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Amherst Community Band: easy at ACB

  • Tim Anderson conducts the Amherst Community Band (ABC) during a recent rehearsal at George N. Parks Minutemen Marching Band Building at UMass Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Clarinet power: Members of the Amherst Community Band rehearse recently at the George N. Parks Minutemen Marching Band Building at UMass Amherst.  —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Eric Beal, right, and Bryan Michon, second from right, rehearse with the Amherst Community Band. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Sue Dunbar, left, and Rachel Oestreicher on drums. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Let’s here those trombones! Members of the Amherst Community Band rehearse recently at the George N. Parks Minutemen Marching Band Building at UMass Amherst.  —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Sabrina Dawson, left, and Claire Winston, both  on flute, rehearsing with ABC. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Eric Beal, right, and Bryan Michon, second from right, add some sax to the mix. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Members of the Amherst Community Band rehearse recently at the George N. Parks Minutemen Marching Band Building at UMass Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tim Anderson conducts the Amherst Community Band during a recent rehearsal at George N. Parks Minutemen Marching Band Building at UMass Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tim Anderson conducts the Amherst Community Band during a recent rehearsal at George N. Parks Minutemen Marching Band Building at UMass Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tim Anderson conducts the Amherst Community Band during a recent rehearsal at George N. Parks Minutemen Marching Band Building at UMass Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Andrew Haley uses a hammer to strike a car's brake drum during a recent Amherst Community Band rehearsal at the George N. Parks Minutemen Marching Band Building at UMass Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tyler Woodbury on tuba during a moment of reflection. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Josh Thomson, left, and Emily Levesque, second from left, rehearse recently with the Amherst Community Band at the George N. Parks Minutemen Marching Band Building at UMass Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 04, 2017

The trombones, trumpets and other brass instruments punched out steady bursts of lower notes, like a giant engine. The woodwinds carried a melody with a slow, bluesy feel. The three drummers added sharp punctuations to a song designed, in part, to convey the sense of a chain gang sweating through a Mississippi summer day; one banged a hammer against an old brake drum from a car.

As the Amherst Community Band (ACB) rehearsed “From the Delta,” a 1945 piece by African American composer William Grant Still, director Tim Anderson flashed his baton, moving his head to the music, then held up his arms to draw the group to a halt. 

“Trombones and coronets, you need to be just a little quicker,” said Anderson. He tapped his baton against his music stand, indicating the ideal rhythm. “We want this to sound like people working on a train, laying track... Let’s try it again.”

The band, rehearsing in the George N. Parks Minuteman Marching Band Building at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, regrouped and forged through the composition again — and as the last chords sounded, Anderson signaled his satisfaction.

 “Not bad, not bad at all,” he said. “I love this piece!”

It’s not a stretch to say members of the Amherst Community Band love their music, too — and perhaps more than that, they love being part of the group.

Since its inception in 1979, ACB has been a home for beginning and veteran musicians alike, from teenagers to retirees, and it has been a place where players who once were part of a group can once again have a role in a big ensemble.

The ACB is also a regular part of Amherst summers, having played Friday night concerts at Sweetser Park, put on a show as part of an annual chicken barbeque at the Amherst South Congregational Church, and performed the town’s July Fourth festivities.

The band will perform this Fourth of July, next Tuesday, at 8:15 p.m. outside McGuirk Stadium at UMass as part of the town’s Independence Day celebration, which begins at 5 p.m., with other activities such as hot-air ballon rides, and finishes with the annual fireworks display at 9:30 p.m.

For players like Eric Beal, who played alto saxophone from grade school up through high school, the ACB provides a way to “get that great feeling of being part of all these musicians working together,” he said.

“When I play in a band, I often end the evening feeling really joyful, really energized,” said Beal, a 1993 UMass graduate who lives in Amherst and works in community relations at his alma mater. Playing in the ACB, he added, “brings back a lot of great feelings and memories about being in school and in a band.”

In retrospect, Beal says, he probably should have joined the Minuteman Marching Band when he was a UMass student. He continued to play music over the years, though primarily on piano and guitar; the alto sax would only come out on occasion.

But since joining the ACB 10 years ago, Beal noted, “I’m playing the sax again, I’m back being part of a full band, and I really love it.”

‘Anyone is welcome’

On a recent evening following heavy afternoon thunderstorms, ACB members dodged lingering raindrops as they filed into the George N. Parks building, named for the late (and beloved) former director of the Minuteman Marching Band, who died in 2010 at age 57.

Fittingly enough, Anderson, the ACB director for the past three years, is also the Minuteman Marching Band director, and he has recruited some of his students for the community group. That gives the students a chance to play with a different group of musicians, he said, while also infusing the ACB with some new life — and doing a bit for town-gown relations in the process.

“This band is just a really good vehicle for bringing a lot of different people together,” said Anderson, who adds that the ACB’s membership tends to fluctuate between about 50 and 60 musician. “Anyone is welcome. We don’t have auditions.”

That said, players do need to know how to read music and have a basic grasp of their instruments. But Anderson said less-experienced players can just play the parts of the compositions they can handle.

That’s the strategy flutist Claire Winston, 14, has followed since joining ACB last summer. Winston, who just finished 8th grade at Frontier Regional High School in Deerfield, decided to join the band at the suggestion of her private flute teacher, Sue Dunbar (a percussionist in the group).

“It’s definitely a challenge” practicing with more experienced musicians, said Winston, who has played in her elementary and middle school bands. “I can play some of the scores but not all of them. But I like the music.”

At the rehearsal, ACB members worked through some basic repertoire (“The Star Spangled Banner,” the traditional tune “The Girl I Left Behind”), as a well as a medley of tunes from theBroadway musical “Hamilton.” Looking around the room, one could see a mix of gray heads and younger faces that spoke to the band’s all-ages makeup.

Stew King, for instance, is 62 and has been playing in bands on and off since grade school. A veteran tuba player, he took up French horn three years ago when the ACB had absorbed too many tuba players.

King joined ACB 11 years ago after moving to West Brookfield and searching unsuccessfully for a band in that region. A onetime Easthampton resident, he said he’d had to put music aside as he was raising a family but now has more free time.

“This was something I really wanted to get back to,” said King.

Anderson says one challenge for ACB is finding music for people of varying experience and skill levels. “You want to strike a balance between music that’s accessible but also entertaining,” he noted.

Dunbar, one of ACB’s drummers, helps out with that. A former music teacher in the Amherst public schools, Dunbar suggested one of the band’s current pieces, “Air (For Band),” for this year’s shows, as she’d previously worked with it with some of her students.

“It’s a piece originally written for middle-school students, but it has such a good melody and varied parts that I thought it would work well for us,” she said.

Dunbar, of New Salem, keeps her hand in music in several ways, such as playing clarinet and saxophone in the pit orchestra for various area productions. But playing drums in ACB gave her a new challenge. “Plus it’s great to be part of such a diverse group of players,” she said.

The ACB can also be a family affair. Beal, the Amherst sax player, has been joined during the last five years at rehearsals and gigs by his daughter Lillian, 17, a trumpet player who just finished her junior year at Amherst Regional High School.

Considering that teens at that age spend much of their time away from their parents, “It’s great that she and I can share being part of the band,” Beal said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

The Amherst Communty Band plays July 4 at 8:15 p.m. by McGuirk Stadium at UMass Amherst. The group also plays July 21 and August 18, 7 p.m., at Sweetser  Park and on August 22 at 6 p.m. by the Amherst South Congregational Church.