Don’t Try This at Home! Matthew Murchison Shows “The Fourth Valve” tm Things That Probably Shouldn’t Be Done On The Euphonium

Matthew Murchison is a mutineer against bland and expected programming, and proud of it! An Alchemist of timbres, Murchison has successfully stayed “out-of-the-box” for much of his career, and can show you the way out! “The Fourth Valve” tm is intrigued to host Matt Murchison, but please, don’t try this at home!


1. Trombonists orbit jazz ensembles and orchestras, while euphonium players habit brass bands and drum corps. You are a soloist with The River City Brass Band. Are more brass bands the answer for the euphonium in the U. S., or do euphonium players need to think outside the box?
The first thing that comes to mind is that most everyone could try to think outside the box a little more. I think that more brass bands would be great. They can be a great community asset and a wonderful way to build camaraderie. It would be wonderful to see more amateur players involved in brass music-making.

I have no hard data to support this, but it seems to me that the average person’s lack of personal experience with music-making certainly doesn’t help the state of professional musical organizations. For the euphonium player, brass bands are a fantastic place to play challenging repertoire (both original pieces and transcriptions) that one would otherwise not get a chance to play. I believe my friend and euphonium ambassador Jason Ham wrote a very thoughtful article on brass bands and their effect on musicians’ development.

2. As a member of the River Bottom Quartet, you have opened for the Emerson String Quartet. What similarities and differences do you observe between the genres?

Take a string quartet: strip away the strings, tuxes, centuries of repertoire, demand for performances, payment, the general public’s knowledge of the existence of the instrument you’re playing, and add in: Oktoberfests and high cholesterol…you’ve got a euphonium/tuba quartet. So…basically the same.

Of course I’m (partially) kidding. Beyond the similarities of both groups having (*counts on fingers) four members and the concept of the consort and homogenous sound, both groups can be wonderful examples of musicianship and expression and entertainment. Both groups can also be examples of bad programming, poor execution, and ultra-boring performances. You’ll often have some characteristics from each category! Mix and match! It all depends on the outlook and abilities of the members of the group. String quartet isn’t inherently “better” than tuba/euphonium quartet.

It can sometimes be hard to not play down to expectations, so I would encourage tuba/euphonium groups and other less recognized ensembles to not settle for “good for a tuba group” syndrome. If anyone doesn’t already know, check out Sotto Voce quartet (for the good stuff I talked about…not the bad stuff).

3. Matt Murchison Mutiny? Was it that hard finding a word that begins with ‘M’, or is there really a musical mutiny under way? If so, against whom? Why those instruments?
You could’ve stopped at “Was it hard finding a word?” Nearly always. Stupid word search puzzles. The name seemed catchy to me and naming myself in the group makes it MUCH harder for me to get kicked out. The mutiny is against programming that only serves the people who already know they want the product. A program of all Beethoven string quartets (in my opinion) is going to do little for people who don’t already know Beethoven string quartets. If that’s your audience, great! There’s nothing wrong with that. But that feels like exclusionary programming that doesn’t help to include new audiences. So I don’t think we can complain when the audiences for that aren’t growing.

The initial idea was that everyone in the group would do more than one thing. That had to evolve a little based on who was willing to start playing for no money. I play euphonium, tuba, a little trumpet, ukulele, sing, and write. My wife Pam plays flute and piccolo beautifully, so that was a no-brainer. Randy Bibri is a pianist who can read or play changes (which of course comes in very handy…which rhymes with Randy…which is dandy). Randy is also a fine trombone player. I wanted Matt Pickart because he plays violin and viola. I then found out in our first rehearsal that he also played electric bass growing up (and has the 90s rock band stickers on his case to prove it). I put that knowledge to use right away. Matt has started a doctoral degree in Michigan, which has left an unusual hole to fill of “violin, viola, electric bass tripler.” We then have Colin Pinto-Martin on percussion (usually drum set).

4. “Music without borders, entertainment without pandering,”
Do you find that audience appetite for live & interesting music is on the rise or decline?

I think the appetite for interesting music is on the rise for sure. It’s so easy to fall down the YouTube or Spotify rabbit hole of weird, interesting music. When it comes to hearing that stuff live though, I’m not really sure. It seems that some people would certainly rather have the music for free at their house than in exchange for money in public. Of course I think that a live performance can be so much better, but if you’re making YouTube videos that rely heavily on edits and smoke, will it be as effective live? I don’t know.

