Veronica Boulton has had musical success as a performer and conductor across Victoria and South Australia, and is the current Musical Director of Marion City Band, who placed 3rd in the Australian National Band Championships 2017 in B Grade. I had the chance to speak to her about her conducting at Marion City Band, her passion for community music and her involvement in junior music programs.
Jared: Where did your banding adventure begin? How have you progressed to where you are now?
Veronica: I started at the age of 9 in the Traralgon City Band (VIC). I had learnt piano since the age of 5, and my mum saw an advertisement in a local newspaper for the junior band. I quickly learnt to enjoy the banding family, including participating in the Victorian State Youth Band. In my late teens I moved to Melbourne and through into my 20s I played in Darebin (then Preston), Kew and Hawthorn. In my mid 20s I decided to formalise my passion for music and headed off to university to study a music degree. The complication (at that time) for a brass band tenor horn player was ‘what to play?’ I ended up on French horn - although it was a pretty challenging transition. Part way through my first year, my husband was transferred to South Australia, so I then moved my studies to Elder Conservatorium.
My conducting really started in my early 20s in Victoria, first with the Traralgon Junior Band, followed by Morwell Citizens Band, then Heidelberg Youth and briefly their senior band. On shifting to SA, I took on K&N Youth, some school bands, Hahndorf Junior Band and then finally got the role conducting Marion City Band. I finished my degree and then a Grad Dip Ed at Adelaide University and then commenced my career as a music teacher - which is what I am currently doing.
Music seems to have played a great part throughout your life. What value do you think music has for a community at large?
Music has completely shaped my life - I can attribute my involvement in brass banding to my marriage and subsequent three children, my career, my leisure time and holidays, my friends - and probably lots more. A community ensemble, like the brass band, can offer people in the community more than just a hobby - I’ve seen strong friendships formed, young people working their way through into university to study music, support for people in difficult times, troubled teenagers mentored and helped to stay on the right path, and often just a place to ‘belong’.
You have played with community bands since the age of nine. What makes community banding relevant in the modern era?
I guess one other thing is that playing a brass instrument still requires some good old fashioned ‘hard work’. It seems that in our times of technology, so much is ‘touch of a button’ and disposable, that young people can be inclined to want instant gratification. You have to work hard and practice. And the bands also have to work hard together (teams!) to achieve success. The other thing I see - and this is not just modern era, is the cross-generational interaction that occurs. We have young people sitting with older people, and age has no significance. It’s all to do with how you play! It’s really nice to see young people confidently interacting with people much older than themselves as equals.
You have played a great role in developing younger brass band musicians, such as your involvement in managing the South Australian Band Association Youth Brass Camp and Tour in 2015. Why do you value the growth of younger musicians so greatly?
I have been developing youth forever - it started with teaching youngsters for Traralgon City Band, and then Morwell Citizens. After that I took on Heidelberg Youth and when I moved to SA I took K&N Youth. I really get a kick out of seeing youngsters develop, but I think I do it also because of the impact banding has had on my own life. I was a pretty unruly teenager and I honestly think that the brass band was the main thing to keep me on the right path. I’ve managed the State Youth camp and tour now every year since 2015. Next year will be a camp and tour of the Clare Valley. If we don’t keep training up our young musicians in brass bands, the whole thing will die out. Schools don’t have brass bands. But I also believe in ‘growing my own’ and can’t even begin to understand how other bands manage their membership without juniors coming through the ranks.
You have been the Musical Director of Marion City Band since 2004, and in 2017 led them to their first podium finish in B Grade at the Australian National Band Championships. How do you feel the band is tracking? Would you like to hopefully lead the band to a National A Grade standard?
Marion is doing super well and more than anything, the group have heaps of drive and enthusiasm for progressing. It would be nice to hit A Grade at a National standard - but we’re patient. It took a long time to hit B Grade! The scary thing for me is that I might not be good enough for A Grade - I might hold them back. South Australia is a little ‘small town’ too, which means that lots of the good brass players head interstate or overseas. There are two A Grade bands here and there may not be enough players for three.
Marion City Band also competes at an A Grade standard at the South Australian Band Championships. Do you do this to push your players to play at a higher standard?
Whilst we do play in A Grade to push our standard, it’s actually because there are no other B Grade bands, and it’s just pointless competing against no one. If we’re just ‘giving a concert’ we might as well do it in another environment under our own chosen conditions!
