Recorded at the Cory bandroom July 2016
Nigel Seaman talks to Cory’s ace soprano Steve Stewart about a brass banding career that nearly didn’t begin with an almost disasterous first ‘audition’ in school.
Thankfully he started on cornet at the age of six and has played soprano for most of his career with some great bands and conductors. Kirkentillock with Professor Walter Hargreaves, Desford with James Watson, Tredegar with Ian Porthouse and Cory with Bob Childs and Phillip Harper, makes for a mouthwatering career under the very best musical directors.
Steve is without doubt one of the best exponents of the soprano cornet and possibly the only brass tutor specialising in the instrument on the planet.
He provides tuition for the soprano cornet and trumpet worldwide through the power of the internet and has students across the globe.
This is a facinating insight into Steves progression in which he attributes his success to rubbing shoulders with some of the most influential brass personalities and through sheer hard graft and determination.
From a schoolboy in a small village in Central Scotland to the Rhonnda Valley South Wales Steve charts the musical milestones along the way that have shaped an outstanding career in brass.
He lives with his partner Rachel near the coast of West Wales. Apart from owning two large dogs and several chickens Steve is in the unusual (and to me terrifying!) situation of having real live lions at the bottom of his garden – I kid you not!
Listen to the podcast here
If you would like to read the transcription of the podcast with Steve Stewart just scroll down the page…
Transcript of the podcast with Steve Stewart
Hello, this is Rob Nesbitt with the “Nezzy On Brass Podcast”… In this edition of the podcast, Nigel Seaman talks to Cory Band’s A soprano, Steve Stewart. Steve almost missed out on playing a brass instrument after an early interview in school went horribly wrong. Thankfully, he did start on cornet and progressed quickly to soprano and trumpet, and has played with some of the best brass bands and under the best conductors this country has ever seen.
Steve lives with his partner Rachel in a lovely part of South West Wales, and has an extremely unusual and scary situation at home with lions at the bottom of his garden.
In this intriguing interview, he shares very strong views on discipline and commitment. And if you’ve ever despaired at your own band’s success at contests, take note of Steve Stewart’s frank and forthright views on how a rehearsal should be carried out.
It is, in his opinion, pivotal to the huge success that Cory Band have achieved over the last 16 years. It’s not rocket science, and with some adjustments to conductors and players mentality towards those precious couple of rehearsal hours, so much more can be achieved. Let’s get right into the interview with Nigel Seaman and Steve Stewart, which was recorded in the Cory Band room in late July 2016…
Nigel: Well, for this edition of “Nezzy On Brass Podcast” I’ve come to the Rhondda Valley to no nicer place than the Cory Band room. And I’m here to meet the soprano cornet player of Cory Band, that’s Steve Stewart. And you arrived at the band room Steve, because you’ve got a rehearsal in about an hour’s time I think. So let’s just have…
Steve: Yes, absolutely.
Nigel: …a quick conversation before that. But you haven’t just come from down the road, you’ve made quite long journey to be here today. Where do you live?
Steve: I live right out on the western tip of Wales in a little place called Begelly, which is attached to a town called Kilgetty. Which is about six miles from [inaudible 00:02:08], that’s as far as you can go before you’re in the sea basically. So it means I make 150 mile round-trip every rehearsal. So it’s basically about 75 miles each way, so…
Nigel: So why live that far away from the band room?
Steve: Well, I didn’t move to Wales for anything to do with music. I moved to Wales because of my partner, I’m with Rachel, and we got back in contact after many years. And yeah, that was that. We kind of decided to make a go of it, and we have a lovely life down there. And Rachel’s got two fantastic kids, Matilda and Boris. And we have an interesting existence. We live in quite a kind of a strange place really, we live at the back of a zoo.
Nigel: You do?
Nigel: Which zoo is that?
Steve: It’s called Folly Farm.
Nigel: Oh yes, right.
Steve: And it’s I think it’s like one of the top attractions that people come to Wales for. We live at the back of the zoo, so every…yesterday evening actually. I was sat out in the garden with Rachel about half past seven, and it was lovely evening. So we were sipping on a glass of wine, and Hugo the male lion from the zoo, he started to roar.
He roars at night when he’s hungry, when he wants his dinner. I presume that’s what it is. But it was one of those nights when the wind’s coming down from the zoo, it sounds like he’s 25 yards away. Unless you’ve heard a lion going like that, it’s the most awesome sound.
Nigel: Most people get annoyed with dogs barking. I mean, but you’ve got a lion roaring.
Steve: Yes, we have. And the dogs they just got quiet. I mean, our dogs we’ve got two big dogs, Casper and Cory. Ones that are sort of…
Steve: Cory. Yes, I named my doodle after the band. And they’ve normally got a lot to say, but when that lion starts they shut up.
Nigel: They think they’re [inaudible 00:04:13] actually.
Steve: Yes. And I mean, and we’ve got chickens as well in our front garden. And normally a lot of people around the area, they have problems with foxes. We don’t, and I’m convinced it’s because of the lion scent and it chases anything away. So you know, being the sort of king, the lion, you know. So no, we have a lovely life but I moved down here for Rachel, and various bands got in contact with me. For a while I played with Tredegar, under import house. And then Bob got in contact me, said why don’t I come along for a blow.
Nigel: You mean Bob Childs?
