The Year without a Song

Marching through History
February 22, 2021

The year 2020 started out pretty much like every other of the Band’s previous ninety-eight:  cold.  The only difference was that the group’s first rehearsal of the year had to be cancelled due to snow and ice.  Once that little glitch passed, Band members settled down the following Tuesday evening to their usual winter routine of rehearsing and learning new music they would perform the following spring and summer.  There was another difference this year though.  The previous fall the Association of Concert Bands had invited the Municipal Band to be one of the featured guest bands at its 2020 annual convention, which was going to be held in Virginia Beach in March.  A signal honor rarely afforded any community band, Municipal Band members eagerly looked forward to performing for members of the ACB from all across the country, as well as for their peers in the other invited bands from Virginia.

Little did the ACB or the Municipal Band or anyone else know what monumental events loomed ominously just a few weeks ahead!

The Municipal Band planned an ambitious program for its ACB performance, one that challenged every member in various ways, and everyone worked hard.  As the March concert date approached, things were falling into place.  But all during the previous weeks there had been ominous signs across the nation and around the world that something wasn’t right.  Reports of a new and potentially deadly disease called Coronavirus or COVID-19 began to appear in the news. 

Coronavirus headlines
Photo courtesy of WebMD.com

The first confirmed case in Virginia was reported on March 7th, barely two weeks before the start of the ACB convention.  Others soon followed.  At the Band’s weekly rehearsal on March 10th, amid increasing worries over the rapid spread of Coronavirus across the U.S. and Virginia, Music Director Steve Layman discussed with Band members possible issues related to the Band’s upcoming concert at the ACB annual convention.  Any members with serious reservations about making the trip to Virginia Beach were asked to let Steve know as soon as possible.  Within two days approximately one-third of the Band’s members had indicated that they were unwilling or unable to make the trip due to business or personal concerns resulting from potential exposure to the virus.  As a result, the Municipal Band reluctantly and regretfully canceled its appearance at the convention.  Several of the other featured convention bands soon followed suit and in short order the Association of Concert Bands itself was forced to cancel its convention altogether.  A unique opportunity had fallen victim to a soon-to-be worldwide pandemic.

In response to the rapid spread of COVID-19 across the state Virginia Governor Ralph Northam quickly issued executive orders that closed schools, shuttered non-essential businesses, and imposed bans on gatherings of more than ten persons.  Social distancing and the wearing of face masks became the norm across the state and the nation.  Experts also quickly determined that playing wind instruments and singing were, in fact, potential major avenues by which the virus could be spread.  Faced with these and other restrictions, the Municipal Band suspended all rehearsals and performances indefinitely beginning March 17th.

The Year without a Song had begun.

Door sign saying Closed due to coronavirus
Photo courtesy of WebMD.com

In its nearly 100-year history at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic the Municipal Band had already successfully weathered a number of severe and potentially devastating crises.  The first of these was the stock market collapse of 1929 and the subsequent years of the Great Depression.  During the preceding years of the 1920s the Band had played many events and made long trips to other cities and states.  Accolades flowed in from every quarter and, like many others, the Band rode the waves of prosperity and jollity of the Roaring Twenties with energy and optimism.  All that ended with the arrival of the Great Depression.  Long out of town trips largely evaporated and even in-state and local concerts shrank to just a few each year, as shortages and unemployment became widespread.  But despite the hard times the Band played on.

Next came World War II.  Rationing cut still further into the Band’s ability to travel and obtain supplies.  Many members of the Band were drafted or volunteered for military service.  There were times when barely a half-dozen men were able to assemble to play for some local event.  Nevertheless, there was never a time during the war years that the Municipal Band wasn’t there somehow to make music for Charlottesville’s citizens.

With the return of peace and the ensuing prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s the Band once again flourished and expanded.  Women were admitted as members for the first time and the Band’s concert schedule once again expanded.  Even the trauma of the Vietnam War and the social upheavals of the late 1960s and 1970s presented only minor problems for the Band.  As the decades wore on, it seemed like nothing could ever again cause the Band to falter, not even its defunding by the City in 2016.  From that major setback the Band went on to successfully raise over a million dollars to become entirely self-supporting for the first time in its history.

But then came the Coronavirus pandemic and the complete shutdown of all the Band’s activities.  While fortunately not forced entirely out of business by the pandemic, the Band would for the very first time in its storied history find itself unable to perform a single concert.  No matter how bad the Great Depression or World War II or any other time had ever been, the Band had always managed to rehearse and perform.  But not this time.  Despite hopes for a rapid recovery from the pandemic, there would be no quick fix for 2020.  Because of social distancing and restrictions on in-person gatherings, there could be no rehearsals, no concerts, no student scholarship competition, no festive holiday concert for the Band or people of Charlottesville and surrounding communities.  For the very first time ever the Municipal Band—and its audiences—would experience a year without any music.  None.  It would be the Year without a Song.

Robert Graham
Robert Graham

Or would it?  As the pandemic wore on, musicians around the world began to find ways to adapt to social distancing and the lack of in-person performance possibilities.  Taking note of this, Municipal Band member and trombonist Robert Graham (pictured) determined that he would not let the virus get the better of him and his fellow trombone colleagues.  On April 28th he and several other members of the Band’s Trombone Ensemble organized the Band’s first socially-distanced “pop-up” mini-concert outside the home of a local resident.  Spacing themselves appropriately far apart in the yard, the ‘bones played a short concert to the delight of the residents inside the house.  Other similar events by the trombone ensemble would soon follow throughout the spring and summer, including a local Juneteenth celebration, when the group utilized the unique acoustics of a local parking garage to serenade residents of the downtown area.

Socially Distanced Brass logoSeveral of the Band’s other ensembles quickly followed the trombones’ lead and soon the Brass Quintet, the Clarinet Ensemble, the French Horn Ensemble, the Rivanna Winds Dixieland Ensemble and the Charlottesville Albemarle Saxophone Ensemble (CASE) began rehearsing and holding short socially-distanced outdoor concerts at local residences, retirement communities and in neighborhood cul-de-sacs.  These events were welcomed by their audiences and kept the Municipal Band in public view despite the ongoing lockdown of local businesses.  During 2020, Band ensembles would perform at least thirty-six socially-distanced outdoor events for over 1,200 appreciative listeners.

Saxophone Ensemble performs outdoors socially distanced for residents of Martha Jefferson House.

Additionally, the Band would experiment with using audio, video and computer technology to create a “virtual band” in which individual members’ recordings could be electronically melded to create a virtual ensemble.  Also, in October several of the Band’s ensembles and soloists were videotaped live, performing both popular music and holiday favorites to create performances that would subsequently be aired via YouTube and other social media.

The Clarinet Ensemble during its October live video taping session.

Despite the optimism of the Band’s Board of Directors and the tireless efforts of Music Director Steve Layman to encourage members during the pandemic, the Band remained unable to resume full band rehearsals or concerts.  Although the full band was never able to rehearse or perform after March 10th, in the end 2020 proved not to be completely devoid of community band music after all.  Through the energy, ingenuity and persistence of many of its members, the Municipal Band proved that not even a world-wide pandemic and the resulting restrictions and lockdowns could completely silence one of the oldest continually performing community bands in America.  Just as it had through all its previous years, the Charlottesville Municipal Band successfully survived this latest challenge, too, and remained “The Soundtrack of the Community since 1922”!

Socially Distanced Brass Quintet performing at The Lodge at Old Trail
The Municipal Band of Charlottesville, Inc. © 2021
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