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The Brattleboro American Legion Band finished third in the Legion’s annual band competition, held in August in Baltimore, Md.

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Banding together

A love of music and a spirit of camaraderie keeps the Brattleboro American Legion Band on the march

To learn more about the Brattleboro American Legion Band, and to view the band schedule, visit www.brattleborolegionband.org.

BRATTLEBORO—The Brattleboro American Legion Band took third-place honors at the organization’s national concert band competition in Baltimore at the end of August.

A press release reports that the band received a standing ovation during the concert portion, and the next day, its members represented Vermont in a two-hour parade along the city’s Inner Harbor, capping off the Legion’s annual national convention.

“Forty-three band members played the concert in Baltimore, and 35 of them marched in the parade,” American Legion Band Manager Bill Wessel told The Commons. “There were four bands that competed in Baltimore: us; Tonawanda, N.Y.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Waltham, Mass. These are much bigger cities.”

“It’s not quite a David-and-Goliath thing,” Band Director Raymond Brown said, noting that the band has also competed in many other American Legion competitions against cities with much larger populations — and with music schools.

“And still, we do pretty well,” Brown said.

When asked why, Brown said, “our band members are committed to the band.”

This is the fifth time the Brattleboro Legion band has competed nationally, Wessel said. Traveling with such a large band is “a financial commitment,” he explained, noting that the band paid for the trip and the hotels, and members covered their own meals.

“We began looking in February for hotels,” he said. “We needed about 35 rooms.”

It is expensive to get 50 people and their equipment to the convention, Brown said.

“We collect donations and parade fees, and we tuck that money away” to fund traveling to the conventions, he noted.

“We do a Christmas concert, and spring concert, and ’pops-y’ concerts on the Brattleboro Common,” Brown said, noting the band’s 20 to 24 yearly performances are split between marching and concerts. The band also “takes a bus trip around town to the nursing homes” right before Christmas, Wessel added.

The American Legion Band’s only sources of funding are parades and concerts. But the band ” got some money from other Legion posts in the state this year for representing Vermont in Baltimore,” Wessel said.

Because of the cost of travel, many bands have stopped competing, depending on their respective locations and how close they are to that year’s convention, Brown said.

Also, “the American Legion has a new rule: more than one band has to show up” for there to be a competition, Brown noted. In the past, sometimes only one band would attend the convention, thus making it not much of a competition at all.

Meet the band

The Brattleboro American Legion Band currently has 52 members. The youngest member is “16 or 17,” Wessel said, “and our oldest member of the band is Mickey Arceci, who is 92 years young. Mickey recently transferred from trumpet to percussion.”

Brown said “a number of our band members have been with the group since it started 25 years ago,” adding “about three-quarters have been with the band for more than 10 years.”

“We’re the only American Legion band in Vermont,” Wessel said, noting some members travel quite far for rehearsals and performances.

“We have folks from upstate New York. To get here, it’s a 180-mile round trip,” Brown added.

The Brattleboro band sometimes joins forces in parades with Keene’s American Legion Band. Wessel said about 15 musicians who belong to both bands, and he is one of them.

“I joined the Keene band in 2000. I was just filling in for someone getting married. I’m still there ‘temporarily,’” Wessel said with a laugh.

In addition to managing the Brattleboro band, Wessel serves as its president and booking director.

He is also one of the percussionists, and he serves as the percussion leader for the Keene American Legion Band.

“I play the cymbals and the timpani, and mostly play the snare drum,” Wessel said. “I joined in 1996. Bruce Corwin, the first director of the band, taught me to play the snare drum in third grade.

“I was in the high school band at [Brattleboro Union High School]. When I graduated, I put the sticks down and didn’t pick them up for 30 years. One day, a friend said, ‘Come by to our band practice.’”

From that day, “I was back into it,” he said.

“Mark Hilding, the band’s former percussionist and main snare drummer, taught me a lot. Before Mark moved to Florida, he taught me the timpani and bass clef,” Wessel said.

Since joining the band, “I’ve gotten involved in a lot of other bands,” Wessel said. “At the ripe old age of 60, I bought a drum kit, and now I play in an 11-piece jazz band.”

“I joined the band 15 years ago as a clarinet player,” Brown said. “I play a little keyboard, too.”

Brown has been the solo band leader for about a year and a half; he previously was the co-leader with Corwin.

“Bruce was the initial director of the band, and he held that position until he retired,” Brown said. “He stepped down, and I stepped up.”

As the band leader, “sometimes it’s kind of like doing a jigsaw puzzle — you have to get the pieces to fit nicely” by figuring out which players will work best for a particular piece of music.

In addition to leading rehearsals, “I select music for the concerts, present it to the band, and gauge their interest,” Brown said.

As was the case with Bill Wessel, joining the American Legion Band was Ray Brown’s return to music. After graduating from high school, Brown majored in music at Westfield (Mass.) State College.

“I wanted to be a music teacher, but in 1980, Massachusetts passed Proposition 2{1/2}, which led to a downsizing of music and arts in schools,” Brown said of the property-tax-cap referendum question that fundamentally changed school financing in that state.

“So, I changed my major and got a degree in management and accounting. I pretty much put my horn aside for many years. Life gets a hold of you,” with the many responsibilities of work and a family, Brown said.

“Much like me, a lot of people played in high school or college, but got busy with life, put their horn aside, and when things slow down in their middle years, they want to come back” to playing music, he added.

Join the band

“We’re always looking for new members,” Wessel said.

One simply shows up, instrument in hand.

“We don’t hold auditions,” he added. “If you can hold an instrument up and play a few notes, you’re in.”

“If somebody shows up with an instrument and can carry a tune,” Brown said, “we’ll find a chair and a folder for them.”

“There are no auditions, no fees, no membership dues, and no tryouts,” Brown said. There is no requirement that a band member belong to the American Legion. The band provides uniforms to members, too.

“A lot of times when a new face shows up, it’s more about their comfort level than ours,” Brown said, adding that he and his band members make sure the new arrival feels welcome.

“We have our anchor players, where music has been their life,” Brown said. “They have a strong musical background. And we have other folks who are still learning. We try to develop our players’ abilities through our music selections. There’s opportunity to learn.”

“I don’t think we’ve ever asked anybody to not come back,” Brown said.

One need not march in parades to join the Brattleboro American Legion Band.

“I think there are quite a few musicians who would be great in our concert band, but are not interested in marching, and vice versa,” Brown said.

Having the ability to join the band and participate only in the concert band “is a change from years past, when the band was too small” for members to choose only one option, Brown said.

Now, he said, “Our numbers have increased, and we’re able to do that.”

“I think there are a lot of people who have their horn in the closet. They reminisce about the time they were ‘the band geek,’” Brown said.

Trip drained resources

In addition to new members, Brown and Wessel said the Brattleboro American Legion Band needs money.

“We could use some small support from the town,” Wessel said. “The Baltimore trip drained our resources. The music costs money, so do the uniforms. We usually make enough money [in a year] but traveling to Baltimore cost about $30,000.”

Was it worth it?

“Oh, yeah,” Wessel said. “Absolutely.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #329 (Wednesday, October 28, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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