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Community bands are back after being battered by the pandemic

The Metropolitan Atlanta Community Band is gearing up for its first concert in more than two years.
Maude King
The Metropolitan Atlanta Community Band is gearing up for its first concert in more than two years.

Community bands date back to the American Revolution. The Association of Concert Bands estimates that there are more than 1,000 of them around the country. Several have been playing since the 19th Century, including The Allentown Band in Pennsylvania, which began in 1828. The pandemic has battered these amateur bands but they're getting back to performing, especially after Labor Day.

The Metropolitan Atlanta Community Band, a predominantly African-American band, is gearing up for a concert in November, its first in more than two and a half years.

Every one of its performances opens with "Freedom Fanfare," a 68-second piece originally arranged in 1971 for a college football team that incorporates the melodies of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and the gospel song "Take My Hand, Precious Lord."

"When I first joined the band, I noticed a genuine love for each other, they just like to hang out with each other and that culture is established," said Allen Ward, the band's associate director. "People who play in community bands, for the most part, they don't leave. We have at least eight to 10 members who's been in the band since its inception [26 years ago]."

Associate Director Allen Ward has been with the Metropolitan Atlanta Community Band for more than a decade.
/ Maude King
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Maude King
Associate Director Allen Ward has been with the Metropolitan Atlanta Community Band for more than a decade.

The pandemic has not only halted many of the community bands' indoor concerts but also taken away their rehearsal spaces. To cope with this new reality the Atlanta band staged outdoor performances with seven-piece combos. The Allentown Band recorded the concerts it usually performs before a live audience of students in a local symphony hall and posted the recordings online.

Another challenge was getting band members to practice on their own.

"The physical skills needed to play an instrument develop slowly but deteriorate rapidly," said Chuck Van Buren, conductor of the Perinton Concert Band near Rochester, N.Y. "And not having a goal, such as being prepared for rehearsal, or looking forward to a concert, made it difficult for them to keep up a practice regimen. And frankly, some of our older members began to wonder if this was going to be the end of their playing career. Would they ever get back when we finally resume? Would they be too old? Would they lose interest?"

Sixteen of the Perinton Concert Band's 50 members have been music educators. Eleven of them are retired.

The Perinton Concert Band has become one of the most highly regarded community bands in the northeast.
/ Keith Boas
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Keith Boas
The Perinton Concert Band has become one of the most highly regarded community bands in the northeast.

To limit their possible exposure to COVID, older band members have tended to be more cautious about returning to the bandstand than their younger peers. But for these elderly musicians, community bands have been a lifeline.

"Making music helps older people keep sharp," said Diane Hawkins-Cox, CEO of the Metropolitan Atlanta Community Band. "It's important for older people to maintain connections with other people. And I think community bands are an important outlet for that."

More than one musician NPR spoke with said that three generations of their family had played in community bands. Trombone player Ezra Wenner has been in the Allentown Band for more than three generations.

95-year-old Ezra Wenner performing with The Allentown Band.
/ Robert Cort Photography
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Robert Cort Photography
95-year-old Ezra Wenner performing with The Allentown Band.

Wenner joined the band 80 years ago after being recruited by his high school band director, Albertus Meyers, who also served as the Allentown Band's conductor. Meyers was a coronet player who was a featured soloist in John Phillips Sousa's band. At one point there were at least 19 members of the Allentown Band that had played in the Sousa band.

"When I first joined the band, the majority of our concerts were Sunday school picnics," said Wenner, who is now 95 and still playing. "Today we're playing Carnegie Hall. We're playing Kennedy Center. We did three or four European tours."

Meyers conducted the Allentown Band for 50 years. The current conductor, Ronald Demkee, has held the baton for 45 years. He stands for election every year.

Demkee realizes the turn-out for performances has been declining over the years.

"We still have pretty good audiences in numbers and they're certainly enthusiastic. But when I was in the band, it was not uncommon for us to have 1,500 or 2,000 people in the audience. We just don't see that [kind of turn out anymore] and I think that may be true around the country, actually," said Demkee.

The Allentown Band performing in front of thousands at Levitt Pavilion in Bethlehem, Pa.
/ The Allentown Band
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The Allentown Band
The Allentown Band performing in front of thousands at Levitt Pavilion in Bethlehem, Pa.

That's certainly the case with the Callicoon Center Band, which has been performing in a small Catskill Mountain town in New York since 1934. Its band membership and audience have been declining, especially during the pandemic.

Town Band, a new documentary, chronicles the band's commitment to keep going. The film's director, Alice Elliott, has been attending concerts for 40 years.

"The bandstand sits empty for six days and then all of a sudden for an hour at night, it becomes this place of entertainment, of community of, intergenerational mixing," said Elliott. "The idea that music and the arts can create community is extremely powerful."

"If bands didn't play this kind of music, the songs would be lost because they're not played on the radio, they're not taught in music schools. So, these bands are doing a service reminding us of historical American music, trends in American music, music that's been brought over by people all over the world."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jon Kalish