Steve: Yeah, yeah, Bob Childs. And that’s that I suppose.
Steve: That was me, stuck.
Nigel: Well, of course, everybody would have heard the fact that, you know, you’re not from South Wales at all because there’s that north of the border accent. So, I mean, where did life begin for you?
Steve: Well, I was born in a little place called…well, I was born in Bathgate, which is in West Lothian, Scotland. So West Lothian’s an area halfway between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and I was born in Bathgate. But for the first 10 or 11 years of my life I lived in in a little town called Armadyl. Which for anyone who knows the brass bands, it’s a couple of miles from Whitburn. Although I’ve never ever played a Whitburn Band, which is quite funny really.
Nigel: So when did you first start playing brass?
Steve: Well, I was in primary school when I was about what, when I was eight years old. We were all taken into this sort of a hall in the primary school I was in, and they did a sort of ear with us. It was the brass teacher Mr. Spowerks [SP], I don’t even know his first name, I just knew him as Mr. Spowerks, a left-handed cornet player, Salvation Army.
He did a little test where he got each one of us to come up and he’d play a note and then he’d play another note, and he asked you whether the note was higher, if the second note was higher or lower. And I got it wrong, and I don’t know what happened. My mum says that I was so upset that, you know, he said afterwards that I looked absolutely crestfallen when I was walking away. He said, “Come back and try again.” So none of this would’ve ever have happened if he’d have just gone on his first little test. So he gave me another one, I got it right. And I was given a cornet, and that was that. So I started on the cornet.
Steve: And that was that was me. So within six to eight months I was taken down to our Middleborough Band, who were either second or third section, not entirely sure. And that’s how I started playing in brass band. So I was taken into it very quickly, in a senior band. I mean really quickly. And I was thrown onto third cornet and told to get on with it. Which is, you know, I mean, there was stuff… it kind of frightened me.
I remember in my first rehearsal, we did the old arrangement of Les Preludes. And I remember I had the third cornet part. And the old guy who sat beside me I was just puzzled, and eventually I got up the courage, and I was eight years old, I said to him, “How am I supposed to play…” They were split parts, an octave apart. I can’t play both notes at the same time, how do I do that? And I think I got clipped round the ear for that one. So that was…
But my father worked in a local quarry roundabout Armidale, it was all mining and steelworks. Very, very sort of industrial and quarries. And my dad decided to have a change from that, and he joined the Prison Service. So he did all his training for the Prison Service when he sort of became sort of a…what’s the word?
Steve: No, when he’d gone through prison officer college.
Steve: Yes. But once he trained and he got posted, and he got posted through to a really small low-security prison outside Glasgow called Low Moss which was in a place called Lenzie. Which is attached to Kirkintilloch. And so I moved through our family. My sister, my mum, my dad, we all moved over to Kirkintilloch, which is about 20-odd miles away from where I was brought up.
Nigel: You joined Kirkintilloch Band then?
Steve: Absolutely. The secretary of our Middleborough Band sent a note through to the secretary of Kirkintilloch, at the time it was called the Kirkintilloch Silver Band. And yeah, I went straight in. Again, on the third cornet. And I was 11 years old. So that’s…
Nigel: How many years you think you were [inaudible 00:09:18]…did you work your way up the ranks, to the second cornet rank and the first cornet rank?
Steve: Yes, absolutely. Well, initially, I mean, we’re talking back… I remember the first year I did the area championship in Kirkintilloch, it was Beatrice and Benedict. So that’s going back to 1980. So that was that. And at the time, the band was struggling really to keep its championship status. But there was some very forward-thinking people within the organization there, notably Peter Fraser, who a lot of people know from brass bands. He’s a very well-known man for his organizational skills and SBBA, the brass band association in Scotland. His brother Robert taught me cornet when I moved through there, Robert Fraser. So he was very influential.
And Polly Tennant, who was at the time played [inaudible 00:10:24] when I first joined. But subsequently once he retired from playing he set up Kirkintilloch Kelvin Brass, which is now a championship section band. It was a junior band when he set it up. So actually no, Kirkintilloch have two championship section bands, which is I don’t know anybody else who has that at all, which is quite remarkable.
Nigel: Is there rivalry [inaudible 00:10:48]?
Steve: Yes, there is, very much, you know. They share the same band home and they share the same library, but I think that’s where it ends.
Nigel: [inaudible 00:10:58]
Steve: No, I think they do help each other out, and it’s a healthy rivalry. It’s not anything, there’s no nastiness.
But anyway, going back that was me. I worked my way up the ranks. By the time I was 14 I was on [inaudible 00:11:19] cornet, and then I moved forward to bump her up for a little while. And then they didn’t have anyone to play soprano, so I said, “I’ll do it.” So that was that. And I was 15. So I was soprano championship section at 15. I’ve never…
Nigel: You actually studied trumpet, didn’t you, I think?
Steve: From 14, I went to the junior department at the [inaudible 00:11:53] Scottish every Saturday morning, so I’d start trumpet. The soprano, that came a year later. And the trumpet obviously…you know, I was in the County Wind Band and stuff like that. But I mainly played cornet really. The band was on twice a week, and we had more than that when we had contests. So it was a proper championship section band.
