Not long after being named the new director of the Peninsula Symphonic Band (PSB), Jason Palmer sat down for coffee with his soon-to-be predecessor to get the lay of the land he was about to enter.
Before moving to Door County in 2018, home for Palmer and his wife, Jamie, had been the Fox Valley region of Illinois, where they had founded the Fox Valley Academy of Music Performance in Aurora. Palmer had a hunch this newest venture would be more low key than that, but he wanted confirmation.
“So, how does it work?” Palmer asked then-director of 14 years, Paula Eggert.
“She told me, ‘Well, people come. They sit. They play. And we’ve never had a problem,’” Palmer said, recalling the conversation. “And you know what? It works.”
Since taking the reins in 2018, Palmer can attest that the no-audition-required, open-door invitation process not only works, but it’s even a key reason why the concept of the community band thrives.
“It certainly makes it easy to become involved,” Palmer said. “In an orchestral program, musicians audition. With this, it’s, ‘Y’all come!’”
Players run the gamut in background and experience, from the high school student who wants additional experience, to the middle school and high school band directors yearning for an opportunity to step outside the classroom, to the retired band professor who isn’t ready to stop playing. They all have a seat with PSB.
“This is what makes this experience so special,” said Gary Ciepluch, a member of PSB who, for 28 years, was the Wind Ensemble conductor at the Cleveland Institute of Music and director of winds and bands at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. “Performing with musicians from ages 15 to 80 and above gives it a special, unique experience that is simply indescribable.”
Despite the patchwork of musicians, Ciepluch said he continually hears comments from audience members about how professional the group sounds.
“My favorite question is always, ‘How much do you get paid to play in the band?’ They are astounded that we are all volunteers, and that it is open to all community players.”
But their volunteer status and varying ages, experience and skill levels don’t mean that Palmer steers clear of giving the band challenging pieces.
“I remember when he first got there, he thought he’d keep them at a level three,” said Jamie, who is a member of the Swingin’ Door Big Band, an affiliate community-band program of PSB. “Now you’ve done, what, level four?”
“Level five,” Palmer said.
On a scale of one to six, level – or grade – five band music is considered medium-advanced. The repertoire is generally written for musicians who have been playing for at least six years.
“It came down to the last week of rehearsal, but then it just clicked,” he said.
Maybe it was luck. Maybe it was practice. Or maybe that is the power that’s inherent in a group of musicians who play for the pure love of making and sharing music with their communities. Give them an ounce of encouragement, and they’ll outrun the expectations set before them.
We, as audience members, just happen to be the happy recipients of what the Palmers consider to be the best-kept secret in Door County.
“It’s been around for 31, going on 32 years, and still so many people don’t know about it,” Jamie said.
Yet with a roster of 70 musicians – and growing each season – word seems to be getting around. And now with people eager to attend live-music events after a two-year hiatus for most, those numbers might start outgrowing some of the band’s performance venues.
“It’s getting to the point where we don’t have a venue that will hold all of us,” Jamie said.
That highlights what Ciepluch has known his entire musical career.
“Music making is an inclusive, not exclusive experience,” he said – an experience that seems to live in perfect harmony in Door County.