The weekly rehearsal of the Lawrence Community Concert Band, now celebrating its 25th year, is serious business. With little chitchat, musicians ranging in age from teens to 80-somethings take out their music at the Lawrence Senior Center and start tuning their instruments. They come to the band from Central Jersey and nearby Pennsylvania, many not having played for 25 years or more before they joined.
The conductor, Ron Taglairino, asks them to sight-read a possible Hanukkah medley for their upcoming holiday concert—Thursday, Dec. 7, 7 to 8:30 p.m., at the Lawrence Township Senior Center, 30 Darrah Lane. He then asks the musicians what they think of it—some like its energy, but others think the music is too simplistic.
Then they play another Hanukkah medley that they’ve played in previous years; at first playing it sounds a little mushy, but after Taglairino reviews particular measures with the whole group, and works with subgroups on difficult rhythms or challenging sections, the piece clears up.
“If I hear spots where it is dirty, like the low brass at the rehearsal, it’s partly my responsibility and partly the musicians’ responsibility to know they are not playing well and need to ‘woodshed’ the music at home on their own,” he said. But as he works with the musicians to resolve issues, he says he has to keep a clock running in the back of his mind because the musicians are volunteers and “you can’t have people sitting there for a lot of time.”
Taglairino, a Lawrence native who is now a teacher of seventh- and eighth-grade concert and jazz band at Lawrence Middle School, first joined the band as a saxophone player in the early 2000’s, around the time he graduated from Elizabethtown College with a bachelor’s degree in music education. About 10 years ago, he became the band’s volunteer conductor. He characterizes his band members as people who “enjoy making music although most are amateur, semiprofessional, or even novice musicians.”
Choosing appropriate music to suit a range of abilities can be a challenge. The band’s vice president, Bob Johnson, notes that the music “has to be interesting enough for the more skilled musicians and possible for people who don’t have either the time or the willingness to practice regularly.” Taglairino agrees that the music must challenge his musicians, but also needs to be “achievable over the amount of time we have to rehearse.”
Because band music often includes several different parts for a single instrument, Taglairino can often keep more accomplished musicians challenged by having them play the more difficult parts. But he also takes advantage of pieces that are easier overall to switch things around and have a person less skilled play the harder parts.
The music also has to be interesting to audiences. “It can’t be technical exercise for the musicians where the audience can’t grab onto the melody,” Taglairino says.
For the band’s treasurer, Carol Nicholas, a public health nurse in Lawrence and Princeton who joined the band a couple years after it was formed in 1992, especially values the band’s commitment to play at different community venues for different audiences. “What I like about our band is that we try and perform for people who can’t afford to go to fancy performances at the McCarter and things that cost a lot of money, or their health won’t let them, or they don’t have a car to get to those places—people who wouldn’t be able to get to a concert otherwise,” she says.
When, for example, people with dementia “perk up when we start a song they know and sometimes clap or sing along,” Nicholas says, “that joy of seeing us connecting with somebody, the music connecting with the person—I really enjoy that.”
The band, which includes brass, woodwinds and percussion, plays classical and semi-classical pieces, Sousa marches, Americana songs and Broadway show tunes, and performs about eight times a year in a variety of venues—Project Freedom housing for individuals with disabilities in Hamilton, Lawrence and Hopewell; senior centers in Lawrence and Hamilton, Monroe Village, nursing homes, Lawrenceville Main Street’s Music in the Park Series and the Lawrence Township Memorial Day Parade at Veterans Park. One of the band’s important goals, Taglairino says, is “to bring music to communities and places within our communities so they can enjoy it.”
Band members run the gamut, some are professional musicians and music teachers while others are lawyers, accountants, and people working in the corporate and government realms, and there is even a farmer.
The band’s president, Lewis Thurston, has been playing trombone with the group since its first rehearsal with about six people 25 years ago. A Lawrenceville resident for 45 years, Thurston, who spent his career working for the state of New Jersey, had not played his trombone for 30 years, since he left high school, a story typical of many band members.
When he heard that then-mayor of Lawrenceville and classical singer Gloria Tati proposed that the town should have a community band and recruited its first conductor, Desi Maik, he was one of the six musicians who showed up for the first rehearsal.
Music, Thurston said, has always been a big part of his life, a love he attributes to his father, who played violin for a community orchestra, and his mother, who played the piano. For him, the band rehearsals are a place where, “relaxing for two hours every week, I’m able to put other thoughts away and just concentrate on the music.” He has taken private lessons to improve his skill, and as part of the band he has learned about different kinds of music and learned to appreciate the enthusiasm of his audiences, who sometimes clap, and sometimes stand up and dance to music they know.
Johnson says he resolved when he retired from teaching science at South Brunswick High School in 2005 to “get back to do music again.” Having played drums in rock bands in high school and college, he started practicing and jamming, then got a three-month summer gig doing a show at Great Adventure with musicians over 30 years his junior.
Looking for more playing venues, he rejoined the musician’s union, which he had been part of in high school, and met there an elderly but well-known drummer, Jimmy Vincent, who played with the Lawrence band and told him they needed percussionists.
Capturing the band’s commitment to musicians with varying levels of expertise, Johnson says the band is open to anyone “if you have the time and the willingness, and are willing to give it the time and try to get your chops back.” No auditions are necessary; interested in musicians can just come to rehearsals Thursday nights, 7 to 8:45 p.m., at the Lawrence Senior Center.
“My goal for the group is to get everybody to ask themselves to do their best to provide the best entertainment experience for the audience,” Johnson says.
French horn and flute player Anne Witt, a four-year band member, grew up in Central Jersey and returned several years ago, after living in New York City and Chicago. She played in the Ewing High School orchestra as well as in the Mercer County (now Greater Princeton) Youth Orchestra as a teen, and as an adult played in the Evanston Symphony Orchestra. “Music has been so much a part of my life. I practice regularly at home pretty much every day of the week, because I enjoy it,” she says.
Elliot Topper of East Windsor got started on the trumpet at age 5 in Brooklyn when, he says, “I wanted to play same thing that Harry James played.” He took trumpet lessons through high school and at 16 joined the musician’s union. But life intervened and his busy law practice took all his time, so at age 37 he stopped playing.
But, in 2008, after attending a band concert, he had a minor revelation: “My brain said, ‘Oh, I used to do that, and I can do it again.’” He started practicing, found a trumpet teacher, and joined the band five or six years ago.
Topper also goes yearly to a week-long jazz camp for adults run by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and plays with a big band in Monroe. “I’ll go anyplace to play the trumpet,” he says.
Bass clarinetist Conrad Hall, who lives in Cranbury and is a tenth grader at Princeton High School, was invited into the band by Taglairino, who was also his private music teacher. He started with the band a little over a year ago playing the clarinet, but switched over to the bass clarinet because the band did not have enough lower-horn players. “It has been a challenge—it’s different from school music, which tends to be easier. This brings it up a little,” he says, adding that he enjoys playing with adults.
Nicholas says she played flute in high school but then didn’t play for 25 years. “I didn’t remember the fingering or the notes—nothing; I started from scratch.” But she has profited from “having mentors around you to coach you along.” Her sight-reading is now pretty good, and although it is not always possible with her schedule, she realizes that “if you want to improve, you have to play every day.”
For Nicholas, the band is “a true community, with people from diverse backgrounds.” Compared to professional bands, she says, Lawrence Community Concert Band is “a true community … where people come from all walks of life and music is our hobby. I say it is a community because we support each other’s learning. We don’t say, ‘If you’re not a great player, you can’t be part of our group.’”