And at the point where I joined where I went on to soprano, the band was then being conducted by Walter Hargreaves. He was a massive influence on me. An amazing man. Force of energy, it was just…he was an old man by that point. He was just a ball of energy, and he could knock you down with just a glance. You know, he was barely five foot, he was one of the scariest people I’ve ever met. But he was also one of the most sort of influential in the sense that he could make…he was one of these rarities that he was someone who could make you do more than you ever knew you could do.
And as you know yourself, Nigel, as a player, people who can do that are very few and far between. And I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve had a few people like that in my life, but he was the first one that I came up against. And subsequently in 1984 and 85, we won two Scottish championships. Two years on the [inaudible 00:13:13] with Walter amongst other things, other contests that we won with him. So yeah, that was me. I was up and running.
Nigel: But then you [inaudible 00:13:23], because I know that you studied trumpet down in London, didn’t you?
Steve: Well before then I auditioned for a music school, so it was a second…it was called Douglas Academy, it was in Bearsden in Glasgow. I did the audition for that, I was accepted for that, so I did my fifth and sixth year. And my last two years of secondary school I did there. So I’d come home at weekends, but during the week I stayed in the halls of residence in Bearsden. And it’s like Chets in Manchester or St. Mary’s in Edinburgh, it’s very, very intensive. And when I went there the cornet took a back seat.
It was time to sort of take the trumpet seriously. And I did that. And actually in my sixth year, in my last year when I was 18, I got to the brass final in Young Musician Of The Year, when young musician was a massive thing. It was on BBC Two, it had like 11 million viewers.
Nigel: You must’ve [inaudible 00:14:17] isn’t it?
Steve: You would have done, yeah. And actually there was five of us. The horn player Julian, he plays with the [inaudible 00:14:25], you know. Reese Bowen was the other trumpet there, he’s principal trumpet with Liverpool Phil. And who else was in there? There was a tuba player who I haven’t seen for years, he went to the Royal College I think. And Tony Neil, who actually went on and won the brass final. He works over in Ireland now, he’s in charge of a lot of stuff over there sort of education-wise.
So it was a good batch. It was like a brass quintet and it was good players. Yeah, and like 11 million people watched. And that was back before they shoved on to BBC…
Nigel: Is there a video of that?
Steve: There is some, I’ve got really bad haircut in those. And actually…
Nigel: And you don’t have a white beard in that then?
Steve: There’s no white beard, no. And no earring. But my mum bought me crushed velvet [inaudible 00:15:22]. And yeah, if you ever see it, it’s just…I look like some 70s nightmare on it, and in the mid-80s. That was a great experience. And by that point I had auditioned for, you know, all the music colleges, and got accepted for I think all of them. Yeah, I think I was accepted for all of them, but chose the Royal Academy.
Nigel: For what reason?
Steve: I don’t know, it’s always been something with me. I just love places that have a sense of history. You know, I love playing in the Cory because it had such a sense of history. Just things like that. And you walked in there and it’s all marble, and you look up on the boards and you see names like Elgar, you know. And then you go into the [inaudible 00:16:11] Hall, and they hand you wood busts up there, the one they use at their proms. It’s taken away every summer and shoved on a plinth at the Yarborough Hall. It just had a sense of history.
And actually, I’ll tell you the truth, the day I auditioned I was the last person on before lunch, and the two gentlemen who auditioned me were both utter legends in my book. Harold Nash, the great Welsh trombonist, 40-odd years principal trombone of the Royal Opera House. Sadly, no longer with us. And Ray Allen, the great London trumpet player. The two of them auditioned me. And we finished the audition, and they said, “That’s it, that’s it. We’re finished for lunch.” And Ray come to me and said, “Come on down the stairs we’ll buy you sausage beans and chips.” So they bought me lunch. And I thought, “Yeah, I like that. That one of the trumpet professors, he’s just bought me sausage beans and chips.” So I think that’s…
Nigel: You’re in there? You’re in?
Steve: Well, you know, and we sat and chatted about it, and they were very keen for me to go there. And they were working on bringing in new professors when they said that. So I went along with it, and I arrived at the academy in 1986, after the summer break. And I had my own little pigeonhole. And I looked in there, and there was a note in there saying “Your trumpet teacher will be James Watson.” And you could have knocked me over. I didn’t expect that. But yeah, I had…
Nigel: I know he’s had a huge influence on you, after having chatted to you about Jim before.
Steve: Yeah, I mean, Jim was…you know, we talked about Walter Hargreaves being a real force of nature, and just someone who can make you believe so much in yourself that you could just do stuff that you never thought you could do. Jim was very much in that category. He was a huge man. I mean, he was a daunting prospect when he was sort of stood there looking at you.
I always thought Jim looked a bit like a mafia hitman, you know? He had that sort of look, and he’d just sort of looked at you like, “What are you doing?” And he was six foot seven, six foot eight, and he was, yeah, just a giant. A giant personality, and physically a giant man. But we just went about my playing.
He went about teaching me in a way where, you know, we really concentrated on the musical aspect more than the technical. From the start he said to me, “You know, I’m not here to teach you technique, you should know that already. I’m hear to teach you how to be a proper musician.” And I suppose he spent four years trying his hardest to do that with me.
Nigel: Wow, yeah.
