Ashley Frohlick... The Blackpool Beat Goes On
Date added to ADN: Mon,
January 30, 2012
Originally Published: Thu, September 01, 2005
by Christine Zona
(About the Author)
When we hear the names, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey or Benny Goodman we conjure up an image of dancing the night away to the exciting music of a live orchestra. But when we think of competition dancing, especially here in the United States, we assume that the music is pre recorded. Since it’s inception, the British Open Championships, better known as Blackpool, have always employed a live orchestra to play for the competition. Live music is much more prevalent in European competitions but the “Blackpool” sound is especially unique. The whole essence of the competition is derived from music played by the Empress Orchestra. Ashley Frohlick gave us some insight on what it’s like to be the director of the orchestra at the world’s most prestigious dance event.
How were you chosen to take over when the former musical director retired?
I had to tender a proposal for the actual job itself, this included costings for the orchestra and my ideas for the future. Previously, two people had managed the Orchestra, but I was confident that it could be run by one. All in all there were a number of different people up for the role of Musical Director. One of the guys was out of the orchestra, along with two from London, a couple from Birmingham and another interested party quite local to here. Most of whom I knew.
Where are you from?
Originally I’m from Blackpool. I moved away when I was young because my parents divorced. I went to college in Leeds and worked in London at the same time, I played two cruise ships then worked in Monte Carlo, went to the States for a while, Hong Kong and Japan, then toured most of the countries in Europe, working with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey, Elton John etc.
How long have you been involved in music?
I’ve played the trumpet for a long time. I started professionally at about 15 and I’ve directed an orchestra for three years now. I’ve had my own smaller bands before this doing jazz.
Why do you think they picked you over the other people that applied?
Because I was the best man for the job! I don’t know. I think a couple reasons. One was because I knew the actual venue and what goes on, having been here a good five years playing in the orchestra. And probably because I was younger than anybody else that was applying for the job. I think they wanted someone to see it through a little bit further. Bill Irvine was retiring and John Knight was retiring from the Junior Dance Festival and then Gillian McKenzie, the festival organizer, left last year. So everybody was changing at the same time. I believe they wanted somebody that would be able to put some years in at this and they obviously wanted somebody a little bit younger, perhaps who had more enthusiasm to be with the job.
Do you do the music for all four of the festivals?
What else do you do when you’re not here?
I’ve got another couple of festivals that aren’t too far away. And there’s another one in Blackpool that we do as well. We’ve done the World Professional Championships run by the BDF. The next one’s in November, that’s the Modern. We do one-niters here and there. I’m still busy playing the trumpet with different projects. I’ve also got the summer season in the Blackpool Tower Ballroom. I have two bands that start in July there playing music for dancing. We’re quite excited about that. I write a lot of music, compose it, arrange it, studio work and stuff like that.
You sound very busy.
Yes, very. I take the end of December and all of January off completely from music, and then I start again the middle of February.
Can you really take off? Do you not think about it?
No, I don’t think about it... well, I think about it, but I don’t do anything about it. I purposely don’t. Just chill out.
Is it the same basic band that you work with for the festivals?
Roughly speaking it is. Obviously now and again you’ve got somebody that’s working elsewhere or has something else that’s come up. But in general, it’s the same bunch of guys.
Do you pick them yourself?
How do you pick?
Because I’m still so active playing I know most of them. I’ve also gotten a few recommendations.
Is it all how they play, or is it how you get along with them personally?
Obviously it’s important that I do get on with the guys in the band and the camaraderie that they have is very important to me. But it’s also how I think they’ll cope with the immense pressure of the amount of hours that we play. There may be better players for certain positions, but I know that they wouldn’t be able to cut the gig. I don’t think there’s any other orchestra in the world that does as long sets as we do… an hour and 45 minutes, an hour and 30 minutes, an hour and 30 and then an hour and 10. With only 20 minute breaks in between, and then be on the money to play for the video recordings for the semi-finals and finals at the end of the night. I certainly don’t know any other place in the world that would be hard pushed to find any other musicians better prepared to be able to handle the work load.
How do the musicians cope with that? Isn’t it hard?
