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A Pair of Celebrations In Wheaton, Illinois

John Thomson | May 2019

    This summer, the Wheaton (Illinois) Municipal Band celebrates a pair of anniversaries. The band turns 90, and music director Bruce Moss celebrates his 40th year on the podium. The summer-only, 86-member band routinely attracts 2,000 or more people per week to its concerts and has performed at the Midwest Clinic twice.

Talk about the band’s early years.
    The Wheaton Municipal Band was founded in 1930 with 19 members. We have a photo of one of the early bands, but between 1930 and the mid-1950s, we know little about it. In the 1950s, the band shell in Memorial Park in downtown Wheaton was built, and the band still performs there. In 1958, Lucien Cailliet conducted on a concert. At that time, Art Sweet, who was the band director at the high school in Wheaton, then called Wheaton Community High School, was the director. At some point, he stepped down, and Verne Reimer, who taught at York High School in nearby Elmhurst, led the band for 10 years before retiring to California. A man name Keith Moon, who had some Las Vegas connections, was the next conductor, but after two or three years, he had to break his contract suddenly during the summer of 1979. At this point, I had replaced Reimer at York, and I was one of the guest conductors. That fall, I was asked to be the conductor for the summer of 1980.

An early photo of the band

Describe a typical season for the band.

    A typical season is nine Thursday night concerts that are preceded with Wednesday night rehearsals. The band also marches or plays on a flatbed for the Wheaton Independence Day parade. At the end of the season, we have an additional Saturday concert in Edman Chapel at Wheaton College, and there is also a jazz concert that usually happens the second Thursday in August. This started as a Glen Miller-type show and has expanded to become a regular part of the schedule.
    The band rarely plays anywhere other than Wheaton. We have considered trading concerts with nearby community bands, but the town prefers that we stay. We were invited to perform at Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival in 1998, and that same summer we performed at the American School Band Directors Association convention.
    Although the band is not a full-year group, it performed at the Midwest Clinic in 2012 and 2017. There are a number of band directors in the group, and they encouraged me to apply. However, the summer-only nature of the band means we cannot provide recordings taken from the time frame that Midwest requires. Furthermore, the recording we submitted would have to come from one of our concerts. Ray Cramer, who has conducted the band several times, encouraged me to submit the tape, explain our situation, and let the chips fall where they may.

Describe your usual audience.
    We typically have a couple thousand people attend each concert. For our patriotic concert, which is the Thurs­day closest to July 4, it could be 3,000. Weather affects the crowd, but we play in everything except thunder and lightning. There are always children running around, and a large portion of the audience is senior citizens. We also have a mix of people in the middle. It is not unusual for someone to come up and say, “My grandmother used to bring me as a child to these concerts, and now I’m bringing my little ones.” We have three or four generations of people at concerts.
    There is concern about whether younger generations, who are much closer to their cell phones, are going to attend concerts when they grow up. We also discuss how we can bring in people in their 30s and 40s. One thing that helped was changing our concert time. For years, concerts started at 8:00, but two summers ago, we changed the start time to 7:30, because parents with young children were leaving at intermission.

The audience

What types of repertoire do you program?

    Typically it includes a standard overture or something similarly challenging, a few marches, a lyrical tune, a medley from a musical, a soloist from within the band, a rousing closer, often a novelty piece, and something for children. We program the pieces that are most likely to engage young people on the first half of the concert, because of the parents taking their children home at intermission. If we don’t give audience members something to come back for, they won’t come back, and as William Revelli said, “You cannot educate an empty seat.”
    In addition to having something for everyone, we try to stretch players and listeners. The players want to perform challenging repertoire that they have to sightread quickly, but they also understand how excited the audience is to hear them, so they don’t mind lightening up to play an occasional novelty tune. It comes down to knowing what the audience wants, and the audience especially loves marches. They almost never let us finish without an encore march. Every now and then we will try to stretch the audience’s ears with a piece that is noteworthy because of the work’s nature or who the composer is. Most summers we have a side-by-side half of a concert with middle school players. It is a big hit with both students and parents.

What does your announcer contribute to your performances?
    Our announcer, Pete Friedmann, who has been the announcer for the Northwestern University marching band since 1981, knows how to read and work the audience, and his delivery is always on point. He has a voice that makes people want to listen, and over the years he has learned exactly how to engage the audience. He will discover trivia about our pieces that even the band members don’t know and surprise us with it during the concert while still keeping his introductions between 45 and 75 seconds.
    His ability to read an audience is a gift. There are nights where he’ll come over and say, “You’re losing them, Bruce. Can you throw in a march now?” He also makes things simple for guest conductors and will guide them with comments like, “Get ready. We’re going to go. It’s time for the Star Spangled Banner,” or “I’m going to talk now, but I’d like you to talk after this tune.”