Steve: And so it was very different. We used to think in colors, you try and take away the technical part of it and try and, you know, look…
Nigel: So you obviously must have been taught really well at the beginning. Because…
Nigel: …after all the music colleges for many years myself, remedial work is almost not the norm when somebody first comes, you know. Maybe they’ve been not taught badly, but it’s been overlooked maybe in some aspect and you always have got to do a little bit of remedial. But it sounds like you went there and hey, you already…
Steve: Well, I mean, I think that yeah, in a lot of respects. And that was down to me, and also down to a couple of people around me when I was in secondary school because I went to this music school.
I mean, when I was 14 years old I remember it was a very hot summer, I had this Arban book and I’d had it for a year or so. And you know, I’ve been told, “You’ve got to learn these studies.” And I would just [inaudible 00:19:54] away and try them and I would fail miserably at them, I just wasn’t getting anywhere. And then this summer I just looked at this book and thought, “Right, I’m gonna go for this.”
It’s a funny thing, people talk about it, it just clicked. Just went, and that was it. Something switched on in my head, you know, during that summer holiday I learned all 14. It just went. And I was just suddenly able to find a way around the problems, so I just learned them.
When I went to the music school I was given a lot of time to practice as well during the day, so I would have free periods. If there was a free period, I would be over in the music block and in a room practicing.
Now it’s very lucky that the guy who taught trumpet in the normal school but not in the music school… In the music school I had Eric Dunley, who was second trumpet in BBC Scottish Symphony. So Eric would come in once a week. But on the site every day Ian Muirhead [SP], you know, is in charge of Wallace Brass Instruments and mutes, he makes mutes, he was there every day. So he was a big help to me and an influence as well because, you know, he was a professional trumpet player. He was principal trumpet of the Scottish Opera. So if I was playing something wrong or he didn’t like it, he just used to come in and give me pointers and say you know, “Don’t do it unless you do it.” So I mean I was having trumpet lessons just about every day, you know, he was having me go. And then we’d play orchestral excerpts and he was very kind to me, Ian. You know, he had a lot of time and I’ve got a lot to thank him for, which I’ve never really talked to him about.
But actually the mouthpiece I’m still using on my b-flat trumpet, which is a an old curved-wire mouthpiece from the 50s or 60s. And on the bottom part of it’s got VG, which he told me was the initials of Vincent Geno, who’s a great trumpet player from France. It was his mouthpiece. Well he had loads of mouthpieces. But he left it lying on a piano in one of the practice rooms in school, and I picked it up. And a couple of days later and I said to him, “I’ve got this mouthpiece.” He said, “Keep it, it seems to work,” and I still use it now.
Nigel: Do you play trumpet much these days then, or no?
Steve: Funnily enough, I do when the test piece like for an opener, or Nationals, or European. If it’s really high, it’s not really possible to sit and practice, you know, something screaming upstairs the whole time. It makes sense to me to just play it on a b-flat trumpet, get used to the sound of it my head and feel how I can phrase it, and then just swap onto soprano, so I do use… And I’ve used flugel for that as well. So I do use my trumpet. I use my trumpet when I teach.
Nigel: Is teaching a big part of your life at the moment then? Do you have a lot to teach?
Steve: Well, I don’t have as many as I’d like to have. We live in quite a rural place, but it’s getting better. I don’t work for the music authority, I just work privately for myself. And obviously I do web teaching as well, so I teach online.
Nigel: Oh, really?
Steve: Yeah, so I teach people in various places. Like I had one this afternoon, I just gave a lesson before I came out, to someone in Germany. It was a soprano cornet player, Georg [SP], who’s a really lovely guy and he’s coming on leaps and bounds. And I think we spent an hour doing Capriccio. It was [inaudible 00:23:20] Capriccio. I mean, I’ve just recorded that, and you know, I don’t know if you heard it, but it’s not an easy piece of music to play. And he’s really playing, he can play it, you know.
Nigel: Do you find it easy? Was it easy to get into this web teaching?
Nigel: Quite unusual, isn’t it, to give a lesson?
Steve: Well, it depends how you go about it I suppose. I mean, you need a decent microphone. We were sitting with a microphone here between us, and I use something not as good as that, but it’s a pretty decent microphone. And you need a decent computer. I mean, I’ve got an iMac for that purpose with a decent big screen.
You know, it’s not difficult to do. I mean, I don’t think I would do…you could do it off a laptop. Never do it off a tablet, that’s just, you know. But you would be surprised. I mean, I use FaceTime, and for Georg I use Skype, and they’re pretty much the same. You know, as long as you have a decent internet connection, I can see everything that I need to see that I’d see if I was in the room with the guy, you know. I get him to move back a bit so I can see everything that’s happening.
As long as the sound’s fine, from his end as well, and I could hear everything he’s doing, it’s no different than sitting in the same room as someone. I mean, there are a lot of people that are doing in now. But I mean, I offer it. I should push myself more on it, but I don’t. And there’s nobody else offers soprano cornet lessons. In fact, there’s nobody who teaches soprano cornet.
Nigel: Well, they do say the soprano cornet [inaudible 00:24:49] But is it true that you have to have a certain personality to be able to tackle it? There’s no hiding place on [inaudible 00:25:05] you know.
Steve: What you’re trying to ask me is am I a nutter?
Nigel: Are you a [inaudible 00:25:11] nutter? Go on then, yes.
