Lutherans in the Twin Cities

“Synod Band” provides creative outlet for seniors

In retirement, lots of ELCA Lutherans have time to pick up their musical instruments again.

A few minutes earlier during the rehearsal, Director Emmett Stark had cautioned members of the Minneapolis Area Synod’s Senior Citizen Band to play more softly. He wanted the sweet notes of the baritone player’s solo line on an African-American spiritual to come through more clearly.
“Lightly. Don’t hammer it!” he called out.

Now, however, as the band swung into a rousing Sousa march, his instructions were the opposite.

“All this soft stuff we’ve been playing — forget it now. Let’s crack it!”

The band is entirely the brainchild of Stark, the chairman of the older adult ministry committee at West-wood Lutheran Church in St. Louis Park and retired band instructor in the Eden Prairie schools. The group, now 40 members strong, is heading toward its first public performance two years after its creation was endorsed by the synod.

That appearance will be at an ice cream social starting at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, August 15. Hosting will be Edina’s Normandale Lu-theran Church (ELCA). Five days later the band will play during worship services at Immanuel Lutheran, also ELCA, in Eden Prairie.

Concerts for the public were not a priority when the ensemble held its first rehearsal at Westwood in May 2005, and that remains true today, Stark emphasizes. He describes the band as a “ministry” for participants.

“We don’t pretend to be a concertizing group,” he said. “Our purpose is to have a social and musical experience for the members, and concerts are just an afterthought that is a kind of fun result of what we do.”

Membership in the band is open to interested seniors — Lutherans and others —without auditions. Partici-pants run the gamut from musicians who are very good and play regularly to those who haven’t played in years and are just getting back to it again, Stark said.

However, it wasn’t long after rehearsals started in the spring of 2005 that members began to say, “This isn’t so bad — it isn’t just an old fogey band,” according to Stark.
Today, when an observer suggests that the ensemble has a pretty professional sound, the director responds with a quiet “Amen. The result has been amazingly adequate.”

One reason for the quality sound the band produces, Stark said, is that it attracted a handful of what he calls “ringers” — very good musicians who provide the backbone of the organization.

That group includes Ron Hasselman, a retired trumpet player for the Minnesota Orchestra; Don Swenson, a clarinetist with the Minne-tonka Symphony who is also a composer; retired pastor Jonathan Preus and his wife Mary, veteran performers with the Exultate orchestra-chorus ensemble; and Jim Limburg, professor emeritus at Luther Seminary who has played trombone with a variety of groups since his days in the Luther College Concert Band.

Members give Stark plenty of credit for the progress that has been made during months of rehearsals and growth in number of players. They say he’s obviously a very knowledgeable musician — one who’ll interrupt a practice number to correct the tonguing of wind-instrument players or to pencil in a change in the score to produce a more satisfactory sound.

A member of Westwood since 1987, Stark launched a wind ensemble there following his retirement from teaching in 1995. That group plays for worship services about four times a year.

But Stark’s twin passions for instrumental music and older-adult ministry still weren’t completely satisfied, and he came up with the idea of a band for the entire Minneapolis Area Synod. He discussed the idea with Bishop Craig Johnson and got a favorable response.

When Johnson launched a Lutheran Older Adult Ministry (LOAM) committee in 2004, he told members one of the first things they should do was to facilitate formation of the senior band proposed by Stark. With the synod’s official endorsement, a one-time-only grant of $100 for purchase of music, and the sending out of a promotional flier to member congregations, the Synod Senior Band was off and running.
When Stark called the first rehearsal in May 2005, he didn’t know what to expect. Nineteen persons showed up and there were some gaps, including a lack of percussion players. Out-side of a few purchases, the music the group played was basically sacred numbers, which were borrowed from the library of the Westwood Wind Ensemble.

The Synod Band got a big break during that first month when someone at the Minneapolis Star Tribune got hold of the promotional flier and passed it on to the editors of the Faith and Values section. The result was a story based on a 45-minute phone interview with Stark. The story single-handedly brought in seven or eight new members, the director said.

During the summer of 2005 some 30 participants attended rehearsals, and things were going well enough that the band decided to play a “coffee concert” for Westwood seniors in early November to wind up its first season.

From the start, Stark has limited the group’s season to the months from April to October. This eliminates the need for members to drive to Westwood during winter months and also avoids problems resulting from the loss of “snow birds” who travel south at that time of year.

In another concession to the age of members, practices are held from 10:30 a.m. to noon on a Tuesday so no one has to drive during commuter rush hours or after dark.
The band usually practices once a month during its season but schedules two rehearsals during three months — a total of 12 per year.

Most members are in their 60s and 70s, Stark said, but one is under 60 and four are in their 80s, including the oldest at 84. One of these oldest players — Mark Loff, a longtime performer in the Anoka City Band — totes his tuba to practices on his walker.

Loff also helped the band diversify its repertoire this year by donating a collection of old marches that have passed into the public domain. Stark has also been able to purchase some pieces of “light” music from the big-band era, using donations from band members and other sources, including a $300 grant from the receipts of Westwood’s popular annual fall hobby fair.

The Senior Band has established a policy of returning a “tithe”” of its income from donations and fees for performances to Westwood for all it does to support the organization while serving as its home base.

Performances, in Septem-ber at the Minnesota Vet-erans Home and Walker Methodist Senior Center and, in October, at another Westwood coffee concert will wind up the Synod Senior Band’s current season.

Members will have to get an early start in 2007 because the band is scheduled to perform at the Minneapolis Area Synod’s second biennial LOAM conference, to be held next April 26 at Westwood.