Posted April 25, 2013

The Night Owls, a band that "serves everyone"

Campus/community ensemble to perform April 29 at TPAC

Night Owls founder and conductor Deborah Sheldon conceived the idea for a Temple community band while studying Italy's town bands during a 2010 sabbatical leave.

The Temple University Night Owls Campus/Community Band hasn't earned GRAMMY nominations or recorded CDs like its sister ensembles at the Boyer College of Music and Dance. Some Night Owls members haven't picked up an instrument in decades, and many admit they struggle to learn their parts quickly.

But the Night Owls are doing something no other band at Temple or anywhere else in Philadelphia has done — their no-tryout, come-one-come-all approach is patching a hole in American music education and bringing together diverse communities of musicians of all ages from throughout the region to make music.

Night Owls members range in age from 14 to 77. Some walk a few blocks to get to weekly Monday evening rehearsals, others drive from as far away as Harrisburg. About two-thirds have some relationship to Temple (mostly students, faculty, staff and their children); others are members of the community at-large, from retired music instructors to local high school students. Some Night Owls are playing again after putting aside a beloved instrument for years; others are highly-trained student musicians performing with their secondary instrument.

What they all have in common is a love of music. There are no auditions. The only criteria of membership, says Boyer music education professor and Night Owls founder and conductor Deborah Sheldon: "You have to be able to read music somewhat and have some ability on your instrument. We open our doors to everybody."

The promise of a low-stress, high-reward communal music experience attracted far more interest than Sheldon anticipated when she created the Night Owls in Spring 2012. "I thought we'd be lucky to get 20 people to sign up; we got 60 members that first semester. The next semester it had grown to more than 90. Now we have 96," she said.

But why would a world-class music school that's in the business of training elite artists create a band for — well, anyone?

"As a music educator, my belief is that participation is beneficial for everyone at every level, from the cradle until they close the lid on us," Sheldon said. "In American music education, the focus is largely on pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Night Owls fills a void."

In many cultures, community bands play a critical role in music education, Sheldon noted. While in Europe on sabbatical leave in 2010, Sheldon studied Italy's town bands, some of which have been active since the 19th century. Children in these towns don't learn music in school, Sheldon explained. Instead, they learn to play from musicians in the town band. In the United States, schools handle much of the musical education, and community bands aren't nearly as prevalent.

The Night Owls create multiple positive feedback loops that benefit all involved. Older members rekindle their passion and pass on their wisdom to younger members. Younger Night Owls meet role models for life-long musical engagement. Temple students who have put their instrument aside to pursue other disciplines get a stimulating break from their studies, while music education majors gain insights that will help make them better teachers. Boyer graduate students, many of whom get a turn at conducting the Night Owls, benefit from precious time with the baton. And everyone, regardless of background, has fun and builds new connections.

"It builds understanding," Sheldon said. "Music is good for the soul. We're offering a chance to share soulfulness together."

Peg Dissinger, who earned a master's degree in clarinet performance from Temple in 1966, joined the Night Owls because she thought it would be "a great opportunity to get back in shape and play with a group again." It worked. "I'm starting to feel like a musician again," she said. "I particularly like the fact that there's an age range from college students all the way up to [Temple alumnus Walter Johnson '57] and me."

Student Night Owls find the experience just as rewarding. "When I hear the band warming up, I always get excited," said saxophonist Kodilorah "DeeDee" Okoye, a freshman in Temple's College of Science and Technology, at a recent rehearsal. "I plan my day around this. I do all my work early. It's the highlight of my day."