Community Bands Return from Coast to Coast

Mike Lawson • • June 19, 2017

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It’s been a great ride: elementary school band playing for school assemblies, junior high school band with marching and a few concerts, and then high school band with parades, concerts, pep rallies, sports events, competition, and perhaps a dance band.

Of course, those memorable group trips went with all these activities. Finally came college with more of the same plus an education for a life’s career and then suddenly, it’s all over!

The career you planned, and the company you work for don’t have a band! Is all that excitement, fun and sense of accomplishment just a memory to be thought about during lulls in your busy life? Well, it doesn’t have to end that way, and if it did, there is something that you can still do about it.

Active community bands and orchestras exist almost everywhere according to The size, membership, history, type, skill level, and activities vary widely. With over 1,200 groups listed there and perhaps as much more not listed, only a few are reviewed in this article. The “C-M” list, as it is known, provides contact information for every registered music organization.

But know this; community bands and orchestras are alive and well and most probably there is one near you! While some variations exist among community music organizations, bands and orchestras generally may be senior, adult, youth or mixed ages. Some rely on auditions, but most are “come as you are,” and some even encourage the new musician.

While many groups are the traditional concert or symphonic bands and orchestras, there are also brass bands, jazz bands, “big” bands, Dixieland, and almost any other format.

The Atlanta Concert Band follows the general pattern of mission, rehearsals, performances and fundraising but has added community arts education to the mix. During their performances, the background and history of each of the compositions are shared with their audiences. Utilizing today’s technology, they take that another step by offering an e-learning website with concert notes and other material available online.

Another site allows the listener to select compositions from the band’s library and listen to an online performance! Band members individually mentor young musicians and selectively invite some to join the group. This year the band is emphasizing connecting with schools and their arts education programs.

The Classic City Band in Athens, Georgia, is the Official Municipal Band by mayoral proclamation in 2006. It was organized in the bicentennial year, 1976, making it the oldest continuously performing community band in Georgia. Their first public appearance was in the Athens Bicentennial Festival Parade as the Classic Band and Others. Concert performances “for the enjoyment and entertainment of the people of Athens, Clarke County, and their guests” now may include marches, jazz, pop favorites, show tunes, opera and show excerpts along with the traditional and classical band compositions.”

One of the groups that keep band music alive — a great outlet to be able to play” was a comment from one long term band member. The Classic Band also has auxiliary ensembles. These include a German polka band of 8-12 members formed in 2007, the Dixiedawgs Dixieland group of seven, and the Big Band, a classical 1940s era eighteen-piece performing band.

While large metropolitan areas like Dallas-Ft. Worth and Atlanta boast many community music organizations, other areas have groups that draw from a wide regional area. The Keys Community Concert Band may be an excellent example of a local group that offers a broad range of community band activities and opportunities.

Started in 1992 with only a small group, it expanded its role in 1998 by setting a pattern of weekly evening rehearsals and six monthly free concerts, November through April. Each concert has a particular focus such as youth, pets, and a variety of holiday performances.

The Honolulu Wind Ensemble has many of the attributes of its mainland equivalents but also has an international relationship. In March 2011, a joint concert was scheduled in Hawaii with the Omiya Wind Symphony from Saitama City, Japan. As the Japanese band was on its way to the airport, the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan and the concert was canceled. It was then rescheduled and took place in January of 2012. Inspired by this interaction, the two bands established an international “sister band” relationship in 2014. The Honolulu Wind Ensemble later joined the Omiya Band in Japan for a reciprocal concert.

This draws attention to the fact that community bands and orchestras are worldwide, all speaking the international language of music! The online listing mentioned earlier shows about 10 percent of the groups currently listed are outside the United States.

New Horizons International Music Association and its New Horizons Music Programs take another route to community bands. They focus on seniors, over 50 as AARP defines seniors, but leaves minimum ages up to local group organizers. It also encourages and addresses those with no prior musical training or experience, the roughly 80 percent of adults that never participated in any music program. This is done in a group environment. While the first Horizons’ effort at the Eastman School of Music in 1991 was a band, orchestras soon followed, and other formats also took shape.

