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One accord – building a band the community way

Story and photos by Marge Swayne

Band practice in Longwood University’s Wygal Hall has a different look on Monday nights.

The musicians tuning up in the music building’s lower level represent all ages from middle school to 80-plus — these aren’t your average college students. That’s exactly the dynamic Scott and Sarah McElfresh had in mind when they formed the Heart of Virginia Community Band (HOVCB) in 2014.

The goal, McElfresh noted at the time, was to create a band of community musicians that would include all ages and skill levels.

“A lot of people played in band in school but after graduation put their instruments in a closet,” McElfresh commented.

The concept of the community band McElfresh envisioned was in line with another Longwood program initiated a year later in 2015. The Longwood Center for Community Music (LCCM) encourages community participation in music with lessons and other activities.

In the past year the HOVCB affiliated with the Longwood community music program. It was a natural progression. LCCM provides lessons and instruction; HOVCB puts community musicians on stage.

Craig Guthrie was among the musicians who answered the call when the band was formed. He’s glad he did.

Unpacking his cornet for the weekly band rehearsal, Guthrie commented, “Being part of the community band is one of the best parts of my life. Mondays are the best day of the week for me.”

Playing the cornet (as well as valve trombone) is a bit different from Guthrie’s day job as chief ranger for High Bridge Trail State Park.

“Modern life can be very isolating,” Guthrie observed. “I think everyone needs a life outside of work. Being part of this band does that for me.”

LCCM Director Kristen Topham agrees.

Topham, who holds a degree in piano performance and pedagogy from Westminster Choir College, sees music as a collective experience.

“Playing piano is very solitary,” she said. “That’s why I start my piano students in a class setting — if you’re with others who are playing, it makes a huge difference.”

“Community music is something I’ve always wanted to do. Lisa Kinzer set the program up, and I initiated it.”

LCCM continues to add to its offerings every year.

“We’re just getting started,” Topham says. “This semester we initiated a children’s choir funded by the painted piano project we did in Farmville last year. We’re also now offering lessons for clarinet, flute and trumpet, and we’re planning to start an adult piano class soon.”

The center for community music, as the name implies, does indeed have something for everyone.

“We offer music from birth to however old you want to be,” Topham said. “Our number-one goal is to make musical opportunities available to everyone. At LCCM you can take private instrument or voice lessons — and now you can join the community band.”

Being a part of this band, judging from the camaraderie among band members on Monday nights, is also a lot of fun. These band members share more than a love of music — they really like being together.

Laura French, who plays flute and serves on the HOVCB board, concurred.

“I’ve made a lot of friends here,” she said. “I play my flute at home, but it’s a lot more fun with other people.”

French nodded and smiled as more band members arrived. Soon warm-ups commenced, filling the halls with the sound of music.

Promptly at 7:30 p.m., David Ganzert stepped on the podium and raised his baton. The cacophony of sound morphed into scales, long tones and staccato notes.

This is Ganzert’s first year as director. Previously he played in the trumpet section and applied for the director’s job last summer when the McElfresh family moved out of the area.

“When I came here five years ago, I was looking for some place to play,” he said. “I’ve always liked the community band experience. I played in Richmond and in Tulsa where I lived previously.”

Ganzert has band experience in more than one venue. He also teaches at Prince Edward Middle School where he directs the middle school band.

After the warm ups were done, Ganzert announced the first piece on tonight’s practice schedule — “A Hard Day’s Night.” The band is preparing for a spring concert to be held in Wygal’s Molnar Recital Hall.

“Our affiliation with LCCM allows us to use Longwood’s practice room and recital hall,” Ganzert noted. “We’re very grateful for the support of the Longwood Music Department.”

“This year the board added Longwood professor Charlie Kinzer as a Longwood liaison,” French added.

Rounding out the HOVCB board are David Callihan, president; Martha Dorrill, secretary; Laura French and Craig Guthrie.

“During the year we get invitations to perform at various community functions,” Ganzert added. “We’re also practicing patriotic songs for the VFW’s Salute to Vietnam Veterans to be held in the Fireman’s Sports Arena.”

Previously HOVCB performed at the Heart of Virginia Festival, as they will again this year, and for celebrations and race events at High Bridge and Twin Lakes state parks. The band also took part in the Civil War sesquicentennial celebration in Farmville in 2015.

“There are a lot of cultural activities in the Farmville community but not that many the community can participate in,” French said. “I think it’s important to have those opportunities — it makes the life in our town richer.”

In 2017 Herald columnist Karen Bellenir described a concert she attended:

“Making Music with Friends: On a sunny Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago, I attended a performance by the Heart of Virginia Community Band. The concert opened with ‘America the Beautiful,’ which put me in mind of our magnificent country, its glorious vistas and the poet’s dream of brotherhood. The performance continued with pieces that were toe-tappingly familiar and some that were unfamiliar. After each, as the conductor lowered his baton, I played my part and joined the clapping of my hands to the audience’s appreciative applause… Community bands are wonderful creations because their members come from diverse walks of life. The Heart of Virginia Community Band includes members from seven counties. There are music teachers among them, but also computer scientists, lawyers, servicemen, athletic trainers, respiratory specialists, accountants, moms, elementary teachers, park rangers, office workers, middle and high school students, librarians, college professors, construction workers and retirees . . . They share a common goal: To have fun making music together.”

To prepare for concerts and other community events, the band practices every Monday night from mid-August through May. Local musicians are encouraged to join the band, and no auditions are required.

As the night’s practice wrapped up and musicians packed up their instruments, members of the band continued to smile.

The Heart of Virginia Community Band is a name that fits this group of musicians — all have a heart for music.