In the early 1970s, statewide legislation known as the “Minnesota Miracle” changed the statewide distribution of funds among governmental units like cities, counties, and school districts. In Eden Prairie, that meant that high school band teacher Emmet (“Em”) Stark lost school funding for the summer lessons he’d been giving his students, but realized that there was an opportunity for city support for a band program.
“I went to the city, and the people who made the decision at the city level thought it was a good idea. So that’s how it got started,” Stark said of what became the Eden Prairie Community Band, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. A free celebration concert will be held Sunday, July 23, from 6-7:30 p.m. at the Staring Lake Amphitheatre. All former band directors will be attending and will be recognized. (In case of inclement weather, the event will be held at the CMS Performing Arts Center at Central Middle School.)
“My goal, besides doing a little reminiscing about what musically was going on in 1973, is going to be to show off some of the talented people we have in the band,” said current band director Tom Muehlbauer. “It’ll be a complete mixture of music, from opera to rock and roll.” Among the planned program is “West of Eden Prairie,” a composition by band member Clint Clark.
The All-Comers Band, as it was originally named, began in 1973 with 23 members, a mixture of high school students and adults, with Stark as the first director. It was a summer program through August 1981, becoming a year-round program in 1982. Current membership in the Eden Prairie Community Band concert band is over 60 people. It’s retained city support, with the City of Eden Prairie’s arts and events recreation coordinator handling their bookings.
Many members last played in high school
With no audition requirement, “Most people in our band are people who have played through high school or college and then put their instrument in the closet for 20 years and then decided, ‘Yeah, I’d like to do this again,’” Muehlbauer said.
“They’re kind of timid at first, kind of self-conscious,” noted long-time band member Fred Koppelman, a percussionist who joined the band in the early 1980s. “They end up coming right along, and after a while they’re doing just fine. There’s different fingerings for the clarinet and the saxophone and so forth; you never forget that, but it kind of goes in the back of your mind over the years.”
The Eden Prairie Community Band plays several outdoor concerts from May to July each year at a variety of venues that can include the Hopkins Raspberry Festival, Lake Harriet Band Shell or Centennial Lakes Park in Edina, among others, including the Staring Lake Amphitheatre. “Staring Lake, that’s our home spot, so we enjoy that,” Muehlbauer said. Winter performances include an annual Share the Warmth concert, where audience members are encouraged to donate food to the local food shelf and warm clothing to PROP Food and The PROP Shop, as well as performances at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, senior living homes, and school band festivals. Practices generally take place from September through June, with the band taking August off.
The performance schedule is a contrast to the early days, when Stark remembers limited public performances. After being transferred to a middle school teaching position in 1986, he said, “I was hoping that I could get a performing group going since I didn’t have it at the high school anymore.”
Stark recalled the band playing some public concerts in the mid-1980s, including at an Eden Prairie Fourth of July celebration at Round Lake Park, but “I would say that when we got into the ‘90s is when the band really started showing what its possibilities were.”
New in the 1990s: Staring Lake Amphitheatre, community musicals, Jazz on the Prairie Big Band
For one thing, Stark served on the city Arts Committee in the early 1990s. “And that’s when the concept of a performing site became known among the Arts Committee people and, of course, being that I was a band director, I was right at the front of promoting some kind of performance place, and so that’s when the Staring Lake Amphitheatre was eventually built,” Stark said.
Another reason for the band’s increase in performances was that Stark retired from teaching in 1995. “A lot of the performance-oriented things that the band did, that’s when it all got started is when I was no longer teaching in the school district, so I had lots of time to develop community programs.”
For instance, the first production of a musical, “L’il Abner,” took place in 1996 at the Staring Lake Amphitheatre. Members of the Eden Prairie Community Band continue to comprise the pit orchestra for musicals staged by the Eden Prairie Players community theater each summer.
Stark also created and was the first director of the Eden Prairie Community Band’s first ensemble group, the Jazz on the Prairie Big Band. Jazz on the Prairie will perform on July 23 following the concert band’s performance; it annually hosts a Festival of Jazz on the Prairie at Staring Lake Amphitheatre. Additional ensemble groups include The Prairie Ramblers traditional New Orleans style jazz band, The Prairie Brass quintet, Woodwind Jazz Ensemble and Woodwind Choir. A woodwind ensemble will perform at an open house hosted by the Eden Prairie Historical Society at the Cummins-Phipps-Grill House from 4 to 6 p.m. on Sunday, prior to the concert.
Stark, a trombonist, said he has occasionally sat in with the jazz band. “With a jazz ensemble, you don’t need a conductor as much as you just need somebody to organize the group because the music pretty much plays itself if you have the right people playing in the band,” he said.
Trips, musical selections highlight band members’ experience
Also in the 1990s, the band began international travel, representing the United States as part of the musical celebration of Austria’s millennium in 1996 and touring Italy and Switzerland in 1998. Subsequent trips have included China, Scotland, Ireland, and Greece. “That would definitely be some highlights, not only travel but travel with a real nice group of people,” said Muehlbauer, who joined the band in 1990 as a clarinet and saxophone player before becoming director in 2016.
Koppelman agreed that the band trips have been highlights of his participation and added, “We’ve played some pretty fun music through the years. We’ve played a lot of John Williams music, ‘Star Wars’ music, ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’ Some of those are pretty difficult. I would say the more difficult the music is, the more challenging, and the more enjoyable. The easy stuff is crowd-pleasing, but there’s not as much of a musical challenge as there is to some of the more difficult pieces.”
In his tenure as director, Muehlbauer said, he has tried to accomplish two things with his musical selections. “One is to pick what I thought was good music, regardless of the genre. I always tell ‘em that we play everything from opera to rock and roll, and we do. The second thing I try to do is try to give the audience some sort of validation as to why we’re taking their time and having them listen to this music. What is it about this particular piece of music: why was it important or under what situation was it written?”
Muehlbauer notes that the band is also planning for audience participation at Sunday’s 50th anniversary concert. They will pass out shakers to the audience, and, “We’ll have a couple of numbers in the show that’ll be specifically designed for that. I might even have ‘em sing along to one or two things,” he said.
With former band members and former band directors planning to attend the concert on July 23, Stark said, “I’m going to enjoy seeing everybody in the band. We had really almost a family atmosphere.” Muehlbauer said he’s also excited to see former band members and directors in attendance. He was unable to pinpoint a reason for the Eden Prairie Community Band’s longevity: “I just recently received an email from a band that was folding, and they were offering their music to any other band that wanted it,” he said. “I don’t know why some groups get to keep going.”
Koppelman took a philosophical view. “Music has been called a universal language,” he said. “You can go anywhere around the world and play music even if you can’t speak to people, but the music itself seems to speak to people.”
Em Stark retired as director of the Eden Prairie Community Band and Jazz on the Prairie in 1999. Other band directors have included Marilyn Rateike from 1999 through 2005 and Thomas Maeck from 2006 until Tom Muehlbauer took the role in 2016.
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