Kenosha loves its music.
And its music programs. And its music students.
So when four local organizations — the Kenosha Unified School District, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Carthage College and Pacetti’s Maestro of Music — work together on a music project, you know it’s a big deal.
Bringing in Seraph Brass as an artist-in-residence group not only means local students and audiences have the chance to hear world-class brass musicians, it also means we can cheer on one of our own.
Rachel Velvikis, who plays French horn in the all-female group, is a KUSD graduate and has been working since college as a freelance professional musician.
She’s been here since Wednesday, working with high school musicians in masterclasses and getting ready for two Seraph Brass public performances.
But she also took time to talk about her journey from being a Kenosha “band kid” to performing on stages around the world:
Q. How did the Seraph Brass Kenosha residency come about?
A. “I had been pining to bring Seraph to Kenosha for years, and I would constantly put a bug about it in my dad’s ear. He owns Pacetti’s Maestro of Music, and both his and my connections to the KUSD music department were monumental in finally coordinating a way to bring us all here.”
Q. Why have an all-female brass group?
A. “I grew up idolizing ‘OG’ brass quintets such as Canadian Brass, Mnozil Brass and the Center City Brass Quintet. Over the years, however, I noticed a pattern of the lack of a female presence. The longer I have been in this group, the more I realize how important and necessary it is to inspire young female instrumentalists, particularly brass players. As a female, I have been gawked at in awe countless times that I am able to play just as well, and yes, just as LOUDLY, as my male counterparts. In this particular day and age in human societal development, one would think there would be few, if any, doubts or taboos about successful female brass performers, but here we are.
“I still receive comments similar to, ‘Wow, where does all that sound come from on such a tiny girl?’ While these comments mean well, it should go without saying that brass players of the female variety not only keep up with males, but also do, on occasion, outshine and out-perform them. We should not have to prove this point, but we relish doing so just the same.”
Q. What do you enjoy about teaching students?
A. “The process of creating and trying new techniques that are tailored to each individual student. Often included in this is a favorite moment of mine, the ‘light bulb’ moment, in which I literally see the student understand and finally execute the correct sound. It happens in one moment, as fast as a snap of the fingers. It is inspiring to watch!
“Another thing I enjoy about teaching music is remembering my own musical upbringing and how my own teachers, starting with the KUSD music program, inspired me to practice and fall in love with music and my instruments. To this day, I still use techniques one of my first teachers, John Hemkes, taught me when I was in sixth grade.”
Q. What was your first professional gig?
A. “I first discovered my lifelong love for musical theater through Bradford High School’s drama program, led by the inimitable Holly Stanfield. I could not believe some of the music emanating from the pits under the stages! This discovery led to several of my very first professional gigs: playing in the pits for ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood,’ ‘Sweeney Todd’ and my personal favorite, ‘Into the Woods.’ Holly often brought musicals to competitions. As soon as I realized I could make money while traveling for music, I knew I wanted to travel as much as possible for music.”
Q. When did you know you wanted to be a professional musician?
A. “My parents like to joke that I came out of the womb singing. I taught myself piano when I was around 5 years old and, ever since I can remember, music has fascinated me. It is a mystical, almost divine force to me; I have passionately dedicated approximately 35 of my 36 years of life to bringing its joys to others.”
Q. What were some keys that helped make your dream career come true?
A. “I would not be in music today, first of all, if not for my family’s support and encouragement, as well as the encouragement I received from the incredibly talented and passionate teachers I had in the KUSD music program. Music was constantly entwined with our everyday family life, and once in the KUSD music program, I was bombarded with numerous competitions, school music groups and fun band trips.
“It was during one of my first horn lessons in fifth grade with Mr. John Whyte that he discovered my gift of perfect pitch. In addition to joining all the applicable KUSD music groups, my KUSD band directors and teachers always nudged me to join any other applicable groups that were outside KUSD, such as all-state bands and orchestras, auditions and competitions.”
Q. What is some advice you have for aspiring musicians?
“Start taking lessons privately as soon as you can and make sure the teacher you pick is the right fit for you. Secondly, make sure you have actual fun playing your instrument. Seek out and listen to as many pieces featuring your instrument as possible to keep you interested and inspired. It is also important to know what you sound like, so record your practice sessions.
“Make sure to keep practice sessions constructive yet fun — and allow yourself breaks whenever you get frustrated.”
Q. What about band kids who want to keep playing but not professionally?
A. “Most every city or town in the world has some sort of community band, orchestra or group. Check social media groups or online websites to find groups nearest to you. Another thing to do is create your own group by posting online ads looking for like-minded instrumentalists. There are countless locations that would benefit from live music, such as nursing homes, private parties, coffee shops or street festivals.”
More than chamber music
As part of her music career, Velvikis has performed on stages with groups including Mannheim Steamroller (her favorite), Amy Grant, the Indigo Girls, Natalie Merchant and with tribute bands for the Beatles, Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones. She’s still hoping to perform with Beck.
Velvikis also practices an important aspect of performing with other musicians: Having their backs. Years ago when she was playing with the Kenosha Pops Concert Band for a summer, she reached out — literally — to help out our own Dave Walter (Kenosha News city editor and Pops Band French horn player). When Dave was about to stand up, by himself, during a piece, Rachel yanked him back to his seat. He’s been forever grateful she remembered that part of the program had been changed. Sometimes, good stage manners are as important as hitting the right notes.
Have a comment? Email Liz at email@example.com or call her at 262-656-6271.