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Music for People

Community bands are back--and they're bigger than ever

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A soft rain has begun to fall over the town of Healdsburg this evening, but inside the band room of Healdsburg High School, it is dry and cozy and warm. A bit too warm. The collected members of the Healdsburg Community Band have just run through a half-dozen rousing tunes--including "Circus Days," "The Circus Bee," and "The Greatest Show on Earth"--all in preparation for the ensemble's upcoming concert of (you guessed it) circus music.

The temperature is rising in the room, but neither the heat inside nor the rain outside seem to have dampened the band's spirits. After opening a door to let some cool air in, band director Lew Sbrana, casually attired in old slacks and a short-sleeved shirt, stands grinning at the loose semicircle of about 40 similarly clad musicians, ranging in age from 18 to 80, most of whom--trumpet or saxophone or drumstick in hand--sit chattering and smiling right back at Sbrana. On everyone's stand is music for their next piece, Harold L. Walter's classic circus anthem "Copacabana."

The director raises his baton. "Have fun with this one, folks," he exhorts the room. He gives the downbeat, and away they go.

All in all, it's a fairly typical Tuesday night for the Healdsburg Community Band, formed by Sbrana over 21 years ago and peopled entirely by musically inclined volunteers. Running the gamut of age and skill level, the band boasts a roughly equal number of men and women players, most of them amateur musicians and all of them committed to the preservation and advancement of one of America's most beloved--and formerly endangered--cultural institutions: the small-town community band.

Fortunately, the Healdsburg band is not alone. In the North Bay alone, there are currently eight all-volunteer community-based bands in operation (see sidebar). If one includes all-volunteer philharmonic orchestras, junior-college and youth ensembles, and amateur jazz and swing bands, that number rises to well over a dozen. Those inclined could conceivably attend a different band rehearsal every night of the week--and there are some who do exactly that.

Community bands, always lurking on the fringes, are suddenly a big deal again.

Sbrana started the Healdsburg version 21 years ago, when he was approached to form a Christmas brass band. At that time, Rohnert Park had formed a community band, which was just beginning to make joyful noise around the town, and Sbrana was inspired to expand the brass band into a full-fledged ensemble--with woodwinds, saxophones, timpani, and everything--if he could find anyone willing to play for the fun of it. He ran an add in the paper, asking for players.

A month later, the Healdsburg Community Band was officially formed, comprising nearly 30 people, with everyone from semiprofessional musicians to, as Sbrana affectionately describes them, "people who are just, you know, blowing air through their horns and having a good time."

Having a good time, says Sbrana, is more or less what defines a community band, explaining why so many people give up an evening or two a week, just to play music for free--and for the love of it.

"Community bands are growing," he says. "New bands are forming and the established bands are recruiting more and more players. Even at an amateur or community-band level, playing music is a wonderful avocation, a great hobby. We never hold tryouts. Anybody who wants to play in this band can drop in and play with us.

"Admittedly, we're only an average band," Sbrana adds with a laugh. "But we have fun, and that fun is incredibly contagious."

Time for a bit of history.

According to professor Kenneth Kreitner, a music historian at the University of Memphis, the American amateur-band movement enjoyed its peak in the decades around 1900, but the movement actually began as the Civil War was ending. "A lot of guys came back to their home towns having heard the bands that traveled with the troops," Kreitner explains, "and it became almost mandatory for any self-respecting town to have a band of some sort."

The tradition seems to have gone strong until right around World War I, he reveals, chalking up the decline in amateur bands to several factors. "My sense is that it's partly a matter of the rise of radio and recordings," Kreitner says, "but also partly the rise of jazz, which used some of the same instruments but was just much cooler. I suspect that if I'd been a young trombonist in 1925, the old brass-band music would have sounded hopelessly old-fashioned--Mom's music--the sort of thing you'd scorn."

Though unable to pinpoint when exactly the current enthusiasm for community bands reemerged, he agrees that the phenomenon clearly seems to be on the rise. "A lot of bands that had fallen into desuetude have begun to be revived," he says, adding, "There have been community bands all over the place all along, but they were sort of geeky and embarrassing until recently, when they have been embraced by the same impulse--mingled nostalgia and community feeling--that has made Victorian houses and bungalows attractive again."

In other words, says Kreitner of the recent community-band rebirth across the country, "we're embracing a past that has been waiting for us."

