Tonight's rehearsal, for a mid-March concert the following week, is being recorded, so the band has something it can submit to music festivals. (As any high-school nerd knows, a "band" features only wind, brass and percussion instruments, in contrast to an orchestra, which uses strings, as well.) Ball tells the musicians he'd like to get a recording of a run-through of each piece. "Actual run-throughs," he adds for a laugh. They begin with James Curnow's "Rhapsody for Euphonium" (1978), which opens with a doleful melody, a solo for euphonium—a kid's-size tuba—before moving into a Holstian adventure theme, becoming the kind of music that plays as you flee monsters on Pandora.
The high school auditorium doesn't boast the best acoustics, but in action the band sounds smooth, clear and practiced—for the most part—and the musicians' seating arrangement provides the music with a richly textured stereophonic effect. Ball conducts with his arms, less with his shoulders or body. The piece draws to a close. "You guys are great," Dan Dicker, the euphonist, tells the group. Ball agrees. The conductor is given to quick and precise direction—"Don't let it push ahead too much, ok?" He's brisk, bordering on stern, but never impolite. Clearly, The Band is his passion. And he takes his passions seriously.
A couple of students trickle into the auditorium from a side entrance. "Guys," the conductor says, "if you could be extremely silent, including doors, 'cuz we're recording." A girl pulls the door closed as delicately as she might lay an infant to sleep. But it's hard to maintain the quiet: the room's cheapjack wooden chairs inevitably croak and groan; the radiators start to hiss and Ball shoots them a look, a milder version of the glare he'll later direct at a slammed door. He stops rehearsal when a custodian comes in, banging garbage cans and rattling keys. When the group finishes one piece, a trickle of applause spills from the scattered few observers. Ball turns to face his approvers, and makes a slashing motion across his throat.***
"Classical music is in crisis," Ball tells me later. "Especially in Brooklyn." The first claim is debatable: for example, the Metropolitan Opera, which advertises on a billboard fixed to the high school's facade, broke its own records last summer by selling $2.5 million worth of tickets in one day—in the middle of a recession, no less.
The second part, however, seems spot on. The Brooklyn Philharmonic canceled all of its subscription concerts for the 2009-2010 season because of a budget shortfall. After decades of performing a full opera in Prospect Park during the summer, The Metropolitan Opera scaled back to a concert in 2008, then further curtailed its outerborough outreach in 2009 with a mere "recital" in inaccessible Coffey Park. Hipsters have brought higher rents to Brooklyn, yuppies have brought strollers. But no one seems to have brought across the bridges a sustaining appreciation for High Culture.
And with no built-in audience, it's a challenge to build one up from scratch. For The Band, it's hard to spark interest or garner publicity from more than content-hungry community newspapers, especially in an oversaturated city whose lampposts have already been blanketed in fliers. "There's so much culture in this city," Ball says. "We're spoiled." It doesn't help that band-music isn't held in high esteem. It's like soccer, Ball says: Nobody respects it enough to, say, keep a professional American league in business. But every kid in this country grows up playing it. The school auditorium, where The Band performs publicly five or six times a year, seats about a thousand people, but the concerts, which ask for donations at the door but don't demand them, usually draw only 200. "Our joke is to get more people in the audience than on the stage," Ball says. "In classical music, that's a good thing."
Ball wears thin-frame glasses and a loop through his upper ear; he's trim, and his hair is longer on top than on the sides, suggesting vestigial spikes that a modest application of gel could restore. He was raised outside of Saratoga, and started playing the trumpet in high school. But he had trouble with the instrument's upper register, and his band director moved him to trombone. "I wanted an instrument that could still play jazz. You can't play jazz on euphonium," he says. ("Well, you can.") As a student, he loved band class, so much so that he grew up to become a band teacher. "I wanted to do it full time," he tells me. "And now I do."
