The Madison Community Band
John Stroube defines music as “controlled sound through time that has emotive content.” But even Stroube admits this is a very literal definition. Music, he confides, is so much more.
Stroube should know. He has served for seven years as executive director of the Kentucky Music Educators Association, a statewide association that consists of school bands, orchestras, choirs and classroom music studies. Prior to that, Stroube served as band director for middle-school through college-level bands across several states for nearly 25 years.
Despite an immersion in music throughout his professional career, Stroube said he felt there was still something missing.
“My whole career and preparation had to do with teaching and directing bands and rehearsals and concerts. It’s something I love to do. I always said it’s what I wanted to do whether I was paid to do it or not. I am proving that now,” Stroube said.
It wasn’t long after moving to Richmond in 2006 that Stroube had a chance to put his instrument where his mouth was by providing music where before there had been silence.
The Birth of a Community Band
Outside of his professional career, Stroube had been involved in community bands in whatever city his job led him to, sometimes driving as far as 45 minutes away to get a chance to play—as when he lived and worked in Murray and drove to Paducah to play. When he settled in Richmond with the KMEA position, he drove to Frankfort to play clarinet and bass clarinet. And then he considered that, since Richmond is the sixth-largest city in the state, surely there would be enough musicians to begin a community band there. He contacted Marc Whitt, associate vice president for public relations and chief communications officer with Eastern Kentucky University and a longtime trumpet player. Before long, the two musicians found themselves at a restaurant with “two or three other fellows,” where they gained perspective on the local music scene and decided to send out a call to the general public.
“We got the cooperation of the public school district because we had to have a reasonably large space to rehearse in, and we had to have percussion equipment. Nobody just has those. And there was an article in the paper,” Stroube said. “The idea was that playing music is not just kid stuff, and there are adults who get a lot of reward out of doing that, and if we find a commonly acceptable time and a good place to rehearse, maybe we could do it.”
Their initial rehearsal attracted 60 players with a good balance of instruments. “We were so excited that first night because we had done all of this planning and discussion and then, finally, the realization, wow, there really is this interest in it,” Whitt said.
The Madison Community Band opened its first hour-long concert in late summer of 2009 with almost 60 musicians and an audience of nearly 75. Today, it plays four concerts during the school year and usually two to three outdoor summer concerts with what Stroube calls “light” music that is easier to listen to as background music.
“At the summer performances, it takes us back to a time in our culture where we were able to enjoy the company of others while being able to enjoy that community band,” Whitt said.
The Glasgow Community Band in southwestern Kentucky had a more humble genesis.
According to Bill Brogan, a former high school band director and current co-conductor of the Glasgow Community Band, its musical history began in 1999 with one of Brogan’s former band students, Dr. Jeff Wilson.
“They had five members and didn’t have a place to practice, so they practiced in Dr. Wilson’s office. About a year later, the mayor joined the band, and then a man from California joined the band. It started to grow from there,” Brogan said. “It was kinda crazy because Dr. Wilson was a trumpet player, and there was a sousaphone and a tuba player, and then a tenor saxophone, and another man who played the French horn and his wife who had no musical experience, but she ended up playing percussion. That was the beginning of the Glasgow Community Band.”
Today, the band averages 45 to 50 members who practice in a large room in the basement of the Glasgow City Hall and perform for audiences of 400-500 people throughout the year.
“For 27 years as a band director, we played music for music’s sake, but with the community band, we play strictly for entertainment,” Brogan said. “Marches, pop tunes, Broadway, Dixieland—anything that’s fun to play, we play it.”
Brogan said that, while he is co-conductor, he also has a chance to flex his musical muscles by playing the clarinet that his wife surprised him with for Christmas in 2002.
“I was quite shocked because I hadn’t played in 30 years, and I had no ambition of playing anymore,” Brogan admitted. “But in January of 2003, I joined the Glasgow band. The director at that time was Charlie Honeycutt, and he welcomed me with open arms.”
It is one thing to start a community band, but Chris Conway of Frankfort took on the task of helping to revive the melody in a community that had been musically dormant for about 20 years.
Conway is the current president of the Capital City Community Band in Frankfort. He began his musical career as a saxophonist when he was 13 and then graduated to the bassoon a year later. For the last 35 years, Conway has enjoyed making music of his own and teaching others to do the same. After graduating from the University of Kentucky, he moved back home to Frankfort and began working in 1986 on the formation board of the band.
“Some people who had performed music during their high school and college years kind of got together and lamented the fact that, once you get out of college, there is no other place to play,” Conway said. “And we knew that there was a large enough talent pool in Frankfort that, if we got people involved, we could start having concerts. And that is what we did.”
