Band Together

Maine’s community concert bands are a fixture of summertime. How will they fare in an uncertain future?

By Caroline Praderio / Photographed by Amy Wilton

Jo Anne Parker signs her emails “FL.” It’s short for “Fearless Leader.”

She can’t quite remember how the nickname came to be, or which member of the Midcoast Community Band (MCCB) bestowed it upon her after she assumed directorship of the group in 1987, one year after its establishment. But it’s a fitting moniker for Parker, 66, a longtime music educator and accompanist who’s volunteered to lead a group of amateur musicians through 27 years of rehearsals and performances — even the procurement of the band’s own flatbed truck, used to cart members through summer parades. Some might say you have to be fearless even to mount the flatbed in the first place — more than a few music stands have been pitched overboard during a slow, lurching curve along a narrow, potholed road. And that’s only the beginning.

To be part of a community concert band is a labor of love. Most often, there is no pay (for musicians or directors), and the best compensation a participant can hope for is a round of applause at the end of a song. The director must procure a music library, plan programs, recruit new members, and direct musicians scattered across of wide spectrum of skill and experience. The members, in turn, sacrifice many summer Saturdays to provide background music to some of Maine’s oldest traditions, including town founder’s days, holiday parades, and bandstand concerts. Costs for travel, music, and rehearsal space are furnished by member contributions or solicited grants and donations.

But in Maine, community bands are up against more than just financial hardship. In many parts of the state, the ranks of amateur musicians dwindle on both ends: elderly members are passing on, and fewer young people are filling the seats they leave behind. The problems of Maine’s aging, declining population are mirrored in the rehearsal rooms of almost every band in the state. And while some groups are weathering the changes with assertive recruitment and fund-raising efforts, others wonder how they’ll have the means to play on.

[M]aine’s community bands are no strangers to struggle. Many that formed in the early and mid-1800s went on to enlist as regiment bands in the Civil War, suffering casualties that caused them to fold. Bands cobbled together in industrial boomtowns of the early 1900s often floundered after economic opportunity dried up.

Some of today’s community bands began as groups for strictly professional musicians — including Chandler’s Band of Portland, which was officially organized in 1876 and has long been renowned for its musical abilities. Others formed with far less fanfare, as documented in George Thornton Edwards’ Music and the Musicians of Maine, a historical text published in 1928. “Glover’s Band of Auburn was born on the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence of the United States,” Thornton writes, “when six musicians formed an impromptu band which rode through the streets of Lewiston in a hayrack, in a parade in celebration of that day.”

Today, Maine’s roughly 37 community bands retain that hayrack-to-concert-hall diversity of character. They rehearse in churches, American Legion halls, and schools, and perform on stages, lawns, and truck beds alike. Their rosters are as small as 15 and as large as 70.

Some rehearse and perform year-round; others rely on an influx of summer musicians to make the endeavor worthwhile. Some have Facebook pages, professionally recorded CDs and DVDs, and self-published books printed for noteworthy anniversaries. Some have none of these, but have taken up hammers and nails to build their own bandstands. Some are strictly volunteer-based and perform for free. Others charge nominal fees to cover the band’s own expenses. Still others make a point of donating all earnings to local school music programs.

But they also share commonalities. Most adhere to an unspoken official uniform of white shirts and matching vests. They play from a repertoire of popular marches, show tunes, jazz standards, classical suites, and pop arrangements. Many attend R.B. Hall Day each June, an annual community band festival held in honor of Bowdoinham native and noted American march composer Robert Browne Hall. They frequently accept musicians of all abilities and ages and pride themselves on inclusivity. And, as many directors point out, the bands provide one of very few environments for people of all ages to practice a communal hobby. “You’ve got an 80-year-old playing saxophone and a 16-year-old playing clarinet,” Parker says. “Age just vanishes. That, to me, is what community bands are all about.”

The deepest similarity between these bands is also the most important. Ask any director or member why they like to play in a community band, and they will hesitate — not because they struggle for a meaningful answer, but because they likely haven’t stopped to ponder something so intrinsic to their sense of self. “Music,” they say, in some form or another, “is my life.”

