Why We Play

By Kate Whouley

As so many of us shelter in place, I feel an extra layer of nostalgia and gratitude for those complicated, sometimes transcendent moments experienced in community. For me now, this piece is its own kind of musical offering, a reminder of shared happiness, and a hopeful signpost for gathering times ahead.”—Kate Whouley

It’s just before three; the band is tuned, and the packed house is buzzing. My eye is trained on our director. Standing in the wings, John is not wearing his usual concert tux and tie. He’s dressed today as John Philip Sousa, the revered American band conductor and composer, best known for writing The Stars and Stripes Forever. Our John, a retired Army Band director whose middle initial is also P, bears an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Sousa. He could pass as a time traveler when he dons the signature style of the March King: shiny black wingtips, navy blue pants with a tuxedo stripe, matching jacket loaded up with gold and silver, peaked hat, white gloves.

Sousa was known to discard his gloves at the end of every concert, demanding a fresh pair for the next performance. Our John P. is more frugal. But in every other way, he inhabits the persona.  John’s style of conducting changes, as do some of the subtler ways that he communicates with his players. For us, playing a Sousa concert is almost like playing under a guest conductor. I know this because I have sat at John’s left elbow for close to two decades. I play flute—and on today’s program, a lot of piccolo—with the Cape Cod Concert Band.

My mother led me to this band. She saw a notice in the paper, phoned me up, and talked me into auditioning. When I called the number in the paper, Deb—whom I would come to know for her smooth, mellow lead trumpet—answered. She did her best to talk me out of auditioning. She wasn’t sure they needed any new flutes, and many in the section were professional players, now retired. Still, she gave me the details; I prepared a piece, played for John’s predecessor, and was accepted into the fold. Twenty-one years later, I am still here. It sounds like a long time—and it is—but some of our members have played for more than thirty years, and one among us today was with the original group when it was founded forty years ago.

The writer in me has an ongoing fascination with who we are and why we play; maybe that’s because the musician in me has never been sure why I’m here. We don’t charge admission for our concerts, and our members pay annual dues to help fund the Band.  So this is the opposite of a paying gig. But we all keep showing up for rehearsals and concerts. Why? I’ve asked other longtime band members, including Bob, our octogenarian lead clarinet, and an only semi-retired psychiatrist. “It’s a lot more fun than playing alone,” he told me several years ago. There is something about playing in an ensemble, something about the power of forty-five horns. Or, more accurately: forty-one wind-players and four percussionists.

I also asked Walter, who plays baritone horn, a lower brass instrument whose range might be compared to a cello. Another of the several medical professionals in the Band, Walter is a pediatric allergist, former Navy doc, and Bob’s best friend. He was sitting at my dining room table when I asked him why he played in the Band. He answered without hesitation. “For the joy of it,” he said. “Music, for me, is one-hundred percent pure joy.”

Our announcer—a Sousa aficionado named Ray, who is also on the local Planning Board, takes the stage. He welcomes the audience, entertains them with the first of many musical stories he will share today, and introduces us as “the Cape Cod Concert Band, performing this afternoon as the Sousa Band, under the direction of John Philip Sousa.” John pats down his epaulettes and pulls back his shoulders before he begins his walk to the podium. He acknowledges first the audience, then the band, with a quick nod. He steps ups, reaches for his baton, and in the prep for the downbeat, he becomes John Philip Sousa.

First up: the National Anthem. Ray doesn’t announce the selection, or ask the audience to rise. They just do; even first-time concertgoers recognize the tune before the third note is sounded.  And a surprising number of people will sing along to the music.

Flute to lips, I play the opening notes of The Star-Spangled Banner. I listen to the brass and hear the majesty and potential in the band. And my eyes tear up. It only takes three notes for me, too. As soon as the audience is on their feet, I am squinting away a tear, willing myself to pull it together in time to jump the octave: Whose broad stripes and bright stars. The flutes and trumpets lead the ensemble: high, emphatic.

