Dr. Joanna Hersey, Shares More to Each Story..Beyond Rosie the Riveter to SPAR

From ahead of you, calls the voice of a storyteller: equal parts Slaughter and Pilafian; leads a pioneer, for women, for new music, for women in brass; she beckons the scholar, did you know? The coastal trail is just ahead, from the wind swept shores of the Carolinas to the azured interior, Dr. Joanna Hersey beckons, leads and calls…can you hear it? “The Fourth Valve” tm is delighted to present the masterful JHR, enjoy!

1.  Tell us about “Shatterdome”.  What inspired it?  How did you arrive at the palette of timbres, harmonies and rhythms?

When I was ready to make my first solo recording I knew I had a point to make. I wanted to showcase an entire album for tuba of music by women, my own and others. If I could do it on tuba, if this music was available to be found, then certainly anyone on any instrument could program it. It doesn’t matter if someone programs only music by women, but the most common argument is folks don’t know where to find it, or think what’s out there won’t be good. So with O quam mirabilis, which I released in 2009, I wanted to do a somewhat normal classical album, with the goal of introducing new rep, so there’s Alma Mahler, and Libby Larsen, and music of a young composer named Portia Njoku.

After that was released I felt like I could do more what was calling to me, which was joining the movement of electronic sounds. For me, the loud and explosive side of that movement isn’t my style, I saw there was a place for a more gentle mix, the tuba is inside or even under the electronic element at times. That album, Zigzags, from 2015, was an exploration.  “Shatterdome” was one of four new tuba and electronic tracks composed for the album. featuring collaboration through both composition and improvisation.  Shatterdome”was inspired by the drama in film writing at climactic moments when good and evil collide and dark forces are at work, utilizing low resonances and long, lyrical phrases.  Composer and electronic musician William Bendrot worked with me, and he and I exchanged ideas, we would each try something, and then expand it, and sometimes I would improvise over chords he set out. He would take my motives and rhythmic elements and layer them into the texture, then I would create melodies. It was really fun to just listen and respond as a player, and see what came out of it.

2.  What drew you to Vaudeville?  What were the best and worst of it for women bands?

It all started with my doctoral dissertation, I wanted to showcase women making music in America before WW2. By the Second World War women were getting a toe into the business, and that has been well-researched, but before that we really know very little.  So women brass music before 1940? What was happening? I divided my findings up into the categories of large ensemble (orchestral and band), soloists, and small ensemble playing. The small ensemble playing was the most surprising, and I fell upon an amazing source. The University of Iowa has an amazing collection, more than one thousand boxes of materials, from the vaudeville era touring circuit (visit the Redpath Chautauqua Collectionhere: http://sdrc.lib.uiowa.edu/traveling-culture/inventory/MSC150.html) and this is a treasure trove of publicity flyers, photos, concert programs and all types of memorabilia from vaudeville touring groups.

It was interesting that because it was a variety show, the idea was to present something for everyone. So it was actually much more egalitarian that one would imagine for the turn of the century. While racially segregated, minority chamber groups were able to work, as were women’s groups. All that mattered was that it was entertaining, so it was more diverse by a lot than classical music at the time. These women’s bands and small groups were paid professionals, and they toured an established circuit, often by train. Now it probably wasn’t that comfortable, but they got to play their horns and see the country, and make their music on a national stage. By the time motion pictures began, and Hollywood became a new center for entertainment, these touring shows died out for the most part. I wrote about this in a book called “Women’s Bands in America: Performing Music and Gender”, edited by Jill Sullivan. 

3.  What was your most memorable discovery writing about the SPAR band?  Who were the driving musical forces behind it?

When I was in the United States Coast Guard Band, I worked in the music library. One day, I found a photo of an all-female drum and bugle corps taken in front of the White House, wearing Coast Guard Uniforms. I was astonished. How could this have happened, but I knew nothing about it? So I asked around and found the Coast Guard historians who could tell me about the amazing group of women in the SPAR Band, and the other bands of the other services who worked alongside them. 

The SPAR Band is part of a massive musical effort, the first of its kind in American music.  The American engagement in World War II forced the government leadership to admit that to win a war in the Pacific and Atlantic, women were needed in the civilian and military workforce.  For the first time in U.S. history, women became part of a military strategy.  Temporary women’s units were formed for all branches of the military, and a variety of jobs became open to women, such as positions in military bands.  These bands performed across the nation assisting the war effort. Their work marching in parades and performing concerts throughout the country resulted in the sale of millions of dollars of war bonds to the American public. Their presence on military bases and across America’s small towns gave comfort to those torn apart by war. In their collateral duties, they drove ambulances, worked as nurses, visited hospitals, filed paperwork and organized supply chains.  

