Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
BATTLE CREEK, MI — The Cereal City Concert Band is taking its show on the road next year via Austria and Prague.
, based in Battle Creek, is making the trip at the invitation of organizers of the 26th Mid-EUROPE Wind Band Music Festival
which is being held July 5-13, in Schladming, Austria. In 2023 the “prestigious festival brought together 22 countries and about 1800 foreign participants, with more than 10,000 spectators,” according to a press release from the CCCB.
The local Concert Band is among less than five from throughout the United States that have been extended an invitation to perform in the Mid-EUROPE Music Festival, says Dr. Stephen White, Conductor of the CCCB and Director of Music for St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Battle Creek. He knew about the Music Festival having performed in it while he was with the Corpus Christi (Texas) Wind Symphony.
“That Festival brings in a lot of military bands and professional ensembles from throughout the world. Normally it focuses on European groups because of the travel involved, but they extend an invitation to two, maybe four U.S. groups per year,” White says. “We had to submit recordings of our music and information about our band.”
In addition to performances, the annual festival includes indoor/outdoor concerts in the Schladming region, competitions, workshops, and master classes for conductors, the Mid-Instruments More Music Fair, and the Long Night of Music.
Besides its two performances in the Music Festival, the CCCB also will perform in Prague.
The decision to apply for the opportunity to perform in Austria came about because White says he wanted to challenge his group of 54 musicians to step up and do something that would take them out of their performance comfort zones.
These musicians either have day jobs or are in school.
“We’ve got high school students, including a sophomore from Marshall High School who will be playing the oboe at our February concert,” says Heather Lane-Fowler, Operations Manager and Treasurer for the CCCB. “We have more experienced musicians in their mid-80s who have been playing an instrument all their lives. We also have investment people, business managers at Comcast, and a number of ministers, band directors, and teachers.”
Some of the musicians are retired, including Lane-Fowler who has been playing flute with the concert band since its inception in 1987. She says she thinks she may be the last original member.
“We just come together for the love of performing music,” she says.
White says the opportunity for high school students to participate is “a great way for them to see that music can be a lifelong pursuit even if they choose not to do it as a profession.”
Unlike musicians in other bands, members of the CCCB volunteer their time and musical talent to the organization. The band performs three concerts each year at Pennfield High School’s Performing Arts Center with tickets priced at $5 for seniors, veterans, and students, and $10 for adults.
“We want to make sure that anybody can come to our concerts,” Lane-Fowler says.
Were it not for those who sponsor the concerts year after year, she says the CCCB likely would not be the thriving ensemble it has become.
White says the willingness of the musicians to play without the expectation of being paid and the focus on making the performances accessible is what makes the invitation to the Mid-Europe Music Festival all the more meaningful.
“I think it’s a testament to the quality of our music,” White says of being invited to perform. “When you listen to our recordings, you likely wouldn’t believe that all of our folks have jobs outside of music. We will be taking American music to Europe and no one will have a program quite like ours.”
The CCCB’s roots go back to 1987 when it was founded by 14 employees from various government agencies within the Hart Dole Inouye Federal Center in Battle Creek who played Christmas carols during their lunch hour. Among them was Lane-Fowler who retired from there in 2011 as a Supervisory Data Analyst there.
The group originated from a government agency, Quality Circle Change Initiative, which recommended that a Federal Center band be organized to play for internal Federal Center functions. The band grew and became known as Uncle Sam's Band before eventually changing its name to the Cereal City Concert Band.
While the majority of the CCCB’s members are from Battle Creek, there also are musicians from Kalamazoo, Lansing, Otsego, Plainwell, and Jackson.
“We have a large number of members who have music degrees and come back to this later in life,” White says.
Since assuming the role of CCCB Conductor in 2017, he says there has been a steady increase in the number of musicians auditioning for the band. He says this audition process allows him and Co-Conductor Amanda Burdette to get to know the auditioning musicians and figure out if they’ll be a good fit with the other musicians.
“In the last year we’ve probably auditioned 20 to 25 folks and not all of them have been accepted to play in the band,” White says. “When a person auditions and they’re not quite at the level we need them to be, we always give them other options because we do want them to continue playing. We always encourage them to feel free to come back and audition again.”
Post-pandemic, White says he thinks there’s been a real need and desire to be part of a community or group again. For musicians, the CCCB gives them opportunities to connect in a group where they can develop a sense of community in an ensemble.
“They remember the community they had in public schools when they were in a band and they can’t necessarily get it in their work or family environment. One night a week they get to be with folks who ‘get you and understand you,'” White says. “This is an outlet where we can come together and put all of the troubles of life away for a while. We want to let people new to the community know that there’s a spot for them.”
From her perspective as an original CCCB member, Lane-Fowler says she thinks more people are hearing about the band and want to be a part of a music ensemble that White consistently challenges to master more complicated pieces of music. At the same time, he challenges CCCB audiences through musical selections that have focused on the Civil Rights Movement or little-known composers.
“I think it’s the quality,” Lane-Fowler says. “As we have progressed over the years, we get better and better and that’s because we have really good musicians joining us. They have a commitment to the band. I keep saying that this is the band I always hoped it would be.”
The opportunity to showcase this musicianship in front of European audiences is exciting and one that comes with a hefty price tag.
The touring cost per band member is expected to be $4,500 to $5,000 per person.
“Ideally we would like to raise $200,000 which is going to be very challenging,” Lane-Fowler says. “We would like to make it possible for all of our musicians to go and not have the cost be a factor.”
Fundraising to cover these costs got underway when the CCCB learned earlier this month of their acceptance into the Music Festival. Donations may be made by contacting Lane-Fowler at 269-962-2153 or email@example.com.
Concerts in February and April offer additional opportunities to donate. The February 25 concert — “Festival Classics” — features musical selections familiar to band and audience members and the April 21 concert –—“Under the Big Top” — is a musical nod to the circus. Both concerts begin at 3 p.m. at the Pennfield High School Performing Arts Center.
“If people who attend want to add a few dollars on top of the cost of their tickets, that would go a long way to getting us to Austria,” Lane-Fowler says.