Community bands bond neighbors through music
When it comes to Western Pennsylvania's long-running tradition of community bands, Drew Fennell believes the word “community” is the most crucial element.
“ ‘Community' is about connecting to people, and playing music is all about connecting to people, both onstage and in the audience,” says the principal solo flugelhorn for River City Brass, conductor of the River City Youth Brass and a member of the popular Kittanning Firemen's Band.
Being in a community organization, such as a band, facilitates interaction, and bonds are formed between people this way, Fennell says. “And all of this ignores the bonus: making music. Everything comes together and magic happens. It's a shared experience for the performers and the audience alike.”
A celebration of that experience takes place March 30 through April 3 as Pittsburgh's East Winds Symphonic Band hosts the 38th annual national convention of the Association of Concert Bands, bringing an expected 700 musicians and guests to the city.
One of the convention highlights promises to be “Three Rivers Rhapsody,” March 30 through April 2, —nine free community band concerts at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, Oakland, including a full-length performance March 30 by River City Brass.
“I'm so excited that the band was invited to perform at the convention,” says Steven Baldanzi, music director of the Allegheny Brass Band. “This will be our first performance of the season and the band members have been working very hard to prepare for this event.”
The Convention Band, made up of about 100 musicians from throughout the country under the baton of River City Brass artistic director James Gourlay, will perform April 2 at Soldiers & Sailors followed by East Winds.
Being selected to host the national convention is “an extreme” honor for East Winds, says its director, Susan Sands of Sewickley. Founded in 1981, East Winds is the recipient of the John Philip Sousa Foundation's Sudler Silver Scroll, North America's most prestigious award for community concert band excellence.
“As we draw active music leaders from across the country to attend, we hope to present Pittsburgh as a thriving arts community with amazing resources,” Sands says.
She hopes an event of this stature will increase awareness in the Pittsburgh area about community bands and the “wonderful resource” they are, as a way to continue active involvement in a band and as “a wonderfully accessible” way to hear quality live performances.
“Our hope would be that we will encourage others to pull their well-loved, but forgotten horns, from the attic,” Sands says.
“We had a member join our band after not playing her baritone for 50 years. You can't get a more encouraging role model than that,” says Jason Venesky, conductor of the Armstrong Concert Band, entering its 32nd season as an offshoot of the Kittanning Fireman's Band. “At any given performance, I could be conducting a professional musician, a nurse, a police officer, a fireman, a retired college professor, a veteran, a homemaker, a student and anyone in between.”
There are bands in the area that trace their history more than 100 years, Sands says.
Although many people would consider the Golden Age of concert bands to be in the time of the Sousa and Goldman bands, Sands says there has been a resurgence in community concert band participation.
“It is also a living medium with excellent modern composers who are writing wind symphonies and serious compositions for the college, school and community bands,” she says.
East Winds will premiere a new composition by Pennsylvania native Jerry Brubaker at its convention concert. His piece, “Three Rivers Rhapsody,” is a musical reflection on the Pittsburgh region and a tribute to the convention.
“It's important to spread the message that there is still the opportunity for musicians to continue their interest in music long after they have ended their formal education,” says Roger Schneider of Murrysville, a founding member of East Winds.
Membership of many community bands is multigenerational, with teens playing alongside those their grandparents' age, and all walks of life represented, bonded by their love for music.
After graduating from Freeport High School in 1970, Dr. Chuck Amadee put his horn away and didn't play it for more than 30 years.
Pursing an education, establishing a career and raising a family occupied the time of the emergency physician at Excela Latrobe Hospital.
“I never forgot how to play and never lost the desire the make music with a band,” says Amadee, of Unity, who plays in Delmont Community Band. “Now the kids are grown and my career is winding down. I have the chance to be in a band again.
“It is challenging, but I enjoy every practice. Playing in a concert is like re-living a happy memory from my high-school days. How often does anyone get to do that?” he says.
