As a (mostly) professional musician, I’m used to watching other professionals keep a perfect, expressionless face when they make mistakes. And I do it too. (Maybe I do it a lot.) Its part of being a professional — we can’t let on that we made a mistake, or we risk ruining the magic. That, and too many mistakes can cost us a job. But in community band the players are more likely to smile, and if you catch them in rehearsal together, you are more likely to hear them roar in mutual, supportive laughter. The more of them who make mistakes at once, the louder it gets.
My wife and I took a trip to Wisconsin a few weeks ago to visit her family, and while we were there her aunt and uncle invited me to play in their community band, the Dual County Community Band, which performs every thursday in the summer in Pardeeville, WI, population 2,118. (And yes, its pronounced “Party-ville.”) So, after a few handshakes and a few minutes talking shop with the other trumpet players, I took my place in the back row and we were ready to start.
We began, without tuning, by playing the official Wisconsin state song and fight song of the University of Wisconsin, “On, Wisconsin!” Usually you would expect to start with the “Star Spangled Banner,” but one thing you should know is that Wisconsinites are very proud of their Badgers, and so it isn’t too surprising that “On, Wisconsin!” can substitute for the national anthem without anyone batting an eye.
Anyone who lives in Wisconsin knows this song well, if not by heart. By a stroke of pure coincidence, my high school in Oregon adopted the tune from “On, Wisconsin!” as its fight song, with the words “On for West Linn!” that we never once sang. So, I knew this tune just about as well as any band kid from Wisconsin. I’m sure any proud Wisconsinite would say we’d chosen a good tune for our school song, and John Philip Sousa would agree. I found that he called it “the finest of college marching songs” in this Wikipedia post.
Wisconsinites may not want to hear this, but this song was originally composed by William Purdy to be entered in a contest for a new fight song for the University of Minnesota. Fortunately for Wisconsinites, a friend of Purdy’s, and a UW alum, recognized greatness when he heard it and had Purdy send the song to the UW instead, and the rest, apparently, is history. Can you imagine all those Minnesotans putting their grubby hands over their hearts and singing “Minnesota, Minnesota!” to the tune that by rights is yours? Its unimaginable, but it nearly happened. (To all my Minnesotan friends: I love you all and your state, but since I married a Wisconsinite, I have to be loyal!)
I’ve been happy to find that amateur community bands in small towns and cities throughout the US are still going strong despite the fact that anyone can hear “Stars and Stripes Forever” over their internet device of choice as many times as they want. But, the thing about the internet is that it doesn’t make pie, nor does it make ice cream. It takes a community band concert to have pie, ice cream and “Stars and Stripes Forever” all in the same place, not to mention the warmth that you feel from a group of people coming together to make music just for the fun of it. The community band experience remains active in our culture not because of virtuosic performances, but because of the shared experience that includes people from many different communities in a beautiful tradition of community music-making.
A European Tradition Americanized
The tradition of civic bands playing for their communities comes to the US from Europe. These days, community bands are going strong, but their numbers now pale in comparison to the turn of the century. Estimating from a directory website in the community band community, there are at least 2000 active bands in the US right now, probably a few more who aren’t listed on this site. In comparison, the great Wikipedia estimates that there were “10,000 bands in the United States in 1889.” I don’t say this to dwell on the negative, but to show how today’s bands are a continuation of a vital tradition in this country that is fascinating to learn about.
One of my favorite parts of the community band story is the ties these bands have had to all different types of communities. Many of the bands were started by immigrants who brought the tradition and instruments with them from their homeland, like the Moravian bands around Pennsylvania. The community bands were both outgrowths of and contributors to the success of the many professional bands like John Philip Sousa’s that were household names throughout the country due to extensive touring. One of Sousa’s cornet soloists named Herbert L. Clark, who was a household name in his time, wrote a technique book that I and most other trumpet players study to this day. (Its full of really hard stuff that I’m unlikely to ever be able to play, though I keep trying!)
But, band musicians aren’t limited to people of European descent. The all-black James Reese Europe Band was famous worldwide for its symphonic arrangements of music by African-American composers. This group was a very important precursor to the development of jazz music as we know it today, and was the first African-American group to perform in Carnegie Hall. His popularity did not compare to that of someone like Sousa, but it is striking to know that Europe’s was the first public funeral granted to an African-American in New York City — he was an honored man. The African-American brass band tradition lives on in many forms, three of my favorites are the Pitchblak Brass Band and the No BS! Brass Band.
Another incredibly vital tradition that is taking root in the United States is the Mexican brass band music called banda. When highly produced, mostly electronic music is dominating the pop music landscape as it does now, it is really encouraging to see a completely acoustic music still hold a vital place in living culture. Anglo-American culture is still largely ignorant of this style, but I think that will change over the coming decades. What I love about banda is the romantic character of the songs, and though my Spanish skills are pretty close to zero, the strong melodies and the brash timbre of the winds just warm my heart. Search for “banda” on Youtube, and just watch a few videos to get a feel for this music.
The community band experience
All this is to say that band music, played by amateurs and professionals alike has been a persistent part of our diverse cultural fabric for maybe 200 years. That’s really something. I put all these different band music traditions into this post because they capture the melting pot of American music that everyone should know more about. Band music crosses so many cultural boundaries whether we are talking about professional or amateur musicians, and it tells the story of our culture from different perspective than we usually hear.
We ended the concert with “Stars and Stripes Forever,” probably the most famous Sousa march out there. I have to say in all seriousness that this piece is a masterpiece, because it does what it sets out to do so perfectly. I’m not given to rah-rah patriotism, but when we got back to main theme after the trio and the piccolo solo, and all the brass players stood up, and the whole audience stood up, even all the old ladies with their walkers, and everyone was clapping and smiling and not worrying at all about their pie and ice cream, and the smiles spread from face to face, from young to old, and all these things came together for not even a full minute into this sublime moment that I never would have suspected would hit me like this, well, if I hadn’t been trying to play my horn I would have been crying like a little school girl from all the shivers I was getting during those 16 bars or so.
“Stars and Stripes Forever” is perfectly designed — its hard not to get up on your feet and clap, if not for patriotism, then to congratulate the poor piccolo player that has to play that treacherous solo. Its a little bit of show business baked right into the piece, and its baked in perfectly. But everything else about that concert was not designed at all, at least not in the “show business” sense of that word. It was a natural extension of that place in that time, that couldn’t ever be duplicated anywhere else. Like your mother’s home-cooked meals, it doesn’t rely on flashy presentation, but in the honest attempt at doing something as well as you can purely because its a great thing to do. I hope that community music-making like this will stay around for a long time.