Amy Gilreath: First of all, thank you so much, Lydia, for asking us do this interview for the International Horn Society. It’s always a pleasure to share with others and make new friends.
Lydia van Dreel: How did you all meet, and how did you all decide to come together as a chamber group?
Amy: The other co-founder of Stiletto Brass, Velvet Brown and I originally met at the 1993 International Women’s Brass Conference. Afterwards we, along with IWBC founder and retired Principal Trumpet of the St. Louis Symphony, Susan Slaughter, performed together in another brass quintet called Velvet Brass for a few years. Years later we found ourselves, again, together for a weekend performance in the Monarch Brass Quintet and began talking about how much we loved playing chamber music and how we had missed performing together. Not surprisingly, we formed Stiletto Brass Quintet soon afterwards. Our current members are myself- Amy Gilreath and Susan Rider on trumpet, guest artist Rachel Hockenberry on horn, Natalie Mannix on trombone and Velvet Brown on tuba. These ladies are not only great musicians but also great human beings. It is a joy to perform with people with whom you connect both musically and personally.
LVD: Given that you live all over the US, how do you get together to rehearse? How often do you rehearse?
Amy: Yes, this can be a challenge! We approach it in a few different ways. Sometimes we get together for a music retreat at someone’s home: reading new music for possible future pieces, rehearsing our chosen program and then afterwards cooking amazing dinners together. Oh and laughing A LOT! Other times we get together a few days before a performance tour and rehearse then. When that happens, everyone has prepared their parts beforehand, listened to recordings and studied the scores. This is very important as we can then quickly move to discussing the musical aspects and making those musical decisions much sooner.
LVD: How do you plan performances?
Amy: It usually begins with an invitation to perform at a venue. Then our tour is planned around that first invitation and that area of the US. One of the advantages of having a chamber group is the number of people we all know and can reach out to see if those in that particular area are able to schedule a performance by Stiletto Brass.
LVD: How often do you perform?
Amy: We do two tours per year (fall and spring) and possibly one during summer. All members, except me as I have recently retired from full time university teaching, have full-time jobs so we keep tours between 7-10 days. Those tours are usually a mixture of Artist Series concerts, university concerts, and public/private K-12 schools.
LVD: How do you choose repertoire? Does your group have a particular focus or mission in terms of repertoire?
Amy: We like to choose one large composition each tour year and build around that piece. Examples of those we have performed are Joan Tower’s Copperwave, Scarpe! by Drew Bonnor commissioned by Stiletto Brass, Mosaics and Four Sketches by Anthony Plog. Another level to our repertoire choice is diversity: jazz, contemporary, slow and beautiful, transcriptions, and originals. As far as a repertoire mission goes, we really work on giving our audiences a wide variety of musical experiences. Introducing audiences to contemporary music is important to us as well. Talking in depth to the audience about those types of pieces and explaining what is happening musically really opens most up to the idea of new music, and the result is many people comment to us after concerts that they actually enjoyed hearing a “new sounding” piece!
LVD: What kinds of audiences do you hope to reach?
Velvet Brown: Our target audience is simply everyone. We pride ourselves in presenting concerts in school settings with programs that engage students from K-12. Every year, we strive to have residencies within schools so that we are interacting with and teaching students. Additionally, we like to present community concerts, some as the featured guest artist group with symphony orchestras, audiences that are present at chamber music festivals, and collegiate residencies and concerts. We also have a strong record of performances at brass festivals.
LVD: How has your group’s purpose and function been affected by the pandemic? Have your goals shifted in any way recently because of the challenges of the pandemic?
Velvet: Stiletto has been affected by the pandemic. Due to the nature of our performances, we have not been able to be active because of school closures and cancellations of concert series. We made a decision to wait until the pandemic is over. We all have significant on-line activities, and we thought to put Stiletto Brass on hold until Spring and Summer 2021 when everyone can be safe.
LVD: Have you found a way to remain in contact with your audience?
Amy: We have been involved in two virtual brass seminars this fall. One was held in St. Petersburg Russia, The Brass Autumn Festival, and the other in Brazil called Sopra Metais. We will also have a new CD released soon entitled Scarpe !
LVD: You are all busy professional performers and teachers. How do you balance your workloads and your work with Stiletto Brass?
Velvet: Yes, we are all very busy performers and teachers. We feel that there is always time to perform and teach. It is our philosophy of giving back that is paramount. Sometimes schedules get very hectic, but we plan out big tours in advance. And also, since we are all performers and teachers, we know that our time together is limited due to how busy everyone is in their perspective positions. We all feel an excitement for each tour. It is a delight to perform and educate alongside the other Stiletto members. Simply put…Paramount music making, sustainable teaching and camaraderie.