After the war, these women were immediately transitioned out of the military. For the next thirty years, military bands were again all-male. It was not until the mid-1970s that women again were able to hold positions in the U.S. military band system. This project became a chapter in the book “Bands of Sisters: U.S. Military Bands During World War II”, edited by Jill Sullivan, who also edited the book where I wrote about the vaudeville bands. I interviewed the living members of the band, who sent me their photos and memories, and a rare recording or two. The most surprising to me was how the whole program was just cancelled. They had these amazing bands, with this beautiful camaraderie, that were supporting the military and non-service communities alike, and they just closed them and kicked all the women out. Their use was over. Bands were supposed to be just men.

4.   Tuba/Euph. Quartet Vs. Brass Quintet; what is the best and worst of each?

Brass Quintet is good because people accept it as a more normal ensemble grouping, like for a recital series or something. I like quintet but it can be very challenging to stand out, there are a million quintets! And to be the tubist, responsible for keeping the pitch center on track, can be a challenge. People also have varying ideas of what proper balance should be in quintet, which can be an issue. But, we have some amazing rep-like my new favorite is “Aspects”, by Barbara York, beautiful new music for the ensemble.

Now quartet, for me, is where it’s at. I’ve been a member of the Alchemy Tuba Euphonium Quartet for more than twenty years, playing with the same four people, Gary Buttery, Danny Vinson, and James Jackson. I love the ease of four players over five, and the ability to surprise listeners with the clarity and balance of these massive instruments. Often you’re presenting something some of the crowd has never heard before, and children love it! Challenges of course include clarity, which can be helped by careful arranging, and keeping the voices speaking clearly in spaces like churches. Alchemy has a yearly residency at the Horn Tuba Workshop in Jever, Germany each February, and all our concerts are held in churches, that can be a challenge to hear each other. Despite all that quartet is one of my biggest joys as a player.

5.  It is tough enough to be a musical artist, much less a tubist, let alone a female tubist.  Who and what has kept your creative flame alive?

Most of us sit in sections as either the only female brass player, or one of a small minority. We sit in those sections for our whole lives, our whole careers. Even with wonderful male colleagues, many of us feel we can never miss a note or be imperfect without putting on the line the rep of every single woman in the field. So we sit under the pressure of that at every single gig we play. Every conductor comment, every glitch, under a microscope.

Perhaps because of this, young women go into the career in lower numbers. They’re not willing to put up with the teasing and feeling different (young people want to fit in!) and don’t see it as something for them. I recently taught a set of tuba masterclasses to 94 tuba players from the nation’s top performing high school programs, schools with super supportive booster groups, great leadership and budgetary support. Even in a group of this level, only 11 of those tubas were female. So still 88% male in our most supportive American school music programs.

One of our challenges is we see that in the past we were not okay with regard to race and gender equality, but we think it’s fixed now. People often ask me if I teach male and female students differently, and I don’t, but I do teach some students differently. I divide them in my mind into two categories (that don’t have to do with gender). There are the students who are very driven and ready to find challenge and are pro-active. These students need help with balance and staying focused on fewer tasks, keeping from becoming overwhelmed, etc. The other group of students, especially with tuba, are the students who love it, but are not used to being super-challenged there in the back of the band, and are approaching life waiting for things to happen to them. This group needs different teaching, they need to be reminded about being proactive instead of reactive, and goal-setting and advanced planning would be helpful. Both groups need support but in different ways. As the teacher I have walked their path already, gotten bruised and disappointed, had the way blocked, but kept going…and now I can help them along, just as my teachers did with me. 

One very special thing that I am so proud of is that I have become involved with the International Women’s Brass Conference, an organization which helps provide scholarships,  and presents conferences for men and women, featuring many female brass soloists and educators. This helps me stay creative and focused. The group is made up of both men and women, and the mission is to educate, develop, support and promote women brass musicians while inspiring continued excellence and opportunities in the broader musical world. So, while we want to showcase women in performance, we also want to involve men as well as young male and female students in our educational outreach events, to try and break down separation by gender for all instruments.

As President, I am able to give back to an organization which has given me so much at a crucial time in my young career, having attended the very first IWBC conference in 1993 as a young military musician.  I see my role as a director of sets of people, committees and groups each working on smaller pieces of the puzzle, such as membership development, new composer commissions, educational outreach, etc. I can see the big picture and where things can overlap, and direct forward motion. We just completed the 27th anniversary conference last month at Arizona State University, my alma mater! 

6.  What do you look for in a horn?

I’m definitely one for consistency and comfort, my instruments have been with me a long time! I’m a Yamaha artist so those are my go-to instruments. I am one that believes in less discussion about this detail or that, just work to make the horn you have sound like yourself.  I’m also a big fan of buying used for my students, who don’t always have the luxury of going out to the showroom and plunking down their credit card. Don’t overlook an older instrument which has been well made, because it has a well worn look. Sometimes students fall for a new shiny beauty that’s at a medium price point, when they would have been better served with a top model that had lived a bit of life before it got to them.

