Strike up the band, one and all

All performers are welcome to play in the ensemble.
All performers are welcome to play in the ensemble. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 26, 2013

It's a scene any band rat knows and loves.

An anteroom is jumbled with cases, straps, instruments assembled and strewn. Ah, that familiar oxidized-metal scent of the much-blown horn.

And you duck through a door into a huge space, crowded with 80 people making a band. Brass players joke and compare parts. Percussionists run from snare/hi-hat to bowls to kettledrums. That girl who plays sax and always wears a knit cap, that same girl who's in every single band, concert and marching, in the United States . . . she's here, too.

Welcome to band practice for the Temple University Night Owl Band, the university's very own community band, in the great tradition of town, block, and neighborhood bands here and abroad. And a crucial last practice it is. For Monday, April 29, 7:30 p.m., is the semester-ending concert at the Temple Performing Arts Center (the old Baptist Church). It's free.

Euphonium player Stuard Young, a retired music teacher from Radnor, puts it well: "People are really up for it. It's one shot. This is it."

Young is 66 years young, one of the many community members sitting next to Temple students, music and nonmusic alike, and at least one high-school guy: Anthony Murgidi, a senior at Ridley High School, and just accepted to Temple for the fall semester, seriously slams the snare.

The Temple music grads have to know how to play the entire array of band instruments, for when they become band teachers. Many of them thus are playing their second or third instrument. Crazy. Crazily wonderful.

In January 2012, the Night Owls were hatched by Deborah A. Sheldon, professor of music education at Temple. The rule: "Y'all come. No one turned away." The band practices on Monday nights, then presents a big end-of-semester concert.

Alto sax man Alan Kaplan, 61, runs a clock shop in Broomall. "You wouldn't believe how much the band improves during the semester, and how great the concerts sound." Clarinetist Peg Dissinger, 72, of Newtown, a 1966 Temple grad, says, "That coming-together of the music - that's what I really enjoy."

No auditions, no competitions or challenges for seats: The musicians and sections figure out who plays what, all by themselves. Priscilla Fortune-Bell, 42, a physical therapist/mom/flutist from Media, says, "When I came to the first practice, I thought, 'Oh, my God, what have I got myself into?' But Dr. Deb told us, 'If you can't play something, skip it and play what you can play.' That made me feel a lot better."

Sheldon looked around Temple and saw a need: "We have such a big student body, and I thought there must be lots of people, not just music students, who wanted to keep playing."

Plus, it gives grad students "podium time" as conductors. Monday's concert will feature no fewer than seven conductors. Jeff Molush, who successfully defended his master's thesis this very day, takes the Owls through a rousing "Strike Up the Band," by the Gershwins.

Professor Emily Threinen guides them through the impressionistic "Old Churches," by Michael Colgrass: "At 52, flutes, I'll be looking at you . . . clarinets, I'll give you a cue, it doesn't have to be rigid."

There's another thing: The great tradition of local community bands. Sheldon wanted to reach out to anyone out there (y'all come) who wants to play, whose contrabassoon or piccolo trumpet is mouldering in the closet.

"Wherever you have these bands," she says, "it's a kind of communal glue, part of the local identity."

On a sabbatical to Italy, Sheldon worked with ANBIMA, the National Association of Independent Italian Musical Bands. Throughout Europe, the town band is an ancient tradition.

"Many of these bands have been going since the 1800s," Sheldon says, "and they've kept playing, through world wars and upheavals."

Nils van Ammers, 52, is a flight instructor from Lansdowne. As a tuba player, he was also a longtime member of the Allentown Band, which bills itself as the oldest civilian concert band in the land, holding strong since 1828 (and probably before). "It's a great American tradition, and it's nice to see it being continued at Temple," he says. "I get to get my tuba nerd on."

The students are diverse: music majors, of course, but also business, biomechanical engineering, information science, French, a Ph.D. candidate in biology.

And the community people - what a bunch. Each Monday (when the Night Owls fly), trombonist Richard Townsend, 52, of Harrisburg, leaves work as a labor analyst and financial budgeter for Giant Food Stores, "and at about 4 or 5, I make the drive from Carlisle into town. Practice is from 8 to 10, and I get back home around 1."

Walter Johnson, 77, is the senior musician, one of two men among the flutists. He graduated from Temple in 1957 and played in an Army band in Fort Monroe, Va. "But since I got out, except for playing with the Temple Alumni Band at homecoming, I didn't really practice," he says. Now, "it's great, I'm practicing again, and it's really friendly."

Vanessa Doyle, 33, a housewife from Sharon Hill, plays the all-important bass clarinet.

"You can't even believe how awesome it is to be playing again," she says. "All my kids now want to take lessons. My 3-year-old, we had to get her a recorder so she could be like Mommy."

Haley Franzwa, who just defended her master's thesis, passionately conducts "By Love Compelled . . . at the Hour of Shadows," by Stephen Melillo, then sits down with her trumpet. Ph.D. candidate Stephen Selfridge takes the Night Owls through the wild "Paper Cut," by Alex Shapiro, in which players crumple, rattle, and tear sheets of paper.

Sheldon surveys the scene and says, "I do music every day as my livelihood, but sometimes you forget all the different ways it makes a difference in people's lives."

Dissinger echoes her: "Music is important beyond itself. The community spirit, the group playing - the chance to do that is really great."

Temple University Night Owl Band performs at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Temple Performing Arts Center, 1837 N. Broad St. Free.

Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or, or on Twitter, @jtimpane.

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