I’d like to think I understand. I had my heart set on playing the flute until I watched my older brother play the Australian nursery rhyme “Kookaburra” on a shiny new alto saxophone at his fourth grade band concert in 1999. I hadn’t seen anything so cool in my entire life. The flute was history. I played my alto sax through middle and high school, where I joined the concert band, pep band, jazz ensemble, and saxophone quartet. Should anyone have questioned my devotion to music, I would have eagerly confessed to skipping my junior prom to attend band camp. Unsurprisingly, no one asked.

I stopped playing in college, mostly due to a lack of extracurricular music opportunities at my school. But then, last summer, a Down East staffer (and MCCB bass clarinetist) heard in passing that I used to play alto saxophone. He urged me to drop in on a Wednesday night rehearsal. The next week I arrived at the American Legion hall in Thomaston, pulled up a metal chair, and stared at a piece of sheet music for the first time in four years. Jo Anne Parker raised her baton and the song — an upbeat march — sped off, leaving me frozen at the starting line. I was sure that I had once been able to translate these black lines and splotches into noises that pleased the human ear. Now, it all seemed like a forgotten magic trick, a never-ending scarf I had once pulled from my sleeve and then stuffed into a trunk, never to be extracted again.

Luckily, I was in good company. Many of MCCB’s members told me that they had returned to music after far longer hiatuses — 10, 20, even 30 years. They’d been a bit dumbstruck their first time back, too. I would catch up quickly.

And I did. A few weeks later we were in full summer swing, donning our red-and-white-striped vests and mounting the flatbed for parades through St. George, Friendship, and Thomaston, sometimes playing to a roadside attended by more cows than humans. I dusted off my musician’s bag of tricks, adding a few key adaptations for Maine in July: how to navigate the up-tempo sections of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” with sweaty fingers, for example, or fight through the burning in my cheeks for one more round of the “Stein Song” along the last block of the parade. We conquered difficult sections of new tunes. We earned a standing ovation after a show at the Warren Bandstand. We laughed at every rehearsal — especially at our own mistakes.

Then, at the end of the summer, Juni Shepherdson died. She was a percussionist — most often on snare drum, since I had known her — who first joined the band in the 1990s. “Being in the band feeds my soul,” Juni wrote in . . . And the Band Plays On, the MCCB’s commemorative 25th anniversary book. “I love riding on the flatbed in parades, playing, waving at friends, watching the watchers.” The news — that she’d passed at age 68 of a heart attack — circulated via email. Band members paid their respects at her funeral. We returned to the American Legion hall to rehearse as we had before and put on a September concert in her honor at the Odd Fellows Hall in Tenants Harbor. And although many members felt her loss acutely, we continued making music.

Now, when we must occasionally play a march without a snare drummer, there is a strange silence in the music. But there is also a question: Who will fill the space that Juni has left behind — and when will that person arrive?

[N]ot all of Maine’s community bands are struggling to thrive. In fact, a number of them continuously defy the trend toward atrophy — and with gusto. Take the Italian Heritage Center (IHC) Concert Band, based in Portland, established in 1988, and sponsored by the Italian Heritage Center until 2009, when the group formally incorporated as a nonprofit organization. According to director Nina Oatley Walsh, 56, the band has doubled in size in the past 18 years and gained 10 new members under the age of 30 in the past two. They are 72 musicians strong today, and in their rehearsal room at Scarborough High School, two 13-year-old trombonists sit just a few chairs down from the band’s president, an inaugural member now nearing age 70. Here, gray and white are not the predominant hair colors.

Since 2009, the IHC band has applied for and received more than $7,000 in local arts grants, from entities like the Maine Arts Commission and the rotary clubs of Biddeford, Saco, and Falmouth. In 2010 and 2011, Walsh put together an exchange program with a concert band in Nepi, Italy — sending her members to Europe and later hosting Banda di Nepi players in Portland for a concert on the Eastern Promenade attended by more than 900 people. The year 2010 also marked the beginning of a new music outreach program that paired IHC band musicians with fifth grade students at Falmouth and Saco middle schools. The older musicians act as guides to beginning instrumentalists all the way through eighth grade — developing, Walsh hopes, a new generation of music lovers to carry the band into the future.