At the 2017 South Australian State Championships, the A Grade Test work is Peter Graham’s “Journey to the Centre of the Earth”. What are your thoughts on this selection? Have you been happy with the test piece selections at a State and National level over the last couple of years?
I love Journey to the Centre of the Earth. It was already on my ‘to do’ list. I enjoy pieces that are not as traditional and push the boundaries of brass and percussion sounds and effects. Some of the test selections are not my ‘cup of tea’, but I guess that’s just the way it goes; we’re all different and I’m sure there’d be lots who don’t like my quirky taste for major works.
Marion City Band is not only a contesting band, but also has an exciting series of performances, including the world premiere of new euphonium solo “Cu Allaidah” by Jarrett Wheatley with soloist Fletcher Mitchell last weekend. How did this fantastic opportunity come about?
We did our performance with Fletcher over the weekend as well as Elgar Howarth’s arrangement of "Pictures at an Exhibition".
The concept of a concert in conjunction with an art exhibition is an idea that I conceived many years ago when teaching students about Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. This musical work is in 10 movements and was inspired by a visit to an art exhibition. Each of the movements represents one of the drawings or artworks on display. My lessons focussed on the link between all the arts, and students were asked to sketch what they ‘heard’ with no prior knowledge of the musical work. In many instances the sketches were very similar to the title and original artwork, highlighting the power of music in ‘painting’ a picture. This lead to the idea of holding a concert of this work, in conjunction with an art exhibition, including the notion of an artist to do as the students did - paint the movements.
I contacted a local winery, Bird in Hand, and posed the concept - and they loved it and were keen for me to go ahead. I then went searching for some local artists to help with the exhibition and was put in touch with the Hills Art Collective. They were keen to be involved and made the exhibition an invitation-only event to provide only the best. The Collective provided all the frames and there were over 100 paintings displayed over the weekend.
In addition the Collective approached a local artist, Ingrid Mangan, to be the ‘artist in residence’ for the weekend. Prior to the event, Ingrid painted all 10 paintings to go with the movements of Pictures at an Exhibition and then whilst the band played, she invited members of the audience to her easel to help paint the Promenade.
To top off the weekend, I had been in contact with Fletcher Mitchell about the possibility of him performing with our band at some stage, and then had a thought that this concert would be a perfect opportunity to feature him. Fletcher performed the world premiere of a composition, Cu Allaidh by Jarrett Wheatley (US Composer currently living in Japan) as well as Stomp, by Brendan Collins (first time with Brass Band).
Marion City Band bends the stereotype of brass bands, with more female players than male. You have also been the Musical Director of Brass Knockers, South Australia’s first all-female brass band. What role do you think women have in shaping the modern brass banding scene? Would you like to see more women getting involved, or holding leadership positions in banding associations?
It’s not always been smooth sailing being a female brass band conductor. When I first started with Marion City Band there were quite a few older men and they didn’t last long - they really couldn’t cope with a woman conductor. Yes, we do have a lot of women, and maybe that’s because of me, but I have seen a lot more women in brass bands and taking on leadership roles in banding associations. There are plenty of women in music education and I think this is definitely finding its way into community banding. I think the male-oriented stereotype is getting close to gone.
Are there any other areas of concern in community banding that you believe need to be addressed?
The stereotype that worries me much more is the one that is associated with marching. So often people in the community think that brass bands are only marching bands, or perhaps some kind of German ompah band. And this is continuously perpetuated by the National and State bodies insisting that we continue to have a marching competition. This is a hang over from World War Two - we really don’t need to do it any more! Over the weekend with our performance at the winery, one of the artists had a friend come along to look at the paintings and when the band was about to play, that person was going to leave - ‘I hate brass bands’ - but the artist encouraged them to stay. At the end the person had a complete change of mind - but how disappointing to think that they might not have even heard it.
Finally, where would you like to see Marion City Band and you yourself going in the coming years?
I’d like Marion to continue to train youth and grow. It would be great to see the bands all improve in standard and go up a grade - and perhaps for us to establish a fourth band! I look forward to our new Drum Corps (started just last term) growing in size and standard to provide a solid training ground for percussionists. I’d like to think that our organisation can continue to thrive, grow, be a fun place for music-making and significantly break down any barriers and stereotypes associated with brass bands.
Some time in the future, I would also love to have the opportunity to check out the school and university brass bands in Japan - and even have the opportunity to conduct one!
Thank you for your thoughts and all the best with all your musical ventures!
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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.