This fall, the Northeast Community Band began its 20th season of music-making for our Northeast community and the Twin Cities. Musicians with purple hair, gray hair, multiple piercings, some retired, some still in school, engineers, ministers, software programmers, accountants – all have gathered on Thursday nights to share a common interest, the joy of playing music.
The tradition of community bands comes from Europe. Immigrants from Northern and Eastern Europe brought their instruments with them to America, and local bands sprang up in small towns and settlements. Classical musicians immigrated too, but in far fewer numbers. Orchestral music (ensembles based on string instruments) was then considered a pastime for the rich and the elite, where brass bands and wind ensembles made music for the “common” people.
Following the Civil War, soldiers who had played in military bands and immigrants with village band experience brought the number of community bands in the country to more than 10,000 by 1890. But after World War I, with the automobile, and the changing life in small towns, the number of bands dwindled. This left instrument manufacturers without a market for their products, so they heavily promoted sales and music programs to the nation’s schools.
But it was the post-World War II “Baby Boom” that sent vast numbers of school-age children into music instruction, bands, and school orchestras. It is estimated that, by 1970, more than 1.5 million students were playing in 50,000 marching and concert bands. Adult community bands were a natural offshoot of this huge pool of amateur musicians. There are more than 2,500 active community bands in the U.S., held together by people whose only motivation is their love of music.
Tim Martin founded the band in January 1998 at Northeast Middle School, where he was a music teacher and the school’s band director (he now directs band and orchestra at Washburn High School). In an email interview, he said, “There was no community band in Northeast, and I wanted a group for my more advanced students at Northeast Middle School to participate in. Students or more novice players, playing with more experienced players is good for technique and most important, community-building.”
The band began rehearsals at the middle school and received start-up support from the Edison Beacons, a chapter of a non-profit group that provides free after-school and summer programming for over 3,000 young people per year.
The band moved its practice space to Edison High School a few years later, and Edison Band Director Scott Erickson shared conductor duties with Martin. When Erickson left Edison, the band returned to Northeast Middle. Now they practice at Edison, with the Northeast United Methodist Church basement as a backup rehearsal space.
Cindy and Ralph Sowden (piccolo, trumpet) and Carleen Howell (trombone) are charter members, and each of Howell’s four children have played with the band. Another charter member, Don Anderson, passed away in 2016.
Ralph Sowden remembers the first band meeting because more than 70 people showed up, including two accordion players and a singer. A band usually includes flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, horn, trombone, baritone (euphonium), tuba, and percussion, but not accordions or singers.
When the Beacons funding ended, band members chipped in $60 each in annual dues, although students are free. A current band member quipped, “Pretty cheap entertainment!” The band became a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization in 2002. Along with dues, expenses are offset by garage sales, charitable donations, and a Give to the Max Day campaign every November.
Martin recalled, “Our first season, we played at Northeast Middle School, Waite Park and Windom Park. Northeast Middle School was a tough venue. We were lucky to get ten people to come to a concert there. Shopping malls used to welcome bands at Christmastime, and we played at Rosedale at least once. In 2008, we performed a joint concert with the Calhoun-Isles Community Band at the Ritz Theater. It was Mother’s Day and we handed out roses to the moms who showed up.”
The band once attempted an appearance in the Eastside Parade. Concert bands don’t march, so Martin arranged to have the band ride on a flatbed truck. When the band assembled at the parade start, the truck had been assigned to another group. The band went home.
Martin typically chooses the music, but he said, “I do take requests and suggestions from the band. We have had concerts based soley on members’ choices.”
Martin said the no-audition band is always looking for new members, especially percussion. “We always struggle to get those former school band and orchestra percussionists. Maybe they just don’t want to get yelled at anymore for fooling around in the back.”
Asked about what he liked about maintaining the band for almost two decades, Martin said, “I get the satisfaction of working with these musicians, many who are very accomplished and have music degrees, as well as many of whom had not played their instrument since high school or college. I enjoy the process of making music and trying to make music from the ink on the page. I enjoy being a part of ‘something’, trying to figure out my own role.
A community band helps empower individuals to engage with others, through harmony and melody and rhythm; all aspects we need in our everyday lives. We need these opportunities and activities to be more into the fabric of our culture.”
The band plays four to six free public concerts per year, including a holiday concert in December, a themed concert in March, and at least one outdoor concert at Como Lakeside Pavilion in St. Paul.
This year’s holiday/winter concert happens on Thursday, Dec. 21, at 7 p.m. at Northeast United Methodist Church, 2510 Cleveland St. NE, Minneapolis.
The Northeast Community Band will welcome new members when it returns from its holiday break on January 9. Email: email@example.com Facebook: NortheastCommunityBand. Website: northeastcommunityband.com.
Below: The Northeast Community band practices at Edison High. Two years ago, they performed at The Landmark Center in St. Paul. (First photo by Mark Peterson, second photo provided by the band)