Aberdeen, South Dakota — Daily gigs and salaries of musicians are a thing of the past. However, the music and companionship that have sustained the Municipal Band of Aberdeen through its 100-year-long season are timeless.
As described by Jerome Letcher, the director, in his interview with the Aberdeen American News, the festival represents an entertaining way of listening to quality music in a park ambiance. He comments on the community, the Parks and Recreation Department, and the city council, thanking them for their contribution, and says that he hopes the tradition will never become outdated.
The band, assembled in 1919 by Howard C. Bronson, presented itself to the audience on June 1 of the same year at its first concert. The musicians from out of town arrived by 3 p.m. at Aldrich Park, located on North Main Street. A total of 25 musicians performed that day. Aside from being a lieutenant, Bronson had previously been a conductor of the first field artillery band for the U.S. Army. Bronson’s experience contributed to the band’s setlist in terms of the marches, one of them being of Masonic origins. The performance ended with “Star Spangled Banner,” a song that was 105 years old at the time, as reported by the Aberdeen Daily News.
One century and two never-to-be-forgotten bandshells into the future, approximately 42 volunteer performers wearing black and white take their instruments in preparation for Thursday evenings at Melgaard Park during the summer season. Although the group is comprised of volunteers, it is a tight and resilient one to try and break into as well.
Sue Gates says that she has the same conversation with her flute player colleagues every year when they simply look at one another, as if to ask whether they will come around the following year, simulating the conversation she knows will occur this year as well.
The band welcomes five flute players. Gates says that she, along with two others, has been a member forever.
She points to a woman standing on the other side and says that she is soon to be 50 years old, remembering the celebration for her 21st birthday.
According to Gates, long-standing members have witnessed important changes in the lives of one another, such as getting married, having children, and seeing them get married.
Even though the members of the band see each other in the context of organization only, Gates emphasizes the significance of the connection they have, stating that it is almost as the music they play. She says that the group has its core that has been there for ages.
Letcher states that the rate of turnover is rather low, citing saxophonists as an example and saying that the band features the same tenor it did when he joined it and has changed two altos and one baritone once or twice over the years.
Letcher strives to keep the group balanced in terms of selecting woodwind, brass, and percussion players. The practice suggests that a potential member ought to spend a season substituting for someone before being chosen as an official member. Letcher has been in charge of the band for approximately 25 years, deciding on music choices and managing special events, such as the concert on the Fourth of July, which took place at Wylie Park.
At the time when Gates joined the group, she was the only female member.
Speaking of her first steps, Gates says that the band director in her high school, Orville Evenson, who conducted the municipal band back then, asked a few other students if they wanted to be a part of the organization.
Even though she was a teenager attending Central High School, Gates was eligible, as Evenson was looking for quality musicians. According to Gates, she joined the group sometime in the summer of 1968 or 1969.
Ever since then, she has been periodically playing for five decades.
Gates describes her journey by saying that she was a regular while she was attending college and that she continued playing when she got married and relocated, but eventually realized that the commute was rather tiresome. However, she returned in 1988 and expressed her interest in becoming a member once again. In spite of being involved with the group for a long time, Gates says that she is not the longest-running member.
A trombonist Esther Thistle quit last year after being a member for 45 years. Subsequently, she was featured in an American News story in 2018. The fact that numerous musicians have been with the band for a long time gives it continuity, flexibility, and consistency, making the task of conducting the band less difficult, as stated by Letcher.
Aberdeen may be an inaccurate element of the band’s name since its members who do not reside in the city still contribute to its sound. Such players, who commute from places like Langford and Redfield, have a rather challenging task of traveling all that distance to each weekly rehearsal and performance session.
Julie Borr, a clarinetist residing in Pollock, comments on the issue by stating that it is a 120-mile commute from her place of residence to Aberdeen. And that’s in one way only.
Borr has been a regular member of the band since 1986. She missed only one year, during which she had frequent doctor visits in Bismarck, N.D., due to her pregnancy. During the years she has been with the band and the driving related to it, she has witnessed several terrible storms with rain that almost caused blackouts and blinding flashes of lightning. Borr states that she had once stumbled upon a deer, and another time, horses, something she had not experienced before. However, she has never hit anything — at least not during her commute in the context of the band.
Borr says, commenting on her commute, that she usually gets some shopping done when she arrives and then gathers with her college friends for dinner before the rehearsal. She claims that she has been getting home around midnight lately due to earlier concert times, saying that it keeps her performing. Borr says that she loves playing music, stating that it creates a connection between her and other musicians and teachers from the area. She concludes by saying that she is grateful for the friendships she has made as a member of the band and that she would not have agreed to a long commute if the experience wasn’t worth the trouble.