Community Bands Together
September 21, 1989
Alisa Priddle and Chris Graham
Staff Reporters - The Windsor Star
“The only way to get back to it is cold turkey, the way we’re doing it. So let’s keep playing,” conductor Ernie Gerenda said.
And with that, the Windsor Community Concert Band (today known as Music Express) launched into a medley of themes from popular James Bond movies and a new season was under way.
The arrival of fall brought the first rehearsal for the 65-member band which has played its myriad of melodies for audiences around the world, including royalty.
Gerenda, who also doubles as music director, founded the band in 1974 as the University of Windsor Faculty of Education Band.
Three years later, it was opened to the community at large and today boasts musicians aged 16 to 67 from every walk of life. There are teachers, students, engineers, blue- and white-collar workers and housewives seeking escape one night a week. They come from Windsor, Detroit and every corner of the county.
There are about 100 members total but only 65 are actively playing at any given time, Gerenda said. Each year, there is a turnover rate of almost 15 per cent while some have been with the group since its inception.
Half are professional musicians and all donate their time and talent to offer their concerts as a public service.
“It speaks highly of them to give of their time,” Gerenda said. “It truly reflects their community spirit.”
He describes the music as “experimental in some senses.” Their repertoire consists of traditional concert-band material such as marches and semi-classical works. But they also launch into jazz and Broadway hits.
The range of sound is possible because the band includes the usual wind instruments and percussion, as well as electronic keyboards, bass and lead guitar.
Gerenda said the band likes experimenting with music and many of the teachers in the group take the ideas back to their classrooms.
The band has made a local name for itself by offering three distinct concerts annually: the Christmas show in December with the traditional lighting of the tree in Dieppe Gardens; an ethnic concert in February in conjunction with Heritage Week; and the Festival of the Arts presentation in May.
Gerenda said he is toying with the idea of a tribute to the Chinese for this year’s ethnic show.
What makes the bank unique is that a group of the musicians carry a tune as the Festival Singers and they have a resident mast of ceremonies in Doran McTaggert.
“We’re a self-contained package,” Gerenda said. “We play, sing, and have our own MC who tells stories.”
“We put on a show as well as a concert. We try to capture the flavor of a Vegas show. The only thing we don’t have is dancers and a chorus line.”
After a summer off, the band goes through the first-practice ritual of playing the numbers they performed last year.
“We’re off to a pretty good start,” Gerenda announced during a break in the first rehearsal.
While many had laid down their instruments for three months, some had only a two-month hiatus. That’s because this summer, the band toured England and Scotland in July, playing seven different concerts.
The crowing event was their last concert at Windsor Castle’s Frogmore Gardens. The band played background music for a party of the Royal Agricultural Society, hosted by the Queen and Prince Philip.
“It was very exciting” band member Kathleen Patterson, “Every time you had even a few measures of rest, your head was darting over to see where she was.”
When the Queen did address the group, Patterson said the band section looked like a wall of flashcubes.
Gerenda said they had a four-hour session the day before on the security and protocol measures to be followed. They were to play set music before the Queen’s arrival, formal numbers during her one-hour visit and then “let her rip” after she left. “That’s when La Bamba came out and everyone danced. We played until they ran out of champagne,” he said.
The band raised half the trip’s cost of $104,000 during the previous 2 ½ years. The 52 members who went paid for the rest.
They received a $4,000 grant from the city and souvenirs to hand out to their audiences.
“We shook everyone’s hand and filled it with something from Windsor,” band member Jerry Brown said.
The band didn’t charge for any of its concerts, although some of the local sponsoring groups charged admission to raise money for local causes.
They played everything from La Bamba to Back to enthusiastic audiences and squeezed in as much sightseeing as possible. “We’re talking seeing two countries in two weeks. It was nonstop,” Brown said.
There were a few hitches though. “Frogmore House was in the process of being renovated, so we had plaster dust all over us,” Brown said.
Twice the equipment truck got lost. In the city of Chester, England, the driver forgot where she had parked and spent a few hours searching for it.
When the band changed their route to Conventry, England, they forgot to inform the bus driver. The closer it got to showtime, the more frantic the musicians became. The truck pulled up at the last minute and went onstage without a warmup.
Things were dicy in Edinburgh, Scotland, when the concert was almost cancelled because of a strike at the performance hall.
“We talked to one man and he didn’t know if he’d be there striking or if he’d be there watching the show,” Patterson said.
Gerenda said the band likes to travel, to share their music and tell audiences that this is what they do back home, this is Canadiana.
He said they are better received on the road than they are at home.
“It could be because people have seen us before or many think homegrown is not as good as from somewhere else.”
This season the band will be staying closer to home with plans for performances in Leamington, Chatham and London, Gerenda said.