How a community effort kept the Eagles Band going

How do you tell the story of a community band that's been around since 1936?

You could start with the oldest member of the Eagles Band: a 92-years-young trumpet player who spends his retirement (his definition seems to be a bit busier than most's) playing in the concert band, stage band and brass ensemble, while also serving as the official band treasurer. Richard Paul has been credited for stabilizing and maintaining the band's finances by many board members.

Or, you could speak with Tony Russo, also a trumpet player — "We have a lot of trumpet players," he said with a sigh — who has been with the band since he graduated high school in 1958, clocking in at almost 60 years. Russo, 76, is also president of the band's board.

But to get a real sense of what is at the heart of this community band — community — one should sit down with both over lunch at the Country Club of Pittsfield, where Paul is a member. They swap stories about past band members, the trouble with keeping a steady percussion ensemble and who is the better trumpet player. For the record, Russo is, according to Paul: "He's good."

Over soup and a sandwich the two Eagle Band members explained how a band of volunteer musicians has survived all these years. In the beginning, it wasn't volunteer, explained Russo — who remembers it being an all-male band when he first joined. The band was originally created by the Fraternal Order of Eagles Aerie No. 358. The group's sponsorship ended when the order folded in 1982, according to the band's website.

For 10 years, the band rehearsed without an official sponsor, moving from rehearsal space to rehearsal space and seeking co-sponsors for Music Performance Trust Fund money, as the band was a Musicians' Union organization.

In the 1990s, the band was facing a crisis, according to Russo.

"We only had 13 people left in the band," he said. Shortly after, there was a reorganization. "We began delegating various roles to keep it going, assigning different people to try to solve problems."

Russo, now retired from his job as a social worker, used his people skills to help convince members that they should become a community band versus a union organization — going from paid musicians to volunteers.

The move paid off.

Today, the band has 75 to 80 members, according to Paul, with an average of about 55 playing concerts regularly. And they draw regular crowds at their performances, expecting a full house at their Friday evening concert at The Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield.

"At the Colonial, we pack the house," Paul said.

The Annual Fall Concert will feature the Eagles Trombone Ensemble, the Eagles Big Band and the Eagles Concert Band, under the direction of Carl Jenkins. Special guest Ellen Dooley, a professional flutist with the United States Marine Band in Washington, D.C., will be the flute soloist during the performance of "Carmen Fantasie." The concert band portion of the program will also feature Leonard Bernstein's "Overture to Candide" from the 1956 opera and a new band arrangement of "Officer Krupke" from Bernstein's 1957 musical "West Side Story." "Lincoln Portrait" will also be performed.

The concert is free, but donations are accepted and welcomed.

The money, in case you're wondering, gets funneled back into the running of the band, Paul said. It pays for the conductor, the operational expenses, instrument upkeep and rehearsal space fees.

"And 10 percent of all the money goes into a scholarship fund," Paul said.

It's something they are both proud of.

"The band in its older tradition didn't have a conscience looking over it," Russo said. "Nobody in the band gave thought to how we're going to keep going in the future. Now, the board is an integral component to the band's success."

And with the band's newly created stability comes new talent.

"We're a first-class band compared to what we used to be," said Russo, who said anyone can come play, as long as they know the basics of music. And if someone lags behind, many of the band members will step up to offer private lessons, or help with difficult music.

The concert band rehearses once a week, with the separate ensembles rehearsing additionally. In the week leading up to the big concert, Paul said he's practicing three to four times a day. He's got a solo, which makes him nervous, he said.

"We're playing difficult music," said the trumpet player, who picked up the instrument after stepping away from it for 43 years because, well, life happened. "You've got to be on your toes."

Russo is quick to bolster his band mate: "You'll do great, and you know the other guys will help you out."

It's that sense of community, and a deep love of playing music in an ensemble, that keeps so many of the members coming back.

"There's no other opportunity to play like this if you don't do it for a living or at a higher level," Russo said.

"We work hard but still have fun," Paul said. "We get together to produce a good musical product, and to play music."


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