In Minnesota, community bands are almost as common as lakes -- we have more per capita than any other state -- and they can be as reflective of our musical culture.
Amid the fortes and accelerandos that guide a community band through a musical score, there's an invisible notation: con molto camaraderie.
A spirit of fellowship defines the hundreds -- no, thousands -- of Minnesotans who belong to community bands. Minnesota arguably has more such bands per capita than any other state, causing park band shells to reverberate each summer with Sousa or "Superman."
"Nowhere else in the country that I know of has as many bands, and I've lived all over," said Jerry Luckhardt, associate professor of music at the University of Minnesota. He's organizing a festival of community bands on Saturday. "The Twin Cities alone have around 50," and the most up-to-date list notes 128 statewide. "Every little town and community has one, and some have more than one.
"What fascinates me are those who played an instrument who put it away for 10 or 15 years and something convinced them to bring it back out," Luckhardt says.
He chalks up the community band culture to a long history of school music programs being almost as important to some towns' identities as their sports teams. In other words, it's cool to be in band.
But there's another reason that grownups retrieve their instruments from attics: joy.
"Community bands are mature musicians," Luckhardt said. "They might not have a great sound in that everything is perfectly in tune right away, but they come with a kind of mature spirit. The joy of music is so strong. They want to play, they want to shape a phrase."
A great enthusiasm
Christina Chen-Beyers, director of the Seward Concert Band in Minneapolis, said she likes leading people who are not music majors, students or professional musicians -- in other words, no paychecks or grades on the line -- "because I think they're the most excited about music" she said. "They're always there because they want to be there."
Take Janet Hyatt. For several years, she made the 90-minute round trip from her home in Grantsburg, Wis., to play clarinet with the Seward band. Finally, in 2003, she helped found the Centennial Community Band, which rehearses in relatively nearby Circle Pines. The Centennial band draws musicians from Blaine, Centerville, Lexington and Lino Lakes who are delighted to provide the necessary critical mass of instruments without the high-mileage hardship.
Part of the interest is in the blood. Among Centennial's members are three of Hyatt's daughters, a niece and her husband, and a sister. There are parents and children, husbands and wives. In community bands, it's not unusual to encounter couples on a date in the key of C.
Yet playing in a band often is more than that phrase conveys. Jim Baxter, who directs the Centennial band, said that his day job as high school band director is all about the curriculum, with performance taking a back seat to teaching students history and theory. "A community band is a performing group, but while you're rehearsing, you can't help talking about history," he said. "There's learning that happens, but it's different from what happens in school."
Community bands vary greatly. Some travel to Europe, while some never leave their county. Some require auditions or have member limits in each section to maintain a balance, but most welcome whoever walks through the door, resulting in a serendipitous mix of ages, lifestyles, incomes and musicianship.
Some players have let years go by without oiling a trombone slide or sucking on an oboe reed, while others literally have never missed a beat. Austin Wellman, at 24 one of the younger members of the Calhoun-Isles Community Band, said he first joined a community band as a low-pressure way of remaining involved in concert bands after college. "While living in Honolulu, I was a part of a community band and knew that I had to continue playing my trombone at this social level when returning to Minnesota," he said. "Most of all, I enjoy playing in an ensemble of all ages and backgrounds, all of whom come together each week and love to make music."
Calhoun-Isles' mission statement mirrors that of most community bands: seeking to encourage adult amateur musicianship, but also to nurture the public's appreciation of band music.
Music, nuts and bolts
That's Luckhardt's mission statement for the festival, as well, but he also wants to give bands the rare opportunity to interact with one another. Luckhardt, who conducts the Medalist Concert Band in Bloomington and the Encore Wind Ensemble of Minneapolis, said the festival also will offer bands the chance to work in a clinic setting with a guest conductor, and there's a forum on the less artistic side of running a community band: dealing with nonprofit legalese, fundraising and personnel issues.
The day concludes with a free and public concert from 3 to 5:30 p.m., with each band playing a half-hour gig. Consider it a preview of what they and other bands will be performing throughout the summer at parks and band shells statewide.
Luckhardt said the festival is a modest beginning, just to see if there's interest. Of the music itself, well, he couldn't stop it if he tried.
"For the human soul," he said, "in times of service or celebration or reflection -- when there are times of deep, human togetherness -- there's always music."
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185