Smile Politely

Music as Interaction: An Interview with Bernhard Scully

In his book, Why New Orleans Matters, novelist and writer Tom Piazza shares an anecdote on the nature of performer-audience interactions imparted to him by famous New Orleans pianist, Dr. John. Piazza recalls, “[he] once told me that when a brass band plays at a small club back up in one of the neighborhoods, it’s as if the audience–dancing, singing to the refrains, laughing–is part of the band. They are two parts of the same thing… Since everyone is listening to different parts of the music–she to the trumpet melody, he to the bass drum, she to the trombone–the audience is a working model in three dimensions of the music, a synesthesic [sic] transformation of materials”. Apart from its indisputably original phrasing, this quote gets at the heart of why many people feel such a strong connection with music, namely, most of it is created to be shared as part of an interaction. As such, it follows that one characteristic that makes a musician or band “great” is the ability to create unique interactions with their audiences, to invite an audience to participate in the creation of musical moments and to inspire a sort of emotional (and oftentimes, visceral) symbiosis with the listener.

Canadian Brass is an excellent example of an ensemble that embraces the chance to enkindle such interactions with their audiences and have capitalized on these opportunities for much of the last half a century. The ensemble is known the world over for their musicianship and idiosyncratic, occasionally comedic, sometimes educational, always engaging live performances. For the uninitiated, their NPR “Tiny Desk” performance offers a lively introduction to the group.

Beginning with a matinee performance this Sunday, the quintet will kick-off a short residency at UIUC. I had the privilege of speaking with former member, Bernhard Scully, now a professor at the U of I School of Music, ahead of the show. A man of many talents, Mr. Scully was kind enough to share a bit about his work at the university, a few of his experiences with Canadian Brass and why, in an age of iPhones and YouTube, connecting with the audience is such a vital part of the live music.


Smile Politely: Can you tell us a little about yourself and what you do here at the U of I?

Bernhard Scully: Sure. I’m the Associate Professor of Horn at the University of Illinois. This is my eighth year now. I teach the horn in private lessons, I teach the horn studio class, I’ve directed the horn choir, I coach chamber music, and I co-directed the orchestral repertoire class for seven years. I also play in chamber music, occasionally, and in the sinfonia da camera which is the local student-faculty group here directed by Ian Hobson.

SP: In your bio, I read that you also serve as artistic director of a nonprofit called, “Cormont Music”. Can you tell us a little about this organization and its goals?

Scully: My teacher in high school, my mentor, who was in the Minnesota symphony, he had founded a camp just for french horns which grew to be internationally successful. It’s a training camp, actually, for horn players of all ages, at this beautiful camp in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I was part of it growing up and many of my friends who are in the business now went to this camp. I became more a part of it as I got older and had started serving on the board of directors. However, unfortunately, my teacher passed away from cancer in 2016, which was very sad.

After he passed away, the board wanted to continue the camp and asked me if I would consider serving as the new artistic director, known better as the Kendall Betts Horn Camp, which is named after my teacher. “Cormont Music” is the name of the nonprofit that he created to sponsor the camp. And so I essentially took over this camp. And because he’d essentially been running it himself, I kind of had to rebuild it from the ground up, which has been a lot of work but something I’m proud of.

Image-2019-04-05 (1)SP: You also were a member of the famed “Canadian Brass” ensemble. When did you join the group?

Scully: I joined the group in 2004. This is right after graduate school. I moved to Toronto and was in the group for three years, full time. And then my wife and I decided to have our first child and I was concerned, as a new dad, about all the traveling that the group required. But as it turned out, my hometown orchestra, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, had a principal horn opening and they weren’t able to find anyone that was right for the position. At one point, they asked me to sub for a performance after which they asked me if I’d be interested in the job. Given that it is major symphony, its where all our family is from and we were having a baby, it was like the universe was telling me I should do this right now (laughs). And I did it for three years.

Then, in 2010, the University of Illinois had a horn opening and they knew me from a number of places and knew that I enjoyed teaching. I tried it for a semester and thought it fit perfectly. I really enjoyed the freedom I had to do my own thing, provided I met my obligations to my students and the university. So I resigned from the orchestra and we moved here. And then, interestingly enough, as I was working towards tenure, in December of 2013, I got a call from the quintet once again saying they had another opening and asking if I was interested in coming back. The schedule was a little less hectic than before and I rejoined, full time, and played with them for another 4 and a half years.

SP: What was it like playing with the group?

Scully: One of the cool things about the group is that your so interactive with the audience. They’re just focused on you. It’s a totally different experience than the orchestra. The orchestra can be like that but it’s generally a different kind of experience.

But that real connection and interaction with the audience, it really changed me over time. There was a really high learning curve, as I’d not performed like that before. But having done it, I think it made me more open as a person. I really grew. I would say those years in the quintet shaped me as a player and as a person.

