Spreading Silver Sunshine with Steven Mead and “The Fourth Valve” tm

The list is very short indeed. Maurice Andre, Hermann Baumann, Oystein Baadsvik, almost Christian Lindberg- classically oriented brass soloists who make it their living and life’s work. Steven Mead belongs on the list, and may have very well defined the term ‘brass virtuoso’ as he sat astride two centuries of great brass solo playing tradition. Not only does Steven Mead have it all, he likes to share it! Musicality, technique, showmanship, vision and heart-who could ask for more? “The Fourth Valve” tm is excited to bring you the leading euphonium soloist of our age-Steven Mead, enjoy!

1. Your tone concept seems different than many other exemplars of your instrument.
Is it your concept, embouchure or something else?

Hello Dave, thanks for these questions which I’ll endeavour to answer.

Tone is a very personal thing, and so however I create the sound I do as a result of how I feel about the sound I want to make. I can’t speak for others, and of course there will be differences between players, and indeed equipment will have something to do it, but also, every single musical experience that each of us has had goes into making us the musicians that we are. Also, our emotions and how we feel about melody and more exuberant technical elements of our music affect our sound.

My concept of sound I guess has evolved over the years. If you compare the way I sounded in my earliest recordings circa 1990 and how I sound now, there are differences, but perhaps not as drastic as with other people. I guess if you asked a singer that question they would smile and answer something to the effect of, what the hell do you expect me to say, I sing the way I can and want to!

2. You display an unusual authority on and rapport with your instrument. Why do you think it so? Hours of practice, years of experience, a natural gift, a deep and regular familiarity with the music, or another aspect?
It probably wouldn’t be understated to say that the euphonium is my life, and has been since around the age of 14.

It is my way of expressing myself, much better than I can with words or physical gestures. When you spend four hours a day with your instrument for about 40 years, that’s nearly 60,000 hours… sure, I think I’ve developed a repport with it!

Essentially I feel I’m a melodist, and this stems back to my earliest musical training, and all the singing that I did between the age of 5 and 13. When my soprano voice ‘disappeared’ the euphonium was on hand to continue the vocal expression. The timing was perfect for me then.

The hours of practice just seek to reinforce the connection we have with our instruments, but it can quickly break down if we don’t stay focused, and keep the passion. This word ‘passion’ is probably what has driven me to maintain a close connection with the instrument.

3. How would you define a virtuoso? What does it take to get there?
I’ve never really thought about the definition of such a word, it seems like a word of convenience that people might use to describe somebody who seems to have a command of the instrument, and is able to display this in an exuberant and confident way.

The short answer would be practice and more practice, but it has to be guided and focused, and usually this involves working under the guidance of a master teacher. It’s very easy to waste time and never really achieve full potential.

I grew up in a time where there were no professional euphonium teachers around, so I had to seek inspiration from great musicians whenever I could make contact with them.

4. RNCM granted you a professorship after a lifetime of achievement. Are there other full-time professors of euphonium in the UK who are not also wearing another hat of trombonist or tubist? (In the US, it may be a club of just one-Brian Bowman.). Can you put into words the opportunities this has afforded you?
As far as I know I am the only full Professor of Euphonium in the UK, but we do have others doing really a fantastic job that have excellent qualifications but perhaps are of a younger generation. We are quite lucky in the UK that it is possible to be a full-time specialist in the euphonium, but usually, and that includes myself, we have to do a variety of activities, conducting, teaching, media activities, business (webstore for example) to support our principal activity of performance.

I feel I’ve been very lucky, and that the timing of me becoming a professional euphonium player was perfect for simultaneous developments that were happening in higher education in the UK, involving brass band studies, and a widening of the strictly orchestral instrument list that could be taught at university and conservatory level.

5. You display a grand vision of the potential for your instrument and seem to place it in extraordinary settings adorned by special arrangements, showmanship, grand attire, with musical and technical brilliance. Did this develop slowly over time, or was it a vision early on that you have worked towards?

Well thank you for the very kind words David. I think for me the way I have approached euphonium performance has been a natural progression, and of course it still isn’t over. To be honest, I haven’t worn some of the more exuberant attire for a couple of years, but who knows if that could change again!

Placing the euphonium in ‘extraordinary settings’ – well I’m not sure really it’s that extraordinary, except for perhaps the fashion show I did in Milan 10 years ago. I’m trying to get out of the euphonium ghetto and team up with other musicians, string quartets, brass quintets, trombone quintets, organ and so forth.

Too often I feel that people are prejudiced towards the euphonium because we limit ourselves to strictly ‘band’, and low brass settings.

They may have a point!

Therefore with all my travels I’ve been very lucky to meet many different ensembles and great musicians who’ve wanted a collaboration, and I’ve always welcomed this, and continue to do so.

How DO you view the euphonium?
I’m not sure how I can answer this in less than about 10,000 words, but I’ll try.

The euphonium for me is the most beautiful of all the brass instruments; truly sonorous and virtuosic.

It has an increasingly fine body of original repertoire, and is recognised increasingly my other professional musicians around the world.

