For local musicians, community band hits all the right notes

Monday, April 17, 2017 - 14:32
  • Star photo by Kirsten Swann The trumpet section at a Chugiak-Eagle River Community Band rehearsal at Mirror Lake Middle School. Anywhere from 40 to 60 musicians participate in the band, according to director Travis Harrington.
  • Star photo by Kirsten Swann The Chugiak-Eagle River Community Band rehearses at Mirror Lake Middle School March 2, 2017. Featuring musicians of all ages and abilities, the band has been playing for nearly 20 years.
  • Travis Harrington conducts a Chugiak-Eagle River Community Band rehearsal at Mirror Lake Middle School March 2, 2017. The band, which features musicians of all ages and abilities, has been playing for nearly 20 years. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • A member of the Chugiak-Eagle River Community Band rehearses at Mirror Lake Middle School March 2, 2017. The band, which features musicians of all ages and abilities, has been playing for nearly 20 years. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Mike Headle, whose grandchildren are members of the Chugiak-Eagle River Community Band, receives a text from family during a rehearsal at Mirror Lake Middle School March 2, 2017. The band includes musicians from across Chugiak-Eagle River and the Anchorage Bowl. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)

On Thursday evenings, hours after the last classes let out for the day, the band room at Mirror Lake Middle School again fills with music and voices.

This time, middle schoolers are just one part of the group. The other musicians are retirees and high-schoolers, college students, working adults and everyone in between. The Chugiak-Eagle River Community Band welcomes all comers.

“We have kind of a very diverse group,” said Travis Harrington, the band director and a music teacher at Mirror Lake. “Our membership accepts anybody who can play, has the desire to learn and will practice.”

For about 20 years, the scrappy local ensemble has united generations of Chugiak-Eagle River musicians. Parents and children play together in the community band. Mirror Lake and Chugiak High School students grow up, go to college, come back and join the band again.

It all started more than 30 years ago, when Harrington was a student at Chugiak High. There was a community band back then, he remembered. After he began teaching at the newly opened middle school in 1997, he decided to get the group back together.

Over the years, membership has ebbed and flowed. Co-conductor Philip Walters took up the baton about 10 years ago, Harrington said. Today, anywhere from 40-60 musicians make it out to the weekly rehearsals in the middle school band room.

One of the band’s several flutists, Shannon Tuttle graduated from Chugiak High School the same year as Harrington. While she learned to play in sixth grade, she took a 14-year hiatus after college, she said. Then, one day, she ran into an old high school classmate at Fred Meyer.

“He was telling me about the community band, and on a whim, I came out,” said Tuttle, warming up for rehearsal one evening in March. “I’ve been here ever since.”

When she first joined the band, she lived in Eagle River. Getting back into music was “a challenge,” she said. These days, she’s found her niche, and while she now lives in Anchorage, she still makes the drive out to Mirror Lake to play with the band on Thursday nights.

Tuttle said she enjoys the music, selected from movie scores and popular band arrangements. And she really enjoys the people.

“It’s just a great group,” she said.

For many adult members, the group is one of their only chances to play with a band, Harrington said. For many younger members, the band presents a rare opportunity to rehearse and perform alongside more advanced musicians.

“There’s a lot of mentorship that goes on,” Harrington said.

In years past, the band struggled to boost its adult membership, he said. While it was easy to recruit eager members from the local schools, it was harder to spread the word to the wider musical community. Today, Harrington said, about half of the musicians are adults. Some, like Steve Shore, bring their kids.

“It’s just an opportunity to play,” said Shore, unpacking his trumpet at a March rehearsal.

He joined the band about three years ago. He said he started bringing his daughter about six months later. Now Esther, a 13-year-old Mirror Lake student, sits a few seats away from her dad in the trumpet section. At first, Esther wasn’t sure about the group, she said. Her feelings soon changed.

“It’s a new experience,” she said. “Usually I just play with people my own age in school, and now there’s more people a lot better than I am.”

Harrington said the growing number of adult players led the band to select more difficult pieces, honing the skills of the younger musicians. There are no auditions. All the directors require is the desire to play and improve, Harrington said.

Over the years, the community band has drawn a loyal following, from longtime musicians to family members and fans who attend every concert and frequent rehearsals.

At a recent practice, Mike Headle of Peters Creek said she comes to hear her grandchildren play. As the music swelled in fits and starts, Headle sat in the corner of the Mirror Lake band room and took it all in. Of her six grandkids, four studied music with Harrington, she said, and three currently play in the band.

The rehearsals all feel vaguely familiar, because she once played bassoon in her own school ensemble. That was more than 50 years ago, she said, but her grandkids still try and recruit her to pick it back up and join them in the community band. She’d rather sit back and listen to them play.

The volunteer-run group, reliant on member dues for room rental fees, hosts just two concerts per year, so Headle gets her fix at weekly rehearsals.

“I just like music: You play music, you don’t get in trouble,” Headle said. “I think it’s an outlet.”

Contact reporter Kirsten Swann at kirsten.swann@alaskastar.com

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