First time in island history a symphonic band fills the air with music

There and back: UMaine Symphonic Band makes history on Vinalhaven

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Monday, April 7, 2014 - 8:30am
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What better way to start a ride to Vinalhaven then with a selfie to document the trip. Selfie girls left to right are, Annie Morgan, Andrew Bernier and Jenny Fletcher. (Photos by Chris Wolf)

VINALHAVEN — History of sorts was made Friday, April 4, when the University of Maine at Orono Symphonic Band visited Vinalhaven. Christopher White, band director, said it was the first time the symphonic band had visited the island and possibly was the first time in the history of the university’s music department hat an ensemble had visited Vinalhaven.

The 45-member band and two faculty members were on a coastal Maine tour to showcase the department. The band performed two free concerts on the island, one for the school and an evening performance for everyone on the island. 

“1703 is the earliest piece we’re doing today,” said White.  “We’re also doing a piece that was written in 2013 by Maine composer Terry White, called ‘Sailing the Bay’, and that’s the newest composition we’re doing. Of course, there’s a lot of stuff in between.”

White directs the University of Maine Symphonic Band, Pride of Maine Black Bear Marching Band, and the Screamin’ Black Bear Pep Band.

Bands under his direction have performed throughout New England and across the nation in states such as Louisiana, California and Virginia. White also teaches percussion methods, marching techniques, conducting and undergraduate studio percussion. He is the director of Maine Summer Youth Music Camp.

Stephanie Decker, of Millinocket, and a freshman at UMaine plays French Horn. She was excited because it was her first time on a boat. She was hoping to see some wildlife on her ride.

“I’m having lots of fun,” she said. “I‘ve seen plenty of moose in Millinocket, so I’m hoping to see a shark or a porpoise, or a seal. I’ve seen a duck so far and that’s pretty much the extent of it. It’s my first time on a boat, my first time going to an island, except for Mount Desert Island, and I don’t know if that counts. I’m pretty psyched right now.”

Stephanie has been playing French Horn since third grade. She seemed like the perfect person to answer an age old question about the piece of equipment: Why do French Horn players stick their hand in the end of the instrument?

“It’s mostly for tuning reasons,” she said. “The bell is so large, your notes are going to come out, out of tune, so you’re constantly moving your hand around to make sure all the notes are in tune. I absolutely love the French Horn. It’s my baby. The hand in the bell is a matter of function and not just for looks.”

Chelsea Lord, of Belfast, said it was a nice trip back home.

“We’ve been to Bucksport, Blue Hill, Brewer, Camden, Vinalhaven today and we’re going to Bath tomorrow,” she said. “This has been a ton of fun. I’ve been looking forward to it all year.”

Chris Plaistted plays trumpet and is the group’s tour manager, as well as student conductor.

“Mr. White, our director and conductor, also teaches a conducting class that all the education majors take at the university,” he said. “Anytime you go on tour, anyone who is in that class is given the opportunity to conduct a march during the concert.”

Amanda Bloss, of Litchfield, plays the trombone. She said she was starting to get tired after a long morning of travel.

“Right before the concert your energy level goes right back up and you’re into the music,” she said. “Yeah, I’m a little tired after the boat ride, but for the concert I’ll be right back into it and then I can relax. And yes, I drink coffee.”

Michelle Wiley, music teacher and band director for the Vinalhaven School, was instrumental in getting the UMaine band to the island.

“What you have here is the island factor,” she said. “There are pre-school kids here and there are older kids as well which can sometimes make it fun, but sometimes difficult, as well. I have nine kids in my band and when a family leaves for vacation, it’s not like you lose one kid, you can lose three or four and that can wipe out a chorus concert, or a band concert. I have one clarinet player who’s out sick today. She’s the only clarinet player and if she can’t come back, there’s no one to replace her with.”

Wiley said the island is used to having classical and professionally trained musicians visit for concerts, but nothing this large. This was huge.

“We always scheduled concerts on the mainland and bused our kids to another place,” she said. “That was the original arrangement I was trying to get Chris the conductor to do because that’s really easier for us, but he said he wanted his students to experience what it was like to come to an island. Vinalhaven has a strong band tradition. If you look back in history you can find bands and military bands dating back to the 1800s. That’s met some difficulties in the last 25 to 30 years. We have a small school, so you’re going to have a small band. I’m hoping the kids are amazed to see this much sound come at them and it sparks something and they think wow, I could be part of something like that.”

A special part of the performance was when director Chris White invited fifth grade student Caleb Turner on stage to guest-conduct a march.

Caleb took his place, was given a baton and kept time as the band played. When it was finished he turned to the audience and took a bow just like he had been doing it all his life. He got to keep the baton as a remembrance of his experience.

White took the time during the performance to demonstrate each instrument section to the school audience and explain how they work.

Each section, flutes, woodwinds, saxophones, brass and percussion, gave a short medley of notes to show how they sounds. Kids had never seen a bassoon up close, or what a baritone saxophone looks like. After the explanations the band joined together and played their individual notes together to show how it sounds when it all comes together.

Symphonic bands evolved for military bands. No strings, but plenty of wind, brass and percussion.