The euphonium should have been included in the symphony orchestra, introduced at the end of the 19th-century and then all the bias that has been shown against the instrument during the 20th century would never have occurred, and the euphonium would have been taught in music conservatories from the beginning of the 20th century. As it is, we ‘missed that boat’, and it was allowed to continue its journey purely within the realms of the wind and brass bands. I believe it’s started to show its full potential now, but we need more specialist teachers, and we need more chamber and symphony orchestras who are prepared to take a chance to show off this most remarkable of musical instruments.

We need classical music stations to let people hear the beautiful sound we make. We have never had more fine young players playing euphonium as we do today, it’s really quite staggering. Many of them though are uncertain about the future, and get advice to switch instruments to guarantee a performing career. Some make it through this doubt and have blazing professional careers.

6. Most instruments encompass two to three vocal ranges (sop., mezzo, alto, tenor, baritone, & bass).
Of the three bass clef timbres you seem to orient towards the timbre of the great tenors. Is this a conscious choice?

Perhaps yes. We have enough bass instruments, like the tuba, who desperately try to sound higher than they can comfortably manage in much of their solo literature. So I’m happy to show off our natural ‘communicating’ range. But many of the original works and perform have a range of four octaves, so at times we have to sound comfortable in all the ranges you listed.

7. Your tone is extraordinary. Have you ever been tempted to alter the traditional vibrato component of a euphonium tone to limit the vibrato, perhaps even to the end of the phrase? How do you view vibrato on solo euphonium as distinct from solo trumpet or trombone?

That’s a funny question David, which reveals you certainly haven’t heard many or any of my recordings for the last six years or so.

When I listen to my earliest recordings from say 1990-1996 there is a recognisable and quite constant use of a similar vibrato, and I think it was from around 2000 that I really try to create a variety of tone colours, and used vibrato in a variety of ways to achieve this is one element of the basic tone.

From my earliest visits to the USA (1990-) I had my eyes and ears opened to different expressive possibilities. During my ‘brass band years’ at Desford Colliery Band, 1982-1989 conductors would ask for different types of vibrato under different circumstances. Some conductors preferred a more even and old-fashioned vibrato, seemingly to satisfy the older generation of brass band adjudicators that we had to perform for in competitions!! It was quite hard to break away from this approach, and it took some time for me. In my recent Dream Times CD I really tried some different sounds, playing Piazzolla with string quartet, a modern piece with electronics, and a more symphonic style with brass ensemble. I really enjoyed the colour mix.

In my latest album, Lyrical Virtuoso, with a brass band, there is a slight return to traditional vibrato, but I tried to make it very varied and really applicable to the particular genre and style I was performing.

I think because of our tradition with the euphonium within the brass band world, which is my roots, the concept of the lyrical tenor has remained, and because we are of conical bore rather than cylindrical with the other instruments you mentioned, I see no problem in the euphonium using a little more vibrato when we play solo. It’s quite frustrating for me to hear about orchestrally-minded teachers imposing a ‘no vibrato’ policy on their euphonium students, even when they are playing Rochut! This has produced sadly, the generation of very boring sounding euphonium players, unable to communicate and create a truly beautiful sound. No wonder these individuals become frustrated and eventually disillusioned. Section playing, of course, is fundamentally different, and within wind orchestras the use of vibrato should be used very sparingly except where the euphonium voice is solo and where the style warrants the use of more characteristic vibrato.

8. When students come to work with you for the first time, what element of musicianship do you find most commonly overlooked?
No two students are the same, and many come to me from different countries and backgrounds, and I absolutely love this variety of ‘challenges’.

Many of the young players from the brass band world in the UK come to me knowing only brass band solos and repertoire! The gaps that I have to fill-in are vast and cannot be done quickly, so it’s a step-by-step process.

Other international students come to me with a basic knowledge of wind band literature, and often a very dull sound concept, and so it takes some time to unlock the true musician inside them.

The art of phrasing is probably the one thing that both sets of students (domestic and foreign) seem to find the most problematic. Nobody sings any more, and therein lies the essential problem. Phrasing has to be taught almost like a foreign language rather than something which should be natural and expressive.

9. The piano trio is, for strings a supremely balanced and satisfying ensemble. Demondrae Thurman & DUO WINDS-trOmBOnE, have attempted to achieve this with low brass, oboe and piano; Ian Bousefield has done so by substituting the trombone for cello in a traditional piano trio. Your work with your wife, Misa, seems to have solved the conundrum in a most satisfying way. Was it Kismet? What is your view on the chamber trio with brass/winds and piano, and your particular variant?I really enjoy playing duets with my wife Misa, and we have a lot of time to really connect in terms of sound, phrasing and articulation. We have a natural sense of ensemble which comes from hours of playing together, and our first duet CD ‘Love’s Joy’ will be released quite soon.

I absolutely adore the piano trio format and I have been working on a project with the trumpeter Adam Rapa and we hope to able to tour with this project soon, with music by Debussy, Brahms, Poulenc etc. It’s tremendous music and deserves to be heard. I think the composers would love what we’re doing with it. Anyway they are not here to object personally, and so we’ll do our best to make it sound pretty 🙂

Is your bell Sterling silver?

c. 2017 David William Brubeck All Rights Reserved. www.davidbrubeck.com
Photos courtesy of euphonium.net

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Demondrae Thurman

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