-- Another summer evening, another village green, another sustaining gig
for the Bath Municipal Band. Its members step onto the portable stage and
use clasps and clothespins to keep their sheets of musical exuberance from
taking flight. They live for this.
Here is Jerry Hix, 79, clarinet, taking the honored first chair
that he assumed years ago, after the death of a band mate who set the
standard for nice guys. Here is Bill Bodwell, 82, bass drum, helped up the
steps by his wife and now flashing a half-smile that says bring it on.
And here is Norma Spinney, 67, bass and percussion. Having just
pulled up on her cherry-red customized trike, small American flag flapping
and cane in tow, she yearns to make some noise, the kind that scares bad
thoughts right out of your head.
The spent July sun rests for a while over the Dunkin’ Donuts
across the street, as dozens of people stake claims in this Brunswick park
with blankets and lawn chairs. They come almost out of duty, as if the
open-air patronage of a community band will prevent spring from sliding
directly into fall — as if there is no summer without Sousa.
The band’s director, Kathy Downing, 57, a slight music teacher
who also raises goats, suddenly grows in stature, and not only because she
has just stepped onto a small rise at the front of the stage. She holds
the baton; the wand.
Awaiting her instruction are students and professors, engineers
and accountants, a doctor, a nurse, a car dealer, a carpenter, residents
of various southern Maine towns, volunteers all. In another setting they
might bicker about the state of the country; a few of them already have.
But now, as audience members stand with right hands over their chests,
these musicians join to summon the national anthem from brass and reed and
Next, some Sousa: “The Liberty Bell” march, written in 1893 when
the composer must have been in especially high spirits. Although the march
now tends to conjure the antics of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” the
band wrests it from those dog-mad Englishmen and returns it to its proper
place: a New England village green, where 35 musicians serenade the
Bands like these go way back, their music sheets and even their
musicians passed on from one to another. This particular band, formed in
1961 and based in the small shipbuilding city of Bath, about 10 miles east
of here, traces its roots to the early 20th century, to long-gone
ensembles, and continues the tradition of playing at ship launchings and
Christmas concerts, clam festivals and the changes of commands at military
posts — occasionally on this cumbersome, 40-year-old, portable stage.
“You can go 37, 38 miles an hour with this trailer,” Mr. Hix
says before the concert. “But don’t try 39.”
The Bath Municipal Band also maintains the time-honored
tradition of flux within the ranks. Gifted musicians move into town to
steal the limelight from lesser players, who leave in a huff. Old-timers
who are comfortable with playing the music of, say, R. B. Hall, the pride
of Maine, chafe at an Andrew Lloyd Webber medley. A woman takes over as
director, unheard of a generation ago, and let’s just say some are more
comfortable with her than others. People grow old or fall ill; the steps
to the stage get steeper.
But the band continues, its music a life force. A trombone
player lost part of a lung to cancer; he played for another year and a
half. A trumpet player developed respiratory problems; an oxygen tank
joined the band, giving him the breath to blow. A clarinetist slipped
slowly into dementia; unable to play, unable to remember the names of
loved ones; still, she often sat in the audience, singing the words to
They’re gone now, but their band continues.
Ms. Downing announces the next selection, an “Armed Forces
Salute,” and invites veterans in the audience to stand when they hear
their song. At the sound of “The Caissons Go Rolling Along,” three
white-haired Army vets shyly rise from their lawn chairs and look around,
as if searching for lost comrades. The crowd applauds, as it does for
veterans of other military branches who slowly stand — including a few in
the band, among them a Women’s Army Corps alumna.
The tangerine sun descends. Cars and motorcycles rumble up, down
and out of rhythm along Maine Street. Two small children whirl about in
free-form dance. A black Labrador baptizes a lamppost. This corner of
Brunswick has a fever, and the only prescription is — more Sousa.
“The Free Lance” march of Sousa parades into a George M. Cohan
medley, the “Beer Barrel Polka” and a collection of home front songs from
World War II. Mr. Hix, the reed-thin musician in first chair, plays his
clarinet and taps his foot, as unspoken lyrics come to mind, of thanks for
the memories, and don’t sit under the apple tree, and kiss me once, then
kiss me twice, then kiss me once again.
He played some of these same orchestrations back in his hometown
of Findlay, Ohio, during his high school years in the early 1940s —
decades before the heart attack, the prostate cancer and other
intimations. For 50 years he didn’t play the clarinet, and then one day he
started again, summoning memories, like the time he and a girl named
Saralu — a great, great saxophonist — went on a double date to a Harry
James concert, and the ’39 Hudson he borrowed from her father broke down,
The other boy’s date? A girl named Patricia, married to Mr. Hix
now for 58 years.
The sun surrenders in its daily battle, vanishing behind the Dunkin’
Donuts, now aglow. The concert reaches its finale. Sousa, of course.
The band begins “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Mr. Bodwell,
who needed help getting onto the stage, is standing now, pounding away on
his big bass drum. But the eye is drawn to the woman playing the cymbals
beside him, her body rocking back and forth, her gray-blond ponytail
swaying like a metronome’s pendulum. It’s Norma Spinney.
Here are some of the things Ms. Spinney is not thinking about at
this moment: The lupus that for years forced her to use a wheelchair; the
death in 2002 of her husband, David, which prompted her to find
distraction in drum lessons and that cherry-red trike parked a few yards
away; her breast cancer.
In 2006, when doctors told her she would need a double
mastectomy, Ms. Spinney demanded that the operation be on Sept. 1, because
that was the first day of the band’s month long break, and she wanted to
be back for rehearsals in October. She was.
But she’s not thinking now about the cancer, or the surgery, or
her return. And she’s not thinking about the joys of percussion, or the
way that a mere combination of sounds can make you want to stand up and
march. No. Playing the cymbal, she’s just keeping time.