College of Visual and Performing Arts

JMU Brass Band in England: Students Respond to Performing on an International Stage


By Jen Kulju (M’04)

Cassie Coss

Freshman Cassie Coss was home in Spotsylvania, Virginia, over winter break when she received a message from Mr. Kevin Stees, professor of tuba and euphonium at James Madison University and director of the internationally recognized JMU Brass Band. The message: “Do you want to go to England?” It was a call that would change the direction of Coss’ musical career. A music industry major and member of the Marching Royal Dukes, Coss understood the importance of the trip and was “insanely excited” that her dream of being in the Brass Band was coming true.

Robert Wollenberg

Music industry major Robert Wollenberg was a sophomore at Spotswood High School in Penn Laird, Virginia, when Stees visited his band class to tell them about a new youth brass band he was forming. Stees played for the students music by the Hammonds Saltaire Band (formerly the Yorkshire Building Society Band), and Wollenberg was hooked. “I had never heard anything like it. I knew immediately that I wanted to be a part the group” that would eventually become the Massanutten Youth Brass Band. Now a senior at James Madison, Wollenberg is the principal cornet and longest-serving member of the JMU Brass Band, having started with the band in the fall of 2012.

JMU Brass Band leaving for England

Coss and Wollenberg are two of 32 members of the JMU Brass Band that travelled to Manchester, England, to perform in the 2017 Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) Brass Band Festival in January. The annual festival draws the top talent in brass bands from around the world; this year marked the first time a band from the United States was invited to play—and Stees, who has been attending the event for years, couldn’t turn down the “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity for the JMU Brass Band.

The JMU Brass Band was featured throughout the entire festival. Playing the first concert was the brass quintet of Wollenberg (cornet), Andrew Wood (cornet), Hunter Payne (tenor horn), Phillip Marion (euphonium) and Kai Smith (tuba). Wollenberg says the performance went “smoothly” because members “instantly blended” when they came together a couple of weeks prior to the trip.

JMU Brass Band perform in 2017 RNCM Festival

Stees says the highlight of the festival was the band’s 90-minute performance in front of an enthusiastic audience of 250 to 300 people. Both Wollenberg and Coss admitted to feeling nervous, but managed to pull it together on stage for the program that consisted of Stephen Bulla’s Images for Brass, Philip Spark’s Variations on an Enigma, Josef Turrin’s Hymn for Diana, Oliver Waespi’s The Raid, and the world premiere of Matsuri, written for the Brass Band by JMU composition professor Eric Guinivan.

With a score of 110 pages, Matsuri took Guinivan over 100 hours to write and is inspired by Japanese art and culture. Matsuri (Festivals) has three movements that are titled after traditional Japanese festivals. The first movement, “Fireworks at Ryogoku,” is “joyous, fun and flashy,” while the second movement is meant to be more reflective. Technically the easiest movement, according to Guinivan, “Bells on New Year’s Eve” interlaces 108 bell hits to coincide with the 108 temple bells rung at midnight on New Year’s Eve in Joya no Kane, a Japanese ceremony in the Buddhist tradition. “The Burning of Mount Wakakusa” was inspired by the annual festival, Wakakusa Yamayaki, which coincidentally runs the last week in January, the same weekend that the RNCM Brass Band Festival took place. Guinivan calls this third movement the “jazziest music I’ve ever written.”

The band began practicing the first movement of Guinivan’s piece in November and had a month to learn the last two movements. Coss learned all three movements after winter break and reveals she was “terrified” when she first got the piece. “It looked hard, and it was.” However, after spending some time with the piece, Coss says she “enjoyed playing it and liked how it sounded.” Wollenberg is excited to play Matsuri again in the Wednesday, February 15th concert of the JMU Contemporary Music Festival and at the JMU Brass Band concert at the Forbes Center on Saturday, February 18th.

The Brass Band’s time at the festival culminated in a performance with the world’s No. 1 brass band, The Cory Band, who played at the Forbes Center in Feb. 2016. While Stees says the JMU Brass Band has played at some of the same events as the Wales-based Cory Band over the years, it was when The Cory Band came to JMU that he got to know musical director Philip Harper. The Cory Band worked with the JMU Brass Band at the Forbes Center, but did not perform on stage together. So, when asked to perform a familiar Sousa march, “The Thunderer,” on stage with The Cory Band at the RNCM Brass Band Festival, Stees said “absolutely!” Despite having to acquaint themselves with a different arrangement of the music only hours before the concert, the Brass Band “pulled it off,” says Wollenberg, who along with Coss, thought performing with The Cory Band was “absolutely incredible.”

The festival also featured Britain’s world-famous Black Dyke Band and English euphonium soloist Stephen Mead, among others. “The Black Dyke Band was the first professional brass band I’ve ever heard play, and I was amazed the entire time,” recalls Coss. Even more meaningful for Coss was watching Mead play the euphonium, an instrument she has played since the seventh grade. “I feel like I’ve had a better work ethic since coming back because I was so inspired.”

As for Coss and Wollenberg, it was their first time to England—for Coss, her first time overseas. Coss appreciated the subtle differences in language and “calmed down” city of Manchester while Wollenberg was moved by the beauty of the Manchester Cathedral. Both say they had to adjust to the cars driving on the left side of the road instead of the right—and both were proud to represent their country musically on an international stage.

To read a review of the JMU Brass Band’s 90-minute performance, visit

To hear interviews with Mr. Kevin Stees and JMU Brass Band members from the RNCM Brass Band Festival, visit

Photos and video courtesy of Kevin Stees and James Madison University. 




Published: Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Last Updated: Wednesday, January 2, 2019

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