If it’s a Friday night in the summer, Rodney Washburn is not a hard man to find. Last Friday was no different. He was right in his usual spot, standing at the front of the bandstand on the Square, conducting the Highland Muny Band.
Municipal bands have a long, rich history in Highland. It all started in the 1840s, when four Suppiger brothers — Joseph, David, Melchoir and John — joined an already formed musical trio of Edward Hammer, Charles Kinne and Fritz Kinne to form the Highland Orchestra. Many other groups performing under many other names followed, but in those 170-plus years, thousands have been both cultured and entertained.
Washburn is an important part of the city’s musical history, too. For more than two decades, the band has enjoyed a harmony of leadership with Washburn at the helm.
“Music just has a natural draw to it,” said Washburn, who entered his 21st season as director of the Muny Band when it opened its 2016 concert series last week to a crowd of more than 200.
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“It’s not something every community is still able to support, but Highland does,” Washburn said.
Washburn, a native of Mattoon, Ill., first picked up an instrument when he was in the fourth grade. A few years later, he knew it was his calling.
“I had a very influential junior high band director, who I just adored. In the eighth grade, I knew music was what I wanted to do with my life,” he said.
He took up the trombone and would play in the marching, concert, and jazz bands in high school. He continued to perform in such bands while in college at Eastern Illinois University, where he earned a degree in music education.
His first job after college was as band director in the Dupo School District. He also began playing with the municipal band in Waterloo, where he was living while working in Dupo. He taught there for three years, then a job opened up at Wesclin.
“I had a friend who was the Wesclin band director. He was moving to take another job and said I should apply there,” Washburn said.
He did. He got it. He’s now been at Wesclin for 26 years.
Like his teaching job, Washburn came to the Highland Muny Band via recommendation of a friend. Ray Rickert had been directing the Highland band for a few years when Washburn moved to the area. Rickert encouraged Washburn to join the band in Highland, so he did, and he played with the group for two years. When Rickert left the band, Washburn put down his trombone and picked up the conductor’s baton. He’s been out front ever since.
There are similarities to directing a high school band and a municipal band, said Washburn, who lives in New Baden.
“It’s all music. So there’s lots of the same stuff for both groups,” he said.
The main difference in the the selections each group can put into their performances.
“We have a number of well-prepared, disciplined players in the municipal band… We just play at a lot faster pace,” Washburn said.
Of the 50-person Muny Band, the youngest musicians are in their teens, but many are retirement age.
“It just gives them an opportunity to play their instrument and make music,” Washburn said. “Once you start doing it, you never want to give it up.”
The Highland Municipal band might have 80 to 90 pieces it performs in a typical summer season, Washburn said, while a high school band might learn a dozen for so over the course of a school year.
That versatility has led Washburn to come up with more theme concerts the last few years. This year, for instance, the band is planning patriotic music for its July 1 concert, a rock ’n’ roll ensemble on July 29, and Olympic-themed music on Aug. 5.
Washburn said the theme ideas come from many places, such as tying into current events, like the Olympics. Some have been inspired from things he has come across while trolling the Internet.
“Sometimes it might be just one or two pieces that spark a theme,” he said.
For example, a Lead Zeppelin song that Washburn thought it would be fun to play prompted him to put together the rock night.
“What we are doing with that is just mixing it up with all sorts or rock groups — The Beatles, Eric Clapton,” he said.
Highland Muny Band concerts are at 8 p.m. on Friday nights in the summer, starting the weekend after Schweizerfest and running until the start of school in August. They are held on the downtown Square. They are free. Just bring a lawn chair or blanket.
“We just encourage everyone to come out and enjoy some fantastic Friday-night music,” Washburn said.
Highland Muny Band Schedule
June 24 “Meet Me at the Muny,” featuring music from some of the shows scheduled for The Muny in Forest Park.
July 1 “Salute to America,” patriotic music and guests the Highland Community Chorus.
July 8 “Let’s Dance,” music related to folk dances, big bands, ballet, and more.
July 15 TBA
July 22 “Around the World,” a musical tour, visits to Greece, Japan, Italy, Austria and more.
July 29 “Let’s Rock,” featuring the music of Eric Clapton, “Led Zeppelin,” “Chicago,” “The Beatles” and more.
Aug. 5 “Salute to the Olympics,” both music associated with the Olympics, as well as Brazil.
Aug. 12 TBA
The Highland Muny Band concerts begin at 8 p.m. on the Highland Square. The concerts are free. Bring a lawn chair or blanket. (Note: The Muny Band also puts on a Holiday Concert the Saturday after Thanksgiving. It is held at Highland Middle School.)