Article by Brass Band World’s Alan Jenkins on an interview with Steven Mead
When he was about 13 Steven Mead’s grandfather used to visit his parent’s house in Bournemouth on Friday afternoons “with a clutch of brass band records. We would sit listening to recordings of Salvation Army bands and contesting bands from about 4.30 to 7.30, discussing a player’s tone colour, the way great players make it sound easy, so natural, so much space in the music, so much control.”
Two euphonium players were frequently mentioned in those chats - Trevor Groom and John Clough. When Steven was 17 he took lessons from Trevor, travelling most Saturdays by train from Bournemouth to Kettering, a round trip of seven hours.
It indicates an enthusiasm rarely encountered today and that enthusiasm for the euphonium continues to burn with a zeal that can surely stand comparison with David Livingstone’s missionary zeal in ‘darkest Africa’. He is now one of the world’s great brass players who brings more than a touch of magic to his audience’s perception of his instrument. Appropriate then that his latest, amazing CD is entitled Euphonium Magic, an album that features a classical and swing repertoire, sometimes utilising a euphonium chorale of 17 instruments, all of which he plays himself.
With this CD Steven has launched his own recording company, Bocchino (Italian for mouthpiece) Music, and he claims he has had a hand in every aspect of its production. This is not surprising, for in addition to being a superb musician and instrumentalist, Steven is an exceptional businessman and, undoubtedly, a terrific showman. No man can have taken the adage – if a job is worth doing, then it’s worth doing well – more to heart than the former Salvation Army bandsman.
As a clinician and instrument consultant for Besson, he receives about a third of his solo engagements from the company. The rest is a result of his own endeavours. Accepting the fact that he has 90 engagements booked in his diary for 2004 it figures that he is also very good at marketing. An overseas solo engagement, which is where he does the majority of his work, usually consists of a master class on the first day, a rehearsal and a recital or solo with a local ensemble the second day, followed by some arranged teaching the third day, so it’s not exactly a case of flying in and flying out. However, it is an arrangement that has served Steven well, since a great number of his appearances are repeat engagements. If you have attended one of his concerts then there is no doubt you will be anxious to re-engage him. Speaking from personal experience, this writer can affirm to having been rendered breathless by his technical virtuosity, deeply moved by the display of sublime lyricism and wonderful phrasing, and driven to peels of laughter by his ability to combine genuine humour and brilliant performance so comprehensively.
A quick glance at his unbelievably thorough and informative web site – which includes a wide-ranging written master class – will convince you that ‘winging it’ and being slaphappy are not part of his nature.
Born into a strong Salvation Army (SA) family that also included grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, Steven received a cornet when he was six and had his first lessons from Bernard Roberts, the Young People’s Band Leader (YPBL). Two years later, he gravitated to tenor horn and thence to a baritone, which was an instrument he really enjoyed. “I was playing solos on the baritone with the YP band and I was mortified when I was given a euphonium to play.” Happily, the mortification was short-lived.
Both his sister, Sandra, and brother, Andrew, were also musical. Sandra plays the piano and oboe and is a teacher in a junior school whilst Andrew, an Oxford University graduate and deputy headmaster at Blandford School, benefited from some essential advice from older brother Steve. “Andrew played the cornet in the YP band and trumpet at school and he was terrible. I used to hide his mouthpiece to save him from himself.” Fortunately, he proved to be much better on the guitar. He is now the composer of many attractive songs plus a couple of school musicals.
“I knew I was involved in a rich SA musical heritage, because the Boscombe SA band was probably the best band on the south coast at the time and it had some really good leaders, like Glyn Bosanko (my first teacher). However, initially, I was more interested in singing than playing and had singing lessons for four years starting when I was eight. I passed my singing Grade V111 exam with distinction as a boy soprano.”
Although happy playing with Boscombe, he was well are that the ‘best bands’ were way up north. One way to redress this imbalance was for Steven to increase his musical workload, and so he started playing the trombone with the Bournemouth and Dorset Youth Orchestra.
A big change in musical emphasis came when he heard Barrie Perrins of Hendon Band play the euphonium solo, The Harmonious Blacksmith. “I thought, I can do that, I want to do that.” By now, everything about the euphonium appealed to him. “I thought the Sovereign euphonium was the most beautiful looking instrument in the world. When I was 12, I had about a dozen pictures of it on my bedroom wall. I little thought that I would one day be designing euphoniums and would become a professional euphonium player.
