It’s 17 degrees on a school night. Five musicians donned holiday hats and piled into cars to make their way to the National Zoo. When the group arrived, it was so cold that hardly anyone is there. But this band is flexible, used to accommodating different performance situations. They walk down to the ZooLights stage and begin to play.
Patient, flexible and professional are among the words ensemble director Becky Pritchard uses to describe Pritchard Music Academy’s Powerhouse Brass. Pritchard Music Academy (PMA), owned by wife-husband duo Becky and Joe Pritchard, is a music center in Kentlands that has four different after-school ensembles. Powerhouse Brass is its most advanced group.
The Powerhouse Brass ensemble received their holiday music in October and had two months to learn it all before holiday performances. This means that in-between school and other commitments, these students are living and breathing music.
“Our kids are good,” said Pritchard. “They speak well, they bow, and they use eye contact when they speak. They’re professional.”
The ensemble is a tight-knit group made up of five players: juniors Jason McFadden and Arjun Guthal on trumpet, Kristen Gottlieb on horn, Chris Hunter on trombone, and senior Alex Loane on tuba. “When the kids were on the way to ZooLights, the two trumpet players were texting each other from each car,” said Pritchard. “We’re like: You’ll see him in 20 minutes!”
According to McFadden, ZooLights this year was beyond crazy. So crazy, in fact, that the band refers to the event as Valvemageddon 2016. “To say that ZooLights 2016 was crazy would be an understatement,” he said. “About halfway through the second song, Chris’s trombone slide began to freeze and he was unable to move it. Shortly thereafter, my valves froze. Eventually, everyone’s instruments grew essentially unplayable.”
Valvemaggedon quickly became a bonding experience for everyone involved. “It was the funniest thing. The kids would laugh about it between songs,” said Pritchard. “Some of the best memories you have are the things that don’t go well.”
Two days after Valvemaggedon, the band piled into cars once again to visit D.C., this time to play at the National Christmas Tree. However, the group arrived to a power outage, a closed park and an unlit tree. Instead of turning around and going home, the band started playing outside the park gates. “We had bets between the parents as to how long till the Park Police started to complain,” joked Pritchard, who said the police only interrupted the music when event-goers began blocking the streets to listen.
“The best part I would have to say is the appreciation,” said Loane. “Doing anything in front of your parents will earn an obligatory ‘good job.’ But when that comes from a stranger who isn’t obligated to say it or even to stick around and listen, it really means a lot to me.”
Apart from ZooLights and the National Christmas Tree, Powerhouse Brass’ other holiday event was performing at the Children’s Inn at NIH. As soon as the ensemble arrived, a child walked up and started asking the trumpet players questions. “We found out he was a trumpet player. He’d taught himself,” said Pritchard. “In the end, they played ‘The Incredibles’ for him. It made his day.”
The group took requests throughout the night, playing holiday songs from “Frosty the Snowman” to “Jingle Bells. The band kept the mood festive with string lights on their instruments. “I think we played ‘Jingle Bells’ 14 times in an hour,” said Pritchard. “Afterwards, one girl said, ‘Mom, I’ve changed my Christmas list. I now want a trumpet. But don’t worry; it doesn’t have to have lights on it.’”
McFadden said that the performance was his favorite of the holiday season. “It was an incredible, heartwarming experience; to see the children smiling and tapping their feet to the music reminds me of what it truly means to be a musician.”
The Powerhouse Brass has come a long way this year. The group recorded an album at Omega Studios in the spring, and was invited by Rick Penix, coordinator of Fine Arts for Montgomery County Public Schools, to perform at the Marines 241st birthday celebration at Walter Reed in November.
So what’s the key to the group’s success? “Playing music together requires a level of trust,” said Loane. “And for us, that’s only strengthened over the years.”