I know personally that there are only a handful of groups that I would WANT to pay money to see live. There are other events that I WOULD and do pay money for because it is important to support live music. Also, I want the good karma for when I’m playing somewhere with a cover or ticket charge.

5. What did the “Moon fall” experience mean to you and demand from you?unnamed-1
I had originally written Moonfall for euphonium and piano. I had some ideas for a piece and the language of the piece came in to focus fairly quickly. I was then invited to solo with the US Army Band “Pershing’s Own” at their annual tuba/euphonium conference in DC. They were willing to let me play my own piece which I was (and am) very grateful for. So I got to work on orchestrating it for euphonium, winds, piano, and percussion. The wind section doesn’t contain saxes or euphoniums.

I had to get the orchestration done pretty quickly and I got a lot of work done on it while I was on the road with a group called River City 6. If I recall, the Army Band needed the music in early October for a late January performance. I know that they didn’t look at the music until January, but you don’t argue with deadlines, or the military, and this had both so I got it done. The act of rehearsing and performing it was a mixed bag of feelings to be honest. I continue to learn the lesson that everyone is the center of their own universe and that no one will care about your project/passion/piece as much as you do, so you’ve got to care enough to make that ok.

I don’t mean to say that people don’t care at all about your thing, but you created it, they didn’t. The wind parts are at times demanding and I was told that the orchestration was at times unusual. I was of course told these things as if they were things to fix, but when I’m writing, the music is either right or wrong, and for me this was right. The “unusual” orchestrations sounded just like I hoped they would and so I was happy about the result. The performance went quite well and the Army band is full of great professionals. Truth be told, I would’ve liked it a bit faster in the performance…but I often do.

6. How did Lauren Veronie come to commission “Sternum Buster”, and what expressive ideas were you exploring?

Ha! I like how you asked the question as if a piece called “Tales from the Road: The Sternum Buster” is a piece of bona fide Art with the capital “A.” Thanks! My guess is that Lauren was accidentally under the influence of a long-lost strain of peyote that made her think, “I needs me a Murchison piece!” I know that Lauren had played another piece of mine called “Blue-Green Day,” which has nothing to do with the band by the way. She said that she wanted something challenging to perform. I made several sketches but nothing felt right.

I was on a 2 or 3 week tour with River City 6 across the Midwest when inspiration struck (or more accurately, cracked its sternum, in front of me). During the concert we gave away a free CD to the first person to come up on stage. This is what happened:
(from my program notes)

A middle-aged woman with big hair and a Cosby sweater started to get up. Just as she reached the aisle, a young girl wearing a t-shirt and the confidence of youth decided that she too wanted the free CD. They reached the aisle at the same time and their eyes met. The determination that serves the hardworking Midwesterner well would in this case be someone’s downfall. It was clear after a split second that neither woman was going to back down. And so the race began.

As the crowd cheered the two gladiators, the women began walking briskly toward the stage. The young girl began to pull ahead, but the crafty veteran locked arms with the girl, ensuring the race remained close. The crowd became more animated, even frenetic, as the speed-walk turned in to a full-fledged run. As their velocity increased, their chances of stopping decreased. I can only imagine that the hunger for victory was so great that it impeded the spatial perception of the athletes. They were now barreling toward the stage at a Usain Bolt-ian pace. They were racing for a free CD with such ferocity that one would have thought the CD format was something completely new, and that the previous technology had been word of mouth.

With arms still locked, their legs also became intertwined, causing the women to lose their balance. With a bird’s-eye-view from the stage, I knew this couldn’t end well. The young girl was able to break free, but the older woman’s momentum could not be denied as she continued to fall forward like a mighty redwood…in a Cosby sweater. The look in her eyes combined with her speed and loss of appendage control reminded us of a lit sorority girl trying to outrun her bad decisions. She was now helpless to stop it. Her sternum connected squarely with the precipice of the stage.

The sound of cheers and laughter that had filled the hall went suddenly silent as the air was sucked out of the room. The only sound in the hall came from the stage, as Lance Laduke, lifting his leg in a reflex action, exclaimed “OH!!!”
After what seemed like an eternity, I remembered that I was on the microphone, and should probably say something. “Are you OK?” I asked sincerely. The young girl looked at me and whispered, “give her the CD.”

