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Teachers, Students Play Side-by-Side in Community Bands

Summer is a time for outdoor barbecues, fireworks, lounging by the pool, and also community band concerts. These ensembles, comprised mainly of area band directors, adult amateurs, and talented high school musicians, give free concerts in local parks, pavilions, and bandstands around the country. The outdoor setting, casual atmosphere, and light, varied programming attracts a diverse audience, many of whom would not normally attend a formal concert, such as families with young children. Some organizations serve refreshments during performances, while other groups may feature special guests and soloists, and others advertise theme concerts. Regardless of these extra attractions, the musical entertainment alone is enough to fill the lawn chairs with loyal concert goers year after year.

Community bands are almost always accepting new members and provide playing opportunities to those who otherwise might not have the chance to perform. The younger members learn a great deal from the veteran players simply by sitting in the same section or sharing a part. Hectic teaching schedules and frenetic work weeks leave most directors with little time to perform during the school year, and some who only dust off their instrument cases in the summer wouldn't play at all if they weren't in the community band. On the flip side, these weekly concerts keep students practicing over the summer, when they may not otherwise be motivated to do so.

Perhaps the biggest compliment a director can give is to invite a couple of talented students to audition for the same ensemble their teacher plays in over the summer. I have nothing but fond memories of playing in local bands and orchestras as a high school student, which is when I became well versed in Sousa marches, show tunes, and Leroy Anderson classics. I consider the community band concerts I played in to be one of my first paying gigs; we rehearsed Monday nights from June through August, and gave bi-weekly performances in a park pavilion throughout the summer for a modest stipend.

Each concert opened with The Star-Spangled Banner and closed with the Stars and Stripes Forever. Because we tried to cover a large amount of music in such limited rehearsal time, we wound up sight reading much of the music that was performed in between these two patriotic numbers. While these were not professional-caliber performances by any means, my sight-reading skills improved greatly and my confidence level soared. I felt very privileged to play alongside directors and area freelancers; to this day, I am still benefitting from some of the contacts I made there.

My local community band was a rather unusual bunch of delightfully interesting people. The director had a dry sense of humor and would whip out the score to The Thunderer, Thunder and Blazes, or Thunder and Lightning Polka at the first hint of an approaching storm. He hoped that by playing these pieces the concert would be rained out, but this ploy rarely worked. Each year the same director conducted the last number on the 4th of July Spectacular with a lit sparkler, and each year he burned his fingers and singed the score. The trumpet players often tried to play their parts an octave higher than written and relished in every scowl the conductor made when they missed a note (or a passage). The fiercely patriotic band manager and World War II veteran hobbled into the audience and yelled at anyone who failed to put a hand over their heart or take off their hat during the national anthem. During the national march, the bassoonist almost always competed with the brass and piccolo players for attention. Before the final break strain, she stopped playing, stuck an American flag in the bell of the bassoon, and waved the instrument high in the air so that the flag could be seen over the brass section that stood at the front of the stage.

Although I no longer play in community bands, I thoroughly enjoyed taking part in these concerts. And whenever I wanted to complain about the heat or groan as the band played the Colonel Bogey March for the third week in a row, one look at the audience reminded me of why I was there. The children who had crept up to the stage always marveled at the shiny instruments and clapped along excitedly to the lively tunes. One elderly immigrant couple would dance together in the aisle whenever we played the waltz that they regularly requested, and misty-eyed veterans proudly stood to represent their branch of the military as we played The Armed Forces Salute.

I'd like to encourage every director to consider joining a community band in their area, or at least recommend the experience to a student or two. Many of the directors I played with seized this opportunity to build up their playing chops and to remember what it's like to be on the other side of the podium. While the group may never reach the performance level of a college or professional ensemble, the players still benefit from participating. And for those who, like me, find themselves wishing for more rehearsal time or a more polished performance: As the last slightly out-of-tune chord fades into the growing darkness, try to forget about any wrong notes that may have been played and simply enjoy the patriotic sentiments and strengthened sense of community.

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