Here we are on the cusp of the month of February, eager to know what’s in store for us in the year’s shortest month. There is always February 2 to look forward to, namely Groundhog Day, for prognostications about what to expect weather-wise in the coming weeks. However while our trusty Canadian groundhogs, Wiarton Willie and Nova Scotia’s Shubenacadie Sam are renowned for their weather forecasting, they have never told us anything about upcoming community musical events. Where can we turn for such information? Right here, one might hope to say, if we were hearing, with some regularity, from community musical ensembles regarding their coming events. Alas, such communication is rare. We have heard very little so far this year from the band world. Send your listings in, folks, and I will let readers know about them.

Novel Seasonal Celebration
It is quite common for bands to have an end-of-season party before the Christmas break. Such parties provide the opportunity for band members and their families to mix and meet. Spouses or partners get to meet band members other than their mates, and band members get to chat with other band members that they may see from a distance every week, but really don’t know. How often do tuba players chat with clarinet players, after all? This year the Newmarket Citizens Band took a different approach. They decided on a 45-minute open rehearsal where family and friends sat and listened. After that, all in attendance mingled and partook of several tables of tasty goodies arrayed on tables at one end of the band’s rehearsal room. Two birds with one stone, you might say.

Read more: Impeachment Polkas and Bugles (again!)

Last night, as I drove home after a rehearsal, I heard on the radio to expect a once-in-a-lifetime event at precisely 11:15pm – the most spectacular meteor shower in over 30 years. As I looked out of the window, though, I was barely able to see the road in front of me, through the dense fog. Now, sitting at the computer, staring at the screen, I am dealing with a dearth of information, unusual at this time of year, about happenings in the band world. Usually at this time of year, I would expect to receive quite a quantity of information on Christmas concerts, festive-season events or holiday shows. A temporary blip perhaps, or maybe just a sign of the busy times we live in. Since I can’t write about what I haven’t been sent, though, it gives me permission to write about what I like.

HMCS York Band (2019)Speaking of signs of the times

At a recent concert of the combined bands of HMCS York from Toronto and HMCS Star from Hamiton, I was stunned to see Lieutenant Commander Jack t’Mannetje sitting in the audience rather than on stage conducting. I then learned that Jack, who has been the Director of the York Band for many years, has been promoted. He is now executive officer of HMCS York, Navy lingo for second-in-command. It’s rare to see a military band conductor promoted to a position of command. Congratulations, Jack. As for the duties of band director, that falls to longtime band member, chief petty officer Maggie Birtch. Again, congratulations to Maggie.

Read more: Sound the Bugle!

Here we are midway through the last third of the year, and most community bands are busy rehearsing, for a variety of programs from formal concerts to Santa Claus Parades; the last thing that any band needs at this time of year is any disruption of rehearsals. Many community groups rehearse in schools, so for many bands in this part of the world there was near panic that these schools might be closed due to a possible labour dispute. Fortunately, at the very last minute the matter was settled. I, myself, received notices a few days later that all rehearsals would proceed as scheduled.

It was, however, a sobering reminder of a topic I have been known to occasionally rant about: the dilemma facing many community musical groups regarding rehearsal space. Most groups are tenants of schools, churches or community centres. Few have any real means of avoiding such matters. School music rooms are ideal rehearsal spaces, complete with music stands, and much of the heavier percussion equipment. However, most music teachers and many principals have concern for the safety of this equipment. I have known of a number of situations where a new music teacher, or principal, arrived at a school and expressed concern for equipment safety. All of a sudden, a band which might have rehearsed there for years, found themselves homeless. Even if they manage to obtain another kind of rehearsal space, where do they keep larger percussion instruments, stands and maybe music library?

Read more: Occasional Rants and Fanfarones

As I sit down to produce this column I realize that we are dealing with the autumnal equinox. That means the official end to summer, or beginning of autumn. To be more precise, right at the time this issue is going to the printer, the official equinox will be occurring, at 4:02pm on Sunday, September 22. (Musicians aren’t always the only ones working on weekends.) In other words, even though there has been some beautiful weather, fall is here and it’s time for much new music making. That being said, while we have some information on what lies ahead in our musical world, so far my notes are still a bit of this and a bit of that, so I think that I’ll just consider this month’s column as Variations on a Non Existent Theme and dive right in.

