Outside the Echo Chamber, Pt. IV: Stranded Silver

    To put on concerts beyond the standard solo or studio recital while in school is certainly a cool thing to do. Taking the initiative to start your own “band” while in school and taking that band out into the world is another level of awesome that is not attempted nearly enough. Enter Stranded Silver, a flute quartet comprised of four East Carolina students and (recent) alumni - Mary Gheen, Willie Santiago, Jackie Traish, and Benjamin Sledge. The group was initially brought together by Mary and Willie with the intention of playing as a for-credit chamber ensemble. However, when their teacher informed them that she simply had too much on her plate (22 students will do that) to handle another quartet, the four of them decided to try and make some noise on their own.

    That November, after roughly two months of rehearsing, they booked their first performance at a local nursing home and played almost entirely standard classical repertoire. The concert was well received, as most concerts for the ever-amiable Golden Generation tend to be; and it significantly boosted the group’s confidence in their ability to act on their own. They quickly followed this first performance by booking ECU’s recital hall for a January concert of their own and submitted recordings for consideration to perform at the National Flute Association’s annual convention in Chicago.

    Now, it’s very important to keep in mind that these guys were planning both a show and a trip to Chicago during the back half of their fall semester. That meant finding time for rehearsals and weighing travel costs at whatever time of day was available amidst preparation for exams and performances. Choosing audition pieces from the traditional material they had showcased in their first concert proved a quick fix to circumvent the lack of chemistry and identity that any two-month old group would almost inevitably face; however, as they sent the recordings off to be judged, they suspected that their musical vision in its current unrealized state might not grant them a performance slot (or the ability to apply for a school grant to cover the cost of travel). Rather than sitting idly by to await their fate, however, they decided to try and raise money for the trip on their own through crowd funding site GoFundMe and fundraising performances. Although the band generally divides managerial duties between the four of them (Ben handles business coordination and social media, Jackie handles logistics, etc.), these fundraising performances required each band member to sift through their connections and organize opportunities. The concerts were generally a more effective fundraising tool because they involved in-person interaction. Additionally, Jackie says, “If people are more willing to hand you money than to use a website, no percentage comes out of it.”

Left to Right: Willie, Jackie, Ben, and Mary

    I need to back up a bit. As I mentioned, Stranded Silver’s winter months were spent focused on two goals (convention and concert); and their evolution during this time was hardly linear. All four members had begun to sense a natural tendency within the group toward more contemporary music soon after that first concert. As Jackie tells it, “We liked some of that [traditional rep], but then we started adventuring into more contemporary flute quartet music…and pieces with extended techniques; and we realized as a group that we really liked those kinds of pieces a lot more than the classical.” It became apparent that they wanted to have a significantly expanded repertoire when their concert rolled around in January. To find new music to play, they used traditional sources (school music library, online chamber music databases) and Youtube before ultimately directing the search toward individual composer catalogs. Composers who had written extensively for flute or had written a piece that a Stranded Silver member had previously enjoyed playing drew the group’s immediate attention. Willie describes the search for new music as a “hit or miss” process but reiterates that “just looking through Youtube isn’t necessarily enough because when you look through Youtube, a lot of the same things will come up…a lot of these [newer] pieces aren’t widely performed.”

    Once they decided that they wanted a piece of music, it was necessary to either directly contact the composer or to contact the composer’s publisher. (Side note: If a composer is represented by a publisher, that information should be available on their website or through a simple Google search of “[composer name] publisher.” This is hardly a road block to be feared.) When it comes to speaking directly with composers to purchase music, Jackie says “I’ve had positive reactions almost every time.” In the case of Tim Sutton’s Grace, which has become somewhat of a signature piece for Stranded Silver, East Carolina actually purchased the piece for them at the band’s request; and that piece is now part of the music library. This sort of school support for student creativity cannot be applauded enough.

    So the audition recordings were en route to the NFA, fundraising efforts were underway, and the quartet was sitting on a bevy of new music to sift through for their concert in just over a month. Now they needed to not only choose and rehearse the music but also promote themselves and their concert. Ben made the apparently executive decision to dive into social media and create not only a Facebook event for the concert but also an artist page for the band. I say executive decision because this move was a complete surprise to the rest of the group, though they welcomed it. When I ask about the social media strategy early on, Willie quickly responds, “The strategy was to invite everyone we know.” They invited all of their collective Facebook friends to like the artist page and, Jackie says, “We nagged everyone to come to the concert. We made flyers. ‘We made food. You’ve got to come!’ And they were great to say ‘Well, these are my friends, so I guess I’ll go.’ Then, at the end of the concert we had a lot of people come backstage to say ‘That was awesome!’ Some even said they enjoyed the concert so much that they would have paid money to see it.” That concert featured older pieces by Anton Reicha alongside newer pieces by Eric Ewazen and Ian Clarke. More importantly, it drew a crowd of over 70 people and nearly filled the room to capacity.

    Over the next few months, the band was given the disappointing news that they had not been selected to perform at the NFA convention, but their fundraising allowed them to fly to Chicago anyways in order to soak up as much knowledge and experience as they could. Since then, they have performed for multiple school functions, including appearances at an ECU Excels event and at ECU’s annual band camp. The quartet has even made appearances at a handful of high schools in the Greenville area on their own volition. Towards the end of that same spring semester (and in the middle of recital season), they staged a second concert in the school’s recital hall which drew an audience of roughly fifty people, despite a serious tornado warning hanging over the area. They donned face makeup and masks to perform Tim Sutton’s Grace at that year’s Frequencies concert. Both Ben and Jackie cited this particular performance as a turning point for the group’s identity. Says Jackie, “[We were thinking] this is either going to go really well, or we’re going to have to change everything that we’re doing…We got a standing ovation as the first group to play. So that was the moment that we thought ‘That’s it. This is what we have to do. It’s what we like, and it seems apparent that it’s a positive experience for others, too.’” Although the group’s face makeup has not seen too many appearances since then, the conservative music selection that defined the first months of their journey is almost certainly a thing of the past.

    I ask Jackie what is next for a group that now faces the challenge of having two members graduated, including one who no longer lives in the immediate area. Although she admits that scheduling will become more difficult, her response shows clear enthusiasm for what the future might hold: “Every semester brings the struggle of needing to do even more music. Going to the [NFA] convention was a big moment for us to decide what kind of things we look forward to doing next. So we started with classical rep. The next semester we did more contemporary things and added some multimedia. Now we’re in a place where maybe we want to compose a piece. Maybe we want to do arrangements of pieces that are more popular. Maybe we want to do more media or choreography…We’ve tried a lot of things and we like a lot of things. So now it’s a new semester; and we’re still trying to figure out ‘Okay, what’s next?’”

    It’s very important to me when interviewing anyone for this blog to ask them what advice they would give to anyone who is interested in attempting something similar. In this case, as in the case of Frequencies, that something is the fulfillment of a creative vision that goes beyond a student’s required curricular activities. To each member of Stranded Silver, I posed this question, and I do not believe that the similarity of their answers is in any way coincidental. I will close with their advice in their own words.

Mary: “We’re such a fast-paced group. Most people don’t want to do things until they’re absolutely certain that it’s going to work, but we choose to move really quickly.”

Willie: “If you have an idea, roll with it.”

Jackie: “You can’t tell yourself that no one would ever be okay with [your idea], no one wants to listen to that, or that you don’t have time for it.”

Ben: “Every single thing that we’ve done has been a jump of faith…I think the biggest thing is just go and do it.”


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