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Symphonic band enters 20th year of performing

| Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012, 8:55 p.m.
The North Suburban Symphonic Band, conducted by Carl Iezzi, will perform a “Songs of the Season” concert with The Church of the Assumption Choir from Bellevue on Dec 16 at the Greater Pittsburgh Masonic Center in Ross Township. Photo courtesy of Tom Fitzpatrick
Carl Iezzi of Munhall -- musical director, symphonic conductor and Big Band Jazz Ensemble leader with the North Suburban Symphonic Band -- has been with the band since 2003. Photo courtesy of David Callen
Young musicians, such as, from left, Ron Ziccardi, a student at Montour High School, and Kamran Mian, a student at Hopewell Area High School, are welcome in the North Suburban Symphonic Band. They are rehearsing with Dane Bennington of Ohio Township. Photo courtesy of David Callen
Margaret Witowski rehearses with the North Suburban Symphonic Band. Photo courtesy of David Callen
Ron Quinn of East Pittsburgh plays the bassoon during a North Hills Symphonic Band rehearsal. Photo courtesy of David Callen
The Times Express
Colorful lights reflect in the lagoon during the 2012 Kennywood Holiday Lights event. Aaron Loughner | For The Times Express

Let the music play.

While pursuing careers and raising families, those who are musically inclined can dust off their string, woodwind, brass and percussion instruments and join the band — the North Suburban Symphonic Band, to be exact.

This year, the group is celebrating 20 years of bringing music to local audiences. The next concert is coming up at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Greater Pittsburgh Masonic Center in Ross Township with The Church of the Assumption Choir, directed by Neil Stahurski. The “Songs of the Season” concert will put holiday favorites in the spotlight.

The band's 80 musicians are volunteers who learned the wonders of those seven little notes early in life. They've returned to the stage to play again under conductor Carl Iezzi's baton.

Ray Soroka, 66, of Ross Township, is one of them.

He knew Warren Mercer, the symphonic band's founder, by reputation. Having spent 31 years as a band director at North Hills Senior High School, Mercer gathered 40 musicians in 1992 and started many years of performances. He died in 2007, but the band continued his vision.

For the past four years, Soroka has been a part of the band. He attends practices every Monday evening and perfects those clarinet skills he first learned in New Castle High School.

“My mother believed that all boys should learn how to play piano,” he said.

And he did — at 5 years old.

He was an active participant in his high school's music program and marching band. Later, he went off to study music at West Virginia University. A short stint as a music teacher proved one thing: “Public schools weren't for me.”

Decades later and during his business career in operations with American Eagle Outfitters, he discovered the North Suburban Symphonic Band, or NSSB.

The NSSB has no formal application process or auditions.

“There was apprehension. I thought I was a pretty good player, but it's like getting into shape; your muscles get flabby,” he said.

But the band was welcoming and allowed him to get stronger and stronger. He maintains his skills with six hours of practice a week.

“When I was a little boy, I heard classics in cartoons. There was the ‘Poet and Peasant Overture,'” he said.

“I remember hearing that and liking what I heard.”

He now considers Mahler and Beethoven two of his favorite composers. His own repertoire has developed considerably since his childhood encounters with classical music.

“Seeds get planted pretty young.”

The fourth or fifth grade seems to be the starting point for many a musician. Often, piano lessons are the first step.

“I asked to play piano before I even knew what it was,” Carol Zimmerman, 55, of Harmony, said.

And even after the family purchased a second-hand piano, she had to wait for her hands to grow to take lessons. Soon, she discovered the clarinet, which she played through high school and college.

“It was in the closet for years,” she said, until a friend told her about a community band.

Playing again with a number of groups made her remember how much she liked music. She has been with the NSSB since 1999.

“I have a better appreciation for it now. It's not about hitting the right button or playing the right notes; it's the music itself,” Zimmerman said.

Whether with the full band, the woodwind ensemble or the Dixieland musicians, she lends her talents on the piano and clarinet.

She even has been known to pack her clarinet when she travels.

“I'm in my hotel room playing as quietly as I can,” she said with a laugh.

But, she said, “it's more fun to play with other people.”

Melissa Tsaggaris Corso of Marshall Township joined the band seven years ago. She, too, had played in high school at Seneca Valley and college.

“I hadn't played for 15 years,” she said.

“I picked it up quicker than I thought.”

She had wanted to play trombone as a child, but then someone suggested that if she liked brass, she might like the French horn.

Corso, 40, credits her family's interest in the symphony and ballet for her love of music. She also applauds her former father-in-law with introducing her to the NSSB, which they both joined in months of each other.

“It feels like a quality college band,” she said.

“Carl brings a much greater level of musicianship to the group.”

And while some of the pieces might be difficult to play for the first time, she recognizes a dedication as she performs.

“I feel like I'm accomplishing something each time, so I stuck with it.”

As the chief compliance officer of a financial advisory firm, music offers her even more: “It's good to use both sides of my brain every week.”

Charles Tea's musical career began with the mellophone, which he played for a few years before his first trumpet.

At 74, the Richland resident still is perfecting his talents, and the NSSB has offered him that opportunity for eight years.

“Carl is a wonderful musician, educator and conductor,” he said.

“This is one of the better bands I played in. He holds us to a high standard.”

Before his switch to becoming a guidance counselor, Tea was a music teacher in the Hampton Township School District.

Classical music in his home stimulated his interest in music, and half-hour daily practices keep his skills at their peak.

As one of the oldest members in the NSSB, he has watched as young musicians have stepped up to play. Members come from junior high age on up.

“The age range keeps us on our toes. The young people have had excellent music programs, really good teachers and better instruments than we had,” he said.

No matter the age or level, wanting to play is the thing these musicians have in common.

“Music teachers must have done something right since they've continued with it,” he said.

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or

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