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Walla Walla Valley Bands celebrates 30 years of shaking off the rust

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Imagine for a moment: High school is over.

You’ve graduated. The caps have flown, the diplomas are divvied out, you say your goodbyes, you get ready for college.

And as you pack up your room and discard some earthly possessions to make room in your new, tiny dorm, you see it sitting in the corner — your trombone.

It seems a bit sad and it doesn’t know what to do with itself and you’re not sure what to do with it either.

Do you sell it? Do you make it an heirloom? Do you leave it in the attic forever?

Most high school band members won’t go on to use their musical skill outside of those four years.

Unless you join a ska group or Chicago cover band.

But what if the band never stopped playing? That was the idea that Walla Wallan Glen Mitchell, 73, had 30 years ago when he started the Walla Walla Valley Bands.

“This was a dream at the beginning,” Mitchell said. “We got together, some of the local band members, and said we really need an opportunity to play music after high school.”

It started out with about 20 musicians back in 1990.

Over the years, the quality and the numbers have increased, Mitchell said.

What started as a small group of people trying to keep themselves from getting rusty has turned into an 80-person group, which also includes two jazz ensembles.

“We’re pretty much at almost our maximum,” Mitchell said. “We don’t lose very many members.”

The 80 members pay a yearly fee to be part of the group, which goes toward maintaining a high-quality product, including a compensation for the band’s director.

The director for the past three years is Gary Gemberling, a music professor at Whitman College.

“Gary’s a people person,” Mitchell said. “Audience members love him. He has rapport with the audience.”

Gemberling has a long history of teaching music, including many years at Lewiston High School in Idaho.

He said he loves pushing the musicians to new heights, which has always been one of his goals as a teacher.

Not only does he want to see musicians shake off the dust and rust, he wants to see them grow.

“That’s the way I taught at (Lewiston High School),” Gemberling said.

“I was more inclined to that balance — you don’t want to bore the upper-level people and you don’t want to overwhelm those who don’t play at a high level. So that’s that balance that I’m always working with.

“I’ll hear a great piece of music and think, ‘Oh, they would make this sound good.’

“I think (the bands are) getting used to me presenting this material and them tackling it. And the payoff has been huge.”

The band is not only full of different skill levels, but age ranges too. Old and young are learning new things through Gemberling’s teachings.

“The beauty of the band is the age range,” Mitchell said. “For me, I think the thing that gives me the most joy is seeing people who aren’t professional players but sitting right next to professional players.”

Mitchell said it’s important to keep enhancing the experience for the musicians so that they’re never stagnant.

One of his favorite moments, he said, was starting up the first jazz band about 12 years ago.

Now, Mitchell, who is a retired Walla Walla High School music teacher, directs the Mill Creek Jazz Band and Gemberling directs the Main Street Jazz band.

On top of the jazz bands, there are wind and wood ensembles, quintets, quartets and all manner of combinations for the musicians to try out.

The community has taken note of the band’s efforts.

Walla Walla Valley Bands has received generous support from Walla Walla Valley Academy where they perform and practice, and they also received two generous grants from the Sherwood Trust over the years.

“Now we have trailers, we have lots of instruments,” Mitchell said. “It’s become quite a great organization.”

Unfortunately, the band is on hold during the novel coronavirus outbreak. The musicians will still have plenty of material to read, though.

Gemberling makes sure they have a proper amount of challenging musical literature.

“One of my challenges that I have is they’re not — like most groups — high-level sight readers,” Gemberling said.

“So it’s hard to get a feel of ‘is this gonna be a good tune for them’ during the first read.”

“My brother Al always said, ‘Quality literature, you have to live with for a while.’

“So we continue to work on it and experience it and the payoff is seeing their faces walking off stage and I’m always there to congratulate them as they’re done with the concert.

“I like helping them experience the joy of playing the quality literature well — going through the process.

“The performance on stage only happens once with an audience, so I like to embrace the process and put it together.”

Stage performances will have to be on hold for a while, so “the process” will definitely need to be embraced these days.

Whatever happens next, 30 years of Walla Walla Valley Bands is something to certainly be proud of for Mitchell.

“I see a bright future for this group,” Mitchell said.

“It’s pretty exciting. I hope to play for another 15 years or so. I think I can play when I’m 85.”

Through Mitchell’s efforts and Gemberling’s guidance, 80 musicians are no longer seeing their instruments collect dust in the corner.

Perhaps as the quarantine continues, more and more musicians will do the same.

As soon as the dates for new performances for the Walla Walla Valley Bands are available, they will be published in Marquee and online at union-bulletin.com.

Jedidiah Maynes can be reached at jedidiahmaynes@wwub.com or 509-526-8318.

Jedidiah Maynes is the managing editor of Walla Walla Lifestyles magazine. He also writes about business news in the Valley and covers a variety of others topics on occasion. He enjoys making music and puns.