7.  How does doubling on Euphonium inform your tuba playing?  Vice-versa?

I’ve been so lucky that I got my start as a young player in a military band, sitting beside the world’s top euphonium artists every day. For years on end I heard the beauty and flexibility of great euphonium playing from Dave Werden, Danny Vinson and James Jackson in my section and in my tuba euphonium quartet Alchemy. I have made three albums with that group by now, and so admire their artistry. So it’s big shoes to fill when I pick up a euphonium. I do love it though, and I feel strongly that as a teacher of both instruments, I need to play both in my studio teaching. I learn and arrange new rep and present euphonium on all my solo recitals. There are challenges, like remembering not to over-blow, but coming back to tuba it reminds me of the lightness of articulation, just enough and not more. I feel the ease of flexibility on euphonium versus tuba, and that challenges my tuba playing to be versatile and quick. I enjoy the euphonium very much and normally have more students in my studio on euphonium than tuba at any given time. 

8.  Is the search for relevance as a solo classical musician a consideration?  How universal is a classical soloist in the everyday breadth and depth of the every day life?  How do you connect?

I think my voice is necessary. And so is yours. All of us have something to say as artists. And for me, it’s about saying what’s in your soul as an artist, through whichever medium. It doesn’t really matter to me if it is someone else’s cup of tea, it’s ok if my playing, or your playing, doesn’t spark joy in a listener. It’s ok if my next tuba solo isn’t one you’ll run right out and buy, or if my student will download my latest track. I think we all create because it’s a response to what’s inside us, the desire to participate in the conversation. I look to my mentors, people like Sam Pilafian, and Susan Slaughter, and my teachers, brass players who do their best to showcase well the possibilities of the instrument and the power of it to express. I want to tell my story, and luckily for me that has connected across audiences over the course of my career, and given me the confidence to always be creating. I am in the midst of a new project at all times, excited about the next thing. We put it out there for the world, we let it go, and we get back to creating.

9.  What are your aspirations for your students?

My students in our small corner of rural North Carolina are often headed toward careers as educators, and tend to stay in the local area upon graduation. UNC Pembroke is an amazing place full of creativity and diversity, though set in the poorest county in the state, and one of the poorest in the nation. More than a third of the population lives below the poverty line, and most of the rest are not far above. For my studio, who are often first generation college students, their time with us can change the trajectory of their whole family, not to mention the generations of students they can influence as educators. I want them to see that there is greatness in them, I want someone to look them in the eye and tell them they can do it. I am so proud when they come to me at the start, often not having taken formal private lessons, and then progress through to the senior recital. It’s tough for sure. The dropout rate can be high, students have many additional challenges to attending school full-time. But for those that can make it work, my goal is that they can be a mentor and role model for those coming up behind them, those to whom life may not have been kind. 

10.  Can you tell us anything about your project with Bill?

Bill is from New Jersey, and attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he studied both jazz and classical performance.  He went on to be co-founder of Ember Music, an international artist-run label that focuses on electronic composition and production, and through Ember, has released several tracks as a solo artist. So the setting of his background was very different from mine, as a straight up tuba performance person. Our approaches were really different, opposite almost, but it was interesting to us both to see how the project developed. We co-wrote four songs for the album.

The opening piece, Tether, is somewhat sparse, with a slow, moody, rock influence, based on futuristic cyberpunk anime compositional imagery, such as Ghost in the Shell. This track features spoken word using text from several Emily Dickinson poems. I’m a huge fan of Emily Dickinson, who is a New England girl like myselfShatterdome was inspired by the drama in film writing at climactic moments when good and evil collide and dark forces are at work, utilizing low resonances and a focus on brass. One is upbeat, and incorporates brighter harmonies in fast-paced rhythmic development. Kakera, the Japanese word for a small piece or fragmentuses the tuba in the pedal register in combination with faster bass lines.


Three other works round out the album, including the title track, composed in 1988, a ten minute unaccompanied tuba solo by New York composer Faye-Ellen Silverman. The work showcases extreme register, set in a wide variety of tempo and mood, and utilizes extended techniques such as multi- phonics and flutter tonguing. The album also contains a new arrangement of mine of the music of Hildegard von Bingen, as well as a solo for unaccompanied tuba, entitled Convent Window, composed for this album. My first solo tuba composition, Convent Window envisions the composer Hildegard von Bingen pausing for a moment of calm reflection at her window, and utilizes the resonant, lower register of the instrument. 

Interested in more “The Fourth Valve” tm Interviews?


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c. 2019 David William Brubeck All Rights Reserved www.davidbrubeck.com

Images courtesy of www.joannahersey.com

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