“The term ‘community band' refers to a wide range of organizations,” Sands says. All are similar in instrumentation; some are professional organizations that are well-funded, some are highly structured organizations with paid staff, and others are all-volunteer on a shoe-string budget and completely self-supporting.
Some bands have an audition process and require most members to have advanced musical training. Still other bands are open to anyone with an instrument and the time to attend rehearsal. For the most part, members of community bands are not paid.
“We truly believe that music, unlike activities that require much more total physical input, is a true life skill,” says Clem Rolin, director of the West Hills Symphonic Band. “Just think how much time and money is invested in any kid who has ever been a member of a high-school music group. This investment is too many times regarded as simply disposable! Instead, the investment should be regarded as an initial step towards a lifelong music experience.”
Venesky says students often spend eight to 10 years learning to play and perform on their respective instruments.
“Unless they're one of the very few who go on to study music in college, they lose the opportunity to perform just when they've reached their peak. Community bands give these musicians an outlet for music performance for the rest of their lives,” he says.
“There is nothing so sad as a musician who has no place to continue using his or her talents,” says Linda Gallick, retired music teacher and French horn player for the Somerset Community Band, Jeannette Community Band and Westmoreland County Community College Band. “Singers have community choruses and church choirs as outlets. Instrumentalists often have no place to play and end up with instruments collecting dust in the attic. The fellowship in community musical organizations and the service to communities is a win-win situation.”
The Kittanning Firemen's Band, founded in 1949, draws members from five counties.
“There are towns that will not even hold their parade if we can't participate in it,” says Manny Wolfe, who is on the board of directors of the Firemen's Band. “We get incredible feedback constantly on our website/Facebook page about people's memories of the band, how proud they are that we represent Kittanning, stories of how much it meant to them for their father to have been in the band, etc.
“We are also considered a lucky charm by the Steelers organization and have been invited to perform at the past two AFC championship games played in Pittsburgh, leading to mentions of the band in some national publications that fondly talked of how, in Pittsburgh, they don't need or want big stars at their big game … the local band of firemen is good enough.”
Rex Rutkoski is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.
Other band celebrations
13th annual Three Rivers Community Band Festival: 2:30 p.m. April 23, Upper St. Clair High School. East Winds Symphonic Band has hosted this event since 2004. This year will also feature Community Band South, Mon Valley Community Band and the Festival Band. Free. Details: ewsb.org/festival/concert-info
Community Band Celebration: 3 p.m. June 26, Palace Theatre, Greensburg. Delmont, Kiski Valley, Penn Trafford and Jeannette Community Bands will play. $10. Tickets go on sale in April. Details: 724-836-8000 or thepalacetheatre.org
Community band sampling
Here are just some of the community bands in the Pittsburgh region.
East Winds Symphonic Band: Musicians mainly from the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. Rehearsals 8 to 10 p.m. Mondays at Trinity Christian School in Forest Hills. ewsb.org
Kittanning Firemen's Band: Based in Kittanning, but with members from all over the region. Rehearsals, parades and concerts are generally in the summer. Find details on Facebook.
West Hills Symphonic Band: Rehearsals are generally on Sundays at West Allegheny High School, Imperial. The group also has some smaller performing ensembles. whsb.org
Jeannette Community Band: Rehearsals are 7:30-9:15 p.m. Tuesdays at the Jeannette American Legion, 109 S. 5th St. jcbweb.com
Penn Trafford Community Band: Rehearsals are at 7 p.m. Mondays at Penn Middle School or McCullough Elementary School, both in Harrison City. ptcommunityband.org
Kiski Valley Community Band: Rehearsals are 7-9 p.m. Tuesdays at Kiski Area Intermediate School, Allegheny Township, during the school year, and at Hebron Lutheran Church, Leechburg, during the summer. orgsites.com/pa/kvcb/index.html
Community Band South: Rehearsals are 7:30-9:30 p.m. Mondays at Upper St. Clair High School. cbs.pghfree.net