“There was not much musical activity at my school so I started running the school jazz band, which meant more time playing the trombone. One thing was for sure, my career ambition rested solely on music and so when I left school I went to Bristol University and started playing second trom in the orchestra.” Nevertheless, whilst others were trying to persuade him to abandon the euphonium in favour of the trombone, Derek Bourgeois “greatly encouraged me to persevere” with the tenor tuba.
“I used to travel to London to have trombone lessons with John Iveson. I could always play the music I had been set to learn but John was aware I was spending more time on the euphonium than trombone. During one lesson, he mentioned this and asked me to try leaving the euphonium alone for three or four weeks whilst concentrating on the trombone. I did this faithfully for three weeks, during which time I played the Gordon Jacobs Trombone Concerto. Then, back at my digs one Friday afternoon, I was looking at my euphonium case sitting there and I knew things were not right. There and then, I made a momentous decision, euphonium or nothing. I didn’t know what I would do, because professional euphonium players were thin on the ground. Nevertheless, the decision was made.”
One of the greatest gifts anyone can inherit is self-discipline. Countless talented youngsters fail to make the grade simply because they don’t have the self-discipline to hone their talent. “This had never been a problem for me. None one ever had to tell me to practice just to stop practising. I’m a practice junkie. I set my own standards, always raising the bar a little. I suppose there will come a point when the bar will have to start coming down, but I’ve not reached that point yet.”
After graduation, Steve went to Newton Park College, Bath, where he gained a Post Graduate Certificate in Education, which qualified him to teach at secondary school level. By this time he was playing principal euphonium with the Sun Life Stanshawe Band and had won a Best Soloist prize in the1983 BBC Best of Brass competition.
“I received a call from Foden’s asking me to play with them at Spennymoor. James Scott was conducting and they played very well. This was one of Howard Snell’s bands and he called me the following week. He told me the band had been impressed with my playing but, unfortunately, there wasn’t a vacancy with Foden’s but there was one with Desford. I told him that I was look ing for a job and he invited me to stay with him for a few weeks while I conducted my job search. The next two weeks I went for an interview in Norwich, Bournemouth and Burton On Trent and took the latter job, which meant I could play with Desford. I looked at a map and I saw that Measham was about equidistant from Burton and the Desford bandroom and so bought a house there.
“Playing for Desford with Howard was an entirely enriching experience and very fruitful. They were a great band, which is reflected in the fact they won the European Championship, the Granada Band of the Year, BBC Best of Brass – (where Steven won the Best Soloist prize again in 1985) – and the hat trick of victories at the National Brass Band Championships at the Royal Albert Hall.” In 1986, Steven was named Euphonium Player of the Year an achievement he repeated in 1993.
At the same time, his job as a music teacher at the DeFerrer’s High School at Burton On Trent also was going well. “The headmaster, Brian Hughes, once declared that music was the most important subject in the school’s syllabus, consequently, he was always most supportive. I built up the school brass band taking them to the Festival of Music for Youth at the Royal Festival Hall and on various tours. I also was responsible for the junior brass band, a string ensemble and an 80-member recorder group. We were always given freedom to rehearse whenever necessary.
“However, I was finding it increasingly difficult finding the time to teach fulltime. I had been invited to spend a week in Japan and was working longer hours at the Royal Northern (RNCM) and the Birmingham Conservatoire. So, Brian agreed to me working just three days a week. Then he agreed to one day a week. Finally, I had to sever my ties with the DeFerrer School, which was sad in a way because I had enjoyed my time there. When Brian retired, I gathered a band of 75, made up of former and present students, and we bade him a fond farewell with a huge concert.
“My solo career was going well and it has continued to develop in the right direction. Each year I am offered a greater number of solo engagements. My work takes me all over the world and I have made so many friends and literally thousands of good contacts. I am very dedicated about espousing the cause of the euphonium in particular and the lower brass in general. The euphonium is a wonderful, flexible instrument that had been dreadfully neglected and its potential has not even been remotely realised. Eight years ago, there were no euphoniums in Upper Austria, today there are hundreds. Sales have gone from three a year to more than 50. The same thing is happening in Italy, Germany and France where the euphonium is now taught in the Conservatoire. It’s very rewarding to know that you have had a hand in that development.
“I have either commissioned myself or had someone commission for me 15 major works for the instrument, including seven concerti and I have made 35 CDs with about 25 of them being entirely solo CDs.”