Square Dealing

Happenings in my own personal musical world might be a place to start. Some days ago I came across a bulletin mentioning an open house at a local Masonic Lodge for local citizens to learn about how Freemasons have been part of our communities for centuries. One component of the emblem of Freemasonry is the square, one of the earliest working tools of craftsmen. It was, and still is, used to confirm the accuracy of right angles. Hence “Acting upon the Square” is a familiar metaphor for square and honest dealings with others.

So what does all of this have to do with music? As I looked at this emblem, I remembered hearing that there was a march titled On The Square based on some ceremonies of Freemasonry. Where to get information on this march? Where else but to Google! There it was, played by a number of different bands. I chose to listen to the version by a Band of the Royal Marines. For a few days after that I could not get that music out of my head. I had a chronic earworm. Then, a few nights later at a band rehearsal, what was the very first number that the director chose to rehearse? On The Square. Now that earworm was firmly implanted in my head, so it was time to confirm just what an earworm really is. Off to Wikipedia I went. There were a number of other terms, but the definition I liked there was “involuntary musical imagery,” where a catchy piece of music continuously repeats through a person’s mind after it is no longer playing.

Read more: Variations on a Nonexistent Theme

As I sit down to write this September column (the beginning of my 14th year), it’s the usual dilemma. Should I start with the events of the summer about to end, or the fall just over the horizon? And what about summers past? I think I’ll start there.

In case you haven’t been around to notice, outdoor concerts have changed. Having worked for many years as master of ceremonies at a variety of summer band concerts, I remember well concerts every Sunday, sponsored by Toronto’s Parks and Recreation Department at the Beaches Bandstand and in High Park, with concerts during the week at Allan Gardens and St. James Park.

My own summers usually ended, back then, operating the “world’s first” outdoor stereo sound system on the main bandshell at the CNE. My first season there was working with the late Sir Vivian Dunn and the Band of the Royal Marines, Plymouth Division. On another occasion, the National Band on New Zealand was featured. During the times when the featured band was not performing on the main bandshell, there were concerts on the CNE’s north bandstand by various bands from local Army and Navy Reserve units.

It has probably been some years since there have been such events with major feature bands at any outdoor facility in the Toronto area. However, community bands all over the province have been performing at a wide range of performance venues ranging from such large dedicated facilities as the Millennium Bandstand in Unionville (built in 2000) or the Rotary Aqua Theatre in Orillia’s Couchiching Park (built in 1958), to grassy areas in public parks. In the cases of the more formal bandstands, most usually have some limited seating and lots of space for audience members to bring their own seats.

Lest I start to sound too nostalgic, I should point out that while the more informal concerts on grassy lawns may be pleasant for audience members, they are not necessarily so for band members. Other than bad weather, problems can include uneven terrain for members to place chairs and music stands, bright sun in their eyes, winds to blow the music off their stands and the logistics of getting large instruments to and from the parking area to the performance site.

Just as there is much less formality in the venues, so too there is now a wide range of the delivery of the music, the dress of band members and conductors, and the means of announcing the music and soloists. During this past summer I have seen attire ranging from bands with everyone wearing rather formal uniforms with shirt, tie and band blazer to groups with shorts and a wide variety of tops.

As for audiences, times have also changed. Cell phones scattered throughout the audience are common as is the eating of treats. The photograph with this column is a case in point: the Encore Symphonic Concert Band at the Millennium Bandstand in Unionville, in garb that does not really match their prestigious name. And at least one audience member trying hard to let the music distract him from his ice cream.

The Encore Symphonic Concert Band at the Millennium Bandstand in Unionville. Photo by Jack MacQuarrieSummer repertoire has evolved as well. Years ago, bands always played at least one march by Alford or Sousa. Of all of the concerts this summer, where I either played or listened, there was not a single march. All of which brings up a favourite topic of mine: repertoire. Should it be purely based on the preferences of the conductor, the skills and interests of band members, or what they hope will appeal to their audiences on a given day? Two recent concerts were a case in point: as is popular these days one was thematic, with the title: “Music of the Cinema, Popcorn Not Included.” The other concert did not have a specific title, but was made up either of Beethoven music or music inspired by Beethoven. After the latter of these concerts, I asked a man how he liked the program. His reply: “Why would a band play Beethoven at an outdoor concert?” When asked what he would prefer, he stated that it should be obvious: “A band outdoors should be playing Sousa marches.” All of which brings up that recurring theme: “You can please some of the people some of the time, but you will never please all of the people all of the time.”