Steve: Well, no, no. And I think that it makes me smile slightly when people start saying that, because it couldn’t be farther from the truth. I mean I could go on to you for hours about soprano cornet. I mean, it’s such a unique instrument. It’s not like a b-flat cornet, it’s nothing like a b-flat cornet. It’s not really like a b-flat trumpet, and it’s not really like an e-flat trumpet, and it certainly isn’t like a piccolo trumpet. It’s like something unique on its own, with its own difficulties. But as far as what you need, you need to be mentally strong, there’s no doubt about that. At the kind of level I do it at, you have to be very mentally strong. You can’t really have doubts.
Nigel: Anybody who’s ever seen you playing in Cory immediately, even before you start playing, can sense your commitment and can sense your sort of focus when you’re playing. And that does manifest itself, and you’ve talked about this before. You’re quite demonstrative, aren’t you? You really enjoy playing, and when you play something really well and make big gestures, which some people they find amusing, but I have told people this, is that they’re wrong. It’s not because watching band practices here in the Cory band room it’s exactly the same, you just play the same all the time, don’t you?
Steve: No, I’ve never played anything like that in my life, and it…
Nigel: But that’s the way you play it. So for anybody who’s thinking that, it’s not true is it?
Steve: Well, I play the trumpet like that. I mean, I twitch a bit.
Nigel: Yeah, you actually stood up. There was a contest you actually stood up at the end of it.
Steve: Well, that was a bit unfortunate. I mean, I have this thing where when I really need to hit the turbo chargers, I raise my backside off the seat and hook my legs around both sides of the chair, and I just push my backside off the seat so that I can really push on my diaphragm. And I did that last year at the Albert Hall on [inaudible 00:26:59] at the National Brass Band Championships. And it was on the last note, and I thought, you know, “This has gone pretty well, so I’m gonna really nail this last note,” you know. In the process though, I didn’t hook my legs around the chair. I put my legs on the outside of the chair, and then raised my backside off the seat and fell forward. So I ended up on my feet in front of, I don’t know, five and a half thousand people. They’re screaming at me, I’m screaming at them. And yeah, it got a bit…it was quite an emotional experience. Yeah, they went a bit mad, but we played well.
And the other thing is the utter joy you get. I mean, a band like Cory would win uncontested. It’s very difficult to explain to you. They’re just a very special group of people. There’s no weakness. When we hit our a-game, there’s just no weakness. And I think that it’s just a band of incredibly stubborn people who, you know, the standard will not go below.
Nigel: And then I find fascinating the standard never drops beyond 100%. You know, many bands I’m sure listening, they’ll have that push for the contest [inaudible 00:28:15]. Actually I saw Tuesday you sort of dropped a section in attitude and commitment. I mean, Cory is at just like 100%, and then 110% on the contest.
Steve: Well it does, it does.
Nigel: Your focus in the rehearsal is actually part of it, isn’t it, you know?
Steve: I think, I mean, a lot of that is due to Bob Childs. I mean, he instilled, you know, when he came back down to Wales in the early 2000s. You know, he really instilled a discipline within this band. And it’s never really, you know… Phil took over for Bob and, you know, he’s in a very fortunate position then, because he had a very disciplined tight-knit group in front of him. And you know, then I suppose then as a conductor, you’re able to just express yourself. And he’s done so magnificently, obviously, yeah. But yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I get asked about Cory all the time and it’s very hard to explain. You’ve just got to sit in it, and then you know. I mean, I’ve had various friends who’ve sat in and they’re like, “Oh, goodness.”
I think the thing is that people take their parts when we practice them and they’re ready, you know, so when we… I mean, I’ll give you an example. The opening in the Nationals is coming up. So the opening is the first one from this Friday, we have a break for three weeks. The first rehearsal back people will practice their parts. They won’t be treating it like it’s a holiday. They’ll still practice throughout the holiday, and it’s a commitment. So that’s a commitment and, you know, I think there’s a fear factor as well. Because you know, if you start not pulling your weight, you’re gonna get launched out. Some people might say that’s cruel. I don’t think that’s cruel, just that’s life. It’ll come to all of us at some point. It’ll happen to me.
Nigel: Well thinking about family, it really is that anybody can find their own particular niche, can’t they? Now, in this band you’ve really gotta give 110% all the time. I mean, all the time. Through every rehearsal, every concert, every contest. And then you can pick and choose really all the way down to the real sort of social bounds where, you know, that commitment doesn’t matter.
Steve: I mean, that’s the other thing, we’re not a very social band. We’re not really.
Nigel: Until you’re on concerts or contests, you know, when you’re staying in a hotel?
Steve: Yeah, yeah, and that’s great. But well actually when we’re getting down to it, I mean rehearsal’s everything, isn’t it? And proper rehearsal is everything. I won’t name names of bands, but I’ve been in various bands before where you could say that within a two-hour rehearsal and they have a break. You know, a two-hour rehearsal and they have a break. Why’d you have a break? You don’t need a break, its two hours.
And then the banter, you know, which I can’t stick. I can’t stick any of that. You should just be quiet, and you use your pencil, you mark stuff down, you play it. And you know, I’ve been at various rehearsals with other bands where you could say that every rehearsal, at least half an hour is wasted, at least. No if you take a run-up to a contest, for sake of argument, 10 rehearsals. Now work that out for yourself. So it happens every rehearsal, half an hour is wasted times 10, that’s gonna be three rehearsals wasted. So it’s common sense isn’t it? That you don’t do that. So what I do is on a Monday and a Thursday, I get in my car, I put the radio on, I travel to [inaudible 00:31:56], I get here, I take my instrument out, I warm up. I’m sat ready to play at quarter past seven. Fifteen minutes before the rehearsal starts, just like everybody else. And you know, your classed as being late at Cory if you turn up at 20 past 7. So if you’re 10 minutes early, you’re still late.