A sense of humour helps! Well, we have two lead trumpet players that alternate during those sets anyway, which is important. Probably the rhythm section is the one that suffers the most, especially the drummer, because he’s solidly working for everything. No breaks at all… as with the rest of the rhythm section, but the drummer has it the hardest because he’s rigidly trying to keep the time going on everything. How they cope, I don’t know, everyone has their own way of getting through it. Wednesday night was a tough night. That was the hardest night for me when I was playing… really, I was physically in pain by the end of Wednesday night. I think everybody’s still in the same boat. You get through it, because you have to and the guys all get on very well with each other, which helps. They’ll have a laugh in the breaks and we don’t take it all to heart. The odd mistake happens, it’s bound to with the amount of hours we play, but in general the guys in the Empress Orchestra are attentive and keen to get things right and they’re playing the best music that they ever have for the Festivals. Everyone is constantly mentioning it.
What’s the difference between playing for a national competition other than just social dancing?
Social dancing’s harder, I would say. Competition, you’re fairly set. You know what’s coming up, you know what you’re going to play well in advance, you know the tempos well in advance, or you should. Social dancing is something completely different because everybody has their own idea of how things should go, and ultimately the bandleader gets it in the neck... you’ll see three different couples on the floor, one will say, “that’s great”, another says, “that’s too slow”, and still another will go, “that’s too quick” it all depends on their own abilities as dancers. So you’re in a losing battle. There’s a lot more involvement with the social dancing. I’m talking on the microphone as well. At the competitions I see the band set up. I do all that I need to do behind the scenes, and I don’t need to do any introductions, I just need to know what’s coming next. So it’s fairly straightforward, it’s actually quite easy, apart from the late nights and the very early mornings.
You have to start early?
For the Saturday Team Match, I was writing music until half past five Friday morning and the same for Saturday morning. And I’m up at seven, so an hour and a half sleep each day. We play from 7:00 until 1:30 for the competition Friday night, then carry on until 5:30, so sleep’s the major thing. That’s probably the biggest hurdle to get over for everybody in the Orchestra, just getting enough sleep for the next day.
You write the music when you’re here; then put it together and then they have to rehearse?
The team match especially, we rehearse about an hour with the teams dancing to the music. They know what they’re doing well enough. They tell us on Thursday well in advance of the Team Match and then they change their minds on Friday evening! For example a team will request that the music goes segue from foxtrot to cha cha to quickstep to jive, then later they’ll change it to fox trot, jive, cha cha, quickstep. Then you have to rearrange everything that you’ve already written. The Japanese team this year, convincingly gave me the wrong amount of bars to orchestrate. I had to completely rewrite their music on the day. We were thanked by the British team.
Is it hard keeping it the same consistent beat the whole time? By the end of the week, does it get off?
I use a metronome as a guide. The chairman of adjudicators has his own ideas on the tempos for the dances and in general will lead me to play the music at his speed, rather than the tempos that are on the rules.
Does he have you play them slower or faster?
In general, most of the stuff’s slower. But the Latin this year has been markedly faster than normal. Obviously it changes for the senior competitors. We’re going to play things slower; they’re working their bodies probably twice as hard as the younger dancers. So we slow the tempos down for them a little bit. Quickstep and Tango obviously won’t go so fast. The modern stuff in general is roughly the same, the Latin music tends to be slightly down a little bit for the seniors.
Do you know anything about dancing?
I can’t dance! My wife’s a dancer, she’s not a ballroom dancer, but she dances in theatres and on TV. I’ve been involved with dance music for 18 years now. I’ve got a good grasp of what’s what. I know who’s going to win the competitions. Most people have got a very good idea. You can pick them... the poise and the balance and the technique. So... no I don’t and yes I do. But music and dance go, obviously, hand in hand. Without the music the dancing can’t go ahead (in general).
Do you like watching certain dancers more than others because they are more musical in their bodies?
Recently, it seems to have gotten a little bit more technical than artistic. But there was a slight change this year. There seems to be a bit more artistry coming back into it. There are certain dances I like. Certain dances I like to play more than others. I think the music we play helps you to appreciate what’s going on with the dancers.
What do you like to play?
