Chemical City Band is a Midland tradition

For the past 114 years, residents of Midland and the surrounding communities have gathered in outdoor spaces each week during the summer to enjoy free concerts performed by the Chemical City Band.

The Chemical City Band performs on July 5 in Central Auditorium in Midland. The performance was moved from the usual location of the Nicholson-Guenther Band Shell in Midland’s Central Park due to weather concerns.
Is it common for a musical ensemble to remain active for so many years? Chemical City Band director Steve DeRees says it’s more common than you might think.

“All across America, there are little evening band concerts going on outdoors and it reaches back over a century,” DeRees explains. The Chemical City Band plays at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesdays at the Nicholson-Guenther Band Shell in Midland’s Central Park.
Steve DeRees is the Chemical City Band director.
DeRees, who played in the band himself for 21 seasons, is now in his seventh season as band director. He believes that the longevity of the band is due largely to a strong support for music and the arts throughout Midland’s schools and institutions. “There’s been an ongoing point of pride and tradition that we have a strong interest in the arts, and then specifically down to our concert band,” he says. 

The band is comprised of musicians ranging in age, from high school students to retirees. But what they all have in common is a strong skill set and a professional approach to music.
Dick Scott, 76, has performed with the band since 1979.
Dick Scott first began playing clarinet with the Chemical City Band in the summer of 1979, when he was 31 years old. He is now in his 45th season at age 76, and has served as the band’s treasurer since 2010. “I just enjoy playing, and it’s a nice bunch of people to be around,” he says. 

On the other end of the spectrum, saxophone player Cara Bucci is one of the band’s younger members. Bucci is 16 and going into her junior year at Midland High School. Bucci joined the band after hearing about it from a few of her friends, who were band members at the time. “My friends told me that it was a really good sight-reading experience,” she says.  
Cara Bucci, 16, left, is one of the band's younger members.
During their playing season, the band gathers for a rehearsal every Monday evening to learn the music they’ll be performing just two days later in their weekly concert. Contrastingly, for the high school band, students like Bucci have months to practice the music they’ll perform at the end of each semester.

The Chemical City Band serves as a crash course in sight-reading, which high school students are tested on when they try out for the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association All-State Band. “So it’s really important to me to start practicing this stuff, because I want to try to get All-State next year,” Bucci says. 

It’s also an opportunity to learn from seasoned musicians. “These people have been doing this longer than I’ve been alive. So just hanging out with them, seeing what they do, and, like, just talking to them and hearing their experiences is really helpful,” Bucci adds. 
Mara Stewart plays flute.
Even for flute player Mara Stewart, a 2008 Dow High School graduate who has played with the band for about 10 years, the fast pace keeps her skills honed. “I kind of think of Chemical City Band as like my band boot camp, so to speak,” she says. 

Stewart also plays in the Midland Concert Band, which runs throughout the school year, is open to all musicians who choose to join, and rehearses for multiple weeks before each performance. “So I love that, because it’s just there for everybody,” said Stewart.

To join the Chemical City Band, a musician must be invited by the band director. This ensures that players are able to keep up with the faster pace and the sight-reading challenge.

Stewart feels lucky to have grown up in Midland, where there are so many opportunities for musicians. “I feel really connected to the music scene here. I think we’re really lucky to have the music that we do,” she says. 
The band draws an audience of all ages.
One of her favorite aspects of the Chemical City Band is that the concerts are free. “To have a free outdoor concert every week for a month and a half in the summer is just spectacular,” she says. “If you have young kids, they can still run around, they can go to that little playground, a lot of people will bring their dogs, so it’s really a non-scary way to introduce people to music.”

DeRees says that a long-term goal of the band is to foster the next generation of musicians, and to keep the tradition alive. “If we can get another generation of audience members and concertgoers and maybe even future players, we’re really interested in that,” he says..

Scott explained that for many years, the band was sponsored by the City of Midland’s Parks and Recreation department. “But in either late 2009 or early 2010 the city was pruning its budget, and decided that they weren’t going to sponsor the band anymore,” he says. 

The Chemical City Band performs on July 5.
That’s when the band was set up as a tax exempt nonprofit organization, and began applying for grants to receive funding. Today, the band is supported through a combination of donations from the community and grants from both the Alden and Vada Dow Family Foundation and the Gerstacker Foundation.
A drum serves as a donation collection bin.
Additionally, an endowment fund was started through the Midland Area Community Foundation. “The goal was to eventually build up the endowment fund to the point where the earnings from that would support the band, and we wouldn’t have to rely on the grants. But that’s a long way off,” explains Scott.

In the meantime, DeRees hopes to do his part to keep this long-standing Midland tradition alive, and set it up for success in the future. “My hope is for another 100 years,” he says.

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Read more articles by Katy Kildee.

Katy Kildee, a Flint native, is a freelance photojournalist and she teaches part-time at her alma mater, CMU. She was the staff photographer for five years at the Midland Daily News. She hopes to further develop her passion and skill as a visual storyteller while continuing to learn as much as she can about the world around her.