News - Live, Onstage and Learning

Live, Onstage and Learning

Live, Onstage and Learning

As freshman Trevor Sattler positioned his upright bass for the band’s first number onstage, he couldn’t help but wonder what would go wrong next. A host of problems hampered last night’s performance, and an amplifier failure earlier this morning threatened this show, too. He and the other members of the Greenville College Jazz Band were in Branson, Missouri, on their first ever tour as the opening act at several venues. They hoped this performance in the King’s Castle Theater would go better than last night’s at the Showboat Branson Belle.

The Belle’s poor acoustics caught the musicians by surprise. Their drummer, tucked into a glass cubicle, heard only the piano and bass. The brass and woodwind players strained through monitors to hear the drums. The pianist could not hear herself playing. To the students, the music seemed disjointed and off, hardly the rich, full sound they achieved in practices back in Greenville.

“This is what it’s like to be professionals,” director Will Fairbanks explained to them afterward. “You have to be able to play in any venue.” The evening’s show brought two lessons: One, live performance is unpredictable; it is best to expect the unexpected. Two, live performance is temporal; once played, the music is gone. The students’ performance on the Belle was history. Ruing past sound issues would not help their next show at the King’s Castle Theater.

Before their performance at the King’s Castle, Sattler’s amplifier failed a sound check. Theater staff located another amp, but the replacement gave the bass an unusual sound. Sattler knew there were no other options. He had to let go of the ideal performance he imagined – a performance he had even delivered on occasion – and help the ensemble out as best he could. He had just learned another lesson about performing live: flexibility is critical.

“Performance is where we perfect our art,” explains Fairbanks, director of band programs at GC. “We can play our instruments all day long, but until we play in front of an audience and see how they respond, we’ll never be as good as we can be.”

If audience response gauges a show, then the GC Jazz Band delivered a five-star, thumbs-up, must-see opener at The King’s Castle Theater. By the third tune in the band’s swinging 20-minute set, theater staff made their way into the hall to see the show. They soon crowded the doorways and lined the perimeter aisles.

Directing, with his back to the audience, Fairbanks did not fully take in the swelling, foot-tapping, time-keeping crowd, but he did catch a glimpse at the wings off stage. There, cast members, stagehands, and workers from the tech and lighting crews pressed closer for a better look. By the time the students closed with “In the Mood,” couples were swing dancing in the aisles.

Some of the King’s Castle audience took in the band’s later performances at Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater and Silver Dollar City where the commendations continued to flow. “Everywhere we went, the professionals we performed with just kept coming back with compliments,” Sattler recalled. “We did something that really made us stand out from the norm, something that dug deep into people’s hearts.”

Since the jazz ensemble’s beginning nearly a year ago, it has more than doubled in size and expanded its capabilities. It is the newest addition to a band program that has grown under Fairbanks’ leadership to include concert, marching and pep bands. Fairbanks attributes the jazz band’s growth to students recruiting other students. “Part of it is the music,” he says. “Swing music appeals to young people today. It is upbeat, fun to listen to and fun to play.”

Fairbanks seems particularly gifted in envisioning the most entertainment value a group can achieve, given its constraints. He writes arrangements for church and school ensembles with limited instrumentation. He charts entertaining field shows for high school marching bands that have few members. He identifies musicians’ strengths and finds music to showcase them. He assesses a performance space and places musicians where the sound from their instruments travels a barrier-free path. “A lot of it has to do with physics,” he says. “If you want a group to sound good, then you have to do things that allow them to sound good.”

While Fairbanks can lay the groundwork for an entertaining performance, the students must deliver that show. The best delivery comes when they own the music and commit to working together. Poised behind his bass, Sattler saw both ownership and commitment in Branson. “We really managed to blend well,” he says. “For being together under a year, this band has made explosive growth.” That growth suggests an even richer jazz experience for GC audiences this fall.

This story was published on July 30, 2013