Illuminating Downtown Boston

by Babita Kuruvilla, Fab@CIC Contributor

Boston, known for its universities and startups in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), also has a culture of deep appreciation for the fine arts. It is this recognition of the importance of the arts in its pervasiveness throughout our lives that allows for creative minds in Boston to find new and innovative ways for artistic expressions.

Take for example the Illuminus Festival, a street installation during which artists use light and technology to create illuminative displays in the streets of downtown Boston. The light festival, which premiered in 2014, is an annual gathering for creative artists to showcase their innovative and imaginative renderings using light as a medium.

This year, Illuminus was held on November 2nd and 3rd in the Downtown Crossing area. These past two years CIC (including Fab@CIC) has been a supporter of the festival hosted by Downtown Boston Business Improvement District (BID).

Over the past two years, Fab@CIC has served many artists looking for ways to enhance their art or artistic process. This year Fab@CIC opened its doors to the participating artists at Illuminus for two months prior to the festival, providing them access to resources such as laser cutters, 3D printers, and an electronics station to create their installation pieces. Those pieces represent the type of projects that can be readily designed at Fab@CIC – objects in unique forms that can interact with data or their environment.

The Summer Street Brass Band was one of the member exhibitors who created a colorful dancing visual display of the music that kept pace with the tunes. Let’s chat with Chris Schroeder, a talented musician in his own right and founder of the organization.


What is the Summer Street Brass Band?

The Summer Street Brass Band provides youth musicians in middle and high school with performance and teaching opportunities for developing their skills as dynamic performers, educators, entrepreneurial musicians, and compassionate citizens. Initially it started as a summer band, when they had the most flexibility in their schedule, however as a result of a positive response from the community, we have been invited to a number of fall and winter events as well. 

Why was the band formed? What was the vision?

Having taught brass and wind students in the Boston area for nearly ten years, I wanted to give my students an opportunity to connect with one another, share their music with the Boston community, and learn the skills required to be an entrepreneurial musician in the 21st century. Another reason came from my past students and their parents who had been used to regularly joining community performances with me during their middle school years.

As the Director of Community Engagement at a local Dorchester Charter School, my students performed in the Boston community an average of 20 times per year. Once they moved on to various Boston high schools, they found that they were missing the opportunity to perform more regularly. As a result, I put the bones of an organization together with a set of music books, a logo, website, and social media platforms and am now working with them to help set up performance and teaching opportunities for them. Through this process, we have been able to have authentic conversations around booking events, organizing rehearsals, deciding set lists for performances, and reflecting on past events.

What are the impacts on the community you hope to achieve through the band?

Music is something that we all can enjoy and with so many festivals and events in the Boston community throughout the year, there are many perfect opportunities for musicians in the Summer Street Brass Band to develop their skills as entrepreneurial musicians. 

At what types of venues does the band play?

We are similar to a traditional New Orleans brass band, playing at outdoor festivals, block parties, and community events. Past events have included the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, Berklee’s ABLE Summer Program for students with special needs, performing for crowds at the Drum Corp International Showcase in Lawrence, MA, and most recently Illuminus Boston. 


Why did the band decide to participate in the Illuminus event?

As a teacher, I had a handful of students with parents that were hearing impaired. After exploring various prototypes for music visualizers, the band applied for a grant with Illuminus to fully realize a prototype that attached to the ends of the trumpets and trombone bells that would change colors in response to the sounds produced by the players. With the grant money, we were able to build the technology for the entire band to be outfitted with the visualizers. 


The band drew a good crowd at the event and even invited a few spectators to actively engage with the band. Why was audience engagement important?

Community engagement is an important aspect of live performance and one that is integral to my work with Summer Street. Having begun my career as a trumpet player at Walt Disney World, creating unforgettable performance experiences for audiences has always been at the center of my work, both as a performer, educator, and social and arts advocate. Engaging with the audience helps to break down barriers between the performers and always creates an electric atmosphere during our songs.

At Illuminus, you combined performance arts with visual arts. Was this a new direction for the band? Would the band be doing more of these types of performances in the future?

Light it up,” our Illuminus project is very much a play on words, adding both the visual component of the sound-responsive lights but also the high-energy street-band performance. The visual aspect of the band was a first for us, however, between the lights on the ends of our instruments and our “glow drum” – a 32-gallon translucent, sound-reactive, lighted trash can drum – we have certainly found an element to add to any nighttime performances.


What are the future goals of the band?

In the coming year, my goal is to have youth roles within the band emerge – youth musicians to serve as point-of-contact for events, manage our social media, choose our set lists, schedule rehearsals, and learn to manage the business side of running a band/organization.

Where can we catch a performance by the band during the holiday season? Do they play at holiday venues?

We’ll are planning to have members of the band facilitate an instrument petting zoo on December 27th and 29th at the Boston Children’s Museum as part of their winter youth programming. On January 2nd, we will perform for the Boston Public School Music Teacher’s professional development workshop.

Thanks so much Chris. You can also catch The Summer Street Brass Band performing at Fab@CIC’s holiday party on Friday, 12/7…we hope to see you there!