Four music education students will take that education to new heights this spring when they release their own album, along with a performance video to be featured on the Vic Firth percussion YouTube channel and potentially viewed by students and teachers around the world. It all started when they asked each other, “Wouldn’t it be crazy if…”
“A lot of the things our quartet got started with started with hypotheticals,” says Stephen McMullan, principal musician for the Bower Percussion Quartet. ‘Wouldn’t it be crazy if we could get a video on Vic Firth?’”
Vic Firth is a company that produces percussion sticks, mallets and educational resources for percussionists. One of the quartet members, Nick McConnaughey, is a Vic Firth-sponsored musician.
Troy Jones, FGCU associate director of bands, works closely with the quartet and says, “It’s a very big deal if you’re selected by Vic Firth to be featured. There are millions of young percussionists at varying levels who look at those videos as a means of education.”
The Bower Percussion Quartet includes the top four students from FGCU’s Percussion Studio. In spring 2020, that group included McMullan, McConnaughey, Eduardo Ortega and Michael Balars. Ortega has since graduated.
“It is quite an honor to be selected to be a part of it,” Jones says of the quartet. “For these four gentlemen, they click really well. They wanted to take the ensemble in a direction that would be even higher than usual because they stayed with it for about two years.”
That direction involved two firsts for the Bower School of Music & the Arts: a student-led, three-day performance tour at schools in Central and South Florida – completed just before COVID-19 shut schools down in March 2020 – and a CD, which the group recorded over two days in December. The recording sessions were filmed, and the video for the piece “DisArchitecture” will be featured on the Vic Firth YouTube channel.
Each member of the quartet is widely involved in music education and performance in Florida, including teaching as percussion specialists in area schools, as staff for Infinity Percussion in Orlando – which competes at a national level – and for McConnaughey, arranging music for groups as far away as Germany, where he taught for two months in 2019.
Each of these experiences helped the quartet build industry connections. From the videographer who filmed their recording sessions to the photographer who took promotional photos for the CD, they knew everyone involved.
The $3,500 budget, including paying the recording and mixing teams and providing accommodations for them, was funded by the Bower School of Music & the Arts. The CD and videos will be released online this spring, and the Bower School will distribute the recordings as an educational tool for Florida students.
“We had the idea that we wouldn’t have to go to these high-budget rates,” McMullan says, “because everybody on the team we know from the connections from the band experience that we all have.”
New connections helped the project come to life, too.
The CD features four pieces. “DisArchitecture” by Dave Hall, suggests an instrument called a static whip, which the quartet learned is no longer being made.
“The composer actually mailed us his, that he used when he first made the piece,” McMullan says. Hall also listened to the group’s early recordings of the piece and sent feedback. The album also features “Torched and Wrecked” by David Skidmore, “Living Room Music” by John Cage and McConnaughey’s own piece, written during quarantine: “State of the Arts.”
“Nick’s piece was written very smart,” Ortega says. “He wrote that piece with the recording in mind … it’s fun, light-hearted and it grooves heavy.”
The group needed that lightheartedness as they planned album logistics, rehearsed – for six hours every week between summer and the December recording sessions, more, McConnaughey says, than any other ensemble on campus – and finally recording the album over two six-hour days.
“We recorded in the rehearsal hall in Bower,” Ortega says. “It was very surreal the night before, and about 15 minutes into it. Then it became this giant monster. Especially the first block of the first day was very taxing because we were high-energy, hyper-focused.”
Fortunately, Ortega says, Jones was there to keep the group relaxed.
The title of the album, “A Legitimate Excuse,” is a nod to a phrase Jones uses frequently and jokingly with his students to remind them that as music educators, students are counting on their preparation. In other words, there are no “legitimate excuses” for not practicing, or for showing up late to a class you’re teaching.
Jones hopes students at the Bower School of Music will continue to try new projects, like what Ortega, McMullan, McConnaughey and Balars have done with the album and video recordings.
“Music changes the ordinary to the extraordinary in a unique way,” Jones says. “There are so many opportunities this creates for you, but also for others … that’s what we’re trying to do here every day.”
The group has two pieces of advice for students looking to do a similar project: Ask for help, and work with your friends.
If you have an idea for something,” Balars says, “the best first step is to ask somebody for help. The worst you can get is a ‘no,’ and the best you can get is a ‘yes,” and then you can record an album.”
“It really was fun, because you’re making music with your friends,” Ortega says. “I can’t imagine doing the album with anyone else.”