Is there life after high-school band? Cynics will no doubt snort and scoff that band geeks had no lives during high school, but cynics are notorious for being, well, cynical. The truth is that scads of today's musical superstars were yesterday's high-school band geeks. Artists as diverse as Axl Rose and Trent Reznor (who seems like more of a theater geek, actually) began their musical journeys in high-school bands, and the stigma has either spurred them on to greater musical success (Trent) or forced them into self-imposed seclusion (Axl? Hello, Axl?).
But what to do if you don't want to pursue a career in arena rock? True, horn players always have the option of joining or starting a ska band -- but, honestly, ska imparts a more pungent geek-stink than even the blue-and-white-feathered helmets of the Marchin' Fightin' Cows. The (very) talented few might extend their playing days through college, and fewer still will break through to a city symphony. Sadly, most high-school musicians end up setting aside their instruments entirely, with only a few wistful memories to remind them of their band-geek salad days.
But the dedicated amateur music lover does have an option other than Grampaesque reminiscence: the community band. Among St. Louis' more interesting groups is Band Together. Founded by conductor Gary Reynolds and a handful of musicians in 1997, the orchestra, which now boasts 54 members, proudly represents the St. Louis Metro area's gay and lesbian community. Band Together has also grown musically: Its repertoire encompasses more than the standard Andrew Lloyd Webber/John Williams favorites. Somehow, in a city so conservative it won't financially support the straight symphony, Band Together has not only survived but thrived on a steady diet of classical fare, marches and modern composers, as well as the Webber/Williams canon of powerhouse tunes -- an impressive feat, especially considering the small scale of Reynolds' original plan.
"Basically, the premise was to find a group to perform at the Pride Parade in 1997," Reynolds laughs. "We had the Gateway Men's Chorus, but we didn't have an instrumental group. So I thought this might be something that doesn't exist in the community but there may be an interest in, so I put out some feelers to see if it got any interest. We ended up with about 10 people at that first meeting, and from that we put together an ensemble that performed at that Pride Parade."
That whistling, evil shriek that just echoed across America was John Ashcroft's head exploding in righteous indignation at the mere mention of gays recruiting members for a special-interest group. Don't tell John (he is infinitely more tolerable sans cranium), but Band Together does not require any sexual affiliation for membership, nor does it seek to make converts. It's a band first and a social organization second. Its emphasis is on making music, but this doesn't mean it demands a specific skill level from members. According to Reynolds, Band Together is "a band for everyone, and we don't audition anybody. It's set up to be a place for people of all playing abilities to regain that outlet that they may have lost because they're not in school anymore. If someone was to come in and say they haven't played their horn in 15 years, I'd say they were ahead of the curve."
Co-conductor Jeff Girard concurs: "I think there's only three or four people in the band who came right from some sort of music into the band. Everyone else had that period where they didn't play."
This open-minded attitude toward prospective members might suggest that a Band Together performance ranks somewhere between a bad high-school band concert and a good high-school band concert, but no such amateurishness is evident. Band Together plays with a bracing measure of power and emotion. Switching gears deftly between Bach and the Brian Setzer Orchestra in the same show, Reynolds and Girard complement each other's strengths as conductors to lead the band through some impressive hoops. That a group of amateur musicians would attempt pieces such as Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King" and Holst's "Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity" is noteworthy; that they would triumph is a testament to the musicians' skill and desire. Reynolds and Girard believe that their more ambitious undertakings are necessary for the health of the group. Says Reynolds: "It was something we wanted to build into the band -- not only to be an outlet for people to play but, on a reasonable level, to still be able to challenge and continue to grow as musicians rather than just playing at the same level all the time."
"It's a challenge trying to find that balance," Girard adds. "You don't want to challenge them too much, but you don't want to just sit back and have everyone know each piece because it's just so easy. You want something in between the two. That's tough sometimes."
Tougher still has been the task of maintaining Band Together's financial health. Between the cost of renting halls, providing sheet music for 50-plus musicians, printing programs and doing a dozen other things necessary to maintain an organization of this size, Band Together has incurred some hefty debts. Remarkably, rather than charge even a nominal fee for an evening of entertainment, the group relies entirely on donations. Although Reynolds is quick to assert, "Our crowds have been very generous in the past," the group recognizes that it's at a crossroads. Founding member Wade Umphries, who has seen the band grow from 10 people practicing on the parking lot of the Pelican Building on South Grand Boulevard to filling the auditorium of the St. Louis Art Museum, admits as much: "We've discussed it over and over: Do we try to start selling tickets? I think we all came to the conclusion that we really want to be free for all. We're getting this year to some financial situations where, OK, we want to go to bigger spaces to play for bigger audiences: How are we going to fund that? But I think we still want to pursue the ability to just open the doors and let people in."
Reynolds sums up the general sentiment of Band Together: "We just want you to come hear us. If you decide to support us, that's your decision."
This shared belief in bringing free music to the people underscores Band Together's importance not just to St. Louis' gay and lesbian community but to the music community as a whole. Band Together consists of people with jobs and families and myriad other responsibilities who still make time to make music -- simply because they love it. As schools continue to cut music programs from their curricula because they're considered nonessential, fewer people will be capable of forming community bands. It's sad to think we're fostering a nation of children who will never be able to navigate the celestial majesty of Holst, summon the divine passion of Bach or revel in the matinée menace of Williams' "Imperial March." Anyone who witnesses a stageful of people surpassing themselves to unite 300 strangers in the bombastic patriotism of "The Stars and Stripes Forever" can never believe that music is nonessential. Band Together is proof that music can be a lifelong passion, one that's as rewarding for the listener as it is for the performer.