I did something for the first time in a long, long time a few Fridays ago; played in a Concert Band concert. At St. Paul’s Church on Symonds Street in the City, I sat in the prime 1st clarinet position for what turned out to be a well attended event. On account of the other 1st clarinet player coming down with a throat infection I became the only 1st clarinet (of 9 or so of us) and that meant a lot of “solos”. In some ways, the West City Concert Band got lucky when I decided to play for them again a few months ago…
The average community band
With the exception of the school bands I’ve played in as a school student and the awesome ska band I played in with University mates, the band I’ve been involved with the most is my local community concert band, the West City Concert Band. I joined as a 9 year old and habitually participated in it until maybe the age of 19, stopped for a while during university, then joined again as a Trombone player for another 2 or so years.
The problem though is that the band was pretty crap. I mean that in the nicest possible way because after all, the participants were of all ages (a lot of older people) who generally did their best and attendance was generally good. The problem was, they never cared to get better. As a student of clarinet who practised and practised and naturally became a better musician, the short comings of the band (and their obvious lack of desire to improve) did get quite exhausting. When I returned as a trombone player it was great for a time because I was concentrating so much on my own playing that I didn’t care about all amateur sounds being made, much in the same way that as a child, I learnt a great deal playing in it. Then I got better at trombone and I suddenly felt like I was in a passionless band again. There was also a bit of a culture disconnect too because the band was made up of players much more accustomed to swing, stage and big band music such as 40s swing music. We had a few good Concert Band pieces such as arrangements of Musicals and Films but any premier concert band music was never going to work given the quality of our players.
So I quit again. It made sense to do so. It was a been there, done that affair and I utilised my available Wednesday night to go salsa dancing and do some programming projects.
Five years later I’m back, partly because one of the trombone players regularly asking me to. He had a good reason to persist though because the band had undergone a radical transformation and he wanted me to see it. The old conductor moved on to replaced with someone with completely different flare (and way more ability) and many of ‘the old guard’ of players moved on too, opening the way for existing players to play other parts and for potential new players, who may have been discouraged from joining before, to be more interested in joining.
New conductor, new aspirations
It’s hard to criticise the man who led the band during my time as a 9 year old clarinetist all the way to when I was a 25 year old trombone player. Much of my teaching style is modelled on his eccentric energy. The amount of times he was away during all that time could be counted on one hand and he was certainly good at interacting with people. The problem was, he wasn’t that good at conducting; he got the band moving and had all the basics down but there were lots of opportunities to improve things, such as that beat 3 arm swing that sometimes went so far out of the invisible box it was like an instant rallentando.
Now that there’s a new conductor, it’s night and day. Somehow he has the balance right between sectional work and full ensemble work during a rehearsal meaning that there aren’t those awkward moments of boredom. Attendance is quite high (it’s a community band after all) and the aspirations right up there. There was a weekend band camp (which I bailed on in favour of teaching and a 21 km trail run at Waharau) and last night there was sectional work for the first half. All this is leading up toward their goal of doing well at some national competition in Rotorua next month. That seems like a good excuse for a motorcycle road trip.
As much as it’s a horrible thing to say in respect to former members of the band, the old tree has been stripped of its dead wood and now it’s flourishing back to life.