Last year the Healdsburg band sold out their annual spring concert, a tribute to John Philip Sousa, filling every seat at Luther Burbank Center. Tickets for the upcoming circus concert--to be held at the Jackson Theater in Windsor--are already selling briskly, and Gary Young anticipates a full house when the Rohnert Park band he directs gives their annual Memorial Day concert at the Rohnert Park Community Center.

"There's so much band activity in the area, right now, that all the bands have to work hard to plan around each other," admits Young, who also plays baritone sax in the Healdsburg band on Tuesdays. "Community bands have become very important to people, especially the people who play in them."

So who exactly are those people, and why would they give up their evenings to play old-time band music?

Debbie and Steve Binninger--French horn and percussion, respectively--are prime examples of the average community-band members in that they use the band as a means to reconnect with the instrument they put away after high school. Debbie, who began playing the French Horn in fourth grade, gave it up while in college. Many years later, a band-teacher friend talked her into joining the Healdsburg band, thus jump-starting her musical side.

"And now, it's what I do to stay sane," she laughs. Steve, who now plays in a couple of Christian bands as well, tells a similar story. "I started playing about the same age as Debbie," he says, "and I took about an eight-year break when I went into the Air Force. Then, when Debbie and I got together, she invited me to come down here, and I've
been coming ever since."

That same story is told over and over again.

"I hadn't played since high school," says Donna Cambra, a retired Army nurse, "but these people have been so welcoming and encouraging--and I discovered that playing came back to me pretty quickly."

Adds Carolyn Williams, a percussionist with the Rohnert Park band who's been recruited by Sbrana to join the Healdsburg band for the circus concert, "If it weren't for community bands, I wouldn't have anywhere to play. No matter how bad my day was on Monday, I love going to band practice. The camaraderie, the kidding around, making obscure joke about musical terminology--it's so great that the band geeks still get to hang out with each other."

For some, the bands is more than a hobby.

"A community band is musical therapy," says Young. "I see it all the time. People come out here at 8:00 for a practice, and when they walk in, they may not be in the mood for it. But by 9:30, when the practice is over, they don't want to go home, because they're so energized!"

"I really felt something was missing in my life," explains Juliet Babcock, "and I figured out that it was music." She promptly joined the Rohnert Park band as a percussionist. "And," she says, "I've been having a ball ever since."


The Healdsburg Community Band presents 'Circus Days' on Saturday, May 31, at 7:30 at the Sonoma Country Day School's Jackson Theater in Windsor. $10 advance; $12 at the door. Call Lew Sbrana at 707.433.3413 for ticket information. The Rohnert Park Community Band's annual Summer Serenade concert--a joint effort with the Rohnert Park Chorale--takes place on Sunday, June 22, at 2:30pm at Spreckels Performing Arts Center. $5 general admission; free for ages 12 and under.


Community Bands of the North Bay

Healdsburg Community Band

Lew Sbrana, director (lesbrana@att.net). 707.433.3413. Rehearsals at Healdsburg High School, Tuesdays, 7:30-9:30pm.

Rohnert Park Community Band

Gary Young, director (garyyoung@att.net). 707.585.7550 or www.rpafta.org. Rehearsals at the Burton Avenue Recreation Center, Mondays, 89:30pm.

Petaluma Community Band

Jimmy Reynolds, director (burneyreynolds@home.com). 707.769.9521 or www.petalumacommunityband.org. Rehearsals in the Casa Grande High School band room, Mondays, 79pm.

Old Adobe Band

Laura Comyns, director (pippijt@aol.com). 707.823.9061. Rehearsals at Sonoma Mountain School in Petaluma, Wednesdays, 7:158:30pm.

Sonoma Home Town Band

Rich Schneider, director (richrose@vom.com). 707.996.3413. Rehearsals at the Sonoma Developmental Center's McDougal Building, Sundays, 79pm.

New Horizons Band

Lew Sbrana, director (lesbrana@att.net). 707.433.4313. Rehearsals at the First United Methodist Church in Santa Rosa, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 911am.

The Las Galinas Valley Sanitary District Non-Marching Band (also known as the Sewer Band)

Benedetta Dalbesio, director (humanbiz@aol.com). Rehearals at Miller Creek School in Marinwood, Mondays, 7:459:45pm.

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From the May 29-June 4, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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