By Melissa Lindley
It is 8 a.m., and Dr. Stephen Allen, a composer and associate professor in the Fine Arts Department, is sitting in a hotel room in Grand Rapids, Mich. It has been a long night of traveling and flight delays, but he’s excited to meet with the board of the North American Brass Band Association (NABBA) to assist with the organization of next year’s annual championship.
Allen took the Princeton Brass Band to the NABBA XXXI Championship in Cincinnati this past May, where they placed first. He did not anticipate that he would have a hand in organizing one of the most prestigious national brass band competitions in the country not long after he led the band to victory.
“The announcer said, ‘And in first place: Princeton,’” Allen said. “She didn’t even get the word out. She just said ‘Pr-’ and everybody went crazy. It was just so wonderful to win it. There were grown men crying.”
The Princeton Brass Band was formed in 2004, and Allen currently serves as musical director. The band was recognized in 2010 as an Ensemble-In-Residence at Rider, and has premiered works composed by Sir Paul McCartney, Derek Bourgeois and Peter Meechan. It has also received honors for its performances in previous NABBA championships.
The Princeton Brass Band consists of 31 members, who play a variety of instruments, including trumpets, trombones, percussion, cornets and tubas. They practice for lengthy amounts of time, for months in advance, even though they are not playing many songs for the competition. In this year’s competition, the band performed the classical pieces “Rococo Variations” by Edward Gregson and “Elgar Variations” by Martin Ellerby, which led them to a win.
“It means about three months of really intensive rehearsal of two pieces,” Allen said. “There’s a set test piece, and then there’s another choice piece. So we worked really hard three hours a week on just those two pieces from January, and all the way through April.”
Given his profession as a composer outside of academics, Allen appreciates the opportunity to contribute to an integral part in American music culture through his involvement in the band. What makes brass bands unique, he said, was how they are not limited to just playing classical music pieces. He said brass bands have also influenced modern music groups such as The Beatles and Radiohead.
“What I recently discovered through doing some research is that for nearly 150 years in this country, from the beginning of the 19th century up until the 1920s and 1930s, brass music was an enormous part of the country’s culture,” he said. “Almost every village and town in America had a brass band. They were like the local social thing. They were responsible for everything. It was kind of cool.”
Competing for the title is not an easy feat. Musicians perform challenging and rigorous compositions, often lasting 20 minutes or longer. Those competing are among some of the top-ranked brass bands in the nation, giving lesser-known musicians quite the uphill battle.
Because Rider is a relatively unknown school outside of the tri-state area, Allen and the band were not expecting to place very high in the competition. If anything, they were willing to settle for whatever they could get.
“Everybody, to be quite honest, because the competition was so fierce, would have been quite happy to have come last,” Allen said. “If you come out second to last, everybody would have been beside themselves.”
When the band showed up to the ceremony announcing the winners, they went in assuming they placed rather low. As the awards were distributed, they watched as other accomplished performers placed higher, and at the same time wondering where they were going to place, or even if they were going to place at all. They were in for quite a surprise.
Daniel Berz, principal solo cornet player, and Allen’s “second set of ears,” was astounded when they came in first place.
“I think like everyone else in the band, I was just hoping to have a respectable showing at the championships,” Berz said. “When they called our names, it was an unbelievable moment that I will remember for the rest of my life. We all put in so much time and effort during the year, so to have that result was overwhelming.”
Berz is skeptical that others’ views will change after their first place win this year.
“I think that we will still be the underdogs next year, which I’m fine with,” Berz said. “In my opinion, we were so successful last year because we weren’t concerned with others’ views of our band. We really just did things our way, which I give Steve Allen all the credit in the world for. He is truly a pleasure to play under.”
The celebration didn’t end at the ceremony though. For Allen and the rest of the band, one of the biggest parts of the celebration was putting Rider in the spotlight to add to the list of the school’s many accomplishments.
“It’s kind of nice to think that this is now an aspect of music that Rider is being associated with,” Allen said. “Who knows where it might lead? Perhaps we can develop some instrumental programs to support this kind of venture because, obviously, it’s wonderful.”