I like to play for Latin. I love watching people dance the tango… especially the women. I think the women are fantastic! The way they preen themselves when they’re on the floor. It’s unbelievable. I’m from the gritty north of England, for us to watch somebody dance a tango and to see them preen themselves is very entertaining and hypnotic. I enjoy it immensely. Some of the faces and moves by some of the competitors however crack me up, usually in the Latin, especially if you were to take them out of context. If the members of the Orchestra pulled the same faces during a rhumba or samba to get across the emotions of the music… they’d be escorted off the premises by men in white coats! Obviously it’s part and parcel of competitive dancing, but it does sometimes have me and some of the guys in the Orchestra in bits. So in answer, I prefer playing Latin music, but I like watching the tango.
Why do you prefer playing the Latin?
Musically, it’s a little bit more exciting… a bit darker, a bit more passionate, the music as well as the dancing. It’s not quite as stiff. There’s more passion in the dance, certainly more passion in the music.
Do you get to watch much or are you so busy timing how long it’s going to take and watching the tempo?
I watch quite a bit. I watch my metronome as a guide initially for maybe the first eight bars or so and then listen to the band, watch the dancers to see if it’s correlating to the actual time of the music. Some of the music sounds different at the same tempo. Just because of the nature of the actual arrangement itself; it might sound as though it’s dragging, even though it’s the same tempo. But I do watch quite a bit. And then come back to the band when they need some encouragement.
How do you keep track of how long you’re playing?
Stopwatch. Peter Maxwell, the chairman of judges in general, directs, it’s around a minute thirty, a minute forty-five.
He tells you when to finish it?
Sometimes. Last year he didn’t bring his stopwatch or metronome, so I did the whole lot myself. The problem is, it never quite sounds finished because we generally stop partway through an arrangement. As opposed to continuing it through it’s entirety, as it used to be. We used to finish the whole piece, but that would make the competition go until three and four in the morning. So that’s changed. Finding an appropriate place to stop is the best you can do.
Has it changed a lot since Bill Irvine retired and Peter Maxwell took it over?
That’s difficult to say, because Peter and I took over one festival apart. The difference would probably be the tempos. There seemed to be many different views on tempos. The last bandleader that was in charge generally played it at the speed he wanted to play it at without too much concern. I’ve bent a little bit more to what the chairman of adjudicators wants. I think it’s helped a lot with the competition and making music fit more to the dancing rather than the dancing fitting to the music.
Do you have a contract, or do you just have this job as long as you want it?
I don’t know really! I’ve been given the dates until 2010. And we’re just about to look up to 2015. I assume that if the festival is still running in the same format, I’ll be doing the job until then.
Do you think it’s going to change?
I don’t know. Five years ago, British couples tended to be winning everything. Now it’s Italians, Russians, and Americans are in it too. Germans are coming back on the scene a little more as well. It’s become a lot more of an international event as far as the winners are concerned. What sets us aside from any other competition or festival is that the Empress Orchestra is playing throughout the whole week. It’s one of the main reasons that it’s viewed as the world’s number one event.
You’ve gotten applause the last couple nights from the dancers. Is that important to you?
Of course. Sometimes we feel as though musically we’re not appreciated. You start and you stop and it’s a case of, “Okay, well, we’re finished dancing now, so you can stop the music.” But I know the dancers enjoy it and the challenges that dancing to a live orchestra can bring. We have many compliments from the dancers, chairman of adjudicators, audience, judges etc., but public acknowledgement for the gents on stage is important. Whether they get enough acknowledgement, I don’t know, but it’s nice that the dancers show their appreciation for the people working very hard behind them.
Do you enjoy playing for the competition dance world?
I thoroughly enjoy these festivals. As musicians we make such a big difference to what comes out on the dance floor. And knowing that these dancers are the world’s crème de la crème and that they’re dancing to us is a real honour and privilege. We appreciate what they do and I’m sure they appreciate what we do. At the end of the day, it’s wonderful to be a part of all of that and to know that it’s the world’s biggest dance event. Though we don’t see ourselves as being the world’s number one orchestra, we’re the one that plays for the world’s biggest dance event, and that in it’s own right is a big accolade for us. When I leave the festival at the end of the week thoroughly exhausted, I feel more enriched as a person than when I started the festival.
Originally published in Dance Notes on Sept/Oct 2005 by Christine Zona
About the Author:
A health major in college, Christine Zona has always been interested in physical, emotional and mental wellness. She is currently working on combining her dance expertise and healthy lifestyle knowledge to give dancers a lifestyle program that will increase their energy, enhance their performance and reshape their bodies.
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