Susan Rider: Since all of us live in different places geographically, we get together to perform when our schedules allow it. As you can imagine, it can sometimes be a little challenging to find times that will work for everyone to come together in one place. And because of that we aren't able to get together as much as we would like. But, since we all enjoy playing and teaching together so much, we make the effort to make it happen at least a couple of times a year. Of course, with the pandemic, we haven't been able to get together this year at all. There is something special about being a part of a chamber music ensemble, and I have loved being a member of the Stiletto Brass Quintet. I value that the mission of the group is equal musical performances and educational outreach. I feel these two things go hand in hand. It's great to be a part of a group that easily picks right up from where we left off the last time we were together--it speaks to the artistry of each of my colleagues. Performing with these ladies has an effortless and joyous feeling, and beyond that, they are quality people and are great friends!
Rachel Hockenberry: Organization is key! I live and die by my calendar. I make sure to write in dates of everything as soon as I get them (gigs, student recitals, etc) and plan my practice schedule accordingly. For Stiletto, we decide what music we’re performing for each gig well in advance, so there’s always plenty of time to prep the music beforehand. This allows us to be really productive during our limited rehearsal time.
Natalie Mannix: Since we all come from different parts of the country, our work with the Stiletto Brass is condensed into a few very intense rehearsal days before we go on a performance tour or record. We work on our own time to make sure our parts are very prepared so we don’t waste valuable time when we do get together. We may only tour for a week or two, but we maximize that time by performing in many venues, sometimes two a day. So in answer to the question, I would say there is no balance when it is go time. It’s 24 hours Stiletto! But we love it, enjoy each other's company, and have a great time making music together!
LVD: What does the future look like for Stiletto Brass?
Amy: I am very excited to announce that we have an upcoming CD release through CD Baby. Our cd is entitled SCARPE ! and features that title piece, which we commissioned from Drew Bonner. It also includes works by Lafosse, Ellington, Boyce and Renwick. With the world pandemic we, like all music groups, have not be able to get together to perform this year. I have truly missed my colleagues personally and professionally! Not surprisingly then, as soon as we get on the other side of this pandemic, we will immediately begin working on those live concert tours and educational outreach concerts that were put on hold. We also will be starting some new commissions. We are anxious to get back together and begin making music again for our audiences!
Velvet: In Summer 2021, we plan to record a series of educational videos. Stiletto will also return to touring and school residencies that have been put on hold. Our tour areas will include the Northeast, West Coast and the Southern region of the United States.
LVD: What advice do you have for young brass players?
Amy: Listening is so important to your development as a musician. Find out who those great players are on your instrument and start there. You will find those professionals with whom you will connect and then listen to them as much as you can. For me, that connection on trumpet was Maurice André and Timofei Dockshitzer. Also, I recommend listening to amazing vocalists such as Franco Corelli, Luciano Pavarotti, Maria Callas, and Leontyne Price. There you will learn phrasing of musical lines and colors of sound. Also, really learn to sing your music using full voice and then sing that music through your instrument when you play.
Susan: Advice for young brass players: If you love playing music, have fun, but if you want to be good at it, you certainly have to work hard. I think music is much more fun to play when we can play it as well as possible. Listen to top level musicians (not only of your own instrument), so you can develop your ideas of sound and musical concepts. Find the best musicians you can to play with, so you can learn, grow and develop from the experience of playing with them. I think it is important to understand that developing on our instrument and as a musician is a long game.
Rachel: Keep going! There is no set timeline for you to achieve your dreams- we all progress at different rates and have different life circumstances. Just keep working hard and loving music, and you will find your way.
Natalie: Seek out the best instruction possible. Nothing can beat the instruction a great private lesson teacher can provide. Another great way to get ahead is to participate in summer camps and festivals. Summer is a great time for intense practice and study, while having a lot of fun with like-minded musicians. Lastly, do as much listening as you can! Go to concerts of all types, listen to YouTube videos of professionals playing in different styles and with different instruments. You can learn so much by modelling great performers.
Velvet: My advice to young brass players is to strive for excellence, be creative and have fun. I like to let them know that it does take a lot of focus and hard work, but the future is theirs to create. I always tell them that they are the future of music and to move brass playing and all ideas that involve brass playing to new heights with ideas and talent.
Stiletto Brass wishes everyone good health, safety and much happiness and love.