Strike up the band
Frank Dunkl, the president of the Vineyard Haven Band, talks about heritage in a way that you don't often hear anymore. To him, something's history is no less tangible than its physical characteristics. The brass out of which a trumpet is made is of no more significance than the story of how that brass became so tarnished and worn. Mr. Dunkl and the Vineyard Haven Band are committed to preserving the history of Martha's Vineyard, while enriching its ever-changing community.
"We are trying to preserve the old-fashioned culture because there's so little of it around that if someone doesn't cling to it with their fingernails it will be lost for ever," says Mr. Dunkl.
The Vineyard Haven Band, now in its 141st season, has never sought to achieve musical excellence. Rather, its mission has been to entertain and educate the public. As young musicians move away, retired ones return, and visiting ones come and go, the band adapts, uniting players of various ages and backgrounds to make old-fashioned music.
Their weekly Sunday concerts, which alternate between Owen Park in Vineyard Haven and Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs, take summer crowds back to a time when America was a little bit younger and whole lot simpler. At least that's how their music makes you feel.
"The band really encompasses everybody," explains Julie Schilling, one of the four conductors leading the band this season. "The level isn't important. It's more about the camaraderie and the history of it continuing." Ms. Schilling, who leads the band at the Vineyard Haven School, has been a member of the Vineyard Haven Band for 25 years. Her husband, John Schilling, has been playing in the band since he was a teenager.
The Vineyard Haven Band was founded 1868 by Civil War veterans who called themselves the Silver Cornet Band. According to Mr. Dunkl, it caused some confusion when the band's name changed to include the town where it regularly performed. "Some people called it the Vineyard Haven Town Band. But it never was a town band. It was always an independent organization."
While this particular aspect remains true today, the official status of the band has undergone some changes. In the 1980s, for example, the band was incorporated into a 501(c)3 nonprofit.
Photo by Tim Johnson
While the band originated in Vineyard Haven, its association with Oak Bluffs goes back to the days before the town was named Oak Bluffs. According to Mr. Dunkl, Cottage City, as it was then called, built the Gazebo in Ocean Park for two concerts that the band performed when President Grant visited the Island.
"The town got all the school children decked out in their finery and had them march around the bandstand carrying flags and singing their patriotic songs," explains Mr. Dunkl. "That's where the tradition of the children running around the bandstand in Oak Bluffs developed. Even today, kids just love to run around while the band is playing."
Another season has already begun. Since mid-June the band has been rehearsing Monday nights from 7:30 to 9 pm at the Sailing Camp in Oak Bluffs. In addition to their Sunday performances at the parks, their schedule includes two performances on the Fourth of July in Edgartown and one at the Oak Bluffs Illumination Night, their final show of the season. This year's group of conductors, a mix of Islanders and summer residents, includes Julie Schilling, Louis White, Robert Maxwell, and Becky Luce.
Ms. Schilling admits that she'd rather be playing. "Because I'm a music teacher during the rest of the year I like to relax and enjoy being part of the group. But they need somebody who can do it."
Photo by Ralph Stewart
For a band that plays "Stars and Stripes Forever" and "The Star Spangled Banner" at every concert, two performances on the most patriotic day of the year does not demand a great deal of extra work. Unfortunately, everything isn't quite as easy to come by as appropriate music.
"The hardest thing about the Fourth of July concert is getting people to play because everyone's busy celebrating," Ms. Schilling explains. Every year a small group of musicians volunteer to play on a float in the Edgartown Parade. "It's 18-20 dedicated souls," says Mr. Dunkl, "and they pour their hearts out." Following the parade, the entire band will put on a concert at the Old Whaling Church on Main Street.
Although America has shifted dramatically to an age ruled by instant and unlimited access to digital music and video, Mr. Dunkl hopes that the band can keep the past alive - even if it's only a sliver. "At one time American bands were world-famous," says Mr. Dunkl. "Around the turn of the last century, New York City had something like 46 sanitation department bands, 50 police department bands, 80 fire department bands. It was part of the culture of the country. Every little town, every city, every organization, every municipal department had its own band. Sunday afternoon band concerts were such a deeply entrenched tradition that the whole society looked forward to Sunday afternoons just for that reason. Now, a lot of that's lost. But it's still there and it's still a part of American culture. And the Vineyard Haven Band is trying to preserve that."
Vineyard Haven Band concert Friday, July 4, 7:30 pm, at the Old Whaling Church, Edgartown. Every Sunday, 8-9 pm, in Owen Park in Vineyard Haven or Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs. 508-645-3458.