Armstrong Concert Band celebrates its 20th season
Overtures of raucous, April rain roared against a compact building in back of Worthington/West Franklin Civic Center Monday evening.
Inside, the noisy weather was muffled by a swelling cacophony of piping trumpets, bleating saxophones, swooning trombones, cackling clarinets and murmuring French horns as Armstrong Concert Band, led by long-time director Dennis F. Cramer, began rehearsing for the opening concert of their 20th season.
"Two very important things about Armstrong Concert Band is that we bring people together and we make good music," said Cramer, also a music teacher with Armstrong School District, principal trombonist with Butler County Symphony Orchestra and WQED-FMs 2001 Volunteer in the Arts.
At last count, the all-volunteer band boasts roughly 70 current members ranging in age from 14 to 80 and hailing from Armstrong, Indiana, Butler, Jefferson, Allegheny and Westmoreland counties, Cramer said, with more than 225 musicians from myriad backgrounds having played in the band over the years.
"Attorneys, housewives, secretaries, engineers, public school teachers, college music majors and high school band members all have given freely of their time and talents (to this band)," Cramer said.
Also, to consider the band a family unit would be more correct than one might know.
"In the past, we've had a grandfather and granddaughter, we've had some husband and wife teams, we have some uncles and aunts, even my brothers, my nephew and niece and my own wife have played for me," Cramer said.
French hornist Denise Mintier, 45, of Kittanning, who teaches music at Kittanning Middle School, is a concert band veteran and is accompanied by her daughter, Hallie John, 18, a trombonist and senior at Kittanning High School.
"We're here to make music, and it's kind of neat that she wanted to come along to be a part of it," said Denise of Hallie. "It just kind of filters down that way, and who knows, someday maybe she'll have children that come to play."
The symbolic first notes of the concert band's legacy were written in 1984, when Kittanning Firemen's Band members Dave Lindeman, Jim Wyant and the late Bill McGann decided to offer that band's older members an opportunity to continue playing without having to march in parades.
The all-volunteer group was originally called Lenape Concert Band.
"There were a lot of musicians who had played in Kittanning Firemen's Band who were no longer marching, and we thought it would be nice to have a band where they didn't have to hit the street," said Lindeman, a member of both bands to this day.
At the time, Cramer's position as director of Ford City Junior/Senior High School Band, his proximity to the area and his general interest in music made him the natural pick for maestro of the burgeoning endeavor, according to Lindeman.
"We met with Denny, and he said we'd be interested if we got a building to rehearse in," Lindeman said.
Soon after, the men procured a second floor room Ford City Eagles Club, placed ads in local newspapers for membership, and the band's two-decade history crept into its first tremulous movement.
"We started with six members, then eight, then six, then nine, but Denny really persevered and, as the years passed, the band kept adding more members both young and old," Lindeman said.
The band performed its first concert on May 26, 1985 as part of Ford City's Memorial Day festivities.
In fall of 1988, Cramer moved the group to its current rehearsal hall in Worthington, which borough and East Franklin Township officials offered to them rent-free. At that point, they took on the Armstrong name to better reflect the area served by the group, according to Cramer.
"The people of Worthington have been very nice to us," Cramer said.
In return for providing the rehearsal space at no cost, Cramer said the band performs a Christmas concert for the borough annually.
"Whatever money we collect at that concert, I write a check back to the civic center for use in their grant writing," Cramer said. "It's been nice to kind of be a partner out here with them."
The band rehearses for ten weeks in the fall and ten weeks in the spring, annually performs six to ten summer performances of American Classical Music and Marches, highlighted by a concert sponsored by the county tourist bureau at Crooked Creek Lake Park.
Trumpeter and local attorney David C. Suckling, 79, said the band has come a long way since its inception.
"Today we have a bigger band, we've been playing more difficult music, and the band's gotten progressively better every year; the repertoire's expanded and the instrumentation has expanded," Suckling said. "I feel very, very fortunate to be able to still play with this band."