He came to the city six years ago to teach, first at a school in the Bronx, then at the Grand Street Campus High School in 2005, where he is now one of two music directors, in charge of five different student bands. He founded his afterschool project, The Grand Street Community Band—which he sees as "an extension" of his teaching, as it sometimes provides an outlet for his students to keep playing after they've graduated—in February 2008, after looking for a community group to join in New York but finding only orchestras: they had room for dozens of string players of varying proficiency levels, but only a handful of spots for trombonists like himself, usually occupied by doctors of music. Where are the just-good players, he wondered, the non-masters? All over, it turned out, just dying for an outlet.
Comprised of roughly 70 active members—not all of whom perform in any given concert—The Band is all-volunteer; they bring their own instruments and pay dues, $60 a year, which go to covering expenses, like sheet music. (The high school lets them rehearse for free, usually in the band room.) On stage together, they look like the occupants of a typical car on a rush hour F train dumped into a school auditorium. The men mostly wear jeans; the women, Lexington Avenue slacks. Many come from one of the five boroughs, but others come from as far as Long Island, New Jersey, and Great Neck. They represent a broad age range and occupational backgrounds: about half of the players are involved in music for a living, whether as performers, teachers, or industry people, says Sherman Hasselstrom, a trumpeter who doubles as the group's spokesman. Others come from finance, computer support; some are nurses, some doctors. "You don't have to be a professional musician to play in this group," Hasselstrom says. Ball originally advertised for members on Craig's List and, basically, took anyone who was interested. Now, the band is popular enough that they actually audition members, sometimes turning applicants away. The turnover rate is somewhat high, Hasselstrom says, but about half of the founding members remain.
Those members form a close-knit group; after rehearsal, much of the band heads over to the dimly lighted Radegast Hall and Biergarten a few subway stops away, where they chat at long wooden tables over paper platters of greasy German food and steins of dark beer. Couples have met in the band. One of the oboists postponed a move to California so he could play in the upcoming concert. One guy drives in from Long Island, a 90-minute trip that takes him past six or seven other community bands with which he could just as easily play. Another keeps coming to practice even though his wife is due to give birth any day. One musician tells me that other bands, especially those in Manhattan, are stuffy, their members aggressive. The Grand Street group, though, is supportive. Ball used to play with another local outfit, he tells me, "and I think went out for one drink once with one of those guys."***
At the rehearsal, the band regroups after taking five. A draft of the program for that weekend's concert gets passed around, so everyone can check that his or her name has been spelled correctly. "The concert's on Sunday," Ball says, which also happens to mark the start of Daylight Savings Time. "Here's the thing—turn your clocks forward." After a pause, he adds, "tell your friends to do the same."
Throughout the rehearsal, the group's cohesion falters, either from exhaustion or because some members hadn't rehearsed some pieces as well as others. (The band seems to have a predilection for adventuresome jungle-chase music, but that might just be because all modern tonal music tends to sound like film scoring.) But it's because things go wrong—notes flubbed, tempos lost—that it becomes transcendent to hear them go gloriously right again. I'm conscious more than ever among these scrappy ragtaggers of the strange magic of collective music making, how individual people producing individual sounds cohere alchemically into harmonic grandeur. And of how fragile that sonic union is, how easily the majesty can crumble.
At the beer hall, with a steaming goblet of wine-like beer in front of him, Ball tells me something similar about producing music with other people—lest you think the music was just a pretense to meet for drinks, the way married men put together poker nights. "It's a feeling unlike anything else," he tells me. "The closest thing on this earth to perfection."
The Grand Street Community Band might fall short of perfection—"there were mistakes, as I'm sure you heard, but not many," Ball tells me. "We're handling it"—but its philharmonic spirit is indomitably idealistic, infectious and inspiring. As the band rehearses Charles Rochester Young's "Tempered Steel" (1997), a student wanders into the room, moves to the side and improvises jagged dances to the piece's irregular rhythms before hammering her hands in the air like a timpanist, though she clearly means to ape the conductor. But soon her goofballery fades; she stops ADD'ing and listens closely, takes out a digital camera and starts shooting video. The musicians may have converted one more person to fandom, which means one more person, possibly, to give them a reason to continue pursuing their passion. Which is all they seem, desperately, to want to do.