And it was fun! Even the rehearsals. There wasn’t a single concert or rehearsal that I didn’t have just a blast playing in and I can’t saying that about anything else I’ve probably ever done except for the special chamber music projects I’ve done with friends. It didn’t feel like work. The only thing that felt like work were the long travel days and being away from family.

SP: What was the biggest challenge playing with Canadian Brass?

Scully: The schedule was demanding. During my first time playing with the quintet, we played about 150 concerts a year. During the second time, it was about 100. And it was more than just concerts. We did residencies, which could last for weeks, and recording projects, which usually meant at least two weeks of really intensive stuff. There was a lot of media, too. It was a little exhausting.

But you get used to it. In this last year, almost a year after my last concert, I’m still decompressing. Chuck, the tubist, who’s been touring for almost 50 years now, he was kind of like, “good luck with your first year off the road” (laughs). But you really become so accustomed to it. I still have my toiletry bag ready (laugh). It was always like that. You had to be ready to go. That’s really the only drawback to doing it: it takes up so much energy. It takes everything from you in terms of preparation and what you have to do to do it to the satisfaction of what was required and beyond, to my satisfaction. You don’t have a lot of extra brain cells to devote to a sort of renaissance existence.

Now, I still feel that way a bit. Teaching can be intense. But I’m able to kind of find the mental share to re-engage with passion projects that feed me and I get to restructure my life now to make sure I can maximally experience my family, especially as the kids are little.

Smile Politely: Do you have a fondest memory of playing with them?

Scully: Wow. (laughs). There are so many. Getting to sit on the stage with the principal players of the New York Philharmonic and doing that concert every year. I will never forget that. Getting to experience a new place, like Italy or Switzerland and the Alps and walking around and being in a place that otherwise I would never visit. Immersing yourself in the culture, meeting people, trying new food. Those are some of the broader experiences. It’s tough to distill. Even just the great conversations I would have with my colleagues. They were some of the most talented, most intelligent people I’ve ever worked with in my life. You could just sit and talk with them every day, day after day, and I never got tired of it. It was great.

SP: The ensemble is known for injecting their performances with a little levity. What role does humor playing in their performances?

Scully: I think it’s really important. But I think the humor is very natural. If you go to the show, you’ll see that the humor is not an explicitly large part of the show. There is some talking between each of the pieces, just a little bit, maybe a minute or so and there’s often a little punchline or something to chew on, but its not laugh out loud, fall on the floor humor. It’s mostly just engaging, trying to liven up the mood. Chuck (Daellenbach, tubist) does a great job at that. He’s got a very dry sense of humor.

What I learned during my time with the quintet is that you can’t try to be funny. You can’t ham it up. You can only be yourself. In order to be truly funny and truly engage with the audience, just be yourself. If you try to force it, you can’t do it. It has to be natural and the group has always succeeded at doing that.

What I realized, too, is the big question that anyone in the performing arts has to ask now is why would somebody go to see a live concert as opposed to hearing it on your phone? There are so many options now. And I think the real answer is because people want to have a connect with the artist and the group has always done an amazing job answering that question. It’s an immersive, multifaceted performance and humor is one of the many facets of a Canadian Brass performance.

Smile Politely: Can you tell us a little about the upcoming residency? You organized it, correct?

Scully: Yeah. I think back on the last couple of years and I was doing so much. I was teaching, running the horn camp, playing with the quintet. Something had to give and I knew the guys understood. I was sad. It’s a dream job. But one of the last things I did as a member of the quintet was to organize the residency. You know, kind of with the thought that I would play in it (laughs). But after that, I felt like I could leave the group knowing that whoever they get will be amazing, the group will come and be amazing, this residency will happen and it will benefit the students and the community and whether I’m apart of it or not, it will still be great. So I kind of made peace with that and now I can watch. And I might be making maybe an appearance at one of the concerts (laughs).

SP: What are the components of the residency?

Scully: They will be here for four days. The first day [April 7th] they’ll do a matinee performance at Krannert. The next day they have a master class at the School of Music, which is open to the public. Then, Tuesday morning they’ll be doing school performances at Krannert. My daughter’s school is actually getting bused in to see the concert. And then on Wednesday, they’ll be performing a new piece (Quintessence by Dana Wilson) with the Wind Ensemble.

SP: Finally, what would you say to someone trying to decide whether to go to the performance or not?

Scully: I think people will have a lot of fun. The thing about Canadian Brass concerts is that everyone will like them (laughs). I can’t think of anyone I know that wouldn’t enjoy a substantial amount of the concert. It’s interactive. There will be great music-making. It’s a view into the whole history of Western music. There is some jazz, there is some popular music. And you’re not going to hear better brass players. So, young, old, experienced with music, not experienced with music, you can go and have a great time.

Canadian Brass will be performing a variety of different concerts at UIUC beginning with a matinee performance on Sunday, April 7th at the Krannert Center. Bernhard Scully may or may not be joining them during one of these performances. More information can be found on their website.

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