Summer Festival Breakdown: the Rafael Méndez Brass Institute

A week has come and gone, and one cancelled flight and many phone calls later, I’m in the air headed home from the Rafael Méndez Brass Institute. RMBI brings together a veritable army of instructors, students, auditionees, performers, and a couple amazing collaborative pianists for a week of brass-related shenanigans. I didn’t want to post too much about my expectations going into the festival, so for the most part I’ve kept quiet online. However, now that I’ve made it out the other side, I thought I’d compile a list of the festival’s greatest hits (and misses) for anyone who’s considering attending next year. As always, these opinions are my own, and I’m always cognizant of the fact that as a musician whose focus is largely on contemporary performance, my experience differs from my peers’. But here are my biggest pros and cons of RMBI 2018:

  • PRO: so. many. instructors. Run in collaboration between the Denver Brass and Summit Brass (both of whom are amazing performance entities you should definitely know about), RMBI includes more instructors and clinicians than I can probably count. Between the members of Summit Brass who handle most of the ensembles, the executive staff of the Denver Brass who put on some amazing seminars, and performing artists like the Denver Brass and the Pikes Peak Brass Band, dozens of professional musicians are available to chat and answer any questions you have. Though I tend to be pretty shy when there’s one person I want to talk to who’s surrounded by a big group of other professionals, I managed to have a lot of really productive conversations with a bunch of artists.
  • CON: in most cases, you’re only going to be in one ensemble. Though the occasional sub comes in to play in two groups, and the trombones have an awesome trombone choir moment, for the most part, you’re only going to get to play with one group, so consider carefully when you’re checking the small ensemble/large ensemble box on your application. My CalArts education almost definitely plays a part in how I feel about this – as part of a very small brass studio, I’m used to doing a lot of playing when there’s a concert or three on the horizon. When I got to Méndez, I thought I was going to be working with a bunch of different people, and it was a little bit of a bummer that I was only in one group, particularly because evenings are so free. Yeah, we all need time to practice, but based on how afternoons were structured, almost everyone ended up with five or six hours free, even when we took advantage of the optional extra rehearsal with our ensemble. I suspect this is at least in part due to a lack of space, but even coordinating an informal sight reading hour every day could make a big difference for folks who want to do more group playing.
  • PRO: if you’re too nervous to take the mock audition, you can proctor it. The mock audition is one of the things RMBI seems proudest of, and for students on a strictly-orchestral track (or looking to work through performance anxiety), it’s a valuable resource. I’ve never been on the orchestral path, but as a composer, I love listening to different performers, especially when they’re all playing the same thing. Proctoring the mock audition gave me a chance to make connections with a bunch of trumpet players and work a little bit with the trumpet teachers.
  • CON: if new music is your thing, you might feel a liiiiittle out of place. This probably isn’t news to anyone this applies to, but the repertoire presented at RMBI by both students and professional artists was largely compositions and arrangements from the Old Dead White Men category. (Note I said largely, not entirely, but if you’re considering going, expect to hear more Hummel and Hindemith and Arutunian than you maybe want to.) I desperately wanted to play in a master class, but most of the rep I’m working on presently falls under the Too Many Extended Techniques/Too Much Extra Equipment category, and I had no idea how that would go over with everyone. By the time I decided I could just prep an etude instead, there weren’t any slots left.The end-of-the-week concerts featured some pieces by living composers, but not many, and Summit Brass didn’t program a single work not originally written by a white man. Also, to everybody running an ensemble: no more Bach, please. If you can’t find anything to play, I’ve got brass music for you. (Yes, those are all individual links.)
  • PRO: there’s a lot of students who aren’t opposed to new music. Despite going to Weird Music School, I still do a ton of work with Orchestra School people, and I expect that trend to continue. It can be a huge ego hit to composers that so many people are over the moon to play Beethoven 7 for the hundredth time instead of looking for new rep, but a) we probably need the ego check every once in a while, and b) the thing we often forget is that the two interests can often coexist within a musician in ways that are really awesome. As much as I love performing, composing still feels like my primary creative gig, and I told people that all week. And there was very little pushback – I actually got more interest in my work than I would’ve ever expected. Granted, a lot of the ”hey, we’d definitely play something of yours” requires a little bit of sacrifice à la working for free, but that’s something every composer navigates differently. The big thing I’m excited about is the number of Méndez students who are hungry for more rep and willing to consider working with me for more than one project. [More about that in another post soon – new Méndez friends, be on the lookout.]
