American Band College adds soundtrack to fireworks

The American Band College will be playing a different tune at this year's Fourth of July parade in Ashland. And the trumpet, trombone and tuba players couldn't be happier.

For the past 19 years, the band has played Edwin Franko Goldman's "On the Mall," a composition marked by prolonged runs along the higher registers.

"Those high notes can be especially taxing for the brass," says Max McKee, executive director of the American Band College, a summer program for band directors. The musicians played "On the Mall" 27 times during last year's parade.

"I saw the brass players slapping their faces to keep the blood flowing. When you play a piece like that so many times, you don't have much left for the concert at night," says McKee. The band's evening performance at the Ashland High School stadium traditionally tops off the day's festivities.

So "On the Mall" is out, and "To the Max" (yes, it's a piece dedicated to McKee) is in.

According to McKee, the new march was composed just for American Band College.

tradition, each year's graduating class presents a gift to the college, typically a computer system, audio-video device or some other useful piece of equipment.

The Class of 2008 had a different idea. Two years ago, it commissioned Robert W. Smith, a prolific American composer of band, orchestra and film music, to create a march for the 2008 Fourth of July celebration. Following the grand tradition of parade marches, Smith scored the piece to be played, sung and whistled by the 200 or so members of the band.

It even incorporates the air horns of the three 18-wheel flatbed trucks that will carry the band and its families through the parade. Thus, the piece's subtitle: "On the Truck."

"After all these years, it is terrific for Ashland to have its own parade march," says McKee. "And what better way to acknowledge the 20th anniversary of the American Band College's appearance in the parade."

McKee founded the American Band College in 1989 while teaching in the music department at Southern Oregon University. From its beginning as a series of summer workshops for band directors, it has evolved into a three-year master's degree program.

Enrollees this summer hail from 43 states and several foreign countries. Mostly middle school and high school band teachers, they perform on the Fourth for fun, not to meet a requirement, says McKee.

"Nobody wants to miss it," he adds, noting that most have never seen a parade crowd as large as the one in Ashland.

The chance to learn from famous composers and top conductors brought Tracy Wright to the college from Ringgold, Ga.

"I look at the scores I wrote before coming to ABC, and they aren't even in the ballpark with the ones I'm writing now," says the 2007 American Band College graduate and band director at Ringgold Middle School.

Wright credits the college's faculty of 25, which includes an expert instructor for each band instrument, for "revolutionizing" the way he teaches.

"Teaching band is like a language teacher trying to teach French, Spanish, Russian, German and Latin in the same classroom. I can teach for all the instruments now," he explains.

Wright will serve as an announcer at the evening concert, which begins at 8 and wraps up with a fireworks display.

Something else to be listening for if you go: guest soloist Patrick Sheridan's rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee" on the tuba.

Sheridan is a former member of the U.S. Marine Band.

"He's amazing," says McKee.

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