Minnesota band with roots in box of cereal is still feeling its oats in the Brooklyns

  • Article by: ANNA PRATT , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 23, 2013 - 3:34 PM

The Brooklyn Community Band, whose beginnings show that lasting ideas can pop up in unusual ways, is celebrating its golden anniversary.

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The Brooklyn Community Band considers part of its role ambassadorial, when it plays at venues outside Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center. Here, it performed at the Como Lakeside Pavilion in St. Paul.

Photo: Photos courtesy Brooklyn Community Band,

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It’s said that a box of cereal led to the formation of the Brooklyn Community Band.

A Brooklyn Center resident named Jim Stumpfa reported to General Mills that he found “something unusual” in his cereal, according to an old newspaper clipping on the topic. A company representative, John Larson, went to Stumpfa’s home to hand-deliver a fresh box.

While Larson was there, a saxophone in the living room caught his eye. The two men got to talking about music, and it wasn’t long before the band was born.

That was 50 years ago, and the Brooklyn Community Band is still going strong. The group, co-sponsored by Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park, is wrapping up its summer concert season with a performance on Monday, July 29, at the Town Green Band Shell in Maple Grove. That will be followed by an anniversary party, said band director Jane Ruohoniemi.

In honor of its milestone, the band will play an original work by Minnesota composer Timothy Mahr titled “Golden Opportunity.” The band received a $5,000 grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council that made the commissioned work possible.

In addition to the band’s golden anniversary, the title alludes to the notion that “we’re still looking for opportunities to improve and be better,” said Ruohoniemi, who played drums in the band in the late 1980s.

The band is performing the piece at each of its concerts this year, along with several Minnesota-themed selections and other favorites from its archives. “It’s a year of remembering,” Ruohoniemi said.

Keeping it fun

The band fluctuates between 35 and 45 members ranging in age from 18 to 85. Members are supposed to be high school graduates, although in a jam exceptions occasionally are made. For example, more percussion players are needed, so Ruohoniemi’s teenage son, Brian, is playing in that section.

The group doesn’t do auditions. It’s about keeping it “lighthearted and fun,” Ruohoniemi said. “Band members don’t want to practice 10 hours a day.”

One player hadn’t picked up her instrument in 40 years when she joined the band. “She said she only knew three notes,” Ruohoniemi said. “She was real nervous for a long time.”

Ruohoniemi told her, “ ‘Just don’t play the riffs you don’t know, till you get your chops back.’ The next year I had her playing solos.”

She encourages others to do the same. “Music is a gift to everyone,” she said. Helping people tap into that, “That’s where our niche in the world is.”

Looking back

Sally Schilling, a clarinet player with the band since 1970, has recently become its informal historian. She’s filled up two big albums with ephemera from the band’s 50 years, which she’s been lugging to its concerts.

The albums contain newspaper clippings, concert photos, announcements for events at local nursing homes, parks and other community centers, and even weddings.

Schilling remembers one performance when it was pouring rain. “We played only for ourselves,” she said. Another time, it was over 100 degrees, and only one person attended.

“We’ve had a lot of fun through the years,” Schilling said. But the group also has had funding struggles and at one point, it looked as if it would call it quits. That’s when “the Lions Club bailed us out,” she said.

Members do they’re part; the band is all-volunteer and participants pay membership fees.

A family tradition

Mary Sorenson grew up going to band concerts as a youngster in the mid-70s. Both of her parents and several other family members spent many years in the band. So it was only natural that after she graduated from high school in 1981, she would continue the tradition.

She wasn’t the best of flute players when she started out, but “I got better over the years,” she said.

Besides, nobody’s ego gets in the way, Sorenson said. “Everyone gets along. People help each other out. It’s a good, cohesive group.”

And it’s an opportunity to meet people from all walks of life who share a love for music.

Given that “there are so many changes in life, with people moving around, job changes. It’s neat to have something constant,” Sorenson said.

Two charter members

Carol Abild, a charter member, joined the band at her sister-in-law’s urging. She’d been a tuba player in high school, but the then-12-member band had four tubas, so she switched to the French horn.

Her mother, who had played piano for silent movies, instilled a love of music in her. For Abild and her siblings, “It wasn’t a question of whether we would play an instrument, but which one,” she said.

She’s stayed with it because “it’s just a constant enjoyment of music, learning new pieces,” she said.

Another founding member, drummer Donald Severson Sr., signed up after seeing an advertisement. His wife, Mickey, was a tuba player in the band early on, as well.

Severson took a hiatus at one point when work got busy, then returned to the band nearly a dozen years ago. “It was a strange experience. I had the music, my hands responded to what I could see,” he said. “I got used to it again. It’s like riding a bicycle. It comes back.”

The band is fun but also offers a sense of accomplishment, he said. “There’s something, an ineffable feeling, on a rare occasion, when everything seems to go right. You’re in a group and all of a sudden, you become one.”

 

Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.

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