Community bands are back after being battered by the pandemic There are more than a thousand community bands in big cities and small towns throughout the country.

Community bands are back after being battered by the pandemic

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Community bands date back to the American Revolution. There are more than a thousand of them in big cities and small towns around the country. The pandemic, as you might expect, was tough on these amateur performers, but reporter Jon Kalish says they're making music together again.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: The Metropolitan Atlanta Community Band is predominantly African American. It opens every performance with "Freedom Fanfare," which incorporates a number of melodies, including "The Battle Hymn Of The Republic" and "Lift Every Voice And Sing."


KALISH: The band is gearing up for a concert in November, its first in more than 2 1/2 years. Allen Ward is the band's associate director.

ALLEN WARD: 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. Many of them went to school together before they joined the community band. Some were in the same church. Some were in the same neighborhood. Some just showed up.

KALISH: Ward has been in the Metropolitan Atlanta Community Band for 12 years, but the band has been going since 1996.

WARD: Those people who play in community bands, for the most part, they don't leave. We have - what? - at least eight to 10 members who's been in the band that its inception.


KALISH: The pandemic has not only halted many of the community bands' indoor concerts but also taken away their rehearsal spaces. The band in Atlanta lost the use of a rehearsal room in a local high school and performed outdoors in seven-piece ensembles. Every year, the Allentown Band in Pennsylvania performs in a symphony hall for students, but during the pandemic, it recorded those concerts and posted them online with educational instructions by band members.


NANCY MECKSTROTH: My name is Nancy Meckstroth. I'm the first horn player with the Allentown Band. I'd like to talk to you about the French horn.


KALISH: Another challenge was getting band members to practice on their own, says Chuck Van Buren, conductor of the Perinton Concert Band near Rochester, N.Y.

CHUCK VAN BUREN: The physical skills needed to play an instrument develop slowly but deteriorate rapidly. 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 they finally resumed, would they be too old? Would they lose interest?


KALISH: Older band members have tended to be more cautious about returning to the bandstand. But for these elderly musicians, community bands have been a lifeline, says Diane Hawkins-Cox, CEO of the Metropolitan Atlanta Community Band.

DIANE HAWKINS-COX: You know, making music helps older people keep sharp. And it's important for older people to maintain connections with other people, and I think the band and community bands in general are an important outlet for that.


KALISH: There are several community bands playing today that started in the 19th century. The Allentown Band began in 1828.


EZRA WENNER: When I first joined the band, the majority of our concerts were Sunday school picnics. Today, we're now playing Carnegie Hall. We're playing Kennedy Center. We did three or four European tours.

KALISH: Trombone player Ezra Wenner joined the Allentown Band 80 years ago after being recruited by his high school band director. Wenner is now 95 and still playing.

WENNER: It gives you a good feeling that you're playing with a top-notch group. Everyone is serious about their playing. I feel the band is my second family.

KALISH: Community bands are often on the lookout for musicians to round out sections. The turnout for performances has been declining over the years, says Ronald Demkee, who's served as conductor of the Allentown Band since 1977.

RONALD DEMKEE: We still have pretty good audiences and numbers and so on, 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. Well, we just don't see that as we did in the past. And I think that may be true around the country, actually.


KALISH: "Town Band," a new documentary set in New York's Catskill Mountains, chronicles a community band's commitment to its small town, despite a dwindling membership and audience. Director Alice Elliott has attended the concerts for 40 years.

ALICE ELLIOTT: 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. It's the idea that music and the arts can create community.

KALISH: And, says Elliott, because the repertoire of community bands includes tunes that are rarely heard on the radio or taught in music schools, we might lose that music, music brought to the U.S. from people who came here from all over the world.

For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish.

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