USA 2020 Part 5 (by Matt Knight)

In America everything is bigger: the portions are bigger, the cars are bigger, the pots of cheeseballs are bigger, and quite a few of the people are a little bit bigger. Things are also LOUDER. Fine for our Texas-educated Canadian colleague, but a strange and unfamiliar environment for six shy, weedy Europeans. 

We had been forewarned that the Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA) conference was big. Estimates for attendance had varied between 25-40,000. Even so, nothing could prepare us for the total assault on the senses when we arrived at the exhibition hall. Never before have I been in a room where so many brass (and other) instruments were being played by so many enthusiastic students and amateurs so loudly. It was deafening. We couldn’t beat them, so we decided to join in – after all we simply don’t get this range of instruments, mouthpieces and mutes in London. Even the more curmudgeonly amongst our group found themselves swept away in the rip-tide of brass nerdiness, and soon we were all trying out everything we could get our hands on. 

The Matts hit the trade stands at TMEA, meeting Texan trombone guru Joe Dixon

The day had not started out quite so well. We landed in San Antonio at lunchtime, but our bags did not. We had our instruments, music, and the clothes on our backs, but crucially were missing our essential sets of Denis Wick mutes. Septura aficionados will know that this group is all about sound and colour. Mutes  provide brass instruments with a unique way of changing the sound completely and instantly – perhaps no other instrument but the organ has this ability. And so they have become an indispensable part of our sonic palette. Luckily a good friend of Septura was at TMEA to help us out. I made a panicked phone call to the ever-unflappable Steve Wick, and by the time we got to the enormous ballroom he had rounded up a full set of mutes for our shortened Borrowed Baroque performance. 

The cavernous 5000-seater ballroom for our performance

Concert done, we visited our various instrument sponsors in the exhibitor’s hall. Fearing for our hearing (and perhaps sanity) we limited our time there to a couple of hours, after which we thought a restorative margarita on San Antonio’s famous River Walk was required, before Steve took us out for an evening of Tex-Mex in a vibrant local haunt. It was great to meet Wick Artist and YouTube sensation Christopher Bill and online teaching guru Estela Aragon. 

Tex-Mex with the Wick team

On tours like this it’s hard to do anything more than scratch the surface of a city, but we couldn’t resist a late-night trip to the famous Alamo. Dan had filled us in on the crucial role of this building in the Texas Revolution, and it was an impressive sight – although our Uber driver had helpfully explained that it would have seemed much more imposing in the 19th century because people were much smaller back then…

Our late-night trip to the Alamo

For this tour we have basically had to pack for every season, and after the relative warmth of southern Texas it was time to head at American Airlines’ very leisurely pace to Maine. None of us had ever been to Maine before, but as we drove ever further north into the state the place names – such as Dover and Portsmouth – made us feel at home. Although Simon Cox sounds like he comes from Bristol and is now a London-dwelling Swiss citizen, and Huw Morgan lives in France, works in Switzerland, and has such a strong Euro-land accent at times that he has been known to put a ‘V’ in “brass qvintet”, they are in fact both nominally Welsh. And so they were delighted that we ended up in a small town called Bangor (home to the novelist Stephen King, as our Uber driver pointed out on the brief detour past his house).

I would hate to generalise about this beautiful place from such a brief visit to the University of Maine, but this is what we deduced about the snowy state:

  1. Lobster. And crab. Finally a state whose delicious cuisine works for all 7 of us, even the temporary and inopportune vegetarian, Matt Gee, who has hitherto been limited to baked potatoes. 
  1. These people seem to like brass chamber music a lot. Extra seats had to be put on stage to cater for a more-than-full house. We were reliably informed that only the Danish String Quartet has sold out the hall before, and the warmth and enthusiasm of the audience (culminating in a standing ovation) was unparalleled so far on this tour. After a week or so of playing Borrowed Baroque, we resurrected our One Equal Music programme and it was clear at the post-concert reception (and from the CD sales) that our Maine audience really got this incredible music. It’s always great to chat to brass enthusiasts at these events, who are often forthcoming with advice and ideas, and the reception proffered two particularly unique nuggets of geekery: the existence of the Bugle in G, which was suggested as a possible alternative for Simon’s part to help him with the lowest notes; and the possibility of using the angular trombone, which looks like an instrument that has suffered the worst effects of the BA baggage handlers, but in fact was designed to stop trombone players hitting the person in front of them with their slide!
Davis Schuman’s angular trombone
  1. Mainers throw epic parties. Jack Burt, the trumpet professor at UMaine, is renowned for his legendary hospitality – this guy can drink the Mnozil Brass lot under the table! He certainly didn’t disappoint (although our relatively modest intake may have) when he hosted the whole septet and an enormous range of local beers at his house after the concert. Luckily the next day is a travel day…
Jack Burt had stocked the fridge ahead of our arrival
  1. There are bears, possums and also skunks. And only one member’s natural odour led to him momentarily being mistaken for the latter.
A bear meets Dan West, who has already been mistaken for a 54-year-old on this trip

As I write we’re on a travel day, speeding down the freeway towards our next stop in the North East. The politics of the battle bus are delicate – a particularly loud sneeze from your author has just irked his colleagues, and resulted in the threat of Matt Gee giving “both barrels” if the heinous crime is repeated. But tensions are eased by on-board wifi and noise-cancelling headphones, the promise of a lobster lunch, and the the exciting prospect of a night in Danbury, Connecticut, chosen by Simon because at the beginning of the 20th Century it was briefly the hat-making centre of the US. It’s almost as if he wants us to have a quiet night…


Tour stats

Concerts: 8

Distance travelled: 6623 miles

Hours on planes: 21 hrs 30 mins

Time on the bus: 34 hrs

States driven through: 10

Matt Gee’s barrels: 1 so far (sneeze-dependant)