Let's Hear it for the Band
Mark Poland, who has directed the Richmond Concert Band since 1979, explains why musicians still clamber to join the exclusive group, and why the annual July 4th concert at Dogwood Dell is just as fun for the players as it is for the public. (Video courtesy: Maureen McNabb)
Every Tuesday night, the musicians in the Richmond Concert Band, the oldest such musical assemblage in the region, gather in the basement of the Tabernacle Baptist Church on the corner of Grove Avenue and Meadow Street to practice for an upcoming concert. The musicians gladly volunteer two hours of their week for each rehearsal where, during a song, director Mark Poland’s hands will dance over his sheet music, meeting the eyes of as many players as possible to get their full attention.
During a rehearsal in late May, the band is practicing the set list for its big Fourth of July concert at Dogwood Dell — the 45th time the band will perform at the event. The warm, humid room echoes with the strains of the 1812 Overture, a signature feature of the performance. An occasional squeak emanates from a clarinet; one trumpet player puts down his instrument to help a stand mate, and Poland, with his musical hyper-awareness, stops the band with one flick of his wrist to address and correct each problem.
“One, two, three,” he counts, and the feet of the musicians tap in synchrony, beginning the piece again and improving the sound one beat at a time.
Richmond Concert Band2
The Richmond Concert Band performs at last year's Fourth of July concert. (Photo courtesy Richmond Concert Band)
When Poland took to the podium in 1979 to direct the band, eight years after it was formed, tradition thrived. But he modernized things by giving the music library a face-lift and adding more current tunes, including some popular radio hits and movie soundtrack selections such as John Williams’ main theme from Star Wars.
He also created a way to keep the players on their toes by introducing more difficult pieces such as “The Ride of the Valkyries” by 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner. This ended up improving performances and broadening the band’s fan base.
Now, the Richmond Concert Band entices all types of musicians. “It was good when I got here, and it’s still good,” says Jim Shaw, who has been playing trumpet with the band for almost a decade. He adds that being in the 60- to 90-piece semi-professional ensemble has created “nothing but good memories.”
The members come from “all walks of life,” Poland says. The youngest is a percussionist and section leader who is almost 18, and the oldest is a first-chair trumpet player in his late 80s. The diversity in the room adds to the family dynamic of the endeavor. Some members have played in the band for several decades, while others have only recently developed their passion.
Genna Freeman, the youngest member, started playing percussion for the band when she was only 12 years old. Despite the minimum age requirement of 16, she was wholeheartedly accepted, and she flourished with the support of her musical peers. She contributes her talents alongside her father, who is also a band member. As the percussion section leader five years later, she says that her love of music has only grown. Her favorite performance, year after year, is the July 4th concert.
“It makes me feel really proud of myself that I can keep up with some of the pieces,” Freeman says. “When I was 13 or 14, I remember playing a whole solo and everyone was patting me on the back afterwards. That was one of my best moments.”
Many members are longtime players who crave music in their lives. Clarinetist and section leader Melissa Sleeth began performing in the Richmond Concert Band in 1992, when she moved to Richmond after completing graduate school. The self-identified “band geek” is obviously passionate about the band, evident by her huge smile when she talks about her past 23 years with the ensemble. “I knew that wherever I went, I needed to play in a concert band. If music wasn’t in my life I don’t know what I’d do,” Sleeth says. She’s impressed by how the band has ingrained itself in the fabric of Richmond. “We’re a community. [Playing in the band] is so much fun, and we can be a part of something that’s bigger than just us.”
The Richmond community is close to the hearts of the members, especially with Poland. He founded Old Instruments for Young Hands, an organization that takes donated instruments and loans them to local school music programs to give students the opportunity to learn how to play an instrument.
“We know the value of being in a band or orchestra, and we just hate to think that a child could be having this experience, but the family can’t afford a clarinet,” Poland says.
He encourages a continuation of music that stretches beyond high school or college graduation. The gift of music is valuable, and students need to “keep at it,” he says. “As the years go by, I hope that the Richmond Concert Band will continue to be a welcoming place for adults to come and take their love for music and share it with each other, but also share it with their audiences.”
The future is on the minds of all of the musicians as the band continues to grow and change. To Poland, the opportunities are endless. “I tell the band that I enjoy thinking about the past,” he says. “But I really prefer thinking about the future of what we’re going to do and what we can do.”
The band may continually change with each season, but the passion and commitment heard through the musicians’ instruments always carry over. Passion, like the repertoire, is a deeply rooted tradition.
Richmond Concert Band
Join the crowd: This year’s Fourth of July celebration at Dogwood Dell in Byrd Park marks the 45th anniversary of performances by the Richmond Concert Band. Ron Simmons will accompany the band by singing patriotic songs at 7:30 p.m. The concert will include the 1812 Overture, played with Larry Robinson on the Carillon bells.