Conway became the band president in 1993. The Capital City Community Band now has 62 members and is co-conducted by Tom Brawner and Dave Shelton. They play for audiences of nearly 2,000 members, usually at venues such as the First United Methodist Church in Frankfort, area churches in Georgetown and outdoors in front of the Old Capitol. The band has been accepted to play the Midwest International Band Clinic in Chicago, a 90-year-old national band festival for which it had to audition.
Knowing the Score
The average size for a Kentucky community band is around 50 members who range in age from as young as 13 (which would be a middle-school band member), to as old as 80 or more. Community bands are usually made up of all-volunteer musicians and conductors who come from a wide variety of backgrounds, including educators, attorneys, housewives, insurance agents, students and physicians.
Bands differ from orchestras in that orchestras usually include stringed instruments, while bands include mostly woodwinds, brass and percussion. A band, however, can play a transcription of orchestral arrangements that has been modified to accommodate band instruments.
Concerts are usually free and open to the public, and include a wide variety of band literature chosen by the director or conductor according to the instrumentation and abilities of the group. The conductor works from what is called a score, which contains all the information he needs to be able to see, simultaneously, what each section of the band is playing. Individual musicians are given smaller scores of music literature that include notation for their particular instrument. The music ranges from marches to concert band music and even some original compositions. Depending on the venue, a concert can last anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half.
“We never go over an hour,” Brogan said. “We want the people to go away saying, ‘We wish you had played one more,’ instead of going away saying, ‘Wow, that sure was long.’ ”
Usually, in a high school or college band, musicians are placed in “chairs” according to their performance and skill level. Most community bands allow members the opportunity to seat themselves where they feel comfortable.
“I encouraged them that it might be nice if, when we play five pieces, let one or two people play first, maybe second, and then on the next piece, they play it all and that way, everybody gets some time on first chair, and nobody is playing second all the time,” Stroube said.
The Central Kentucky Concert Band, a 75-member band that plays under the direction of Peter LaRue, offers an “open rehearsal” to recruit new members, followed by an audition each fall. LaRue and the assistant conductor make all seating placements based on that audition.
Taking the notes on a one-dimensional piece of paper and breathing life into them through sound come from practice, individually and together as a group.
“There is a certain methodology involved. First, you have to learn the mechanics of how to play. Second, you need to know how to make the piece come alive. You can play a piece perfectly, but it can be stale, and it has no feeling to it. There is a certain amount of emotion involved, and that takes a long time to learn,” Conway said. “When you are in a large group, it is even more about being able to communicate with the other people you are playing with. Part of playing with a community band is more than just playing your part; you have to listen to the other people around you, that you blend, that you are playing precisely in time.”
No matter the beginnings, the size and instrumentation, or the degree of difficulty, there is something more to music than just the score.
With Melody and Harmony for All
According to a 2009 National Association of Music Merchants Gallup poll, 60 percent of American households own at least one musical instrument. Community bands offer musicians an opportunity to play beyond their school years if they have not chosen to pursue a career in music. The number of community bands is growing across the nation, not just in Kentucky.
“Community bands are the fastest-growing pastime in America,” said Judith Schellenberger, president of the Association of Concert Bands, a group that supports more than 500 bands nationwide. “I am a baby boomer. Many of the boomers are finding time in their retirement to pick up an instrument and play for the fun of it. We must keep live music in our lives. The enrichment is important for the audience and the performer.”
The general consensus from Kentucky band members is that music is beneficial both for those who perform and for those who receive the harmonious swell of sound. John Stroube said being in a community band is a chance for musicians to be a part of something that is larger than they are. Chris Conway said that music, unlike most sports, is something a person can participate in for his or her entire life. Bill Brogan said his Glasgow group plays toward a goal with each concert, and that every member loves music and loves to play. Marc Whitt admitted that, while he doesn’t enjoy a morning cup of coffee with it, his trumpet is an extension of himself. Peter LaRue said the most rewarding aspect is the great music and the great people, but it is, again, so much more.
“As we become more isolated in some ways [interacting so often via electronic, social media], I think there is a natural sense of community which perhaps is missing from some of our lives, and perhaps ensembles such as community bands help to fill this void,” LaRue said.
“Music is an art, and it is communication. Music is in the core of all of us. It is more than a passive form of entertainment, as music can move the listener, making them feel the feelings that the composer was trying to achieve,” said Conway. “In nearly 30 years of doing this, I’ve never seen an audience member who did not go away with a smile on their face. Good music makes people happy.”