Nigel: Well, I know that rehearsals start at 20 past or 25. Everybody’s here.
Nigel: Everybody’s warmed up.
Nigel: [inaudible 00:32:20] says, “Well, let’s get on with it,” and it’s like that.
Steve: Yes, absolutely. So we get an extra 10 minutes.
Steve: So then when it starts, we just go about it. And you know, I mean, I chatter during rehearsals, but I don’t banter. I don’t try and come out with some funny, you know, thinking I’m some sort of brilliant comedian, because I’m really not. And you know, Stephanie puts up with me, I sort of mumble in her ear.
Nigel: Stephanie the [inaudible 00:32:43], right?
Steve: Yes, yes, yes, she puts up with me. You know, she puts up with a lot. And so we get on with it. So everyone’s got a pencil, you mark everything everything in. You know, the whole thing about, “Oh, I’ll remember it,” no you won’t. Make your part mark mug proof, even if you don’t think it’s relevant, it may well become relevant, so mark it in anyway. You could rub it out near the contest when you’ve got everything set in stone, and that’s it. And so we rehearse. No break, no talking, half-past nine, boomph, finished.
Nigel: On the dot?
Nigel: Always on the dot?
Steve: Yeah, pretty much. And that’s what we do. That may seem quite boring to a lot of people, but that’s the secret of it. It’s just discipline, it’s not a difficult thing really, is it? Any band can do it. I mean, if you’re a championship section band, if you buy into it as a group, all the players and the conductor, you can get so much more done just by doing that.
And it’s a very simple thing, isn’t it? There’s plenty of time to talk before it, if you get there early. You can have a chat with people, and there’s plenty of time to talk afterwards. You can go for a pint maybe, I don’t know. I mean, I have to drive home, so I don’t do that.
Subsequently, you know, you’ve sat in a lot of our rehearsals, we get masses done. I think we get more done…and I presume Black Dyke’s the same as us.
Nigel: It’s amazing, like it could be like two months away from the contest, and that Phil will insist that everyone’s moving spot-on.
Nigel: And go over and over it and then Phil’s like, “Do it again.”
Nigel: And maintaining that focus which, you know, I think that, plus what you talked about breaks, because I used to find the same. Let’s say a typical brass band these days, you could start about, what, 20 to 8? Quarter to eight if you’re lucky. You get stragglers coming in about 8:00. So right about 10 past, quarter past, you’ve got a fairly warmed up band and you can start doing work. Twenty to nine, the ladies are opening the hatch saying the tea’s ready. So you’ve done about less than half an hour’s rehearsal.
Nigel: A proper rehearsal.
Nigel: And then we have a break, and then we discuss what time the coach is leaving, and when it’s picking people up, and etc., etc. And then right around 9:00 we start again, and we’ve got to, you know, build that up again, another 5 or 10 minutes. Like you said, this is why you lose an hour or at least half an hour of rehearsal.
Steve: It’s just all stuff that’s just unnecessary and unimportant. It’s a bit like a committee, and do we have a committee at Cory? I don’t think we have a committee, we just have some people who say, “Right, just do that.” And I’m like, “Okay, I’ll do that,” that’s it. I don’t want to be bothered with all the nonsense. I just want to sit and play. And then when I finish playing, I want to go home and see Rachel. You know, and I don’t want to think about it.
And when I get in she’ll say our conversation goes something like, “How was it?” “Yeah, it was all right?” Right? And then we talk about something else.
Nigel: You’ve said that, you know, you come to band practice fully prepared, because the band gets through an immense amount of music, you know.
Steve: Yeah, it gets scary at times. I mean, it can get too much.
Nigel: Your cards look like bibles. I mean, they’re thick, aren’t they.
Steve: We generally have a…right about the time of Brass in Concert or just before that, so after the Nationals we sit down, and new music comes out. So we have a Brass in Concert program that we do each year, and the basis around the Brass in Concert is the program for the next year. So a finisher, which this year was the Berlioz…
Nigel: “Brigands Orgy?”
Steve: …”Brigands Orgy.” So we’ve been using that all year as a sort of a finisher. And the “Under the Boardwalk,” that Helen did. So she does that, and them crows love that kind of thing. And we’d do “Aristotle’s Air.”
So all the stuff we did with that beautiful thing that Chris did, Chris Bond, so we do that. But it’s the other stuff, isn’t it? I mean we do a lot of recordings.
Nigel: And CDs. And then again, the focus there, because you get a really difficult CD done in two three-hour sessions.
Steve: I don’t know how they do it actually. CD weekends are such a buzz, because the standard just goes up. Everyone knows that we’ve got to it. And film allows such small amounts of time for each piece. One of these days we’re gonna get caught out with it, because we’re gonna hit some piece we’re just not gonna be able to get it done. You know, but it’s not happened yet. But I mean, there’s been various things we’ve recorded that have really been seat of the pants.
