Voices of the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra: Different voices in brass section


Whatcom Symphony Orchestra

Whatcom Symphony Orchestra's brass section: Brent Allen, Jack Champagne, Karolyn Labes, Phil Heft, Steve Sperry, Del VanderKerk, Mark Lindenbaum.


Karolyn Labes likes to quote Garrison Keillor: "Ahh, the trumpet -- now there's an instrument on which one can truly embarrass him(her)self!" As principal trumpet with Whatcom Symphony Orchestra, it is Karolyn the audience hears when there are trumpet solos. Women players of brass instruments are not common, and Karolyn is the only woman in the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra brass section. A member of the Glacier Bay Brass Quintet, Karolyn's day job is in publishing.

Sitting next to Karolyn, Del Vander Kerk has played in the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra for more than 35 years. A retired businessman, he also sings in the Bellingham Chamber Chorale, the Music Festival chorus, and conducts a men's choir at church. An avid bicyclist, he recently biked the Camino de Santiago in Spain. "Witnessing the growth of the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra over the years and to be able to contribute to that growth has been exciting and rewarding," says Del.

Trumpeter Steve Sperry is another Glacier Bay Brass Quintet member. And he also plays with the Skagit Symphony and Skagit Opera. Steve is produce manager at the Barkley Haggen's. Steve "likes being able to make some great music with talented musicians and I enjoy the friendship and camaraderie of our orchestra family."

Just as there are soprano, alto, tenor and bass voices in the string family of instruments, the same holds true for the brass and woodwind groups. In the brass section, the trumpet is the soprano while the French horn is the alto voice.

Brad Bigelow serves as principal French horn, which is considered by many to be the most difficult instrument to master. An emergency room physician, he finds time for biking, hiking, karate and playing occasional chamber music.

Another French horn player, Brent Allen is a WTA transit operator. He plays guitar and sings at Adult Day Health and other care facilities. Like Brad, he enjoys hiking and biking on Bellingham trails.

A "Jack of all trades," Jack Champagne is the consummate volunteer for Whatcom Symphony Orchestra. If instruments or furniture need to be moved, he always can be counted on to help. He teaches horn and plays with the Glacier Bay group. Jack also travels across the country once a year to collect parts of old brass instruments. He then reassembles the pieces into instruments that can be played by three or more people at the same time! These instruments are treasured by the recipients at an annual brass players workshop Jack attends.

"I wanted to play a brass instrument going into 6th grade and I really liked the sound of the French horn," Greg Verberandse says, "My mother and middle school band director, Max Jones (who played trombone with Whatcom Symphony Orchestra for many years) were my earliest influences." An IT specialist for the Bellingham School District, Greg plays freelance and is a recording engineer for local musicians and groups.

The tenor voice in the brass family, the trombone, is unique in that a sliding tube is used to change the length of the brass tube, which changes the pitch. All brass instruments have a mouth piece through which the musician blows. The trumpet, French horn and tuba have valves that are used in different combinations to change the length of the tube. The longer the tube, the lower the pitch of the note.

In addition, brass players change pitch by tightening or relaxing their lips, facial muscles and jaw.

This placement of lips, facial muscles and jaw is called the embouchure.

Principal trombonist Phil Heft retired after 31 years of teaching and now is a Christmas tree farmer. He's the director of a swing band and a member of "Spinnaker Trombones." Skiing, hiking, and sailing are spare-time activities.

Bob Gray, another "Spinnaker Trombone" group member, teaches seven school bands, grades 6-12 in Blaine. He has brought his band to Japan on tour several times. "The literature, the resonance, the love of music and giving nature of Whatcom Symphony Orchestra members" keeps him involved with the orchestra.

Finally, the lowest voice in the brass family is the tuba. Mark Lindenbaum, who practices geriatric medicine, has been Whatcom Symphony Orchestra tubist since 1988. A founding member of Glacier Bay Brass Quintet, Mark also joins Steve Sperry, trumpet, Jack Champagne, French horn, and Phil Heft, trombone, in the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra brass family quartet that performs for 4th, 5th, and 6th grade students in Whatcom County each year.

Mark speaks for all Whatcom Symphony Orchestra players, "It has been one of the great pleasures of my life to play in an orchestra with the passion and dedication of the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra, to experience the great repertoire we have enjoyed and to share the magic of live performance with our wonderful audience."


Window On My World is an occasional essay in Monday's Bellingham Herald that allows Whatcom County residents to share their passion for what they do, an idea or cause they support. Send your Window On My World, which must be no more than 700 words, to Julie.shirley@bellinghamherald.com.

This is one of a year-long series profiling the musicians of the award-winning Whatcom Symphony Orchestra. Author Mary Passmore has played cello with the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra for 33 years and currently serves on the board of directors and as chair of the Outreach to the Schools committee. A retired elementary classroom teacher, she plays chamber music with friends, seeks adventure through travel with her husband Martin, and visits her children and grandchild in Los Angeles as often as possible.

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