Buried Treasure

At some time every summer, I morph into my occasional household alter ego, Johann Cluttermeister, and start digging through many boxes of “sometime I must get around to it” stuff. I uncovered a few musical gems. The first was an advertisement from the Stratford Festival of a few years back, for a performance of H.M.S. Pinafore. There he was, a sailor in the uniform of the United States Navy, embracing a sweet young lady. What, pray tell, was an American sailor doing in a story aboard a Royal Navy ship?

Then it was music for a lesser-known bugle call, The First Post. Most people are familiar with The Last Post, but how many have ever heard of The First Post? Having served many years ago in a large Royal Navy ship, which was the Admiral’s Flagship, I became acquainted with many bugle calls. We had a full Royal Marine Band with many buglers aboard. We heard a multitude of bugle calls every day to announce certain routines. The First Post was one of these. And there it was, the music for this little-known bugle call! Off to Google I went. I typed in “bugle call The First Post.” Almost immediately, I heard this call played in its entirety as I followed it with the sheet of music in front of me, after which to my surprise and pleasure, I was treated to a succession of many British bugle calls.

Into another box, and out came a true gem: a well-worn small book of music, titled the Universal Band Primer. “The indispensable and VERY FIRST BOOK for all Young Bands” it proclaimed. Published by Hawkes & Son in 1912. Price: one shilling and sixpence. The first page covered the “Rudiments of Music” and consisted of a stave with the comparative value of notes and rests: wholenotes, half notes, quarter notes, etcetera, except that here they are called, respectively: semibreve, minims, crotchets and so on, down into quavers, semiquavers and demisemiquavers. As for the instrumentation: there are books available for saxhorns, G bass trombones and bombardons. It seems that there have been some changes in the band world over the past century.

Band activities

Usually, around this time of year, I received considerable information on band activities over the summer months. This year, not so, but with one notable exception. Joan Sax of the Richmond Hill Concert Band wrote to inform us of a concert series at a new venue: during the months of July and August, the Richmond Hill Concert Band presented “The Lake Wilcox Summer Concert Series” Sunday afternoons at 1pm on the Oak Ridges Community Centre terrace. These featured the five concert bands of York Region: the Aurora Community Band, the Thornhill Community Band, the Richmond Hill Concert Band, the Markham Concert Band and the Newmarket Citizens Band. Playing in one of these concerts gave me an opportunity to tour this new community centre adjacent to Lake Wilcox. It is an excellent and much-needed new facility with too many features to describe here. If I ever needed a reminder of how things have changed over the years, though, this was it! Some years ago, as a young boy living in Windsor, Ontario, with a population then of 100,000, I occasionally visited the little village of Richmond Hill. On my way to this community centre, we passed a sign welcoming us to the City of Richmond Hill, population 208,000.

Also by this time in past years, I would start to get notices of future band activities. This year I have not received a single notice of any coming events yet! If you, as a reader, are a member of a band, we would love to be informed of any coming events. For me to make mention of them in this column, we generally need them no later than the fifteenth of the preceding month.

Other happenings

Earlier this year, we attended a ceremony at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square, where members of HMCS York, Toronto’s Reserve Naval Division, were commemorating the annual Battle of Atlantic Sunday. We were astounded to see six or eight members of the band in formal army uniforms. How could this be? It turns out it was that time of year where many communities were experiencing serious flooding and needed people to fill and position sandbags, and several band regular band members were away on extra emergency duties doing so. Members of one or more reserve army bands had therefore the HMCS York band’s ranks to form an unusual Red and Blue ensemble.

Warning! Groaners ahead

Question: What’s musical and handy in a supermarket?
Answer: A Chopin Lizst.

Question: How do you get a million dollars playing jazz?
Answer: Start off with two million.

Jack MacQuarrie plays several brass instruments and has performed in many community ensembles. He can be contacted at bandstand@thewholenote.com.

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