  • CON: you won’t all get to play in a master class, so time your flights accordingly. RMBI holds master classes every morning, and there’s five slots for each of them. If you play euphonium or tuba, you might have a better shot at getting to play, but if you’re a trumpeter, you better get there early. Signups start as soon as students show up, and when I got there around 1pm on Sunday, the trumpet slots were already half gone. By the end of the evening, there were only one or two available. If there’s one particular teacher you’re desperate to play for, best arrive early.
  • PRO: you’ll have a lot of opportunities to learn about taking creative risks. Being around professionals at the top of their game and students who are still figuring their musical selves out (though I think a lot of the pros would say they’re still doing the same) allows you to hear a lot of the big differences between effective phrasing and musical decisions that still need work. I spend so much time around pre-professionals that I’ve gotten used to our level of musical expression, and it was really nice to get to hear (largely traditional) music that managed to surprise me.
  • CON: lessons aren’t included. This might be because I’m used to looking at composition seminars instead of performance institutes, but a lot of the summer programs I’ve considered in the past included one-on-one time with a faculty member in the tuition cost. Méndez doesn’t offer that. Students can spend an hour with a faculty member of choice (if there’s still availability) for $100 an hour, which is cheaper than you might find elsewhere but still a nontrivial amount of money, and it’s a little disheartening that information about the cost is hidden in a sub-menu on the website and not otherwise distributed until a few weeks before the festival. Additionally, if you want to get a lesson, you need to schedule it ahead of time, since the faculty are locked into their own schedules during the week. If you don’t already know you like someone’s teaching, you’re probably SOL. And if you do manage to get a slot, you might have to miss your ensemble rehearsal or a seminar you really wanted to attend, so be prepared for that.
  • PRO: the nonprofit and injury prevention seminars are vital. Part of my education that (so far) is the most lacking is the day-to-day of managing a music career, especially in the financial and business senses. Kathy Brantigan’s nonprofit seminars on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon were absolutely invaluable. The injury prevention seminar Friday morning is also a great resource, especially if you’re like me and have TMJ and a whole bunch of questions about how to deal with it. Don’t skip these. (Full disclosure: I skipped Quintessential Career Paths in Music because none of the careers mentioned in the blurb appealed to me, but I went to everything else.)
  • CON: “lunch provided” is a bit of a misnomer. The first day of the institute, students were met with finger-food sandwiches—the kind you can polish off in one bite—and told we were only allowed two unless everyone had already eaten. After that, sandwiches got bigger (to the normal Togo’s half size/Jimmy John’s party tray size), but we were limited to one. Usually there was only one or two options for side dishes. There was always a gluten-free option, which is awesome, but students with lactose intolerance and other dietary restrictions often found themselves with little or nothing to eat, and having to go down the street to Wendy’s for lunch every day drives up the cost of attendance really quickly. More notably, the application for RMBI does not address dietary restrictions, so it’s quite possible the staff don’t even know how many people they’re not managing to feed. If you want a filling lunch every day (and if you’re in the early rehearsal group, you eat breakfast before 8 and don’t get lunch until almost 1, so you probably will), you’re going to have to look elsewhere and budget accordingly.

All in all, I’m glad I went to Méndez. Though overly aimed at the orchestral world, the networking opportunities and career development seminars are not to be missed, and you’ll find you have fun in your ensembles and talking with the faculty, too. Will I be back next year? Quite possibly not—the middle of July is valuable festival real estate, and I’ve got a few others I really need to attend—but maybe someday. And if the orchestra world is your thing, you’ll probably have a blast. ♦

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