with people of the same age. They’ve all stuck with banding as well, in particular, Jeff Steele and Wally Pope, both former musical directors of the Victorian State Youth Brass Band. Jeff and I, both being similar ages, and very competitive against each other as young cornet players, we stuck with it and grew up together. Jeff always won; I think I only ever beat him once. The friendship stays strong.
J: You are now the Musical Director of the City of Greater Dandenong Band (CGDB), and you are entering into a very competitive B Grade Nationals contest. How’s the band feeling about the contest? Do you have a goal you want the band to achieve?
Our goal never waivers; to perform the best we can on the day. There will be factors that affect that and we have no control over. We can’t control what other bands do, who is playing for them, what pieces they select. We can control what we do and how well we play. As long as the band leaves the stage having performed to a level they’re happy with, then we will be happy. Someone will get a plastic cup. If it’s us, it’s a bonus. If it’s not, it doesn’t matter.
J: This year, the Mathers family are introducing a monetary prize for the most exciting turn during the Nationals march. How did this prize come about?
It isn’t the first time there has been a monetary prize. In previous Nationals there has been an award given for the most entertaining turn and CGDB has been fortunate enough to win it. We have been beaten by some very entertaining change of directions too!
I noticed at last year’s Nationals that there were more bands having a go at doing something entertaining, which is fantastic from the viewer’s perspective. I also observed more members from other bands stopping to watch what was going on. I thought that this was great! If we can support our own organisation, we are on the right track.
My family has been very heavily involved in marching for a long time. My father was a Chief Drill adjudicator for several Nationals. He was on the NBCA for many years as an organiser. As well as my musical abilities as a player and conductor, we have been administrators for many years. I had a chat to my parents and asked whether we as a collective could put in place an award that we could give every year until the cows come home for whoever wins. And if I’m really lucky, it’ll come back into my own pocket! Otherwise, I would like to see it go to a band who’s having a crack and entertains the crowd.
Between my parents, my wife and I, we have put up $500 and we propose to do that every year forever. The organising committee can divide that however they like, whether it be $250, $150 and $100 for top 3 or any other combination.
J: Is there any assessment criteria the turn will be judged on?
I’m not in charge of adjudicating. I am purely just a sponsor. The National organising committee will appoint adjudicators based on whoever they see fit, and they will provide the criteria. If I was being asked to adjudicate, I would just say “is it entertaining?”. I wouldn’t be interested in if it’s technically brilliant. By entertained, I don’t mean just being stupid and funny. I think the crowd on the corner should be thoroughly entertained by the time the band has rounded the corner. If you satisfy that criteria, that is good enough for me.
J: CGDB has provided some wildly entertaining turns in previous years. I don’t know how much you would like to reveal but can you provide any clues on what might be planned for this year?
Clues? It will be entertaining… That's all I can give away at this stage!
J: What kind of pieces would you like to see played at these marching contests?
I understand the thought process behind having a set list of marches for the stage after the “March to the Scaffold” incident. But on the parade, bands should be able to play whatever they like. In recent years, CGDB have played The Magnificent Seven and a few years before another band played the Thunderbird Theme, and it was great! Again, the concept behind the street parade is to entertain the “man in the street”. I think that if a band can play music that they relate to, then we are achieving our goal. Ultimately, we want to entertain people.
J: You’ve been a multi-recipient of the Jim Brill Memorial Prize for the Best Drum Major at Nationals contests. Do you have any tips for aspiring drum majors as to how they should be approaching their role?
My tip has nothing to do with marching: make it fun! There’s nothing worse than to go out to a marching rehearsal and be bored or be yelled at like it’s the army. You need to have some humour; you need to have a relaxed atmosphere. The actual drum majors themselves must know what they’re doing. If you’re not sure what you’re doing, get some training (the VBL has training days made available to drum majors and aspiring drum majors). We are all super keen to encourage that next generation. It is not the dictatorial regime that it once was. Keep it fun, and it will be so much easier!
J: Where would you like to see the Australian marching scene going?
I think that, in a way, we are kidding ourselves if we think blocking off a street is going to make our marching better. I would personally like to see the contest held in a different manner. I would like to see results withheld overnight and the marching contest held where all bands are present to watch all bands march. I’d rather see these marching contests at an oval, where there is a massive grandstand and there are drinks and nibbles. I understand it wouldn’t work in a practical sense but that would be what I would like to see. I think that money is the key factor.
In a street march, you are restricted to what you can do. The old days of oval display diagram marching are gone. They won’t ever come back. But I think that telling a band that they have 12.5 metres and then they must turn left restricts somewhat what they can do. The reality is, I doubt many, if any, bands actually practice marching these days. But marching is what distinguishes brass bands from orchestral organisations and concert bands. Concert bands rarely march, military bands march, brass bands march, orchestras don’t. I just think we’d have much more entertainment if we didn’t pigeon hole people into a 12.5 metre strip of road.
J: Beyond Nationals, what is planned for CGDB this year?
We’re insanely busy this year. We have a full membership (nearly 40 members). We regularly have over 35 every rehearsal. After Nationals, we will be doing our annual Cabaret. Last year, we sold over 300 tickets, and the band made a very healthy profit. The band is really excited to do it again this year. A bit of costume and dress up, and the crowd get right into it.
We have three ANZAC services immediately after the Nationals. We do numerous Cadet parades. This year, we will also be doing the State Championships, as we alternate between the State Championships and Mount Gambier every year. We have something on every month. Make sure to check out our website at http://www.dandenongband.org.au.
J: Thank you for your time today! Good luck with the Nationals contest and I am really looking forward to seeing this year’s CGDB Street March.
If you know anyone who may be interested in being interviewed about their role in the Australian music scene, please pass on their details! 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.