Making music after COVID: Prairie Winds Concert Band seeks new and returning members – West Central Tribune


WILLMAR — The day the music died for local musicians hit like a thunderbolt last year when COVID-19 restrictions made it impossible for bands like the

Willmar Region Symphony Orchestra

and the

Prairie Winds Concert Band

to rehearse and play.

For more than an entire year, local musicians and producers did not play music together in the same room, and audiences did not hear musicians from their community play.

That’s about to change.

As more people get vaccinated and safety protocols are put in place, local musicians and producers are reconnecting, rehearsing and planning to return to the stage.

It’s a step forward for musicians who missed playing their instruments with their colleagues and for audiences who missed listening to live music.

Music directors are hoping musicians — and audiences — will show up.

It was 9:25 a.m. on March 13, 2020 and members of the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra were on stage and ready to play a 10 a.m. concert for several hundred third graders arriving by bus.

That’s when school officials learned the concert was canceled due to COVID-19.

The buses turned around and the musicians put their instruments away and went home.

“It was awful,” said Bob Whitney, an oboe player with the orchestra who was also chairman of the board at the time.

Not only was that concert canceled, but all rehearsals and concerts scheduled for the rest of the year were cancelled.

The Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra performs a concert in March 2019 at the Willmar Education and Arts Center. Erica Dischino/West Central Tribune file photo

The orchestra had not played together in person until the members rehearsed last week at the Willmar Education and Arts Center.

Following mask-wearing and six-foot distancing guidelines, orchestra members were back on stage at WEAC for their first rehearsal in over a year.

Although some members of the orchestra may have left their instruments in the closet for 12 months, the group “sounded pretty good compared to what I expected,” said Frank Lawatsch, violinist and current president of the board of directors.

“It’s always good to get together to play music,” he says. “It really is a thrill.”

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Due to spacing requirements, musicians do not have a partner sharing a desk. Lawatsch joked that he was going to have to learn to count better without having a partner to lean on. “It’s different from what we’re used to,” he said.
Under the direction of Stephen Ramsey, who travels to Willmar from the Twin Cities, the orchestra will continue weekly rehearsals and perform a free concert on May 15 at WEAC, when the 2021 Young Artist Award winners perform with the band.

To make up for lost time, the orchestra plans to give a few concerts this summer before resuming the fall rehearsal schedule in September.

Due to COVID, the Prairie Winds Concert Band‘s summer concert series did not take place at all in 2020 and the group of musicians have not practiced together since the fall of 2019.

“COVID has ruined so many things, including our entire season last year,” said Dennis Benson, who leads the summer band of musicians who perform outdoor concerts, usually in June. “I miss it a lot,” he said. “I miss leading the group. I miss playing.


Dennis Benson conducts during the Prairie Winds Concert Band on August 8, 2019 on the opening day of the Kandiyohi County Fair in Willmar. Erica Dischino/West Central Tribune file photo

Plans are now in place for the summer band to perform their first outdoor concert on June 9 at Robbins Island Park.

Additional concerts will take place on June 16, 23 and 30.

The band practices at 6 p.m. in the park on these dates, and concerts start at 7:30 p.m.

The band usually plays familiar music, like Broadway tunes, marches, and patriotic songs.

Benson rallies the troops and hopes that most of the old crew will return and new members will join as well.

“We rested for a year, so let’s get back together and make music together,” he said.

Benson tried to contact the musicians to see how many would return. Knowing that many members are already vaccinated could be “a game-changer”, he said. Although the group this year may be smaller than in the past, Benson said he’s “really optimistic it will work out.”

Since the concerts take place outdoors, he hopes that the public will be eager to come and listen.


A crowd watches the first performance of the Prairie Winds Concert Band on June 6, 2018 for their summer concert series at Robbins Island in Willmar. Erica Dischino/West Central Tribune file photo

Picking up where bands left off a year ago could be tough.

“The real thing is to get your momentum back,” said Brock Duncan, director of the Prairie Winds Concert Band’s fall-spring concert series, which typically plays uplifting classical music.

“We have to find and find people,” said Duncan, who is also the Benson School District’s music director.

The last time this group of musicians practiced was March 2, 2020.

Duncan is in the process of contacting former members to find out who will be returning. Even though their first gig isn’t until November, Duncan needs to know the lineup of the members and the instruments they play now in order to plan repertoire before practice begins in September.

“People are finding other ways to fill their time,” said Duncan, who fears the lack of continuity and momentum will make it difficult for people to get back into the routine of being in an organized band.

“I have to sign up for their calendars before they start filling that time,” he said. “We want our people to come back.”


Mary Miller plays flute during the Prairie Winds Concert Band’s first performance for their Summer Concert Series on June 6, 2018 at Robbins Island in Willmar. Erica Dischino/West Central Tribune file photo

At the moment, the group is “on hiatus”, but they encourage the members to continue training on their own so that they are in good shape for the concert season.

The Prairie Winds Concert Band’s core group is made up of people from communities including Willmar, Benson, Litchfield, Montevideo, New London and Spicer who are dedicated musicians and love to perform, Duncan said. A number of accomplished musicians from area high schools also play with the band.

“It’s just a great way to make music with a community of people who love making music,” Duncan said. “It’s a wonderful way to give back to the community.”

Mary Pieh and her husband, Tim, from New London, have played for years with the Prairie Winds Concert Band and the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra.

“Tim and I are here because we are amateur musicians and music lovers,” said Mary Pieh. “It’s an uplifting and rich experience to play in a band.”

She plays the French horn and her husband plays the trombone and the timpani, which is a type of drum.

Opportunities to play in an orchestra and band help make the community an attractive place for professionals to live and work, Pieh said. It was a factor when they decided to move to the area in 1989, when Tim took a job here as an ophthalmologist.

Pieh has been involved in writing grants which, along with private donations and funding from local foundations, are necessary for the operation of community arts organizations.

Ticket sales are nowhere near providing the needed revenue, she said.

Like many other members, Pieh said she can’t wait to start rehearsing with the other musicians and get back on stage to bring live music back to the community.

Music is the “best thing in my life,” she said.


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