Nigel: The Cory Band has a really big repertoire, they travel a lot as well. This year they plan to go to Sweden, to France on two occasions, and America of course at the end of the year.
Steve: Yes, absolutely.
Nigel: So your band, not just with Cory, but with other bands has taken you all around the world then?
Steve: Well, I mean, I’ve been very fortunate that, you know, I’ve gone various places and done various things. And I suppose being a soprano player, there aren’t that many around of the kind of standard, you know? I’ve never understood this. I’d love to start just teaching kids to start on soprano, because I think it’s just a psychological thing. People get worked up about it. It’s a cornet that’s pitched in e-flat.
Steve: You know, it’s not going to bite you. But no, I’ve won the Australian championships with Brisbane Excelsior, and I won the New Zealand championships with Brisbane Excelsior also. The first Australian band to go in New Zealand and win it in 80-odd years. So it was quite a historic achievement. And I’ve done various things around about various places. I mean, I even won the Sidess, which is the main entertainment contest in Norway, which is a big deal. And I won that with [inaudible 00:38:47], they’re lovely people there.
Nigel: So you get these invitations from other bands, you know, crossing…
Steve: Well, I just get phoned up and it’s like, you know, “Do you fancy coming into…” “Well yeah, mate, that would be okay, wouldn’t it?” You know, I mean, if someone could ask you to go and spend a couple of weeks in Brisbane, you know, you’re not gonna say no, are you?
Steve: It’s quite nice.
Steve: And of course, I love Norway. And it was a pleasure with those guys, with Alan Worthington conducting. And they’re a very, very fine band. Very fine band.
Been very fortunate that in that respect. But you know, it’s not anything I do the whole time because this band is so damn busy. And of course, it has to come first. So it’s only if I’ve got some free time. If it’s anywhere near a contest, no chance. I’m not doing it. And I mean, I’ve got the added pressure I suppose this year, that I’ve started recording a solo album. And so we’re a bit into that. The stuff I’m having to practice aside from the Cory stuff is…
Nigel: I think the way your doing that is sort of [inaudible 00:39:51] CD release the band’s putting together.
Nigel: During that weekend that you’re recording.
Nigel: You just set aside just, what, half an hour or so to just do one of your tracks?
Steve: I’ve done two sessions so far since May, since the European. And I did two pieces in the first session we did, and the second session I did one piece. But the second piece was nearly twelve minutes long, and the two other pieces were ten minutes between them. So I’ve got three tracks down, but they’re three tough ones. I mean, I’m not taking an easy route with this CD, and it’s going to be quite extreme. To the point where I’ve got a twenty minute concerto written for four-valve soprano, which has got a range from pedal C up to super E. So it’s a bit extreme. That’s my summer holidays ruined, gentlemen.
Nigel: Will you play a Stomvi tomorrow, and that’s it?
Steve: Well, good, we’re gonna get Stomvi in here, haven’t we?
Nigel: [inaudible 00:40:55]. But I mean, have you had any input into…I mean, you’ve been trying various instruments, you put into the design [inaudible 00:40:55]?
Steve: I used the same soprano for twenty-five years, and it was an old Besson. And it was a bashed up old thing. It was actually the prototype of a soprano that they designed more like an E flat trumpet design. I helped them design it. There was a few soprano pros went and gave them a hand with it, in 1990 I think I got a hold of it, which was the year before Desford. Actually, the first time I played it a contest was the National Championships with Desford in ’91 on [inaudible 00:41:27], when they won the fourth one in a row. And so that instrument’s got a real history. It’s up in my music shed…or up in Rachel’s music shed, sorry. I shouldn’t say it’s my music shed, its Rachel’s music shed.
Nigel: She’s got a music studio, surely.
Steve: Oh, yes. Music studio, yes. Well, I think it’s a shed. I call it the torture chamber, it’s where you go to torture yourself. But I’ve had this instrument, and it was just getting old. And I’d spoken to Besson about doing something new, and they weren’t prepared to because they’d just brought out a new design of soprano that [inaudible 00:42:11] had helped them with. Now I didn’t get on with that soprano, it just didn’t suit me. I needed something bigger. A bigger sort of heavier instrument.
So I was on the lookout, and I just happened to get talking to the main dealer for Stomvi in the UK, Donald Owen, who’s now become a great friend actually. And some French guy had designed or had helped them design this soprano. And he said, you can take one and have it and try out, and see what you think. We’ll get your feedback. So I took it, hated it, and he said, “Bear with me.” And so the soprano went back, and then another one appealed to me. It was a process then of these sopranos arriving over from Valencia, “No, that’s not quite right still.”
And then we enlarged the bell, we changed the bell mixture. So we went from a kind of ordinary brass bell to gold brass. And then now we’re on copper. And the copper seems to work for me, although they offer gold brass as well. But they were very proactive. And so they’ve been absolutely brilliant for me at Stomvi. You know, I mean they even built me a four-valve soprano, you know, which is a bit of a monster, you know.
So this Dan Price has written a concerto for me, and we’re gonna try and record it for four-valve soprano. Try and record it at some point after the summer break, yes. But like I said, that’s my summer ruined, because I’ve got nearly a month. And I’ve got to get…
Nigel: Something that you love? I’m sure you love all of them, right?
