An Interview with the Akropolis Reed Quintet: Starting a Chamber Ensemble & Tips

Date Posted: April 09, 2019

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Whose initial idea was it to form a reed quintet? And why a reed quintet?

Akropolis has changed just one member over its first 10 years, and it was our founder, the great Dan Goff. Dan won an excellent job with a military band after Akropolis gave its first recital in 2009, and so I joined, and the rest is history, as they say. The reed quintet idea was simply a matter of the right place at the right time for the right people. We were all attending the University of Michigan. I was looking to play with woodwinds, Ryan and Tim (double reeds) had known each other since high school, and Kari and Andrew (clarinets) had just finished a semester in orchestra together and got on nicely. So, with a few killer Calefax recordings we started looking for music, commissioning other students to write pieces, and so forth. Reed quintet presents ample challenges for tuning and blend, but substantial opportunities as well. We all wanted to do something different, and if anything has been the magnet that keeps Akropolis together, it is the drive to establish something new and go places that no one has gone before.

What inspired you to continue performing with this group after graduation?

Above all, we liked each other. We liked being together and practicing together. We liked the music. It was nutritious, exciting, and our own. Finally, we had some success before graduation at competitions. We were hungry for more. We thought that if we kept at it, we could refine our sound, technique, and tightness as an ensemble, and that with that, our creativity and business acumen would take us the rest of the way. It isn’t often, if ever, you get that kind of feeling. It isn’t something to ignore.

"We thought that if we kept at it, we could refine our sound, technique, and tightness as an ensemble, and that with that, our creativity and business acumen would take us the rest of the way." - Akropolis Quintet

In recent years, I have noticed a surge in the popularity of the Reed Quintet. Why do you believe this is occurring?

We won’t be bashful in saying that Akropolis is proud of, and we feel somewhat responsible for, the recent surge in popularity of the reed quintet. We are ambassadors for it everywhere we go, and we are the first American reed quintet to accomplish many feats. Finally seeing a reed quintet get over many of these hurdles has given it new legitimacy. In addition to this, the reed quintet repertoire is expanding rapidly as today’s network of incredibly talented burgeoning and established composers has begun to gravitate toward the reed quintet for its versatility and color. I also think it is the right place at the right time for the reed quintet. Over the past 5 years especially, the proliferation of digital media has made it easier, and dare I say cooler than ever, to do new things. People just aren’t afraid of new things as much anymore, even in classical music, because there’s so much out there. Finally, reed quintets usually start at colleges, and like Akropolis, these students are interested in doing something different, with quality, and being pioneers of their own, as they should be!

Do you have any projects in the works?

Yeah! This June we’re premiering a new work in Detroit called “Sprocket” by Steve Snowden for Akropolis and a rideable percussion bicycle. The bike will use pedal power to play an accordion and other sounds, and it will act as a percussion instrument and public art project. We’re performing it as a stroll-up concert at the Dequindre Cut in Detroit, an old rail line turned into a bike path and gathering place. We’re also putting together a collaborative program with Imani Winds including a concerto for Monica Ellis and Akropolis, a new work by Jeff Scott, and more. We’re also psyched about our 10-year anniversary, which starts this April, and features 10 commissions by professionals and 10 by Detroit students. In February 2020 we’ll premiere the first concerto for reed quintet and band with the University of Michigan Symphony Band. That’s just a taste!

What are some challenges the group has faced and how have you overcome them?

How much time do we have? The music business is nothing if not a series of massive challenges, but we believe the best way to overcome them is to establish a core set of beliefs and stick to them. Our core values are Excellence and Personal Fulfillment, which we established using the Jim Collins (author of “Good to Great,” “Built to Last,” etc.) method. They guide us as the group and individuals must make sacrifices. We work very hard at our interpersonal relationships, at honesty and integrity. This helps make hard decisions in an environment in which everyone trusts that the group’s best interests will rise to the surface. So what are the challenges? People moving around the country, navigating zillions of schedules, not having all the money we need to do everything we want to do, dealing with a world in which contemporary music isn’t as accepted as it should be, personal differences in music and other things, trying to sell unconventional repertoire, and the list goes on (not to mention the challenges of making 5 completely different instruments sound like one voice, which is a different category altogether).

What educational opportunities has Akropolis created for students?

Education has always been one of our major commitments. Each year we work with roughly 10,000 students around the country from Kindergarten through college, including assemblies that introduce young children to our instruments, band clinics and side-by-side concerts with middle and high school students, and a series of entrepreneurship workshops for college-level students on music business and the arts industry. In Detroit we hold a yearly residency at three high schools where we coach students in chamber music groups, help them create new pieces for Akropolis, and perform with them on a side-by-side concert, which this year features the first educational concerto for Akropolis and band composed by Peter Terry. We champion rising composers and perform works by college composers, even publishing some of them in our sheet music catalog, Akropolis Collection.

Do you have any advice for students looking to follow in your footsteps?

Being a musician is always, first and foremost, about being a musician. Dedicate time to your craft and be the best musician you can be. Study your weaknesses and play to your strengths. Second, determine what is most core to you, what you would never give up, even if you weren’t a musician. Be ready to face challenges, but never let go of your beliefs. Finally, seek advice, and be kind. Ask questions and truly listen. Learn from others and be thankful every step of the way. Now 10 years into a long musical journey with Akropolis, I’ve learned that at a certain point, there just isn’t time in this business for people that aren’t willing to listen, to face their weaknesses and be humble, and be kind.

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