The School of Music, Theatre and Dance has a new ensemble making a big splash in the Northern Colo. music scene, but it is a bit of a head-scratcher: an 18-member polka band that is open only to brass instruments and drums. Neue Polka Colorado started in the fall of 2014 and has seen bookings increase tenfold for the recently-completed 2015 Oktoberfest season across the region. While it may seem an unlikely way for music majors to spend their time, my co-leader Dr. John McGuire, horn, and I have a very specific mission behind the band.
The idea for the band germinated during a CSU faculty tour to central Europe in the summer of 2014. As John and I sat in the English Gardens in Munich, listening to the band and enjoying beer and pretzels, we both agreed that the traditional polkas and landlers were the perfect accompaniment to a warm day with good friends (and libations). Then, at another stop on the tour in Schladming, Austria, the proverbial lightning bolt struck. A town band from just down the road was playing a non-stop set of traditional marches and polkas with a truly dynamic band leader who also happened to be the baker of the town. We turned to each other simultaneously and knew we had to have a polka band at CSU.
Subsequent train rides and airport waits during the tour helped us codify the band’s mission. What we noticed was that our brass students were not getting a lot of gig experience, with the exception of the occasional Christmas or Easter gig. The band would become a vehicle for bandstand experience-building, something both of us experienced over the course of our formative years as musicians. We also identified the strong brewing culture of Northern Colo., and Fort Collins in particular, and thought that—in spite of plentiful visits to local breweries—we never heard traditional Bavarian music to accompany our quaffable delights. So, in the spirit of building experience for our students and building stronger connections to our surrounding community, we booked a gig at what has become our “home brewery” in Fort Collins: Zwei Brewing (which brews primarily German-style beers, naturally). It is worth thanking Dr. Joel Bacon, Stuart and Sheron Golden Chair of Organ and Liturgical Studies at CSU, for helping us make the connection to Zwei, as he is friends with the owners/brewers and vouched for us before we had played a single gig. We were also able to tack on a day as the house band for the 2014 Longmont Oktoberfest.
Since those first non-paying exploratory gigs, we have seen bookings for the band skyrocket, almost exclusively through word of mouth among the close-knit community of brewers in Northern Colo. This season, the band played all paid gigs (we do not want to promote playing for free among our students), and was incredibly busy. Starting with being the house band for both days of the 2015 Longmont Oktoberfest (hosted by Left Hand Brewing), followed by consecutive weekends at Loveland Oktoberfest (hosted by Grimm Bros. Brewing), a private event in Loveland, Oktoberfest at Fort Collins’ The Mayor Old Town (hosted by Prost Brewing of Denver), the Jammin’ Ram Run 5K (hosted by the CSU Music Therapy Student Association in support of Foundation Music School), a private party at Odell Brewing in Fort Collins, finishing with a Halloween party at Zwei Brewing.
The band plays a mix of traditional Bavarian and Austrian marches, waltzes, polkas, and songs. We also play tongue-in-cheek settings of music as varied as Britney Spears, The White Stripes, and the theme from the television show “MacGyver.” The students have become experts in the show we put on and are now able to start and stop tunes on a dime. The band has flexible instrumentation, with about 25 players on the roster but typically around 10-15 playing a gig. We sing, we do the twist, we have lots of fun, but we also put a high priority on being professionals. Student leaders are now beginning to lead entire sets, and we anticipate handing off booking and contracting to students very soon. We make sure to learn the ins and outs of how to act on the bandstand (no noodling before the downbeat!), how to interact with clients (firm handshake!), how to treat food servers and bartenders when the food is free (always tip!), and generally how to handle yourself in the real world (among many things: help set up/tear down, and always be “a good guy”).
The mission of the band – to both bolster the professional experience of its student members and to strengthen bonds between CSU and the community – is coming to fruition after this year’s successful Oktoberfest season. What began as a pie-in-the-sky idea between two traveling musicians has become a well-oiled polka machine, and the future looks bright for Neue Polka Colorado. We hope to see you at a gig soon. Prost!