Watauga’s Local Music Community: The Watauga Community Band Returns to Rosen Concert Hall

Published Monday, April 16, 2018 at 10:02 am

By Lauren Stearley and Hayden Souza

Since their first concert in 1987, the members of Watauga Community Band (WCB) have practiced, played and performed locally, entertaining the masses and building life-long relationships. On May 6, 2018, the band will play its annual spring concert at Rosen Concert Hall from 7-8:30 p.m. Or if you are out around the Rotary Club Gazebo in Blowing Rock on any summer Sunday evening, the red-shirt summer band will play popular tunes for everyone’s listening pleasure. Combining flexibility and creativity the community band creates a space for people to play music for everyone to enjoy.

The Band

The band rehearses in the basement of the First Baptist Church on King Street, on Tuesday evenings, at 6 p.m. The room starts empty, but before practice the band assembles all the chairs, stands and instruments. For a few hours the room fills with music, laughter and talk. When the practice is over the room is disassembled and silent again.

During the school year, Billy Ralph Winkler conducts the band. During the warm season, Steve Frank, a retired broadcaster, directs the band. Frank knows bands well, having been a part of one since he was a Marching Tar Heel.

“One of the things that I have discovered is the variety of folks that you encounter in a musical organization,” said Frank. “And their reasons for being here are as individual as all the individuals involved.”

The Watauga Community Band has a variety in its numbers. People came to rehearsal in suits and dresses, t-shirts and jeans. Retired band and choir directors sit alongside carpenters, studio broadcasters, doctors, psychologists and students. Musicians who majored and performed their instrument for years play along with current music students or adults who returned to music after years. The youngest member at rehearsal is 16, while the oldest in in their 80’s. Yet one thing was always the same. Everyone had their horn ready when Mr. Winkler raised the baton.  

“It doesn’t matter why you come to band,” Winkler said. “We’re all here for the same thing.”

In February, the band was contacted by Blowing Rock to play a Valentine’s Day event for senior citizens. Steve Frank made the musical arrangements of sixties rock and roll classics to play and entertain the crowd.  Recently, the Department of Fermentation Science at Appalachian State University (ASU) asked the band to play at its upcoming Oktoberfest. The band would need to learn polka music. The band also offers an opportunity for college students at ASU or Caldwell Community College to earn up to four hours of credit for being in the band.

According to Mr. Frank, being a community resource is the goal.

“We want people to say ‘I wonder who does this kind of music, well let’s call the community band and see.’ And if we don’t have it then we can probably find somebody who does,” said Frank.

Steve Frank organizing music for the Valentine’s Day band. Photo by Lauren Stearley

“Did he tell you about the Blowing Rock Gazebo?”

When Frank first started with the WCB organization, he soon realized a problem. The band had no space to play outside.

“Avery County has two, maybe even three good outdoor music venues,” he said. “And that county has half the population of ASU.”

Seeing an opportunity for growth, Frank and WCB members petitioned county commissioners and Blowing Rock responded.

“They said, ‘what’s wrong with our gazebo?” Frank said. “And I said ‘well it can hold a bass player and one drum player but that’s about it.’”

The idea was planted. With the help of a generous contribution from late band member Ray Walker, along with the support of the Rotary Club, and then many contributions from citizens in the county, the gazebo at Blowing Rock was redone and re-constructed to be the large outdoor music venue it is today.

“It was our idea,” Mr. Frank said. “We pushed the idea through the Chamber of Commerce in Blowing Rock and through the town council.”

The Gazebo project showed what the collaboration of the band, local government, and community could do to enhance the daily lives of Watauga County denizens. Every Sunday, May through September, people can come to the Rotary Club Gazebo to eat ice cream, lounge around, and enjoy the music of the Watauga Community Band.

The summer red t-shirt band at the Rotary Club Gazebo


The music librarian

Pat Maddux is petite and white- haired with wire-rimmed glasses and clear grey eyes. She comes to each practice with a wagon of boxes in tow. Those boxes were filled with all the music that the band would need that day, along with a few extra books, folders, paperclips, and her “people-book”.

“This book has all the forms from each band member,” she said.

The forms were simple information, but the wide variety of handwriting showed the personality of each individual. The birthday section had a particular relevance on the page. When I asked Mrs. Maddux why, she smiled and said that she liked to send everyone a birthday card in the mail on their birthday. It was that sort of individual dedication and caring that inspired me that day at rehearsal.

Mrs. Maddux’s lifelong ambition was to be a music librarian. Her music career began when she was 13 years old. Mr. Blanton, her band director at the time, taught her to twirl a baton and blow a whistle to lead a parade down King Street. That parade, memorialized in a photograph, was in 1952. Twenty-eight years later, the Watauga Community Band was formed. Dr. Charles Isley, the conductor at the time, reached out to Mrs. Maddux about the position as music librarian.

“He said it’s all yours,” Mrs. Maddux said. “I fulfilled my ambition. I’ve been music librarian for 31 years, and I have loved every minute of it.”

Thirty-one years of music builds up over time. Originally, music for the WCB lived in Appalachian State University’s music school. Now Mrs. Maddux’s home holds all the music the band had ever played, and would play. Visiting her house revealed floor to ceiling shelves of manila envelopes, filing drawers full of jazz and pop music, and 34 photo albums dating back to the beginning of the band.

Mrs. Maddux’s Music Library for the Watauga Community Band. Photo by Lauren Stearley

“My house is a musical house,” Mrs. Maddux said. “It’s just full of music.”

A love for music

For Mr. Winkler, the school year conductor, teaching music was his lifelong passion. Mr. Winkler was at the first rehearsal of the Watauga Community Band, and was a member while he was band director at Watauga High school. He has conducted the WCB since Dr. Charles Isely stepped down.

“He just informed me that I was the new conductor,” Winkler said, smiling. “I’ve never said no to him and I still haven’t.”

Winkler says working for the band is a “blessing”. He gets to see people from all stages and walks of life come in and enjoy music, or come to love music they did not know before. The position also keeps him grounded in who he wants to be.

“I never considered it so much as sharing my knowledge as sharing my love for music, just sharing my love and my passion for it with other people,” Winkler said.

The job does come with some struggles, however. As a volunteer organization it’s sometimes difficult to know exactly who will show up to each rehearsal week to week. Sometimes in the winter rehearsals would have to be cancelled due to weather. And yet, the band plays on. Band members with more experience help and teach those with less, and everyone works together to perform for the community.

“It’s just really uplifting,” Mr. Winkler said. “And it’s all worth it.”

The Watauga Community Band gives people the opportunity to play music for the whole community to enjoy. The inclusivity of the band gives the organization passionate, unique individuals, while their adaptable repertoire allows them to play anything for anyone. Their next concert is on May 6, 2018 in Rosen Concert Hall at 7 p.m. Come bring your friends and family to enjoy the one and only Watauga Community Band.

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