The Flying Municipal Baton

I previously wrote about my hometown’s city park in the post: Cold Cider and Glazed Donuts. There are many stories here prompted by views at each turn of my morning run.

This empty field, as example, is a short stroll from the park pavilion. Today it sports softball games,kite flying and sack races but in my high school years this was the location of the band shell. The structure is long since gone and they’ve even filled in the graceful sloping amphitheater that once framed the venue.  For years, local music patrons spread their blankets on the grassy slopes or sat in their cars around the bowl to enjoy the weekly summer band concerts.

The band shell was a simple design constructed of two semi-circle trusses – the larger one in front and the smaller one to the rear both arching over the concrete platform. From these trusses a gently curved ceiling panel was suspended. It was designed to reflect band sound to the audience and to semi-protect the band from the elements. After years of service, the band shell was finally condemned as structurally unsound. There was speculation at the time that it was actually the band that was unsound and taking down the structure was just politically easier than breaking up the band. Either way, the summer tradition of music at the park came to a close.

While in high school, I played tuba in the Municipal Band (“The Muni Band”) performing weekly at the city park’s band shell. The band consisted largely of high school students or college kids home for summer break although a handful of adults joined with us simply for the timeless joy of performing music. We were credited for each summer rehearsal and concert and the earnings were paid out at Christmas time. Mrs. Binghampton, the short and stocky bass drummer, labored through all of the rehearsals and performances for the sole purpose of building up a Christmas fund for her children.

I played under two directors. The first was a retired public school band director. He spoke with a voice that could be heard over any instrument invented to date. He had a sharp yet almost monotone delivery with nasal overtones. He spoke as if his sentences were a performance. There was such a steady cadence in his speaking that you could predict how long before a period would occur. His voice would cut through any other sound as he spoke efficient words of direction while leading the civic band through a piece of music. He had only one volume – it didn’t matter if he was speaking a private word of instruction or an admonition to the second chair flute – the whole band was in on the conversation.

There was a bit of showman in him as you will find in most band directors. It’s part of the Sousa gene that drew them to the discipline in the first place. One of this director’s signature showtime moves we band members could count on seeing once or twice a summer was the way he would dramatically lose his baton in the middle of a concert piece. As the music neared the emotional peak of the selection and his arms swept up to lead us (usually a cymbal crash was eminent), his baton would mysteriously fly out of his hands, travel high above the band and land somewhere in the percussion section. It all happened very fast but from my memory and likely his vision of the event – it was something like the slow motion scene from the film “2001: A Space Odyssey” where the ape discovers the weapon power of a calcified femur bone and hurls it high overhead in defiance.

He continued to direct the music without the aid of a baton as he stepped off the podium to retrieve it. He worked his twisting and turning way through the band members being careful not to upset the music stands. The clothes pins used to secure the music against the summer breezes protruded from the stands making negotiation of the maze particularly difficult. Once the baton was retrieved (the musicians knew not to get it and pass it forward) he would ease his way back to the podium. Occasionally he’d pause over the shoulder of this or that musician using his baton to point out where we were in the music as if the first chair saxophone player had been aimlessly improvising for the last five minutes of the piece. He must have imagined the audience as awestruck that this band of musicians could continue to perform without a director at the podium . . . “Oh the discipline and leadership skill of this baton-less maestro!”

The director had a unique way of talking to musicians during an actual concert performance. He would shape his hand in a tight “OK” symbol and hold it firmly to his mouth. But he didn’t open the “O” to form a megaphone but rather he held it there like a secret ranger spy microphone as he continued to direct. And then, right in the middle of the concert with patrons absorbing a Leroy Anderson number, he’d say in a full voice with that flat tone that all could hear: “Trombones, when we play that section in the future I’d like more expression.”  Regardless of his quirks that we grew to love, he was a dedicated musician with a sense of civic duty.

The next director was a shorter man who had followed the first one through the public schools. He had an unusual shape for a short man and weekly would hold forth his Humpty Dumpty impersonation in balancing his broad midsection atop his tiny Babe Ruth feet as he stood upon the director’s podium. He would direct with both arms using sweeping motions that often included a discreet left-handed motion to brush his hair back into place.  His favorite part of any piece was when the music called for a change in tempo and his normal sweeping side to side directing would become a pronounced up and down motion. He was a favorite director and a talented individual who taught me vocal and instrumental music from the sixth grade on including the trombone, trumpet, baritone and tuba.

Two perennial Municipal Band favorites were Bugler’s Holiday by Leroy Anderson of Sleigh Ride fame which featured the trio of Bill (home from college) along with Jim and his sister, Sandra. You could always count on this song delivering a lot of congratulatory horn honks from the patrons parked around the rim of the small amphitheater.  (Here’s a video of another high school band performing the piece.)

The other favorite of mine was Overture in B-flat by Giovannini which feature driving leads by our bass saxophone section. One reason I liked it was because when it really gets flying you could hide a lot of missed notes in the dissonance.  In the middle you’ll hear a passage that sounds a lot like the Star Trek theme.  (Here’s a video of another band playing the piece. We probably sounded like this but in my mind we were way better.)  “Next time, saxophones, let’s have a little more expression!”

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