Strike Up The Band
A community bonds through love of music.
They're mothers with full-time jobs looking for a musical outlets, retirees reconnecting with their instruments and high school students seizing an opportunity to play with more experienced musicians.
They call themselves the Night Owls and they are here to play.
The first thing you hear are the flutes, followed by a cacophony of clarinets, trombones, piccolos and then the crash of a timpani drum. It's Monday night in Presser Hall and more than 90 musicians are crowded into a rehearsal space, warming up before practice begins.
You might assume you're hearing students from the Temple University Symphony Orchestra or the Diamond Marching Band, but you'd be wrong. Though a majority of this band is made up of students who are usually non-music majors, a significant number of participants are not college-aged at all.
"Sound is the string that tethers this community together," says Deborah Confredo, a professor of music education in Boyer College of Music and Dance, and Night Owls' founder and conductor. "If you want to play, you're welcome to join. It doesn't matter if you haven't touched an instrument since grade school or you're just learning the basics. Night Owls is open to everyone."
It's time to officially start rehearsal. Confredo takes the conductor's spot in the center of the hall and cues the music. Petite in stature with a booming voice, Confredo leads the band into Led Zeppelin on Tour, and the entire room fills with the caucous sound of heavy metal arranged for a full band.
Pamela Fortune, SMC '96, and her sister Priscilla Fortune-Bell sit together in the flute section. Pamela leans over to whisper something in her sibling's ear. They giggle for a moment, and then it's back to work.
The sisters grew up learning to play their flutes side by side, practicing after school and on weekends and competing with each other to see who could master their latest sheet music first. When they entered high school, they both put their flutes down to pursue other musical interests. For Pamela it was the trombone, and Priscilla, two years younger, took to the strings and played the cello.
It was Pamela's idea to join the Night Owls. She eventually coaxed her sister into joinng her.
"It had been a long time since we played our instruments," Priscilla says. "I told her, if there's an audition, we could forget about it."
Confredo assured them it wasn't perfection she was looking for, but rather an honest interest in participating in a community of musicians and the ability to read a little sheet music.
Their time together quickly became part of their Monday night ritual. Pamela, senior adminstrator at JPMorgan Chase and a Delaware resident, would pick up her sister from her home in Media, Pennsylvania, before heading north to Temple. At the end of the evening, they would get their brother from Center City and travel back west to Sharon Hill for dinner with their parents.
When their brother died suddenly in 2014, maintaining their ritual was difficult but necessary.
"We have a lot of history with these instruments," Pamela says. "My parents had a six-alarm fire a few years back. My brother found the flutes. They were some of the few things to survive the fire."
Priscilla still gets a little nostalgic about her brother when the band plays holiday music, but she finds respite in the chance to sit with Pamela for a few hours each week.
"It's nice to have a little creative time with my sister," says Pricilla, who works full time as a physical therapy assistant. "Spending Mondays rehearsing is the best way for me to begin my week."
Laurie Ayler, CLA '00, SSW '02, was drawn to the trumpet in seventh grade. When she started college at Temple, she joined the Diamond Marching Band, and that's where she found a sense of belonging.
Joining the Night Owls gave Ayler an opportunity to reconnect to a community of musicians.
The two hours she spends with her bandmates every Monday helps her decompress from the demands of her day job. "It's nice to come here, use my brain in a different way, play my horn and practice some self-care," says Ayler, a child advocate and social worker.
The ability for music to have a therapeutic effect on both musicians and concertgoers has been well-documented. But music also has the power to really cement a community, says Confredo.
Confredo stumbled upond the idea for Night Owls while studying company and community bands in Japan and town bands in Italy, where they are common and popular-- some have been around since the 19th century. She learned that community bands give all who participate the feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves.
"In the U.S., the schools are usually the place where students first learn to play an instrument. In Italy, many folks learn as young children while seated next to an adult in the town bands," says Confredo.
John El, a 15-year-old music major at the Kesington High School for the Performing Arts, was recruited into the Night Owls band by flutist John Young.
"I've been exposed to a lot of different types of music-- jazz, rock, classical," says El, who joined the band when he was 13. "I get a lot of support from older musicians here."
Young also recruited trumpet player Jim Sheppard who travels from Burlington Township, New Jersey, to Temple after full workdays as an aviation safety inspector at Philadelphia Internation Airport. Occasionally, the two practice together.
"I was playing at the Philadelphia Clef Club with a local jazz band, and a guy came backstage and said, "Hey, I play with this community band; you should try it and learn another flavor of music," says Sheppard. "I'm glad I did. I've met a lot of interesting people. It's definitely made me a better player."
Walter Johnson, FOX '57, is one of the oldest Night Owls.
"I played with alumni band during football games," says the 80-year-old flutist who hails from West Philadelphia. "When I heard they were starting this band and there were no auditions for it, I figured I could play. This is the first time I've played with a large band in 50 years."
He credits Confredo with giving him the chance to return to doing something he loves. "I don't worry about trying to keep up with the younger folks," says Johnson. "I'm here to have fun. And I do."