After another long pause, a man (we assume it was her husband) slowly arose from his seat to claim his better half. She left the hall but we were later told she was OK. The hall was still silent. I spoke again, soothing the audience with these words; “We’d like to close the first half with a medley of tunes from West Side Story…”
That was a memorable night and an unforgettable audience to be sure. After the show more than one member of the group was asked by the same person: “What state is Pennsylvania in?” A nice old man also told me that listening to me play high notes made his shorts tight. My therapist thinks I’m almost past that.

The piece itself is through composed but contains the following sections: Newton, IA, The Rise of Cosby Sweater, The Young Girl’s Theme, Their Eyes Meet, The Race and Crash, The Young Girl’s Victory Lap (which of course didn’t happen, but I liked the image for the piece), and finally the recap of Newton, IA.
I couldn’t have written this piece without the help of bad decisions and ill-advised competition.

7. Jazz is America’s art form and greatest cultural contribution to the world, and yet the average American has become more remote and resistant to it’s allure. What is going wrong?

I’m probably the wrong person to ask about this as I really don’t know much. However, being a human, I’ll be happy to give my strong, uneducated opinion anyway! My grandfather was a jazz pianist and I was able to hear him play several times before he passed away. I feel very lucky to have had that opportunity for lots of reasons. I bring this up not to be maudlin but to preface the rest of my answer with the disclaimer that I’m very drawn to those standard “Great American Songbook” tunes. I think they’re wonderful and I enjoy just playing the melodies for enjoyment.

Here’s why I rarely, if ever, listen to jazz. I was always taught to listen more than you talk (the length of this interview aside). I feel like to listen to some jazz (more specifically improvisation) is to hear someone talk incessantly without having anything to say. If that were a conversation you’d fake a phone call or sudden onset stomach flu and leave the room. If I’ve got one minute of tune, followed by six minutes of solo, followed by one minute of tune, that ratio is all wrong to me. It’s the same idea as the all-Beethoven string quartet show. Who are you doing this for?

Of course some people have voices you could listen to forever, whether it’s writing, talking, or improvising. Looking back, one of the things I loved about my grandfather’s performances was his treatment of the tunes. He would often play the tune straight ahead, then morph it into a waltz or samba or whatever. There would be a couple solo choruses but it never dominated the tune. Perhaps if I were more educated about jazz I’d be more drawn to the six-minute solo section, but I’m not sure if requiring a high level of listener education for comprehension and/or appreciation is a good way to increase audiences. I think that the most effective pieces of music or art don’t require the consumer to have undergone a training course to appreciate them.

8. Which singers inspire you? What do you think instrumentalists could learn from the way singers approach music and audiences?
I wish I sounded like James Taylor when I sing. Bobby McFerrin is great. I really like the singer’s voice from Lake Street Dive. Other than that I’m inspired by singers who sound a bit unconventional and/or write their own stuff. This includes, but is not limited to, Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Dave Frishberg, and Elvis Costello (I love “The Juliet Letters”). I’m also a big fan of Ben Folds and Chris Thile in general.

For the second part of the question I’m reminded of a story that I think my grandfather told me. Forgive me if I’m making this up, but the idea is solid I think. George Gershwin was asked who his favorite singer was to sing his music. He said he preferred Fred Astaire. The gist was that Astaire didn’t sing the songs like a “singer” but like a person. I like to think that the goal is to communicate person to person, not Artist to subject.

9. What is the typical view/conception of the euphonium and what do you see/imagine when you behold the instrument?

The typical view for someone off the street is “what is that?” This isn’t necessarily bad. I had a group called Mainspring that played largely Celtic music. We went on the road for a couple of weeks and I was worried how audiences would react. The euphonium isn’t technically “supposed” to be playing this music.

What I found was quite liberating. The upside of “what is that?” is that there are fewer notions among audiences about what you “should” be doing. Other euphonium players may care about that, but audiences don’t. I was happy to find that as long as the product spoke to the people, the vehicle really didn’t matter.

c. 2015 DavidWilliam Brubeck All Rights Reserved.

Images courtesy of Matthew Murchison

Interested in more “The Fourth Valve” tm Interviews?
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John Stevens
Jim Self
John Van Houten
Demondrae Thurman
Deanna Swoboda
R. Winston Morris
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Aaron Tindall
Marty Erickson
Beth Mitchell
Chitate Kagawa
Aaron McCalla

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