The Act You Don’t Pay to See, a profile of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey band.
Imagine the thrill of watching a daredevil blaze across a high wire atop of a motorcycle, the slapstick hilarity of Clown Alley or the majestic gallop of a bevy of stallions all to the tranquil sounds of silence? I assure you, though tranquil as that silence may be, the thrills, the slapstick, and the majesty that is Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® would be nothing more than an uneventful display if not for the sounds that elevate the thrills, amplify the slapstick and accompany the pageantry that is The Greatest Show On Earth®.
The soundtrack of merriment, spectacle’s score, the masterfully crafted sounds of sawdust, is none other than the music of The Greatest Show On Earth, skillfully and effortlessly rendered by the hardest working musicians in show business, The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Band.
For nearly 450 shows a year, this ensemble, made up of two trumpet players, a trombonist, a saxophonist, two keyboardists, a guitarist, a bass player and drummer are the melodious spirit that makes the thrills – thrills, that give rhythm to those triumphant gallops – the punchline to those clown gags and those heavenly dancers their inspiration.
As bassist, Michael Brown tells it, “my objective is to serve the moment.”
And serve each and every moment they do. So much so, that despite being quite visible, most of the time, they are enveloped by the assumption that the music is pre-recorded.
“We’re the act that people don’t pay to see,” says trumpeter and conductor, Wages Argott.
Although it may very well seem like a thankless job, every jolt of excitement, every rhythmic sway, every burst of laughter, every sudden hush, is evidence of the vitalness of their work.
Certainly, their contribution is not lost on the cast. In addition to literally breathing life into every single act, as well as, my songs,The Greatest Band On Earth is the first line of defense when a show mishap or crisis occurs.
“With so many shows, the temptation to go on auto pilot does creep in. But, you just can’t allow it. You have to know your cues and watch the show,” says keyboardist Chris Blasting. “You can’t dial it in. No two shows are alike. When you get to the point when you’re just reacting, you’re already behind. You have to anticipate and be atune to what’s going on,” says Wages Argott.
Thus, the mental stamina required for the demands of The Greatest Show On Earth are crucial.
“Before coming to The Greatest Show On Earth, I never knew how mentally taxing it was to be alert,” says Michael Brown. Perhaps this is why in the words of Wages Argott, “it helps to have a band that is so intuitive and that understands its responsibility to the show.”
One of the things you come to realize rather quickly upon joiningRingling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is that The Greatest Show On Earth is an organism. It’s a living, breathing thing. Thus, sudden change is a constant.
Expect the unexpected.
However, the challenge of accompanying this grand “organism” is not merely mental, there’s a physical toll as well. Back aches, soar feet, soar knees, and misalignments, among others, are what one might expect from an acrobatic troupe, not a band. But, then again, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Band is not just any band. You would be hard pressed to find any ensemble that endures the rigors of the road with the frequency they do, performing close to 450 shows annually, in over 45 cities. Three shows every Saturday, sometimes six shows during the weekend.
“It takes a lot for me to get through the latter part of a six pack,” says second generation drummer Shawn Elsbernd.
However, trombonist and assistant conductor, Andrew Boostram has a rather positive take on the physical challenges that may very well accompany the band.
“Some of the things I’ve dealt with have challenged me to develop new ways to hold my instrument. I believe thoughts become things. So I take it as an exercise to see how far I can go.”
Like the cast of acrobats, daredevils, martial artists, even clowns, fitness is a part of each band members’ daily regimen. Eight of the nine members bike regularly. Some members even take to more challenging routines that may include calisthenics, yoga, and stretches. Pre-show rituals are often much calmer and focus mostly on mental preparation. It could be it sitting quietly while listening to music, meditation, playing Sudoku or a good ‘ol power nap (my personal favorite).
There are three types of people who find their way to a life and career with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. The first is acircus baby. The circus baby is born and bred for life in the circus. Their families are often well established in the industry and thus pass on the skills of the family trade to their children. Essentially, their lives are already set.
The second is the runaway. The runaway is utterly convinced, very early in life, via some extraordinary experience, such as attending a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show, that indeed this will be the life for them. Thus, they runway to join the circus.
Finally, there’s the opportunist. The opportunist was minding their business, perhaps pursuing other endeavors, when by means of networking, reading an ad or like me, having the outrageous fortune of auditioning for a dinner theatre whose director so happened to be directing Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, nabbed another audition for Ringmaster.
For many of the band members, except for guitarist Ian Murphy, it was chance opportunity. For Ian Murphy it was something he actually wanted to pursue in large part, because his teacher once traveled and played with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & BaileyBand. Like most opportunists they hadn’t the faintest clue as to what they were getting themselves into. Some, like most who’ve considered a career with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey had their trepidations. Especially, being well trained musicians. However, their presumptions were immediately squelched upon arrival. No, this will not be a band of musicians we pick up and drop off along the way; thus, never being able to build a real cohesive unit. No, the music will not be, in any way, shape or form a repertoire of easily forgettable and sappy tunes. Yes, the musicians will be committed to the job for a number of years. Yes, not only will the music be memorable and amazing, it will be customized to accommodate the abilities of each musician. Thus, allowing each band member to infuse their style and skills into the music and thus, the show.
It’s therefore the perfect balance between the boundaries of the music and the
creative imagination of the musician. In other words, at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey our musicians have a license to be artists.
As Andrew Boostrum so gleefully admitted, “I get to do everything my teacher said not to.”
However, drummer Shawn Elsbernd, whose skills are featured rather prominently throughout the show confesses to always being aware of that thin line between self-expression and what’s required. “I know I’m heard and that’s great, but it also means my mistakes are extra loud.”
Through it all, be it the mental taxation, the physical toll and the angst of being unrecognized, it all comes back to the show and the memories they help create. Though many may never realize their importance, though many won’t even bother to stay in their seats for those last few moments to hear them play us off, for fear of having to battle traffic, just as it’s always been for 142 years, when they think of those prancing elephants, those glorious hair hangers, that daring feet that
nearly stopped their hearts, they’ll have no choice, but to whistle the tune that created those unforgettable memories.
Johnathan Lee Iverson is the Ringmaster for 142nd Edition ofThe Greatest Show On Earth®, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Presents DRAGONS. You may join Mr. Iverson on Twitter and Instagram @bigtopvoice.