Belchertown Community Band mixes love of music, town

BELCHERTOWN — The Belchertown Community Band has returned for its 36th summer season with an expanded number of performances..

The band has gathered on the Town Common each summer since 1986 — excluding the summer of 2020, when it was forced to cancel its season due to the pandemic. The band performed twice last summer by keeping all of its activities outdoors, but this summer will be the group’s first truly “normal” concert season since 2019, with twice-weekly rehearsals culminating in four outdoor concerts toward the end of the summer.

The first performance was July 21 with shows slated on July 28, Aug. 4 and Aug. 11. All shows take place at 7 p.m.

Michael Bauer has directed the Belchertown Community Band since its first season in 1986, He had only recently moved to Belchertown in late 1985 to begin directing the Belchertown High School band when Christine Harper, a resident of Belchertown and longtime trombone player, called Bauer to pitch the idea of establishing a community band.

“(Starting a community band) was something that was always in my head, because I came from a background of these kinds of bands that played in the summer during my youth,” Bauer said.

He had participated in several community bands during his childhood in Pennsylvania, and the opportunity to introduce the same musical opportunities to Belchertown seemed like the perfect way to “get to know the community.”

In its early years, the band had virtually “zero budget,” Bauer says, and he leveraged his position as the director of the high school band to secure a folder of sheet music from the school’s archives for the community band to play. But the band rapidly expanded as the years passed, growing from a scrappy group of only a dozen members to an annual roster that now hovers at around 200 musicians.

Michael Bauer

Michael Bauer conducts the Belchertown Community Band. (Gillian Follett photo)

Melissa Hurst, president of the Belchertown Community Band’s board of directors, said the summer-only nature of the band is beneficial for students who may not otherwise practice their instruments during summer vacation.

“(Community band) is the one time where people from all different backgrounds, all different education levels, all ages, come together to work on one thing together,” Hurst said. “You’ll have sixth and seventh graders sitting next to people in their seventies and a lawyer sitting next to someone in the sciences. Music, in this way, is a great kind of equalizer. It just brings us together.”

Hurst, a legal services attorney and lifelong Belchertown resident, has played the French horn in the community band since the summer of 1997, when she was a rising sophomore at Belchertown High School.

Throughout high school, college and law school, she remained a loyal member of the band, even attending the band’s rehearsal the night before she took the bar exam.

She stepped up to become president of the board of directors in 2012 — following the death of previous president Lloyd Armstrong.

The pandemic’s interruption of the community band’s 2020 season was very challenging for faithful concertgoers and members of the band alike, who were accustomed to the band’s yearly presence in their lives, Hurst said.

After the formal announcement that the band wouldn’t be meeting that summer, she began receiving dozens of calls and texts from band members asking about when the community band would return and what the 2021 season would look like — and if there would even be a 2021 season.

“Last spring, I reached out to Melissa and asked her, ‘Are there plans to have a season this year? I want to make sure I’m not missing the community band if it’s started again,’” said Jeremy Gummeson, a trombone player who first joined the band when he was in sixth grade three decades ago. “The band is kind of a fixture of the community that I always took for granted, and I never really thought hard about (that) until we didn’t have it for a summer. That’s when I really appreciated what it was.”

For Gummeson, the importance of the community band is in its name: creating community-building experiences, both within the band’s membership and for those who attend its concerts.

Belchertown Community Band

The Belchertown Community Band is back with a summer full of music. (Gillian Follett photo)

“Belchertown, in particular, is mostly a bedroom community,” Gummeson said. “There’s not a huge number of community activities. “I think it’s really important to have these kinds of events … because mostly, people in Belchertown are commuting to other places to do jobs. And unless you have kids in the school system, you don’t really interact that much with other people in your town.”

Though the band was able to hold a modified, shortened season last summer, the group continues to face some repercussions of the pandemic and has fewer members this summer than its pre-pandemic numbers.

“We get to come together with people we’ve been playing with for a decade and meet new faces and integrate them in,” Hurst said. “I don’t just look at us as a group that performs together. We genuinely care about one another and our community. And we celebrate together; we learn together. It’s really special.”