The thing is, it’s not even a song I like. Who really does? How many times has someone suggested that America the Beautiful would have been a better choice? No, it isn’t the splendor of the melody that makes me emotional. And even when the band sings out those opening bars, I am pretty sure my tears are not related to the depth of the lower brass sound. Nope. It’s the standing. It feels like a confirmation that we are all connected, it’s a way to demonstrate an abiding respect for our shared homeland. But patriotism is complicated, even in the best of times, and any national anthem comes with a side order of nationalism. In seeking unity, we have the power—even with a song—to alienate, exclude, or willfully forget. 

A few years from now I will see “taking a knee” as a form of respect, too. A way to honor silenced voices, to remember the worst of America’s history, and a way to show an unflinching resolve to do better. A few years from now, I will worry about the fate of our democracy; I will wonder how we will find our way back, how we will reclaim and reassert our collective humanity. But right now: the rising audience; the leaky eyes that blur the notes on the page. On this May Sunday in 2014, it’s possible to believe in commonality, and in goodness, to imagine our nation is healing now, our differences recognized, yet melded, even alchemized, into a fresh and stronger indivisibility.

There’s another piece we have played on several Memorial Day concerts called, The Armed Forces Salute. (We won’t play it today, because it was written after 1932, the year of Sousa’s death.) It’s a medley of all the tunes associated with the various branches of the military. As a piece of music, well—the arrangement makes me crazy. The first time I read it, I felt sure I could live my entire life without playing it again. But play it, we do, every two or three years.

In concert, John introduces the piece with a request: “Veterans, active duty, and families of service personnel: please stand when you hear your song.” On the podium, John gets us through the transitions before he pivots to face the audience. He acknowledges the folks who are standing, while the rest of the audience applauds—not for the tune, but for the people who are on their feet.

Aware of my weakness for The Star-Spangled Banner, I should have been prepared for my teary response the first time we played The Armed Forces Salute in concert. The piece opens with Army, moves to Coast Guard. The flutes play a lot of colorful countermelodies, but I was grateful that day for the frequent rests—allowing me time to collect myself between passages. We moved through The Marine Corps Hymn and The Air Force Song, before the clarinets took over the opening of Anchors Away.

 My father attended college on a Navy ROTC scholarship. Days after graduation, he married my mother and they honeymooned en route to his first posting in Key West, Florida. My mother, a native New Englander, hated Key West. At the time, it was not a tourist Mecca, but a collection of dilapidated buildings with a large Navy presence. She had left behind a journalism scholarship that would have earned her a Master’s to become a Navy wife, spending long days at home—hot, and soon-to-be pregnant—in a tiny ranch house made of concrete block. My parents moved north as soon as they could, out of the Navy, and closer to my mother’s family. Less than ten years later, they would divorce. And about fourteen years after that, my father would die of cancer. My mother was not officially his widow, and it was at least three decades after her stint as a Navy wife when we played The Armed Forces Salute for the first time in concert. Resting, stealing a glance at the audience, I saw my mother moving from her favorite seat—on the left-side aisle, toward the rear of the hall—standing, as soon as she heard Anchors Away. Even years later and living with Alzheimer’s, my mother would recognize the tune. Rising for the Navy song, she was unsteady, holding onto the seat in front of her for support, but she would stand, her own pledge of allegiance.

As Ray tells another story about J.P. Sousa, I allow myself to miss my mother and her presence in her preferred seat. She passed away almost seven years ago. She was a concertgoer to the very end, loving the music, or perhaps—as her dementia progressed—the way the music made her feel. Sitting in the auditorium, absorbing the sound, she was released from the rigor of keeping up her end of a conversation, pretending she was fine. “What a wonderful concert!” my mother would say, if she were here today. “I think it was the best, ever.” She would let me know how my outfit looked on stage, before she returned to wonderful concert, the best ever. Repeating again, and again—forgetting what she’d already said, but not forgetting the good feeling of the music.  

