WCU brass quintet takes music to Jamaican schoolchildren

art frThe Smoky Mountain Brass Quintet, quintet-in-residence at Western Carolina University, made a seven-day educational tour of Jamaica this summer to inspire the teaching and learning of brass instruments in the public schools there.

The SMBQ, comprising members of the WCU School of Music faculty, performed six concerts in Kingston and Montego Bay for more than 7,000 Jamaican schoolchildren. In addition to performing for children in grades one through 12, the quintet also performed for and with a community band at Sam Sharpe Teachers’ College in Montego Bay. Performance venues included a shade tree, outdoor amphitheatres and open-air cafeterias.

“While the weather in Jamaica was hot and humid and the performance circumstances less than ideal, the performances were very well received,” said trumpeter David Ginn, a performing artist in the WCU School of Music.

In addition to Ginn, the Smoky Mountain Brass Quintet, which was founded in 1993, is Travis Bennett on horn, Dan Cherry on trombone, Michael Schallock on tuba and P. Bradley Ulrich on trumpet.

Along with the mission of bringing brass instruments into the schools, the quintet provided support for an already active education program through WCU’s College of Education and Allied Professions. This program has been in existence for 38 years and offers instruction to Jamaican educators both in Jamaica and each summer on the WCU campus.

The SMBQ Jamaica tour, sponsored by WCU’s School of Music and College of Fine and Performing Arts, was coordinated in part by Tom Oren, WCU associate professor of special education, and Iva Bailey, WCU Jamaica Program coordinator, who organized appearances for the quintet at the Immaculate Conception Preparatory School, Immaculate Conception High School and Holy Childhood High School in Kingston and Mount Alvernia High School and Sam Sharpe Teachers’ College in Montego Bay. In fact, quintet members met many Jamaican educators who graduated through the WCU Jamaica Program and had spent time on the Cullowhee campus.

During the Jamaica performances, SMBQ members demonstrated their instruments and various styles of music. They invited children to conduct the ensemble and ask questions. At each of the concerts, Will Peebles, director of the WCU School of Music, performed a bassoon solo with brass quintet accompaniment. The bassoon was new to the children, many of whom had also never seen a live tuba performance either, Ulrich said. “The students were captivated by the music,” said Ulrich, the quintet’s first trumpet and artistic director.

While classical brass instruments were unusual to many of the students, music does play a major role in the everyday life of the Jamaican people, as demonstrated through student involvement during and after the performances. After many of the concerts, students initiated discussions and even played some of the instruments. Several school administrators and many of the students expressed a desire to begin school band programs. While impoverished and massively in debt, Jamaica boasts a population committed to educating their youth as a means to escape poverty, school administrators there told quintet members.

Highlights of the trip included meeting and talking to hundreds of Jamaican students, performing with the community band at the Sam Sharpe Teachers’ College, performing with the Immaculate Conception High School Orchestra and the warm reception from audiences. Bennett concedes he probably will never again experience “the fantastic applause” he received after playing the theme from “Titanic” at the all-girls Immaculate Conception High School.

The quintet promotes the music and composers of the Southern Appalachian Mountains region and has performed at the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall and traveled internationally to perform in Ireland, Wales, England, Russia, China and Germany.

While the SMBQ trip to Jamaica was arranged without the help of WCU’s Office of International Programs and Services, that office did help coordinate SMBQ tours with WCU exchange partners in Germany and China. Those tours were “a wonderful and unusual way to cement our relationship with our exchange partners,” said Lois Petrovich-Mwaniki, director of WCU’s Office of International Programs and Services.

Universities typically send academic delegations to visit partner institutions but “sending a musical group was a more comprehensive way to advertise our partnership and the WCU music program to the local university and community in each of these cities,” Petrovich-Mwaniki said. “Our partners also found it very creative to conduct a site visit in this manner.”

This was the group’s first trip to Jamaica, and according to Ulrich, the quintet would like to return to help set up brass ensembles in the public schools there. The quintet plans to tour the Netherlands, Germany and the Czech Republic in the spring.

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