Leaving Desford in 1989 was a wrench, but Steven knew that a career as a professional euphonium player was the real goal. For a time he worked with the CWS (Glasgow) Band along with Roger Webster, travelling to Scotland to rehearse for important contests and occasional concerts. “It was a no win situation. If the band won, people would say they only won because of Roger and Steve. If they didn’t win, people were quick to point out that it doesn’t work. Now my brass band work is confined to playing solos with bands and being the principal of Brass Band of Battle Creek. They give a Spring and Christmas concert and administer a summer camp where tuba player, Sam Pilafian and I are the artistic directors. In addition there are tours now in the pipeline, so that it is all very enjoyable particularly since the band is made up of amazingly talented professional musicians from top jazz players to a few of Britain’s top brass band players. However, even though I am no longer so heavily involved with brass bands, I am very much aware of my indebtedness to the brass band movement and I continue to enjoy listening to a good band play good music.”
Steven has found that life as a professional euphonium player has been an exciting, learning curve. He has played alongside the rich and the famous and also the poor and unknown, which is the moving scene he revealed to BBW readers when he wrote about his experiences in Rostov. All his adventures receive the same total commitment and care.
“The more diverse my musical experiences the better picture I have in my mind about what works the best. There is a recipe for making things work. First, it must be audience friendly; the performance has to be first class; the programme has to be top quality. When I am presenting a recital, I quickly get the feel of the audience. More often than not, I am asked to play encores and I always a have a few up my sleeve. Sometimes I don’t make my mind up which to play until the last minute, gauging the mood of the audience.”
In 1994, Steven organised his first Euphonium/Tuba Festival at Birmingham. “This came about through my attendance at similar events in America. It was such a rich experience getting the best euphonium and tuba players together from across the genres, orchestra, military band, brass band and jazz.”
A few weeks ago, he masterminded the sixth of these events, which was held at the RNCM. It was an event that embraced an incredible Who’s Who of great euphonium/tuba players from around the world and the very best brass ensembles (read the review by John Lewis on page?).
Soloist, teacher, festival director, recording artist, businessman, and non-stop globetrotter doesn’t leave much time for anything else. Yet, there is something else in Steven’s life – family, wife Tracy and children James 11, and Alicia, 8.
His marriage in 1990 revealed a determination in Steven’s character that has stood him well in his career. “Tracy and I first met when she was about 12 and I was 14. Tracy was playing the violin in the Bournemouth and Dorset Youth Orchestra. We dated for about two weeks. However, her father was not amused, wasn’t having any of it, and so would be waiting to escort Tracy home immediately after rehearsal . We tried again four years later, which was two weeks before I went to university, which wasn’t good timing. A further four years later, I had graduated from Bristol University and I met her working in a wine bar in Bournemouth. We enjoyed a social chat together and I said I would call her but, once again, her family proved to be an obstacle by intercepting my telephone calls. Three years later, I was back in Bournemouth and a friend of mine Tim Norris,met her in Eddie Moore’s music shop. He called me right away and told me he had just met Tracy Williams in a music shop and she had been asking after me. I yelled at him, ‘Don’t let her go’ and raced off to the music shop. We were both single and, finally, we were free to be together.
“She is wonderfully supportive of the work I do and my family provide all the inspiration I need. Before having children Tracy worked as a freelance violinist, now she teaches. She’s not particularly interested in the euphonium and I wouldn’t be surprised if she hasn’t listened to one of my CDs. She keeps my feet flat on the floor, which is important because it is easy to get carried away in this business. However, not in my house, and I am very lucky to have such a wonderful wife and children.
“My father also has been the most loyal supporter and, in the nicest way possible, an occasional critic. He played tenor horn in the Boscombe band for 38 years. After a two-year break, he started up the Bournemouth Fellowship Band and taught himself to play the trombone. Eighteen months ago, he called me and said, ‘I’ve finally made it to euphonium’. I congratulated him and sent him one of the mouth pieces I had designed.”
Another inspiration has been the life and work of the great Russian pianist, Vladimir Horowitz. “He spent 30 years of his life travelling around the world on plane and train giving the most fantastic performances. I have his recordings Live from Carnegie Hall in 1965. I have read his biography and love listening to his CDs. It makes me realise how lucky I am to be able to whiz around the world by plane.”
Inspiration. It is a lovely word and probably reflects something that everyone needs in order to be truly successful. Around the world there are a great number of students, young and old, hard at work on the euphonium, inspired by their contact with Britain’s great virtuosic exponent of the instrument, Steven Mead.
- Alan Jenkins BBW December 2003
Article by Brass Band World’s Alan Jenkins
Article by Brass Band World’s Alan Jenkins on an interview with Steven Mead