I’ve only a moment to be wistful. We cram a lot of music into one Sousa extravaganza, and the concerts move at a good clip. We play the tunes as the Sousa Band would have performed them. We finish one piece of music, John turns to acknowledge the applause before he spins back around, baton already prepping the downbeat of the encore.  Sousa—or John as Sousa, waits for no horn. Because we have only a few moments between selection and encore, we keep two pieces at the ready. After each encore, Ray shares another bit of Sousa trivia, giving us time to put away the music we’ve just played, and arrange the next two pieces on our stands. 

The Sousa Band—a concert band like ours, not a marching band—was a national treasure, traveling around the country, playing a “pops” program—light classics, contemporary arrangements, with those famous Sousa marches as encores. The first classical entry on today’s program is the overture from Orpheus and the Underworld, a comic operetta by Jacques Offenbach. Our version is transcribed for concert band—winds, percussion; no strings. Depending on the piece, musical transcriptions can work beautifully, or…not so well. Twice, for example, we’ve played Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. It takes some chutzpah to attempt an all-wind version of a strings-only work. For wind players, Barber’s gorgeous piece becomes an exercise in breathing—or not breathing—to sustain those long lines. And there are the strange time signatures, the close harmonies, and the gentle dissonances better suited to the quavering strings. John and the Band can be commended for our bravery and persistence. Our performance? On that one, I’m not so sure.

Today, we are doing well with Orpheus, revving up for the big ending. Here we are, racing into the can-can; some in the audience are clapping to the strong beat, moving faster, faster—done!

Making the quick music-shuffle to the encore, I am sweating beyond belief and yearning for the intermission. Exchanging flute for piccolo, I observe John: heavy wool uniform, gloves, hat. Yet he is cool, content, and ready with the next downbeat. John loves being Sousa. 

During the intermission, I find myself comparing notes with Mike, who plays French horn with us. Just sixty, he’s a retired music educator, former Air Force Band Commander and published composer. Several months ago, I shared with Mike my small obsession about learning why Band members show up to practice and perform.

“Musicians play,” he said. “It’s what we do. We just keep playing. It’s the same for athletes. I see these little old ladies on the tennis court, so skinny and—God—eighty, if a day—and they are still playing.”

I resisted his answer; Mike’s livelihood had been based in music. But most of us in the Band aren’t playing to make a living. We don’t have to play.

“It doesn’t matter,” Mike said. “We’re all musicians. We play.”

I still wasn’t sure about comparing our lead clarinet to an eighty-something lady in a tennis skirt, but I liked the simplicity of Mike’s response: It’s what we do.

The second half flies by, and we reach that grand finale. This concert will end as every Sousa Band concert ended: with a rousing rendition of The Stars and Stripes Forever. All of the flutes are on piccolo.  We stand to play the famous solo strain as a section. On the repeat, the lower brass rises to join us, and Ray waves an American flag. The audience is clapping in rhythm. When the band plays the last note—that final punctuation mark we call a “stinger,” the crowd cheers.

John turns to face the audience. With the piccolos and the lower brass still standing up, only the middle voices have to rise at John’s motion. He takes his bow and opens his arms to present the Band before he exits the stage. Folks look to me to see if we should take our seats. The applause is thunderous—a standing ovation. To sit down now would be impolite.

I look back to Bob in the clarinet section, my touchstone in this band. We don’t need words to share our ritual post-concert assessment. I flash him a great-concert-smile; he gives me a nod.  It’s more fun than playing alone.

 Behind Bob, I can see Mike. He’s watching the wings for John, and sporting a satisfied grin. Musicians play. Playing is what we do.

John reappears, and we begin clapping—for John and for Sousa. He turns to the band, putting his hands together for us.

I adjust my position to catch a glimpse of Walter. Now I see him. His arm is wrapped around his horn; he’s looking straight ahead, and he’s smiling like he knows a secret. And that’s when I realize: at this precise moment, five hundred people—in the audience and on the stage—are happy, all at the same time and in the same place.

One hundred percent pure joy.

At least for today, this is why we play.