The making of a band

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Photo by Laura J. Gates

— By LAURA J. GATES

Special to The Banner

Maybe it was a case of, “What comes around goes around.” Or perhaps Sylvia Schraff was actually “paying it forward.” The Bonita Springs retiree once had a friend steer her life in a new direction, and Schraff was about to do the same for her good friend and accomplished musician, Dr. Dennis R. Hill.

Hill, who was retiring from Edison State College in 2008 after 41 years teaching and conducting bands and orchestras, was about to get a surprise proposal from Schraff. She had already rallied a group of local musicians, ready to spring the question to Hill: Would he consider directing a community band in Bonita Springs?

Before the night was through, Schraff had the commitment she was seeking, and Hill had a new retirement plan.

“I thought I would be fishing,” he joked. “I guess I’ll do that on my second retirement.”

The Bonita Springs Concert Band (BSCB) is now in its third season, with 60 to 80 members and hundreds of local fans.

“We’ve really surprised ourselves with the success in less than three years,” Hill said. “Sylvia was right, and the time was right. It was something the community and the city really wanted.”

The turn of events was reminiscent of Schraff’s own retirement from a notable career in nursing, culminating with a position as CEO of an in-home nursing agency in Pennsylvania. A friend of Schraff’s had been nagging her to join a community concert band, since Schraff had played clarinet years ago in school.

“The day after I retired, I got a call from my friend who said, ‘Now you have no excuse,’” Schraff recalls. “I had a good 45-year hiatus,” she adds with a smile. “I couldn’t blow a note.”

But Schraff was never one to shy away from a challenge. While working two high-powered careers, she and husband John opened a winery in 1987. Oak Spring Winery in Altoona, Pa., (now run by their son, Scott) blossomed from a garage operation to a 57-acre vineyard producing 6,500 cases annually.

“Sylvia is a dilettante that is the master of everything she has come across in her life,” said board member and French horn player Dwight Richardson.

Forming the Bonita Springs band required numerous hours: locating interested members, forming a board of directors, applying for nonprofit status, securing a practice location and a performance hall.

“I don’t know what I’d do with an idle moment,” jokes Schraff, who, besides running BSCB, also plays clarinet in the Naples Concert Band.

The local community and government officials have been wonderfully supportive, Schraff said. The city of Bonita Springs readily offered use of its concert shell at Riverside Park, where performances are scheduled monthly on Sunday afternoons from November through April. The next concert will feature holiday music and will be Dec. 12 at 2 p.m. (The complete program can be found at BonitaSpringsConcertBand.com.)

“The city has been so great to us,” Schraff said. “There were over 1,000 people at the first concert. It keeps growing and growing.”

The concerts are always free, but donations are gladly accepted. The band is currently saving for a set of four timpani, at a cost of $10,000. Other large instruments are borrowed from Three Oaks Middle School, which also allows the band to practice at the school on Thursday evenings.

While many of the musicians are retirees, the BSCB membership includes all ages. Arie Kavelaar, a snowbird from Ontario, is in his upper 80s and still going strong on the French horn. By contrast, percussionist Paige Harris is in middle school.

“It has helped her tremendously,” said Three Oaks Middle School Band Director Skip Perry, who is a BSCB founding member. “She gets to play much more difficult music than she would ever see in the typical middle school band program.”

Schraff estimates that 30 percent of the band’s members are former or current educators, and the community band boasts some very accomplished musicians. Percussionist Fred Eckler, who winters in Bonita Springs, plays as principal percussionist with New York City’s prestigious American Ballet Theater.

Yet many members, like Schraff, pursued other careers and cherish BSCB as their creative outlet.

“It’s really quite interesting because it’s a good mix,” Schraff said. “The people in the band really seem to get along together. It’s not elitist. It’s very representative of the community here, and I think that’s why it works.”

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