Bruce Moss conducts the National Anthem

What are the challenges to performing a concert on one rehearsal?

    The first challenge is to figure out what can and cannot be accomplished once we get going. Rehearsals are two and a half hours, and there is the most intensity during the first hour. As the evening progresses, everyone gets tired, so after something simple to warm up on, we start rehearsal with the most difficult works and save the easier pieces until last. The band reads well, and if we get bogged down in rehearsal, we can go without rehearsing a piece like Blue Tango. I’d rather devote the time and brainpower to working on La Forza del Destino.
    I map out blocks of time down to the minute so I don’t spend too much time on one piece. On more difficult works, I hit certain sections I think are most likely to be problematic and then read through large sections with the problematic areas chunked in. If we struggle to perfect a piece, there are also difficult decisions to make. Do we accept that it is not going to be perfect tomorrow night, or do we pull it from the concert and move on to something else?

How are band members selected?
    The players are selected through blind auditions. A team of educators comes in to judge. Three people listen to the woodwinds, and three people listen to the brass. The judges’ scores are averaged, and a rank order is derived from that. The audition is based predominantly on sightreading.  Musicians who make the band and do not miss more than two concerts are automatically in the band the following year, but they still have to audition for chair placement.
    It rarely happens, but sometimes the system leaves us with a first-chair player who has never performed this type of music in quick order or who has never been a section leader. It may be that the most experienced player had a bad audition day – it happens. In such cases, I can discuss it with the board and the players involved and make switches if necessary. We only do this if the person on the principal spot just isn’t the right one for it, and it has happened no more than five times in the last 20 years. It is also worth noting that we do have a few high school players make the band each year.

William F. Ludwig, Jr. and Frederick Fennell perform on a 1992 concert.

What factors have contributed to the band’s success over the years?

    The city’s support is a big factor. The mayors take great pride in the band. When people move into this city someone tells them, “In the summer, you have to hear the band.” The audience is another factor. The audience and the band feed off of each other. The band members might not want to play Sleigh Ride on a hot summer day, but they know the audience will love it.
    The band members are wonderful to work with, and that is important, too. To do something for this long, you have to find it enjoyable. The board of directors and our fundraising group, the Friends of the Wheaton Municipal Band, work hard, and we have a mayor-appointed band commission of four citizens from the community. They fight for the budget.
    The seed money is from the city, and the Friends of the Wheaton Municipal Band was formed to raise additional funds for us. They sell things at concerts and raffle prizes. That is the money that allows us to bring in outside soloists and guest conductors, commission works, or make special purchases of things we might need for a children’s concert.
    With the help of the City and the Friends of the Wheaton Band, we have been able to showcase artists such as William Warfield, Allen Vizzutti, Lou Marini of the Blues Brothers band, and John Philip Sousa IV. We also frequently have members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Military band members who once played in the Wheaton Band are especially popular, as are the military conductors and singers.

As the band has evolved through the years have there been any significant growing pains?
    Civic groups can never rest on their laurels when it comes to funding. The City of Wheaton has had some down times over the years, and that extended to the band. As someone once said to me, if the city is having financial problems, and it comes to the police and firefighters or the band, the band is going to be in trouble. 
    There were also challenges when I started, because almost everybody in the group was older than me. When difficult decisions, such as changing who sat first chair, had to be made, the typical criticism would begin. When it happened I said, “I have ideas for this and if you can just stick with me, I promise I will make it better than it has ever been.” I was fortunate to have the backing of the commission at the time.
    In 1991, eleven years after I had asked people to stick with me, a film crew from Boston came to shoot for the “If You Knew Sousa” episode of American Experience. The invitation came out of nowhere. The filmers had seen the park and heard about the band, and they thought it would be good for the episode. It was a big production. William Revelli was there. I remember thinking at that time and I often refer back to it, “We’ve arrived. We’re here. It’s going places now.”   

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    Bruce Moss received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Illinois and his Ph.D. from The Ohio State University.  His conducting teachers were Harry Begian, Craig Kirchhoff, and John P. Paynter.  He is professor and Director of Bands at Bowling Green State University and has been Director of Bands at York High School (Elmhurst, Illinois), St. Cloud State University, and Eastern Illinois University.
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A Sampling Of Concert Themes

Around the World in 80 Minutes
Basically British
Celtic Classics (the band was joined by a local Irish dance school)
Centennial Tributes and Cele­brations (people, places, and things that are 100 years old)
The Hula Hoop Turns 50
Kids, Movies, and Surprises
Night and Day
One-Word Wonders
Salute to the Heroes
Short Answer Quiz (an audience participation concert)
The Players’ Mix (program selected from band member wish lists)
You and the Night and the Music (audience members vote online for the program and were invited to bring their instruments for a special play-along number)