How many of us took up a musical instrument in school, invested hours of time in practice, and set it all aside for more adult-oriented activities?
For those who attend concerts by the Fort Wayne Area Community Band, the audience may not be aware that many who take the stage are those very kinds of students who put aside their instruments for a few years, only to discover a new and satisfying way to reconnect with a passion from their youth and share their love of music with all kinds of audiences.
The upcoming concert at the Foellinger, the August 14 performance of Pop and Rock Legends, is a shining example of what the Fort Wayne Area Community Band does best, particularly in their free summertime performances. With a tribute to Dick Clark and hits from the likes of Barry Manilow, the Beatles, Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones, Chicago, Neil Diamond, and the Broadway hit Jersey Boys, the community band shines, covering the music that many of the musicians grew up with. Then it closes with a more traditional classic, “Stars & Stripes Forever.”
What makes the band especially appealing is the diversity of its 100 players. While they all might not take the stage on any particular day, the group still typically features 80 to 90, and each one has a story about their path through and sometimes back to music.
The current president of the Fort Wayne Area Community Band, Elaine Wheeler, is just one of those stories. Now in her 14th year with the band, Wheeler was coaxed back into playing by a former band director and into changing instruments by a void in the ensemble.
“High school was the last time I had played before that,” said Wheeler, a graduate of Paul Harding High School. “After I graduated in 1979, I went to Indiana State to study physical education, and I had definitely moved on. But through the years I missed playing my trumpet. I just didn’t have time to pursue it because the jobs I was working didn’t leave me available for rehearsals and such.”
The Fort Wayne Area Community Band was founded the year Wheeler graduated, a project begun by William Schlacks who served as its conductor for seven years. Over the years, players of a variety of instruments saw an opportunity to enjoy playing again without the overwhelming responsibility that comes from some of the rigorous professional ensembles.
With rehearsal every Tuesday, the predictable schedule made it possible to fit the band’s duties around work and family responsibilities. That was certainly the case for Wheeler.
“My band director when I first started playing the trumpet in sixth grade was in the band, and he told me, ‘If you ever want to pick up the horn again, we have this community band... .’ After 16 years, I wasn’t sure because I had packed up my trumpet for a good many years.”
And then she decided to take on a new challenge: the euphonium, a brass instrument with a much deeper range. In fact, the euphonium is the second-lowest instrument after the tuba.
“I’ve been playing that the last four years because I saw the need,” she said. “I’d been playing the trumpet forever and was looking for a new challenge, although the euphonium is still in treble clef like the trumpet, so the fingering is the same as the trumpet.”
Wheeler found getting back into music a mixed assortment of challenges.
“Reading music is easy, and it is like riding a bike in that it’s easy to get back into it,” she said. “Plus I had been involved in music in church, having been in the hand bell choir for several years.
“What was harder was getting the stamina to play very long again. The brass instruments require quite a bit of air to play, and the euphonium is even more so than the trumpet. Of course, others in the band would laugh to hear me say that since they’d tell you that I’m full of hot air.”
In addition to the free concerts at the Foellinger Theatre every summer, the Fort Wayne Area Community Band plays a series of concerts in the winter at the Purdue Fort Wayne Rhinehart Music Center. While the summer shows feature the kind of fun, popular music that fits the season, winter brings a bigger musical challenge for the players.
“I enjoy the shows because of the people we meet, but also because of the challenges,” Wheeler said. “In the summer, they come to hear easy music, but in the winter, the shows are more technical, and we may only have three weeks to get ready for them. It gives us a chance to really work on our music, and it really brings back memories from high school when we get all dressed up for a show. And my parents still come to hear me play. I told them, ‘Once a band parent, always a band parent.’”
In addition to playing for the band, Wheeler’s current role as president means she works on scheduling future seasons — she’s already locked in the schedule for 2019-20 — and works with the board to handle marketing and other administrative duties. But it was the music that really brought her back to performing after a long hiatus, and she enjoys sharing the music of her generation with younger musicians, particularly at the Foellinger shows which charge no admission and are such a gift to the community.
“It’s funny because we have some younger players in the band – maybe 18, 19, 20 years old,” she said. “Sometimes the director will ask, ‘Are there any of you who haven’t heard the Beatles?’ And maybe once in awhile someone will raise their hand. But most of that music is like clothes. Eventually it all comes back around. It’s really kind of neat.”