Play on: Community band offers chance to perform

HOUGHTON – The sun came out just a few hours before concert time Tuesday, and the Copper Country Community Band took the opportunity to wow about 50 people who came out to enjoy Dixieland, Sousa marches and more at the Ray Kestner Waterfront Park Band Shell in Houghton.

Lounging in lawn chairs or blankets on the grass, the crowd seemed to enjoy the show. But they may not have gotten as much out of it as the band members themselves, a group that ranged in age from high schoolers “probably up to senior citizens, and all in between,” according to volunteer band director Michael Christianson, who normally works as Michigan Technological University’s band director.

The band is often the only summer opportunity for its members to play trumpets, clarinets and other “wind band” instruments, and that’s one of the main reasons Jim Weiler, one of the older band members, got involved. He plays in a swing band the rest of the year, but found his chops fading in the summertime, which can be especially disastrous for a trumpeter, he said, as it takes a few months to get mouth muscles back in shape after a break.

“It gives me a reason to practice, and if you don’t a have reason to practice you let it go,” he said.

For younger band members, the community band is an opportunity to play more challenging music than they’re used to, and to focus on sight-reading. Christianson said the band has about 10 rehearsals per summer – only five or six before the first of five concerts – and is performing over 30 pieces of music this summer, meaning practice time for each piece is limited.

Kayla Makela, 16, who’s playing bass clarinet this summer, said keeping up “was challenging at first, but I got used to the pace.”

“It’s a different style, more exciting, and I’m playing with experienced people,” she added.

Makela said she was invited to join after eighth grade by her Houghton High School music teacher, Kelly Fontaine, who also plays in the community band. It’s has helped her accept a tough decision not to pursue a musical career.

“It’s interesting to see people who didn’t go into music as a career but still love it,” she said. “It helps to know I’ll still be able to pursue my passion.”

Christianson said older and younger band members seem to enjoy playing together, and the older band members often help mentor those still in school.

There are are no first, second, or third-chair parts.

“I just hand the parts back… let them figure it out,” he said. “Actually, a lot of the more experienced like to help the younger folks take the first-chair parts. It happens smoothly almost all of the time.”

The band is open to anyone, regardless of experience, Christianson said, though less experienced members may have to put in more private practice time to keep up. Anyone interested in joining for next summer can email him at

Debra Zei, who plays with the Keweenaw Symphony Orchestra during its season, said she enjoys the mixed-experience dynamic. In high school, she played in the Calumet Community Band, which disbanded in the ’80s. She said more experienced members helped her along then, and when she joined the Copper Country Community Band five years ago, she did so with her then high school-aged son.

“He played until last week when he left for grad school,” she said.

The Copper Country Community Band’s final concert of the year will be at 7 p.m. Monday at the Keweenaw Heritage Center in the former St. Anne’s Church in Calumet. That concert will feature the greatest hits of the summer, as chosen by the band’s members. Admission is free, though donations will be accepted.