A school band is where millions discover their love of making music. But for those who don’t pursue that passion as a career, it can be a struggle to rediscover that sense of rhythmic community.
Enter the Colonie Town Band, an intergenerational group of local musicians who all share a combined passion for community and traditional music. As the band approaches its 50th anniversary next year, the roughly 70 musical connoisseurs are spending their summers and holiday seasons playing throughout the Capital District.
“It’s a great way to come together and focus on something together, and hopefully make some people happy through our music,” said saxophonist Dana Yanulavich.
A storied history
The Colonie Town Band was formed in 1964 by founder and then-director Mal Pappin. Sponsored by the Parks & Recreation Department of the Town of Colonie, the band performs roughly 20 free concerts annually at mostly Colonie community venues, including the Beltrone Living Center, The Crossings at Colonie, Cohoes Music Hall, the William K. Sanford Library and the Pruyn House.
Each performance involves an average of 55 players and audiences can range anywhere from 100 to 1,600 people, depending on the venue. The band prides itself on its open membership; anyone in the Capital District can join, regardless of age or talent level. Players often want to improve musically, Co-Director Jane Oppenlander said, but if a musician joins in who feels they’re not up to speed, they’ll leave the group or try to take private lessons.
The band is comprised of standard instrumentation, including clarinet, oboe, flute, saxophone, trombone and trumpet. Oppenlander said they are always interested in taking new members and aren’t currently recruiting any specific instruments.
“Sometimes with certain instruments, it’s feast or famine,” she said. “We’re always looking to balance it.”
During the holiday season, some musicians will put down their instruments and sing along. Each year, the band also awards the Frank Mooney Memorial Scholarship to a Colonie High School student in honor of Mooney, the band’s former vocalist who was also an English teacher in the South Colonie Central School District. The scholarship is awarded to a student who demonstrates excellence in vocal performance as well as English.
Two seasons make for year-round work
While the town band only performs during the summer and the winter holiday season, they work hard year-round to perfect their sound. Starting in January, the group gathers at Colonie Town Hall for two-hour practices each Monday night, preparing songs for the summer program. The band fills almost every Monday night of the summer with a concert throughout the region, finishing off the season at Old Fashioned Sunday in September at the Pruyn House on Old Niskayuna Road in Latham. Oppenlander said getting such a large group together on a frequent basis can be difficult, so targeting Monday evenings has been the key to successful practices and performances.
Pieces are selected by Oppenlander, who is a clarinetist, Co-Director Jeff Seckinger, who is a percussionist, and Assistant Conductor Iris Tozzi, a French horn player. Programs typically include about 10 tunes ranging anywhere from traditional marches to classical pieces and Broadway medleys.
“When we do programs we like to have something for everybody,” Oppenlander said. “You want something that you know audiences will enjoy on a summer night.”
Oppenlander said they often pick songs that will challenge the musicians and help them grow musically, as well as tap into a new sound the audience may have not heard before. Meeting that goal each year can be challenging.
“I personally love to put programs together, to pick out music for both us and the audience. It’s a challenge, and I really admire conductors of musical organizations, professional or high school or community groups, of every year coming up with new programs that are interesting and fresh,” Oppenlander said.
At the end of the summer concerts, the directors invite children to come up and conduct the band, adding to that overall community feel.
With a short break after Old Fashioned Sunday, the band begins gearing up for their winter season to play for nursing homes and other organizations.
Being in the band
Band members range in age from junior high school students to retirees. The Colonie Town Band currently has 12 veterans and four emergency responders among its members. Occupations are a mix, from state workers to teachers to scientists to lawyers. Many of the members have played their part with the band for more than 25 years, Oppenlander said.
Priscilla Johnson, of Latham, joined the band in 1980 when she moved to the area from Connecticut. Once a French horn player and now a percussionist, Johnson said when she moved she was looking for a community band similar to the one she played with in Connecticut.
“It’s been a lot of fun learning and you keep up with your musical studies. You meet people with the same interests,” Johnson, a retired elementary school teacher, said. “You play great music. Keeps you practicing, too.”
Yanulavich, of Glenmont, played saxophone in high school but took a 25-year hiatus until she heard about the Colonie Town Band. She said she had been using her saxophone as a decorative piece, and decided to pick it up again with the band.
“I dusted off my horn … it was like getting back on a bicycle. You have to get back to speed, but your general ability is still there,” Yanulavich said. “I think it’s a great stress relief.”
Yanulavich said her daughter, who also plays the sax, joined in next to her for several years.
Many of the band members keep busy by also playing in several other local bands, including the Guilderland Town Band and Albany Senior Citizens Orchestra. Seckinger, of Albany, joined in about seven years ago. On top of co-directing and playing with the Colonie Town Band, he also performs with the Air Force National Guard band.
Gearing up to celebrate 50 years
As the band approaches its 50th birthday, a History Committee has been formed to collect and archive the band’s history and memorabilia. There will be an exhibit of those pieces at the Pruyn House during the band’s anniversary gala.
A special program will be pulled together consisting of memorable pieces from the band’s history, or one with a local connection. As a special addition, Oppenlander said they will let the audience request a piece they want to hear for the anniversary.
No matter what the year or season, the band members play for the same reason: to share their combined love of music and community.
“It’s really a cultural experience, but it’s one produced by the citizens. These are all volunteers who come together every week and are very dedicated to the enterprise of making music,” Oppenlander said. “Music is meant to be given away. (It’s) one thing to play for yourself … but it’s another thing to take you’re playing and let people hear it and enjoy it. You want people to enjoy what you’re enjoying.”
The Colonie Town Band will be performing at The Crossings of Colonie on Monday, July 22, at 7 p.m. For a full show listing, visit www.colonietownband.org.