Back With the Band

Americana, Hometown Heroes, People, Traditions
on December 24, 2000

They gather together out of love for the music and share the melodies they create. For some it’s a way to practice a gift they pursue elsewhere; for others it’s a second chance to fulfill their youthful yearning to play music.

Together, they form the Gaston Symphonic Banddelighting friends and neighbors and fulfilling a vision of band founder, Seth Kirby.

“This was a dream of mine from about 20 years ago when I was teaching so many students that were graduating high school, graduating college, and never having the opportunity to play again,” says Kirby, a retired music teacher and band director from Belmont, N.C. (pop 8,503).

Kirby says the idea for the band, originally the Gaston County Community Band, finally began to take shape when he was at a swing concert and overheard the gentlemen in front of him talking about how much they would enjoy playing instruments again.

He got together with friends Leary Cloer and Dr. Bruce Trefz and began inviting people they knew who previously had played an instrument to join the band. That was eight years ago.

One thing led to another, and the group has grown into a 60-member full symphonic band, with members ranging in age from 16-73. They hail from all over Gaston County and take the music back to their towns with band performances from September through May.

Venues include community college stages and outdoor settings such as Belmont’s Stowe Park, where they play their vast repertoire of traditional concert band music, marches, and show tunes as well as pop, patriotic, and religious music.

“It’s just giving back to the community,” Kirby says, “and I’m grateful for a very successful career in the community.”

The band is a volunteer effort requiring considerable time and commitment, but both the musicians and their director believe it’s worth it. The public gains access to beautiful music, and the musicians get a second chance to perform and delight their neighbors through their harmonies.

“It’s immeasurable really,” Cloer says of the band’s value. “Without a vehicle like this, horns usually stay in the closet. This is a rare opportunity for people who have played in the past to continue.”

Having taught music across Gaston County for 34 years, Kirby now gives cues to many of his own former students. Contemporaries of 63-year-old Kirby, such as trumpeters Cloer and Bob Hallman, are enjoying the chance to harmonize again, years after their high school band careers ended.

“I had been playing periodically in a little church ensemble,” Hallman says. “It’s another good outlet to keep your music alive.”

The music enthusiasts practice every Thursday evening at Grier Middle School in Gastonia, N.C. Young and old, they gather and playwhether for the second time that day or the first time in a couple of daysor years.

The band includes plenty of young musicians, like 17-year-old Matt Hoffman, who play in their high school bands during the day but relish the opportunity to sound off in a different format with the community band.

“I find it’s very relaxing,” Hoffman says. “I just came from marching band practice and everyone’s on your nerves. I come here and it’s more relaxed, everybody can play their instruments.”

In ninth grade, Hoffman joined his older brother and his mother, Debra, in the band. He started out playing clarinet, but four years later he has switched to the oboe and still enjoys performing with seasoned musicians.

Hoffman’s experience isn’t unique, says Cloer; several families have more than one member in the band.

Though band director Kirby is on a temporary medical leave of absence through the first of the year, the band continues under the guidance of another local band director, Tim Hamilton. Saxophonist Bill Brown serves as acting president and beams at the level they’ve reached.

“We’re playing some of the tunes they’re playing at some college-level bands,” Brown says. “It can be quite challenging, and we like that. We don’t shy away from that as musicians.”