Q&A With Kansas’ Phil Ehart

While preparing for Kansas’ Collegiate Symphony Tour, drummer Phil Ehart spoke with Halftime Magazine about the band, the upcoming tour, his views on music education and marching bands.

Halftime: How did the idea for this tour develop?

Ehart: 2009 was the bands 35th anniversary and we wanted to do something special, but weren’t quite sure what we should do. We got the idea of going back to Kansas and doing a special event there, with the Washburn University Orchestra. Washburn University is where many of us went to school. Kansas over the years has done many concerts, so we didn’t realize it would be a big deal, but as it turned out it was very big deal for the school–for us to go in there for a week, setting up, rehearsing, and filming, it turned in to a really big deal. We then filmed it over two days and it turned out incredible. When we were doing this we thought to ourselves “why can’t we do that at other schools?” It took quite a long time to put this together, the schools aren’t prepared and aren’t set up to hold rock concerts. A lot of them don’t have money for anything. We then had to shift gears and came up with a fundraising idea—by getting a promoter to pay the band and raise funds for the bands. It’s a very new idea, I don’t think it’s ever been done. I don’t know of any bands that have gone in and done something like this. With D’Addario coming in as a sponsor they’re putting money into the schools. They’re seeing the profits before we even get there. Everyone has been really excited.

Halftime: Why are you and the group so passionate about collegiate music education?

Ehart: I’ll probably go out a bit on a limb—I don’t think you need to be a rocket scientist to see that music education and music itself is disappearing in our society. People who play the video games Rock Band or Guitar Hero think they actually play instruments. Keyboard sales have disappeared, the DJ has replaced people who play keyboards, instruments are expensive and the recession has hit. … As a band that’s built their career on musicality we’d like to see other people enjoy what we’ve got out of playing in band and playing instruments. … Because it actually takes time and you have to have a work ethic and sit down to learn an instrument. That’s what we’re trying to do, to show people what they can do with proficiency on an instrument.

Halftime: Do you or any of the group members have experience in college or high school marching band or concert groups?

Ehart: None of us are schooled musicians; we’re all self-taught except for our violinist. We’re all self-taught and because we lived in parts of the world where there weren’t a lot of music teachers and music programs and none of us had those opportunities. Dave Hope, our original bass player was in high school marching band as a tuba, but that’s the only connection we ever have had to marching band. We think they’re very cool–it’s amazing what those guys can do. And now there’s Drum Corps International and all those competitions, I could get really excited about it.

Halftime: What is it like for you working and playing with the college students?

Ehart: It’s pretty awesome. To begin with, it always impresses me because they know who we are. We figure we’re a band from the 70’s and that they won’t know us, but they are familiar with our songs because of Rock Band, Guitar Hero, or their parents or brothers and sisters, they may not know every song but they know who Kansas is. We have a mutual respect, they know we have good music and can play our instruments and we know they can do the same. We’re certainly not looking down on them at all. It’s a mutual admiration society, we respect them and enjoy being around them.

Halftime: What about this tour are you looking forward to the most?

Ehart: All of it really. I don’t think there’s any one particular school, they all have great music programs. We’re anxious to see all of the venues and all of the concerts, and we’ve already got 30-40 colleges that want to talk to us about next year. I think this is going to continue to grow. I think what we’re looking forward to is the future of this endeavor over all. It’s all the gigs and the students and the music programs.

Halftime: You’ve talked about how you were cold-calling the schools to find interest. How were the schools selected?

Ehart: We kind of had to route it correctly. We couldn’t do Texas one night and something far away the next night; it had to be close enough that we could do one night to the next. We had to turn some schools down because we would have been too far away the night before. It was important that they had a music director that got the concept. A few we just had to say no because they just didn’t get it. So we just moved on. I think it’s a number of things, their enthusiasm, having the right dates and availability, and then embracing the concept.

Halftime: You mentioned you’ve been getting a lot of future offers and requests based on this tour—do you think you’ll be able to keep doing this in the future?

Ehart: We have no way of knowing, we really don’t. It’s a concept and an idea, we think it’s a good one and the schools think it’s good, but it’s up to the people who buy tickets and come to the show. I would think that these would be very well-attended by people on campus, alumni, students, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Doesn’t everybody want to support the music program of the school and come hear a great concert?

Halftime: What kind of preparation goes in to these concerts?

Ehart: We set up these orchestrations about six or seven years ago because we’ve been playing with city orchestras for quite some time. Larry Baird did them when we played with the London Symphony Orchestra and these are the same orchestrations. We’ve talked to the schools a lot and we’ve been in a lot of conversations with them. They’ll get the scores about a month ahead of time and they practice on their own. The day of the show we do a three hour rehearsal with them. And then they rehearse with us and then we do the show that night.

Halftime: You’ve mentioned how your music is connecting with younger generations through video games. What has that experience been like for you?

Ehart: Well it’s been very interesting because we’ve seen over the last decade our audience has completely changed. It’s weird because you start playing and you see the audience get older with you, to their 30s and 40s, and all of a sudden they’re in their teens and the first 10 rows are all teenagers in Kansas hats and t-shirts. We look out now and half to three-fourths of the audience are young kids, and when we do “Carry On” they go crazy. They’re into that song and learning other songs by the band and it’s about the band.

Halftime: I’m sure you’re aware that many marching and pep bands already play your songs—how do you feel about that?

Ehart: I went to an Air Force/Georgia Tech game a number of years ago and the Air Force brought out their marching band and played one of our songs. I was trying to tell the people around me, “hey! that’s our song, that’s a Kansas song!” They played “Paradox.” Yes, we are aware that they play our music—Alabama is going to be playing our stuff at the Penn State/Alabama game at which we’re going to be at. We’re the honored guest at the football game.

Halftime: Would you ever consider playing with a marching band?

Ehart: We’ve already been asked. All our charts are set up for symphony. You change to a marching band and the instrumentation changes. We’ve been asked but right now we’re heading towards the symphony direction, we talked about it as a band, about how cool it would be to have some of our songs played with a marching band. I don’t know about all our tunes, they may not all translate very well, but definitely some of them would work. We did have a very big school ask us to play with the marching band, indoors with them set up. It’s definitely a possibility but we just haven’t gotten there yet.

Halftime: What advice would you give to young musicians?

Ehart: I would say that as long as you’re having fun playing an instrument, play as long as you can. That’s kind of why we all started, because it’s fun. When you get together with a band or a marching band it’s even more fun. If you want to do it as a profession, always keep it fun because if it turns out that you can’t make a living then at least you had a good time. That’s something that people just can’t take away from you. Do it for the right reasons, play because it’s a fun thing to do, you can never go wrong. I’m still having fun after 40 years of playing the drums. If it’s not fun don’t do it anymore.

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