The Bangor Band — which was established in 1859 and claims to be the state’s oldest continuous community band — operates with similar vigor. Since 2012, they have been directed by former University of Maine band director Curvin Farnham, who wears a tuxedo at the band’s 10th Annual Memorial Concert in early May. He handles the baton with a light touch but coaxes symphonic swells of sound from the 50-member band. A listener could close her eyes and forget that she sits in a humble middle school auditorium, that some members have forgone dress shoes in favor of black Crocs, or that concert publicity included a piece of copy paper reading “Band Concert 3 p.m.” taped to an overturned, tarnished tuba on the sidewalk outside the building. The band is supported by a host of local sponsors: Bangor’s department of Parks and Recreation, the Cole Land Transportation Museum, and Tim Horton’s, which furnishes the memorial concert with intermission refreshments of coffee, tea, and glazed doughnut holes. The Bangor Band, too, makes a point of attracting young musicians, by offering a $250 college scholarship in honor of former director Gordon Bowie. The band’s associate conductor, Scott Burditt, also recruits young players from his post as the music teacher at Bangor High School.

These groups are proof that community bands can thrive in Maine — given, of course, adequate infusions of time, money, and music students from nearby schools. Talented leaders who can keep one eye on the band’s future while simultaneously enriching its present don’t hurt, either. For now, the bands with the best access to these resources are those located in or near Maine’s populous urban centers. Not every band has direct connections with the music departments of the state’s best high schools. Not every band can afford the legal expertise required to transition from a group of volunteers to a grant-eligible not-for-profit organization. Not every director or president has the time to put out advertisements, write grant applications, secure sponsors, and seek out new members while maintaining full-time jobs. And not every band is based in a town with audiences affluent enough to make meaningful contributions to a concert band. Sometimes, a band gets lucky — like the MCCB did when Jo Anne Parker found two $100 bills inside the donation hat after a concert about 10 years ago (most likely from the pocket of Maine artist Jamie Wyeth, Parker figures — he had been in the audience that day). Most other times, a band can afford only to rehearse and perform music the way it always has, facing the future with hope that somehow, things will all work out.

[F]aith Varney became the president of Chandler’s Band because she had to. “I thought the band was going fold if someone didn’t take hold and do it,” she remembers. It’s now been 10 years since she made that decision. She’ll be 80 this month.

Each January, Varney emails the 60-odd Chandler’s Band musicians with a list of upcoming gigs, asking members to volunteer to perform on the days they’re available. “By the end of February, I don’t think any of the gigs were full,” Varney says. For Bowdoin College graduation, an event this band has booked for more than 100 years, Varney counted an initial signup of two flutes, two clarinets, four trumpets, a horn, two euphoniums, two trombones, a tuba, and two percussionists. A group of 16 — even at their best and loudest — can’t come close to the sweeping sound and power of a group of 60.

“The trend right now is not for bands,” agrees Selma Pulcifer, 86, a charter member and president of Oakland’s Robert Browne Hall Memorial Band, established in 1969. Pulcifer remembers the band marching in parades every weekend of summer 1976 to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial. “It would kill us now,” she says. “Overall attendance has declined and we have very few young people. Everybody lives such a busy lifestyle nowadays.”

Even bands with established outreach programs wonder where new musicians will come from when veteran members have passed on. That’s the worry of Sacopee Valley Community Band (SVCB) director Cassie Dove, 46, who formed the band eight years ago and has led it ever since. Its members range in age from 11 (Cassie’s daughter, on clarinet) to 85 — and many of its younger players are pulled directly from the music program Dove built from the ground up as the part-time music director at Saint Dominic Academy. Under Dove’s leadership, community service is paramount. “A true community band gives back everything,” she says. “That’s what makes it a community band.”

