Highland Muny Band video
Highland’s downtown square is the place to be on summer Friday nights.
That’s when and where the Highland Muny Band performs for concert goers, performing ear-pleasing performances weekly.
The free concerts run every Friday from June through August, with this year’s season starting June 16 and scheduled to conclude Aug. 9. Performances start at dusk — approximately 8 p.m. — and draw fans from Highland as well as surrounding communities.
“We certainly do these concerts for the community of Highland, but for others as well,” said band director Rodney Washburn. “Last Friday (July 19), I was talking to a gentleman who lives in Pierron and his mother lives in Carlyle, and she insists on him coming to pick her up every Friday to take her to the concert.”
Washburn, in his 26th year as director, said this season has been excellent musically — but challenging weather-wise — and that he is excited about the final two weeks.
This Friday, the concert theme will focus on conflict — human, social, or conflict even with the music.
“This is the concert I’m most excited about,” Washburn said. “We’re doing a piece on Brown vs. Board of Education, which ended segregation. We’re doing music from ‘West Side Story.’ There will be some interesting music planned for that one.”
The season finale is Aug. 9, but as of last week, no specific theme was planned.
Overall, Washburn’s Highland Muny Band roots run deep, as he started as a tuba player 28 years ago and spent the next year as a trombone player before assuming the director position, a post he’s held ever since. A high school and middle school teacher by day at Wesclin, Washburn said he cherishes directing the Highland Muny Band.
“I love my day job as a high school and middle school teacher at Wesclin. My job as a music educator is always what I dreamed of doing — to teach the young minds,” he said. “However, it’s a lot of fun going to rehearsals Tuesday evenings (when the Highland Muny Band practices) with folks who have the sole purpose of preparing music and performing a concert. They’re awfully receptive to things I want to do …. whether that’s playing faster or softer. It’s fun to stand in front of a group of adults just as much as students on a daily basis.”
Muny band concerts feature themes
Washburn said most concerts are themed. For instance, the concert July 19 was a “Disney Remade”-themed event, offering movie medleys from Disney films that have been or will be remade in the near future. Then, last Friday, the band performed space themes to recognize the 50-year anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
“Like ‘The Lion King’ … back in the spring, when I was doing the initial programming, I knew ‘The Lion King’ was coming out that particular Friday, so we planned that,” he said. “And we’re often looking at history and other types of events seeing how we can tie into that.”
Washburn said perhaps the most popular performance each summer is the patriotic concert, which took place July 5.
“There’s a lot of Americana in that concert,” said Washburn, a New Baden resident. “It’s always good to have a few more folks in the crowd … though, our crowd base is pretty solid throughout the entire summer.”
Overall, the band has been in Highland’s DNA for decades. Washburn was not certain of the exact origins, but noted the Highland Muny Band as it’s known today formed in 1925.
“I have a number of random documents from News Leader articles with historical information. It is my understanding there has been some sort of band in Highland ever since the town existed. I have a few photos dating back to the 1860s,” he said.
According to the band’s website, they have 47 members for 2019 spanning 13 instruments. The band has two preseason rehearsals in late May and early June as well and then, in season, only practices once weekly — a 2 1/2 hour rehearsal Tuesdays. Washburn said that presents a challenge, while simultaneously highlighting the band’s diverse talent. By contrast, Washburn said the school concerts he directs at Wesclin generally include six-10 weeks of prep time.
“We have one practice for one concert, which is real tough,” he said. “It’s an hour-long concert, and we have a 2 1/2 hour rehearsal Tuesday evenings to essentially prepare for that one concert. It certainly takes outstanding musicians to get prepared for a concert in a one-shot rehearsal like that.”
Weather always potential problem
With outdoor concerts, Mother Nature’s looming presence always represents a concern. The obvious deterrent is rain. With expensive equipment that cannot be compromised, any precipitation at concert-time causes a cancellation.
However, there’s another issue. Washburn said the grounds retain water well, so even if it’s dry at performance time but poured earlier in the day, it’s near impossible for people to sit in lawnchairs or on their blankets.
The heat also poses problems. For instance, sweltering temperatures into the 90s were present for the July 19 concert, nearly causing a cancellation.
“There are a lot of band members up there on the bandstand, so the air doesn’t move real well when we’re all packed in there,” Washburn said, noting only one concert has been canceled this summer — due to rain. “Always having to fight those elements is tough.”
Diverse group of musicians
Overall, the band has a diverse cast of musicians, ranging from the youngest being a junior in high school up to retirees. The mix. Washburn noted, includes music teachers — both currently teaching and retired — retired military, bankers, etc.
“Pretty much every walk of life you can think of is represented,” Washburn said. “Some of them have been in the band longer than I have. And we have had some who were in the band, left and came back.”
Besides the summer performances, the band also has their annual holiday concert the Saturday after Thanksgiving at Highland Middle School. This year’s event is scheduled for 7 p.m. Nov. 30. Washburn said the holiday concert has taken place the past several years, and the band has a couple rehearsals to prepare.
“The idea came about several years ago … the thought was this is a great group and the community loves hearing them, but they only hear them in the summer, so why not do another performance,” Washburn said. “With us doing the summer series, we figured we’d try to do something some other time during the year.”
“This especially allows college kids who may be back home to celebrate the holidays with their families to perform with us.”
Band’s success team effort
Needless to say, the band’s success takes a village, from the talented musicians to those working behind the scenes, including band manager Sandy Allen.
“She’s in charge of personnel, making sure we have players there every week,” Washburn said. “During the summer, people take vacations, others go to camps … she’s always communicating with folks to come in and substitute on a regular basis. It’s a huge job she takes care of.”
Washburn also recognized the moving crews.
“They move the music equipment from whichever school we practice at … they move the equipment from the school to the square back to the school,” he said. “There’s a crew that moves all the chairs from the gazebo to the square and back to the gazebo. We have a lot of folks who work behind the scenes who people do not realize help with the success of the band.”