SUNY Broome instructor April Lucas shares her love of music with her students at the college – and, before that, with youngsters in the Susquehanna Valley School District where she taught.
For nearly 30 years, she has also performed on a national and even global stage, as a saxophonist for the New Sousa Band, under the direction of Keith Brion. She has performed the works of John Philip Sousa in China and Japan, as well as locations across the country, most recently as the first chair alto sax.
“I still pinch myself every time I go on tour with them,” she said.
Going on tour
Lucas grew up in a small Pennsylvania town – so small that she didn’t even see a violin until high school. While music was a passion, she didn’t have the opportunity to pursue it as an academic subject until later in her adult life.
She enrolled in Binghamton University when she was 28 years old, first taking anthropology courses because that’s what fit into her schedule as a wife and mother. She then joined the band, began studying with Al Hamme and ultimately became a music major, setting the course for her future.
Around 1990, she was in New York City recording with her colleague Paul Cohen, an internationally known saxophone player, arranger and historian, when the New Sousa Band had an opening. One of Cohen’s students had been scheduled to go on the 2½-week tour, but was unable due to work commitments. Cohen offered the opportunity to Lucas, who eagerly accepted.
She vividly remembers the band’s first meeting at a New York City YMCA, where she set up her portable music stand amid a sea of professional musicians. The first number was the national anthem, and the swelling chords made her pause and simply absorb the experience.
“I couldn’t believe the quality and the beauty of the simple opening of the Star Spangled Banner. I was in awe,” she said.
She was invited back time and again, touring Asia, the Northeast and the Gulf of Mexico. The band also performed twice at the Mid West International Band and Orchestra Music Festival in Chicago in 2016 and 2019. Lucas has played principal saxophone with the band many times and has also appeared as a soloist with the band.
The saxophonists in the Sousa band play period instruments with large-chamber mouthpieces, which give them a color far different from the typical contemporary saxophone setup. Their uniforms also mirror the ones Sousa’s band traditionally wore.
The musicians don’t receive their music ahead of time, but practice at just two rehearsals before they go on tour. They’re also a close-knit bunch; all three saxophone players have been playing together on tour since the 1990s.
“I got to do things I never dreamed I would do in my lifetime,” she said, looking at photos from the 1996 Japanese tour.
Then there are the intersections, the little vignettes that thread together Lucas’ experience as a student and performer. She studied classical saxophone with Steven Mauk at Ithaca College during her own college days; Mauk joined the New Souza Band for the Japanese tour, and he and April are founding members of the Empire Saxophone Quartet. She had met Paul Cohen in graduate school, when she studied with David Bilger in Reading, Pa. SUNY Broome’s adjunct clarinet instructor, Robin Seletsky, has also joined the New Sousa Band for a northeast tour.
“There are all these little entrapments and friendships that lasted over 30 years,” she said.
One of the most meaningful moments on tour didn’t come from the big-name musicians. Her former high school band director and his wife came to see Lucas perform with the New Sousa Band in Florida – a proud moment for them both.
“For me to be able to have them there, it was really big. I’m lucky,” she remembered.
From touring to teaching
April Lucas’ experiences with the New Sousa Band have helped her grow as a professional musician, but also as a teacher. At Susquehanna Valley, she applied what she learned to her elementary school band, which produced remarkable music.
Today, she brings those experiences into her classroom at SUNY Broome, where she inspires the next generation of musicians. She remembers one student – a hockey player who one day wanted to play in the U.S. Army Band, but didn’t have the skills he needed when he began at SUNY Broome. He applied himself and practiced diligently – and ultimately attained his goal.
“It was like an education for me that lasted 30 years and is ongoing. Every concert, I learned,” she said of her time with the New Sousa Band. “These folks have such high standards. It teaches you to hold high standards and be demanding. It teaches you how to practice and how to teach.”