Brothers Frank and Peter Dunkl drive a very large truck with a red trailer filled with band equipment up to the Sailing Camp Park every Monday night. The trailer is embellished with the words “The Vineyard Haven Band,” and it’s filled with equipment for the band’s weekly 7:30 pm practice. According to historian Tom Dresser in a story he wrote several years ago, the Vineyard Haven Band is “the oldest continuous, nonprofit cultural program on Martha’s Vineyard.”
Frank Dunkl said there’s another rarity found in the band’s beginnings: “In 1868 the band was founded by Union and Confederate soldiers who returned from the Civil War,” Mr. Dunkl said. “Back then it was the Vineyard Haven Silver Cornet Band.”
Mr. Dresser’s article notes that the band started when “Eighteen Civil War veterans (both blue and gray) organized the Vineyard Haven Silver Cornet Brass Band to play at the West Tisbury Agricultural Association Fair.”
Today the band is made up of about 15 core members, according to longtime member Martha Child, and the total swells to approximately 35 in the summer. Players move in and out of the practices and performances during the season. Practice begins in June and continues through August.
“I’ve been in the band since 1968,” Ms. Child said. “My dad played trumpet in the band for 60 years. In the late ’60s they allowed women in; before that it was an all-male band.” She said her family always bought station wagons so they could lug around all the music stands in the back.
Frank Dunkl said it was unfortunate that it took so long before the band accepted female members. “It was a long time before they let ladies in, which was a shame because women have sharper minds,” he said at last Monday’s practice. He’s been playing the French horn for 65 years, with the Vineyard Haven Band since the 1980s, and also with the Vineyard Classic Brass Band.
The Vineyard Haven Band plays every Sunday in the summer, alternating venues between Owen Park in Vineyard Haven and Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs. They play for major summer events as well, culminating in Grand Illumination Night every August at the Tabernacle. In the off-season, some members play for the high school musicals.
Tisbury Fire Chief John Schilling has the honor of being the longest-playing member — 50 years. He’s been playing trumpet with the band since the summer he turned 12. “I was in the band at the Tisbury School in junior high, and my friend’s dad played in the band, so we started going. It was a good way to keep playing over the summer.”
John even managed to get his wife Julie involved in the band — she’s the current director. “She used to come visit me in the summer, and from day one she knew Sunday night was band night,” John said.
At last Monday’s practice, Julie Schilling led the band through warmups with “Annabelle Lee,” and then moved them through a couple of rousing songs from the musicals “Chicago” and “Mary Poppins,” and even managed to rib her husband a little bit over his trumpet playing for a song called “Curtain Call.”
“If John gets this right, we can go home,” she told the band. Julie’s a retired music teacher from the Tisbury School, where she taught for 37 years.
“She’d rather be a player,” John said. “She plays clarinet and sax.”
The band is made up of a cross-section of Islanders, summer residents, and visitors, and it gives people a way to stay connected with music. Jim Athearn from Morning Glory Farm and Shauna Nute, a guidance counselor at the high school, both play in the band. Kirk Briggs, a carpenter, plays trumpet, and Mark Luce has been playing tuba with the band nearly as long as John Schilling has played trumpet.
For Frank Dunkl, music comes as second nature. His great-grandfather was a concertmaster with the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. “If you have music in your heart, you can’t stop,” he said.
This is 12-year-old Matteo Darack’s first summer playing in the Vineyard Haven Band, and he said he loves it. “It really challenges me, and I really like the challenge,” he said.
There were two teenage percussionists playing last Monday: recent high school graduate Brahmin Thurber-Carbone and Emily Hughes, who is playing for the first time with the band. “I love it,” 16-year-old Emily said. “I just really love music, so I love coming here.”
Ms. Child said the band could use more clarinets and trumpets: “Oh yes, we could always use more people,” she said. “You just need to know how to read music.”
Musicians of all levels are welcome to join the band on Monday nights at the Sailing Camp Park at 7:30 pm.