In fact, when it comes to cultivating young music lovers, the SVCB is one of the best around. Each year, they fund transportation and tickets to a Portland Symphony Orchestra performance for the entire fourth grade class of Sacopee Elementary. They even ran an essay contest for local middle school students and furnished its two winners with new instruments — no small feat considering that the cost of student models can easily climb over $500.

Dove has also fought hard to battle the stereotype of community bands as a place for “old people.” She makes a point of connecting with young players through Facebook, switching up the band’s repertoire with modern music, and offering incentives for participation — the new instrument scholarships, for example, and letters of recommendation for college applicants. “You can’t just ask them to play,” she says. “You have to offer them a reason to play.”

Despite her efforts (and successes) on this front, the SVCB’s membership still lacks a key demographic. “You have a break in generations,” Dove explains. “I have my younger high school members, but I don’t have their parents. I have the band members in their 50s, 60s, and 70s.”

And with music education programs often at risk of budget and staffing cuts, Dove fears that fewer Maine students will have access to instrumental music at all — much less develop a lifelong hobby or the desire to join a community band in adulthood. “Do I worry about community bands in 20 years?” she asks aloud. “Yes. Absolutely.”

Still, worry hasn’t deterred some bandleaders from forming brand-new groups in recent years. Two new bands have sprung up since 2009 alone: Bay Winds North, based in Rockland, and the Harpswell Concert Band, which quickly grew to include 55 members in its inaugural 2013 season. It’s now responding to audience demand by presenting an extended summer concert series in 2014. “It’s a wonderful thing for me to realize that I have high school students in this concert band, and I have many adults that are playing not only in my band but in several others,” says Bob Modr, the Harpswell band’s director. “They have that need to be involved in music.”

Whether they look to the future with fear, confidence, or some mixture of the two, most bands operate on the budget of that very need — the guarantee that, to at least a handful of people who’ve not yet pushed their instruments to the back of the closet, concert bands will continue to be important. Most bands, in spite of these challenges, simply resolve to play on.

The Cherryfield Band is one of those, and when I arrive at their second Tuesday night rehearsal of the 2014 season, I hear singing. It’s a tune called “Mansions of the Lord,” I learn, when I take a peek at the top of the sheet music one member is holding. The group of 15 is stuffed into a small room at the back of a church that’s used as a community center. Blackboards hang on two walls; a dusty case of trophies stands against another. The bright blue carpet is worn down to threads in some places. Director Patricia Hopkins, 73, stands at the front of the room, conducting with her hands, stopping occasionally to plunk out the harmony notes on a portable electric keyboard. This is one of the oldest remaining bands in the state, founded in 1869. The group fizzled in the 1970s, but has performed consistently since it was reorganized in 1986. It nearly fizzled once more, about four years ago, before Hopkins agreed to direct. Like many community band directors, Hopkins is a music educator — she works at Washington Academy in East Machias. Here in Cherryfield, her band roster ranges from a 17-year-old trombonist to a 90-year-old percussionist who doesn’t say much (though his bandmates are quick to point out that his bass drum is named “Big Bertha”).

Alto saxophonist Pam Hatt places two thick albums in my lap — filled with clippings and photos she’s collected over the years — and the rest gather round as I turn the pages. They point out the children who’ve moved away, the hippies who joined in on that one parade (but whose names no one can remember), the old uniforms, the outdated hairstyles of former selves. On one page, the headline of an undated newspaper clipping reads: “Revitalized Cherryfield Band is Town’s Pride and Joy.”

They play me an arrangement of “Amazing Grace” before the rehearsal ends, even though they haven’t yet had a chance to tune up. Their sound is unpolished, a bit sleepy, like the first hymn sung at an early Sunday service. It is not perfect. But it is no less earnest than the bands of fuller rosters or higher repute.

If they’re worried about the future of the band — about what will happen when its youngest member graduates from high school, or when its oldest begin to pass away, or when the time comes for another new director to step up — they don’t show it. “We’ve celebrated together, we’ve grieved together, we’ve had losses together, sicknesses together, good things, bad things. We’ve done it together,” says Kathy Upton, a member since 1986. I sense that, for them, the band is a bond above all else. That they are friends before they are musicians — and that they will be even if the music stops.