Each year the Crystal Lake Community Band tries to line up the battle scene in the iconic Russian piece “Overture 1812” to coincide with the Fourth of July fireworks.
“This year we nailed it – pretty much,” alto saxphone player Jeff Martin said. “Some years we’ve played it start to finish and no fireworks yet.”
There are three community bands in McHenry County: the 80-member band in Crystal Lake, a smaller concert band in Woodstock and a 16-piece jazz band with a vocalist in McHenry.
The McHenry County College band also draws from the community, and Sun City in Huntley has a band mostly made up of its residents.
The bands are made up of a variety of people, music instructors, band directors, retirees, students and those not in the music field at all.
A return to music
With the kids grown up a bit and the time normally committed to Boy Scouts and soccer opened up, Jeff Martin of Cary decided he was going to take some time to himself.
He decided to join the Crystal Lake Community Band.
“I like the camaraderie of my fellow musicians,” Martin said. “There is still the love of music. I like to perform.”
Martin had played the alto saxophone regularly from fourth grade through high school when he played in his hometown’s community band – he’s from a small town in Iowa called Fort Madison – through his years on the University of Iowa Hawkeye Marching Band. After that, he played once a year on homecoming weekend back in Iowa City.
“I kind of got rusty over the next 20 years,” said Martin, who is a self-employed computer consultant living in Cary with his wife, Beth. Their two sons, Andy and Joey, are both grown.
It took Martin about six months to get “back to [his] old college playing shape,” rebuilding his embouchure, breathing and technique.
Nine years later he’s still playing, and he serves on the band’s board and as its treasurer.
“We’re a very diverse group,” he said. “We come from all walks of life and all different abilities, from novice players all the way through to professionals, semi-professional. We’ve had band directors that actually are playing. The thing I think that’s nice about our band, the one thing we all have in common is we love playing music.”
Carrying on the tradition
Russ Henning of McHenry likes that he’s preparing the next generation of the Woodstock City Band – at least the horns sections.
“The Woodstock City Band has been around since 1885,” Henning said. “This is the 129th season. Now, I haven’t been there that whole time. That’s what, five or six generations? There’s music on the Square every summer since 1885. There’s been no gaps.”
Henning, who has played with the band for 13 years, plus a few years before that as a substitute, loves that continuity.
“The whole bit about me being in this group that is older than my great-grandparents is just cool,” he said. “I really enjoy that. ... I’m assuming it’s like playing for the Cubs, for example. It’s that long line. It’s probably the same in the Army.”
After 20-plus years in the corporate world of market research, Henning found his way back to music, working for two music companies and eventually shifting over to teaching music lessons full time.
He has about 50 students during the school year and is the horn instructor at McHenry County College. He also is one of the founders of the Cor Corps, a group of about 20 French horn players.
“I love teaching,” Henning said. “It’s what I was meant to do. The kids keep me young, for one thing. I’ll be 55 next month, but when you’re hanging around a bunch of 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds, I get to keep up on what the hardware is that they’re playing with. I hear their language, not that I try to talk like an 18-year-old, but it keeps me fluent.”
Over the years, he’s converted several students into Woodstock City Band members.
“It’s a way for me to bring in the next generation,” Henning said.
The road almost taken
John Cummings of Cary has been playing the trombone for 68 years, 54 of them with the McHenry City Band.
Cummings doesn’t know what it was about the trombone that drew him to it – maybe its mellow tone – but when he heard the trombone player in his older brother’s band play it, he decided that was the instrument for him.
He taught himself on a brand-new instrument that he bought from Lions Band Instruments in Chicago for about $75, which he earned stocking groceries at Cary’s Dianis grocery store and on a nearby farm.
“That was my only big investment,” Cummings said. “That was a lot of money then. ... It was fine, but it was the cheapest of the line.”
He played the instrument throughout high school, earning first place in the state solo competitions and a spot on the all-state band, despite not having an instructor.
Cummings spent four years as a Navy musician, training at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center north of Chicago, and was assigned to a few different ships.
He received a couple of offers to go on the road as a musician, and eventually he was talked out of it.
“They lived for the next bottle of booze, the next girl, the next town, and they’re on buses all the time,” Cummings said. “It’s just not a life for me, but I was going to do that.”
He knew he didn’t want to be a teacher, so when he was discharged from the Navy in 1956, he went to the University of Illinois on the GI Bill to study design engineering, which he did until he retired in 1995.
The McHenry City Band, which was a concert band at the time, got him back into playing, and he stayed. Now at age 80, he’s the longest-serving member currently playing in the band.
“I’ve played a lot of places in my life,” Cummings said. “It’s just a great band. It’s a very, very good band, and it’s a lot of fun because nobody is there to get rich. We do get paid, but it’s just a bunch of great personalities.”