It is rare to meet a man of such character as James Gourlay: humorous, talented, giving and all-heart. A Scotsman whose family of French origins have only been on the isle some 800 years, recalls fondly his father’s secret box-which none were allowed to touch. Family imaginations soared when speculating what family treasure might be hidden inside. After the death of his father, the box was opened to reveal the Gourlay family treasure- all of young James’ medals and awards from years of solo competitions. When faced with paralyzing mandated cuts (as head of the Royal Northern College of Music) which would have resulted in termination and salary reductions to his faculty, Gourlay gave some of his faculty additional responsibilities (his), and raises. He then cut his own position and became a painter, until music called again. And music always seems to call for him. Whether as an accomplished soloist traversing the UK every Saturday, performing with the legendary Phillip Jones Brass Ensemble, or as principal tubist of the BBC Symphony or the Opera House in Zurich. Now, he is a Pirates fan, an accomplished tuba soloist and artist for Besson traversing the globe, and an award winning conductor who now leads of what may be the only professional brass band in the United States-The River City Brass Band. With seventy services a year and a host of talented members such as trombonist Scott Hartman and euphoniumist Koichiro Suzuki, the RCBB is blazing new trails for the development of American audiences and repertoire. “The Fourth Valve” tm is pleased to present our favorite kilty pleasure and the treasure of the Gourlays. Enjoy!
1. How long have you taken away from the tuba, and what sort of things do you do to get ready to play again? (Solos, in particular.)
The longest time I have spent without playing the tuba would be around one year. It was during my first year (1998-99) when I was Head of School of Wind, Brass and Percussion at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM). I had a very fulfilling, but challenging, job, which was largely in administration. As I had directly come from a the Orchestra of the Opera House in Zurich, Switzerland, and had no training as an administrator, I felt I just had to concentrate on the task in hand, and as I wasn’t actually earning a living playing the tuba, that instrument went on the back burner. As a hobby, I took up the alto saxophone and was soon practicing quite diligently. It suddenly dawned on me, that I could do the same on my first instrument, so started to develop routines that didn’t take up much time, but got me into tuba playing again, and kept me in shape quite quickly.
Nowadays I earn a living as a conductor, and so I sometimes go for long periods without playing tuba. When I do have a tuba gig. I get into shape by playing scales and techniques for about one hour per day. I do this at 6.00 am using a practice mute. I don’t play repertoire until shortly before the first rehearsal, as I’ve learned to separate practice from performance.
2. Which are your favorites to use and in which circumstances? Eb Tuba, F Tuba, C Tuba, Sousaphone, Bb Tuba
I mostly play Eb tuba, but my favorite is the Bb tuba. I spent many years as an orchestral player though, so I also play the F tuba, C and cimbasso. I also have two sousaphones. I choose the horn to fit the repertoire and the ensemble really. In the orchestra, I played most things on the C, apart from Russian music and Wagner, which is better, I think, on the Bb. The Eb is great for solo and brass group playing.
3. Your phrasing an legato are exquisite. How do you conceive of them, and how did you foster their development?
Thanks! I have been a singer since I was a treble many years ago, and I still sing the phrases I have to play, then play them. That seems to me to be very natural.
4. What attracted you to conducting? What does it allow you to express? How does your conducting inform your playing,and conducting inform inform your conducting?
I never wanted to be a conductor, but I’m very much a man who believes in ‘following a star’. Someone asked me to step in at a rehearsal nearly 40 years ago. I did. Then, …. the band asked my back.
I always say to young players that the music industry decides what you are. If you get 3 jazz gigs in a row: Hey presto, you’re a jazzer! So it was with conducting for me. Conducting has helped me better understand the structure of music, which has in turn informed my performance as a player. Conversely, having played in orchestras a long time, gives me an understanding of how musicians ‘tick’, which helps me encourage them to raise their game.
5. Air is vital on any brass instrument. How do you conceive of moving air in a large ensemble and as a soloist?
I never give this a second thought!
My focus is on the sound I make and how it relates to the sounds around me.
So, in performance, as opposed to practice, I just think of the music.
Having done a great deal of technical practice (including breathing) liberates the musician in performance.
6. What perspectives have you come to appreciate as an administrator of music? How do you handle star players such as those in River City Brass Band?
I’m very much a team player; supporting colleagues and encouraging them to go the extra mile. It’s a style of leadership my musicians seem to like. I trust them to do their best and they do. That goes for the whole team, which includes non-musicians too.
7. How do you choose music to perform as a soloist? As a conductor?
Soloists and conductors need to play music which inspires them.
Only then do they stand a chance of inspiring others.
These are my criteria.
8. When did you begin competing as a soloist? What has your experience taught you that would surprise brass players that are not soloists?
I started competing in solo competitions at the age of 10. I had been playing six months an was pumped to win the under 12 division of my county band district solo contest. In those days I played almost every weekend in such a competition, which was a great training. My Dad kept all the medals and trophies as he often had to go with me to some far-flung corners of the UK. To win, one had to play a cornet solo like the Carnival of Venice, just because the cornet players were also playing it. This developed a really useful finger and tongue technique, which made the orchestral repertoire seem easy. In fact, I left my county Youth Orchestra after one rehearsal, because the parts were too easy, and boring I thought. The parts in question were the Meistersingers and Finlandia. ‘Nothing to play’ I said…
9. What could the American brass tradition learn from the European and vice-versa?
Identify your style and stick to it.
Never let tradition get in the way of high standards.
c. 2015 David William Brubeck All Rights Reserved. www.davidbrubeck.com