Blog by Bryan Hay
Organized 165 years ago this year as the Independent American Brass Band of Reading, it was among the first regimental bands called up by Abraham Lincoln for service in the Civil War. On March 26, 1932, John Philip Sousa conducted the last march of his life in a rehearsal with the Ringgold Band for its 80th-anniversary concert. After dinner, Sousa retired to his room at the Abraham Lincoln Hotel in Reading and suffered a fatal heart attack. To this day, almost every Ringgold Band concert at a park, picnic grove and fair across Berks County ends with “The Stars and Stripes Forever” in living tribute to Sousa.
So it was with great excitement and anticipation that, with permission from the conductor, I packed up my trombone and headed to the band’s rehearsal hall in Laureldale one recent Monday night. I couldn’t wait to soak up the Rin
ggold Band’s history and talk to its members. Arriving early, I was warmly greeted by members of the tuba section. They encouraged me to examine the overwhelming collection of artifacts that cover just about every inch of wall space — manuscripts, photos of past conductors, including Eugene Weidner posing with Sousa himself, banners, antique instruments, vintage programs, and citations.
“This band attracts people who love making music and will do their darndest to produce high-quality programs at the highest professional level they can achieve,” says tubist John Bailey, a member of the band, on and off, for 30 years. A retired music teacher, he enjoys being part of the tuba section, which he calls the “heartbeat of the band,” and watching the ranks fill with his former students. He points them out to me with a pride only a veteran educator can display as they enter the hall and assemble their instruments. “Most of the folks have other jobs, and they come here because of their passion and love of music,” he says. “The sense of community just spills out, and it’s just very, very cool.”
Musicians quickly settled into rehearsal mode when conductor Jim Seidel took the podium and called for a Bach-harmonized chorale as a warm-up. Each section focused on balance and tuning in the chorale before Seidel turned to the current program, a challenging, engaging mix of show tunes, marches and concert overtures. I learned a long time ago that there’s nothing like playing in a band to hone your skills and stay in shape physically and musically. The range of selections was dizzying, from a “West Side Story” medley to “Bride of the Waves” by Herbert Clarke, a tour de force cornet solo played brilliantly by Nicole Gillotti, who’s pursuing a doctorate of music arts degree at the University of Illinois.
As I settled in with fellow trombonists Harry Trexler, in his second year with the band and a recent graduate of West Chester University and Natalie Fisher, a 31-year member and math teacher at Conrad Weiser High School, the level of commitment and skill among these musicians became instantly apparent. “There just aren’t many opportunities to play with a group like this,” Trexler says. “It’s a very strong group, and it’s a lot of fun.” Fisher, whose sister plays piccolo in the band, agrees. “The camaraderie is great, and we have such a diversity of ages and backgrounds,” she says.
Insisting on precision and musicality, Seidel stopped the band a few times on an arrangement of the “Overture to Masaniello” by Daniel François-Esprit Auber, a contemporary of Rossini. “If you play it too loudly and too heavily, it will get you nowhere,” he says. “Light and delicate, please.” Seidel, who’s been with the band for 50 years, describes the Ringgold Band as a community band “with a very professional attitude.” There are about 65 members on the rolls who enjoy a music library of about 9,000 titles ranging from out of print music on delicate 19th-century paper to arrangements of contemporary movie music.
Programs traditionally begin with a march by early conductor Monroe Althouse, who was known as Reading’s “March King” because of the marches he composed to commemorate special occasions or organizations throughout Berks County. “A lot of people have the impression that it’s old men who play marches,” Seidel says with a laugh. “We’re far from that. This band is capable of doing a wide range of stuff, and our summer programs change constantly, with something for every musical taste.”
There’s something inherently Americana about a summer band concert, and Pennsylvania’s America Region claims one of the best bands in the land. There are still opportunities to see the Ringgold Band play before the summer wraps up. They will be performing at Etchberger Memorial Park in Hamburg on August 19th and the Berks County Heritage Center on August 27th. The band will also be at the Oley Valley Community Fair in September.