Making music after COVID: Prairie Winds Concert Band seeks new and old members

Carolyn Lange, West Central Tribune, Willmar, Minn.
·7 min read

Apr. 14—WILLMAR — The day the music died for local musicians struck like a thunderbolt last year when COVID-19 restrictions made it impossible for groups like the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra and the Prairie Winds Concert Band to rehearse and perform.

For more than an entire year, local musicians and directors were not playing music together in the same room and audiences have not heard their community musicians play.

That's about to change.

As more people are getting vaccinated and safety protocols are put in place, local musicians and directors are reconnecting, rehearsing and planning to return to the stage.

It's a step forward for musicians who have missed playing their instruments with their colleagues, and for audiences who have missed listening to live music.

Music directors are hoping the musicians — and the audiences — show up.

Orchestrated end

It was 9:25 a.m. on March 13 of 2020 and members of the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra were on stage and ready to play a 10 a.m. concert for several hundred third grade students arriving on buses.

That's when word came from school officials that the concert was being canceled because of COVID-19.

The buses turned around and the musicians packed up their instruments and went home.

"It was awful," said Bob Whitney, an oboe player with the orchestra who was also board president at the time.

Not only was that concert called off, but all the planned rehearsals and concerts for the rest of the year were canceled.

The orchestra hadn't played together in person until members rehearsed last week at the Willmar Education and Arts Center.

Following guidelines for wearing masks and being six feet apart, members of the orchestra were back on the WEAC stage for their first rehearsal in more than a year.

Even though some in the orchestra may have left their instruments in the closet for 12 months, the group "sounded pretty good compared to what I was anticipating," said Frank Lawatsch, a violinist and current board president.

"It's always good to get together to play music," he said. "It's really a thrill."

See related:

* Young Artists' orchestra concert is Saturday in Willmar

* 'Fish Tales' orchestra concert is Sunday in Willmar

Because of spacing requirements, musicians do not have a partner sharing a music stand. Lawatsch joked that he's going to have to learn how to count better without having a partner to lean on. "It's different from what we're used to," he said.

Under the direction of Stephen Ramsey, who travels to Willmar from the Twin Cities, the orchestra will continue weekly rehearsals and will perform a free concert May 15 at WEAC, when the 2021 winners of the Young Artist award will play with the group.

To make up for lost time, the orchestra is considering playing a couple concerts this summer before resuming the fall rehearsal schedule in September.

Summer winds

Because of COVID, the Prairie Winds Concert Band's summer concert series did not happen at all in 2020 and the group of musicians hasn't practiced together since the fall of 2019.

"COVID has messed up so many things, including our whole season last year," said Dennis Benson, who directs the summer group of musicians who play outdoor concerts, typically in June. "I miss it a lot," he said. "I miss directing the group. I miss playing."

Plans are now in place for the summer band to play its first outdoor outdoor concert June 9 at Robbins Island Park.

Additional concerts will be held June 16, 23 and 30.

The band practices at 6 p.m. in the park on those dates, and the concerts begin at 7:30 p.m.

The band typically plays familiar music, like Broadway tunes, marches and patriotic songs.

Benson is rallying the troops and hopes that most of the former crew will return and that new members will also join.

"We've been resting for a year, so let's get back together and make some music together," he said.

Benson has been trying to reach out to musicians to see how many will be returning. Knowing that many members are already vaccinated could be a "game-changer," he said. Although the band this year may be smaller than in the past, Benson said he's "really optimistic it's going to work."

Because the concerts are outdoors, he's hopeful that audiences will be eager to come and listen.

Restart button

Picking up where music groups left off a year ago could be challenging.

"The real trick is regaining momentum," said Brock Duncan, director of the Prairie Winds Concert Band's fall-spring concert series, which typically plays challenging classical music.

"We need to find and re-find people," said Duncan, who is also music director in the Benson School District.

The last time that group of musicians practiced was March 2, 2020.

Duncan is in the process of getting in touch with past members to find out who will be returning. Even though their first concert isn't until November, Duncan needs to know the makeup of the members and the instruments they play now in order to plan the repertoire before practice begins in September.

"People find other ways to fill their time," said Duncan, who worries the lack of continuity and momentum could make it difficult to get people back into the routine of being in an organized music group.

"I've got to get on their calendars before they start filling that time," he said. "We want our people back."

Right now the band is "on hiatus" but he's encouraging members to keep practicing on their own so they're in shape for the concert season.

The core group of the Prairie Winds Concert Band is made up of people from communities including Willmar, Benson, Litchfield, Montevideo, New London and Spicer, who are dedicated musicians and love to play, said Duncan. A number of accomplished area high school musicians also play with the group.

"It's just a great way to make music with a community of people who like making music," said Duncan "It's a wonderful way to give back to the community."

Keeping music alive

Mary Pieh and her husband, Tim, of New London, have been playing in the Prairie Winds Concert Band and Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra for years.

"Tim and I are in because we're amateur musicians and music lovers," Mary Pieh said. "It's an uplifting, rich experience to play in a band."

She plays French horn and her husband plays trombone and timpani, which is a type of drum.

Opportunities to play in an orchestra and band help make the community an attractive place for professionals to live and work, Pieh said. It was a factor when they decided to move to the area in 1989, when Tim took a job here as an ophthalmologist.

Pieh has been involved with writing grants that — along with private donations and funding from local foundations — are needed for community arts organizations to operate.

Ticket sales don't come close to providing the needed revenue, she said.

Like many of the other members, Pieh said she's eager to start rehearsing with the other musicians and return to the stage to bring live music back to the community.

Music is the "best thing in my life," she said.

—For more information about the Prairie Winds Concert Band go to: www.prairiewindsconcertband.com.

—For more information about the Prairie Winds Concert Band summer series contact Dennis Benson at dennis@dennisbenson.com.

—For more information about the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra go to: www.willmarorchestra.com.

In a box:

For more information about the Prairie Winds Concert Band go to: www.prairiewindsconcertband.com.

For more information about the Prairie Winds Concert Band summer series contact Dennis Benson at dennis@dennisbenson.com.

For more information about the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra go to: www.willmarorchestra.com.