In a battle between a band and a pipe organ to see which can play louder, the lead trombone player in the band clips a white cloth to the spit valve at the end of his slide and holds it aloft as a sign of surrender. That’s not what happened at Tuesday evening’s rehearsal by the Ypsilanti Community Band. For one thing there was no pipe organ in the Whitmore Lake High School band room where the 73-member ensemble rehearses. But the anecdote – told by assistant conductor and organist, James Wagner, during a lull in the rehearsal – is based on a true story from Texas.
The Ypsilanti Community Band could repeat that bit of Texas history when it performs the Finale from the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony at its annual holiday concert, to be held this year on Dec. 11 at Pease Auditorium on the Eastern Michigan University campus, starting at 7:30 p.m. Pease boasts a formidable pipe organ, which will be played by Wagner. The concert, which is a joint endeavor with the Ypsilanti Community Choir, is free (including parking) and open to the public.
But if there’s anyone who waves a flag of surrender during the upcoming performance, chances are that it won’t be trombonist Wayne Jahnke, who has played with the band (without surrendering) since its founding 30 years ago. Another charter member at the rehearsal was clarinetist Lorne Kennedy. The clarinet percussion section at Tuesday’s rehearsal also included Tom Warner, this year’s Harold Goodsman Award winner, a distinction that goes to a member who has provided extraordinary service in the logistical support of the band.
But the demographic of the band cuts across the spectrum of longevity, professional background, and (despite the name of the band) geography. The Chronicle spoke with members who’d started playing with the group as recently as two years ago.
We spotted the faces of young students among the group of musicians, as well as some folks who Chronicle readers might recognize in their day jobs: an Ann Arbor public schools bus driver, a director of facilities, a real estate agent, an artist, a county prosecutor, a restaurant owner and manager, a newly elected township trustee, a professor of engineering, a former dean at Eastern Michigan University.
The Chronicle has left people unidentified in the photos to allow readers the fun of filling in the names of folks they recognize.
And even though the name of the ensemble reflects their geographic center of Ypsilanti, business manager Paul Vaughan said that there’s no residency requirement. The band draws members from all over Washtenaw County.
Their current rehearsal venue at Whitmore Lake High School reflects this geographic flexibility, which is necessitated in part by the band’s growth over the last few years. Marge Taylor, who handles publicity for the band, said that they’d outgrown their previous location and that the Whitmore Lake venue offered a bit of storage, in addition to just the space to rehearse. One of the main storage challenges is sheet music. In fact, during the mid-point break in rehearsal – a time devoted to announcements – there was a call for volunteers to come help file music the following day for a couple of hours.
The Chronicle’s first acoustic encounter with the band came walking through the the empty high school building to the band room as a group of low brass made the halls echo with “O Come All Ye Faithful,” which was followed quickly by “Deck the Halls” and other holiday standards. They were led by Vaughan on the euphonium, an instrument he used to play when he attended Whitmore Lake High School himself. This smaller group was rehearsing for a different performance, before the full band arrived.
When conductor Jerry Robbins took the podium for the rehearsal of the full band, he led the group through their material for the Dec. 11 concert, but it was not without frequent interruption for fine tuning, or even more general tuning. Robbins had told the musicians at the beginning of the evening, “Watch for frequent stops!” After several passes through a particularly difficult section in the Saint-Saens piece, he offered some encouragement: “This is the hardest piece of music I’ve ever put in front of you!” Robbins just marked his 10th year of putting music in front of them as conductor of the band.
In the instructional moments after stopping the music mid-measure and restarting again, Robbins sometimes addressed very general concerns like volume level: “Flutes, you have the melody, so try to make yourselves heard!” But sometimes there were more fundamental issues: “There are wrong notes in there!”
On one occasion, a gentle reminder from Robbins that “accidentals hold through the entire measure” yielded incremental improvement and the encouragement, “It’s getting better each time through. It’s better.” But Robbins also made it clear that it needs some work before Dec. 11: “It’s still not right, and it’s not good enough.”
Editorial aside: Here at The Chronicle we are not exactly qualified music critics. But if it gets even better by the time of the Dec. 11 performance at Pease Auditorium, the audience is going to be in for a real treat.
For other upcoming performances by the Ypsilanti Community Band, including an anniversary celebration which will be attended by all of the conductors in the organization’s 30-year history, see the YCB website.