In many ways, New Horizons serves as a feeder system to traditional community bands and orchestras by developing new musicians that may join other more performance-focused groups. The Cobb New Horizons Band, one of three Horizons bands in the Atlanta suburban area, is an example of such a group. After 38 years in all levels of public school music education, Dr. Charles R. Jackson, Jr. spends his retirement as a part-time state college music professor, performer, and director of the Cobb New Horizons Band. This brings together his experience with new musicians and the world of performing bands.

While much attention is paid to community bands, there are also a significant number of community orchestras. The Amateur Musicians Orchestra in Burlington, Vermont was started in 1984 to provide an “opportunity for adult, non-professional musicians to read, rehearse and share their love for music with the community with two concerts a year.” It is made up of “students, retirees and everything in between.” The environment is a friendly, non-competitive experience with a current membership of about 60. Many of the members are parents of children who are participants in music programs and, realizing that they had missed out, decided to make music part of their lives as well. Community music groups are not just for the musicians, but for directors too. Directors also need a musical life after their careers. Gary E. Smith, recently elected the president of the American Bandmasters Association (SBO May 2017) and associate director of Bands Emeritus, University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne, heads the relatively new Bonita Springs Concert Band.

There is more to community bands and orchestras than just being an outlet for musical expression. Many of these groups support the next generation of musicians, either directly by including youth in their activities, and with teaching and mentoring or indirectly by supporting their local school music programs both financially and with volunteers.

Among the challenges facing community musical groups are rehearsal space, uniforms and funding for their activities, supplies, travel, uniforms, and other equipment. Most are established as non-profit 501c3 organizations. Most groups utilize school or church facilities for their rehearsals. Typically, rehearsal schedules are one night a week for two hours with occasional additional rehearsals before concerts or other performances. Some units have abbreviated concert seasons with the remainder of the year spent on social gatherings.

Uniforms range from formal wear with a designated color for the women to color consistent casual wear. Some organizations have shirts with band logos as uniform tops. Funding also takes advantage of corporate grants available to community groups.

Most frequently encountered include AmazonSmile, grocery chain loyalty programs such as Kroger’s Plus program, and local Wal-Mart grants. Many groups accept donations through PayPal. With an estimated total of 2,500 community music organizations, it is only natural that a variety of band festivals, clubs, and conventions would be held. One such meeting recently took place in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, when the Association of Concert Bands gathered eleven bands for its 2017 convention including an American Legion-sponsored band, a brass band, a National Guard band, and more traditional concert bands. Among these was the Melbourne Municipal Band which has instituted an innovative “PING” program, Providing Instruments for the Next Generation. The closing concert featured a convention band drawn from the participating groups.

The Pinellas (Florida) Festival of Community Bands was held in Dunedin, Florida, for its second, year drawing six bands including the Second Time Arounders (SBO April 2017), the local Dunedin Concert Band, the Wesley Chapel Wind Ensemble, the East Hillsboro County Community Band and the St. Petersburg Community Band.

And what about community bands from A to Z? Well, check out the Abilene Community Band in Texas and Zeeland Community Band in Holland, Michigan. And coast to coast might include the (Florida) Keys Community Concert Band mentioned earlier or the Vancouver Community Concert Band in Vancouver, Washington, as well as the Pomerado Community Band in San Diego or the Bangor Band (Maine) which has performed every summer since 1859! But don’t forget the Honolulu Wind Ensemble in Hawaii or the Mat-Su Concert Band in famous Wasilla, Alaska. And of course, Wasilla is just a hop-skip-and-jump to the upcoming August Annual International Community Band Festival in St. Petersburg, Russia! (Arrangements by Global Educational Tours)

So what to do now? First off, if a group exists near you, look into joining or supporting it. If no group exists, consider starting such a group by locating other individuals in your area that might be interested. Consider the many forms described in this article, the resources available to you and then get moving! And, oh yes, where is my old saxophone anyway?


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