[Posted Tuesday, May 17, 2022]
Kristin Rencher started the band on the advice of her doctor.
Tired of stuffy groups that suck the fun out of being in a band, Ida B. Wells band teacher Nick Caldwell thought it sounded like a good way to keep more students in the high school music program.
Together they have created a multi-generational community of musicians learning together and having a great time.
Rencher’s children were in the high school band program with Caldwell back when the school was still named Wilson. She had even played with Caldwell’s stage orchestra for school musical productions, but she wasn’t sure what to expect when, in 2015, she brought him the idea to start a community band. What she got was an enthusiastic “Yes!”
Open to ages 14 and up, no auditions necessary, the SW Portland Community Band aims to redefine the American concert band experience. Rencher and Caldwell want to keep it fun and low stress. The main goal is to help people keep music in their lives, which means something different for everyone.
For Rencher, keeping music in her life is helping her heal from a traumatic brain injury. A professional musician for much of her adult life, she gave it up at age 35 to the demands of family and work. Some time into her recovery from a serious head injury, her neurologist suggested that taking up clarinet again would be good for her brain. In addition to her personal reasons for getting the group going, she wanted to create a different type of band that wouldn’t be as competitive as other bands she had been in and would be open to a lot more people than the traditional band: less stress, less competitive, more fun.
Within Rencher’s proposal was a symbiosis with the potential to solve a perennial problem for Caldwell’s band program. The Wells schedule offers surprisingly few elective spots for the first two years, which means that student musicians often don’t have room in their schedule for band until later in high school. Caldwell saw that a community band could help bridge that gap by offering an opportunity for students to keep music in their lives, and in fact the band includes several student members each year. And even though being a high school band teacher is a high-energy, time-intensive endeavor, Caldwell says the fun and friendships make the community band the last thing he’d give up.
In 2017, ads in the SW Community Connection and the high school’s parent newsletter brought 18 people to the first rehearsal in the band room at what is now Wells High School. Three years later band membership was at 54, a number that has held steady but which has also made finding large enough performance venues a challenge.
Today the band includes music educators, former music majors, and former professional musicians as well as high school students and families. “We’re also the only band with our own brewmaster,” says Caldwell.
One of the first recruits to join was Rencher’s 10th-Avenue neighbor Curtis Roth. Roth hadn’t been in a band for over 40 years, since his high school days playing French horn, but he was getting ready to retire. “Music is supposed to be one way to keep the brain cells hopping,” he says, so he thought it would be a good way to keep mentally fit after retirement. His French horn was long gone (and not missed, he notes), but he did have a saxophone he had bought hoping to get his son interested in band. His son never did get interested, but Roth picked it up and taught himself to play once he joined the band. He’s in it for fun and community, and doesn’t take the band, or himself, too seriously, relying on a strategy to “only play the notes that aren’t going to terrify the people around me and skip the ones that are too hard for me.” Nevertheless, a few years back he won the award for most improved player, a feat, he points out, that’s not too hard when you’re the worst player.
Roth, at 67, is one of the oldest band members. Elle Sandifer is 24, a Wilson alum who was back in town this spring between college and starting her career as a mechanical engineer. Together, they attacked the saxophone parts of the repertoire with enthusiasm and a sense of camaraderie, if not always accuracy, they both say. Sandifer has since moved away for a job, prompting Roth to observe, “I will miss having her in the band. I don’t hang out with people that young very often. That’s part of it, band is a social thing for me.”
As for Curtis, Sandifer says, “It was very fun to play next to him, we’re very supportive of each other. It’s an open space to not be perfect, just have fun.” She adds, “It was so fun to be back in band with Nick Caldwell. He’s a great teacher and inarguably cool. I’ve known him almost my whole musical life, since I started playing clarinet in 4th grade," (she switched to saxophone in 7th grade). Before taking up the post at Wells in 2012, Caldwell taught for short periods over a few years at Rieke, Robert Gray, Capitol Hill and Jackson.
Kathy Sandifer, Elle’s mother, joined the band about a year after it started, borrowing a clarinet and re-learning how to play it after a break of about 40 years. She appreciates the community aspect, but playing with her daughter over the past few months took the experience to the next level. “She makes me practice and keep going when I want to stop,” Kathy says, in a reversal of the stereotypical parent/child roles that come into play around music lessons.
“It was definitely very special to be in the band with my mom. It’s a weird thing we can share — when I was growing up she didn’t play an instrument,” says Elle.
The band has had several parent/child pairs, or even family trios. The band's "official brewmaster," Cameron Murphy, is the son of clarinet player Cathy Murphy, a 70s-era Wilson grad, and brother of flute player Katy Murphy Germundson — another family affair. As Kathy Sandifer puts it, “I guess old band geeks have band geeky kids!”
Kristi Baack grew up in Hillsdale and graduated from Wilson in 1987, playing every year in the same band room that she’s now back to after more than three decades. “I spent a lot of my high school days in that band room,” she says. “The first few times I was back were very surreal.” Baack notes that Caldwell shares some traits with her high school band teacher, Greg McKelvey: "He expects the best but doesn’t put too much pressure on his musicians to be perfect. Both of them could take some kidding and give some kidding and teasing and joking around," she says, which makes it more fun.
Sara and Kevin Love and their son Joshua all played together in the band, on trumpet, percussion, and bass clarinet, respectively. Joshua has headed off to college since graduating from Wells in 2020, but Sara and Kevin are still band stalwarts. They met in a competitive drum and bugle corps in college and were in multiple community bands before moving to Portland. Both have also played at just about every Timbers game since 2013. Sara says, “Band has always been a family affair for me. When my grandfather would visit we would often play trumpet duets, so it is a natural progression to continue that tradition. Being able to participate with Kevin and our son has been a true joy.”
Not all band members have a direct connection to the high school. Members have included a trumpet player with no previous connection who joined when he lived in Hillsdale, commuting in from Keizer after moving, as well as former members of the OSU marching band and someone who played with a military band.
Besides contributing to personal growth and creating community, the band aims to give back. Proceeds from concerts over the first few years were used in 2020 to purchase acoustical panels for the Wells stage, a relatively minor upgrade to the 1950s-era auditorium, but an important one that will improve the experience and sound for student performing groups. (The state of music education funding in Portland Public Schools is such that the panels were purchased as surplus from a school in Texas). Additionally, all music purchased by the Community Band is donated to the school.
Future fundraising projects will be determined once the group gets back up to speed following the pandemic. After a two-year hiatus, the band has returned almost to full strength and preparing for their first post-pandemic concert at 6:30 p.m. on June 3 at the Multnomah Arts Center. The program includes beer from Hammer and Stitch.
The June 3rd concert will be dedicated to Janice Vranka, a trombone player who died unexpectedly of an aggressive form of breast cancer in 2021 while the band was on pandemic hiatus.
Has the band fulfilled Rencher’s expectations? “This is where I get emotional,” she says. “My concentration is better. But even if I didn’t have a TBI, music is back in my life and that’s huge. It’s very Hillsdale. It fits this neighborhood, it fits the sense of community we have here.”
To learn more about the Southwest Portland Community Band and how to join, go to the website www.swportland.band.
Are there any other Hillsdale-based music groups out there? Let us know.