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If you go
What: Old Crown Brass Band’s “Holiday in Brass 2013”
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Sweetwater Sound, 5501 U.S. 30
Admission: Free
Photos by Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
The band includes both professional and amateur musicians.

Old Crown band gives brassy twist to carols

David Jones plays baritone horn with Fort Wayne’s Old Crown Brass Band.

Six years ago, a December winter storm forced the Old Crown Brass Brand to cancel its first concert, taking the wind out of the brass players before they even blew a single note.

However, with plenty of experience under their belt and a possible national championship on the horizon, the band has proved that a few inches of snow won’t be able to white out their free holiday performance Sunday.

“We thought that it may be a bad omen,” says Dave Jones, Old Crown’s baritone horn player, about the recent snowfall that blanketed the area and their first unfortunate event. “Luckily, it hasn’t been.”

The band features only brass instruments and percussion, and audiences will hear less common concert horns as the band brings its special sound to a range of pieces, from “I Saw Three Ships” to “Have Yourself Merry A Little Christmas.”

The group, considered a British-type brass band, uses trumpet-like cornets, baritone horns, tenor and bass trombones, tubas, flugelhorns and euphoniums.

The ensemble is a combination of professional and community musicians who came together through invitation by Samuel Gnagey and Eric Schweikert, full-time musicians with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic.

“We’re a much better-sounding band and a more cohesive band than when we started,” Schweikert says. “Some of our members had not touched their instruments for many years. Others played when they were younger, so they were brushing off old techniques. It took some convincing.”

Old Crown Band players pay annual dues to help with travel expenses, financial aid or other costs that occur during their fall and spring performance season, which includes free community performances and paid musical gigs.

The band works with compositions that have been arranged for brass players or by composers such as Edward Elgar, Malcolm Arnold, Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams, who created works specifically for brass bands.

“We’re flexible. We perform any kind of literature,” Jones says. “If we want to have big, brassy march, it will be definitely loud and bombastic. We also have a darker, more robust sound when we get soft. If you have ever heard a brass quintet, it’s like that times seven.”

Schweikert, a lecturer at IPFW, says he wanted to offer an opportunity for adults to continue their musicianship, especially music educators.

“I felt there was a disconnect between professional musicians and professional music educators, although we’re all pulling the same cart,” he says. “We have a really good community band, there’s the community orchestra and we have the Philharmonic for professionals; Sam and I thought it would be really cool to have a group that’s different in town.”

The two were inspired by the historic British brass bands that were once a community staple during the Industrial Revolution in early 19th-century Britain. Company owners saw the bands as a means to deter labor unrest and provided instruments and uniforms for the musicians, who would perform for various occasions.

Schweikert and Gnagey adopted the name “Old Crown” from Old Crown Ale, made by the now-defunct local brewery Centlivre Brewing Co. in the late 1800s and 1900s.

Schweikert says he wants the band to be accessible to its audiences, especially for those who may feel intimidated by the Philharmonic’s formal performance.

“I think of myself as a regular, goofy guy, but when we put on those tuxes, it sets up a wall for people,” he says. “Here, we’re all working stiffs playing in a brass band. The irony is that’s how it is for the Phil as well. The music is a different type, but we’re all just working stiffs. We just have to wear tails to work.”

Although it can be a challenge to find a middle ground between professional musicians and those who are picking up instruments for the first time in years, the band seems to be competing only with itself.

But this spring, the band will compete for the first time in the open division of the North American Brass Band Association’s National Championship in Grand Rapids, Mich. The band also won a bid to host the National Championship in 2015 and 2016, which could bring more than 3,000 visitors to downtown to perform at the Embassy Theatre and Arts United Center.

Schweikert says their upcoming championship performance is a testament to what the band has been able to accomplish musically and as an opportunity to meet the musicians they will welcome to their hometown.

Jones says win or lose, what the band has been able to build is rewarding enough.

“I think if you asked everyone in the band about why they were in the band, they would tell you, it’s not just about performing for the public. It’s about a personal growth as a musician,” he says.