Steve: Well, I mean there’s very few pieces I’ve ever looked at in my life, and it’s actually made me feel ill. Just the knowledge that I’m about to go through a whole different kind of pain in the process of getting this ready. But you know, you’ve gotta be positive about it. There’s nothing on there that I can’t play, it’s just trying to play it all. I mean, the first movement’s nearly 10 minutes, and that’s just the first movement. I mean, then the second movement… Well, people will hear it when it comes out, it’s up to them to make their own mind up about it.
So aside from all that, we’ve got all the Cory stuff to do. And the four-valve soprano though, I’m toying with it at the moment. I’m thinking if I heavily practice it over the break, I may use it at the open just to cause a bit of trouble.
Nigel: Now is it allowed? Is it…
Steve: Oh, it’s allowed.
Nigel: [inaudible 00:44:39]
Steve: It’s been given the go-ahead, yeah. I mean, you know, it’s allowed. But we shall see…
Nigel: Okay. it’s been really interesting. But I’m looking at the clock, because band practice isn’t that far ahead, and you need your warm-up as well. And there’s a couple of questions we want to ask all our guests…
Steve: Yes, absolutely.
Nigel: …towards the end of the conversation. First is a time machine question. If you could actually then take yourself right back to the start of your playing career, given the benefit of hindsight, what sort of bits of advice would you’ve given yourself back then?
Steve: What would I change that I did back then?
Nigel: No, what sort of a change or advice would you give yourself?
Steve: I would tell myself about, you know, how to practice properly. Took me into my forties to really understand how you go about practicing things properly, and doing it constructively. And I would also tell myself that, you know, it’s all about sound. All about sound. And if you haven’t got sound the people want to hear, you may as well forget it.
Steve: It’s all about sound.
Nigel: So playing-wise, where do you see yourself in 10 years from now?
Nigel: And living on past glories then?
Steve: Well no, not at all. No, I really don’t know. If my chops hold out, because you never know on my instrument. I remember having a conversation with Gwyn Thomas, Cory’s old soprano player. Who, you know, I see every rehearsal. And he just said that he woke up one day, started to play, and thought, “You know, that’s it.” And so you know, I’m a firm believer that every dog has his day. There’ll come a time where I’m not able to do it, and then some other poor unfortunate’s gonna have to do it after me.
Nigel: Well, I mean, it sounds like in your career you’ve picked up, for example, you know, how to practice properly. That brings me onto the final bit where I say if anybody out there is obviously wanting to, you know, pick your brains, either by Skype or other means or just getting in touch with you, how can they do that?
Steve: Yeah, there’s a couple of ways obviously. You could message me on Facebook, I’m very obvious, and very sort of you can find me there quite easily. Or if you want to email me, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And that’s all small lowercase, so it’s email@example.com.
Send me an email and we can organize to do it, all you’d really need for it is some enthusiasm, a computer that’s got a camera on it, and we can go for it. I’ve not had any failures with it yet, in the sense that everyone seems to find it just like a normal lesson. I think that with technology, it’s only going to get easier and easier to do that kind of thing.
And so it’s not a barrier that just because I live in the middle of nowhere in the west of Wales, that if you live in Germany, or you live in Belgium, or you live in France, or you live in England even, or you live in another part of Wales that you can’t have a consultation or a lesson, you know, ask me whatever you want. And then my rates, I try to not be too severe with how much I charge.
Nigel: To be discussed.
Steve: To be discussed, yes.
Nigel: Well, Steve, the band’s showing up in the other room. The band are already arriving I think. One or two already arrived here. So rehearsal night, there’s actually a lot going on over here tonight, isn’t it? Because [inaudible 00:48:19] the weekend.
Steve: Yes, and every band member’s like a finisher.
Nigel: Yes, it is.
Steve: So it’s like, you know, if you play in a band, you can imagine that at the end of the second half you do this big finisher, don’t you? Everyone knows there’s a big finisher. Well, if you can imagine doing five or six of those throughout a concert…
Nigel: I mean, Valhalla’s in the middle of one of the [inaudible 00:48:35], isn’t it?
Nigel: [inaudible 00:48:37]
Steve: Yeah, it’ll go Valhalla…
Nigel: [inaudible 00:48:37], isn’t that?
Steve: Yeah, Christ. Good lord.
Nigel: Oh yeah, it is fun.
Steve: But it’s always good fun to watch [inaudible 00:48:46] And it’s always a pleasure to play this in David’s Hall. It’s a fantastic hall in Cardiff, one of the best acoustics around. There’s always a good audience there in a [inaudible 00:48:56] concert. But it’s always the last thing we do before the summer, so you can give it a bit extra. And then obviously, you know, I can put it in the cupboard for a couple of days…
Steve: …afterwards if I’m hotting a bit. But no, it should be a good gig on Friday night.
Nigel: Great, I’ll enjoy that as well. Steve Stewart, thank you very much indeed for spending time on “Nezzy On Brass.”
Steve: Thank you very much, Nigel. No problem…
Rob: If you wish to contact Steve to discuss any issues or book him up for some online tutorials, the contact details will be available on the podcast page on the nezzyonbrass.com website.
If you’re a player, conductor, composer, or run a brass band related business and would like to appear on the podcast, please contact me via the Nezzy On Brass About page where there is an email link. If you’d like to listen to the podcast backlist, you could find it at nezzyonbrass.com/podcast. I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode with Steve Stewart. Catch you on the next podcast.