FENTON — The sounds of the Fenton Community Orchestra surge from the parking lot behind the high school on a clear spring evening.
It’s a standard orchestral warm-up — but it’s the first time the musicians have played together since March of 2020.
“Most of the community bands and orchestras in the state are in the same position we are, and they haven’t played together for a long time,” FCO Director Andrew Perkins says. On this night, they’ve assembled to socialize and eventually play some favorite music together. There’s no audience, save for a few family members watching from lawn chairs.
The pandemic had ended their weekly rehearsals and regular public performances, which drew hundreds.
Perkins says his orchestra tried meeting in small groups or over video call, which didn’t work for them. But as businesses reopened and mask mandates were lifted, performance groups were also able to return to the stage and the practice spaces.
He says some community ensembles in Michigan have closed or reorganized, but his group has been lucky. The FCO had 149 members before the pandemic; 119 are signed up now.
“As I look around here, tonight, there’s many new faces,” Perkins says. “So any membership that we may have lost, it looks like we’re about to pick right up with new faces. And that’s exciting, too.”
According to the League of American Orchestras, there were 1,600 groups across the country before the pandemic and most survived or created a new entity.
Perkins says his group is poised to make a robust return to the stage. However, this gathering is not a rehearsal nor a public performance. The first priority was just socializing and catching up.
Musicians in casual clothing hug and greet each other, eventually making their way to the chairs arranged concert-style in the parking lot to prepare their instruments.
Brian Moe of Deerfield Township checks the valves of his aged, brass tuba. He says many of these musicians were missing their social life without rehearsals and concerts. “It’s a reunion so to say of musicians,” he says.
The Fenton Community Orchestra is a multi-generational group, with preteens and octogenarians playing together.
George Hameline is one of the eldest members of the orchestra at 86. He plays the baritone horn.
“Baritone horn is not an orchestra instrument,” Hameline says. “But Andy [Perkins] lets me play anyway. I get trumpet parts and bass clarinet parts.”
Hameline says despite seeing groups again, he’s not nervous about COVID-19. He’s vaccinated and is looking forward to a full orchestra schedule in the fall.
“Missed orchestra. Missed going to church, missed church choir,” Hameline says. “But everything is starting to pick up a little bit now.”
Cameron Carleson, 16, plays the flute and is going to keep his mask nearby if needed.
“And especially at school, we still have to wear it because younger kids are still getting vaccinated,” Carleson says. “So it’s just a little strange not wearing it almost.”
Eventually the din changes from excited chatter to tuning instruments, and Perkins steps to the podium, baton in hand.
“This is for us,” he says. “We all have missed making actual music with actual people without a screen, and earbuds and all kinds of stuff that gets in the way … so, let’s make music.”
He takes them through scales and eventually several familiar song selections.
While many were for fun, one was chosen as a lament or memorial for orchestra members who may have lost someone due to the pandemic. “Londonderry Air” also known as “Danny Boy,” drifts delicately across the high school grounds as the select few family members watch and film with their phones.
The music crescendoes with “The Barber of Seville,” after which the group claps and laughs together. Clarinetists Cheryl Kopplin of Davisburg and Janelle Chopp of Tyrone Township share a hug.
“I’m just so happy to be back,” Kopplin says. “I just missed this so much. The camaraderie, the playing … it’s like heaven, again.” She says the lack of a musical outlet was bad for her sleep.
Chopp says she missed the creativity of music in her life for 15 months, specifically “…the expression part of it … there’s been a piece that’s been missing, and now it’s back.”
The Fenton Community Orchestra hopes to return with an in-person season with regular rehearsals and performances this fall.
As cases of the delta variant of COVID-19 increase nationwide, Perkins says they’ll be following any official federal, state and local guidance. He says they’re planning for several scenarios in case of renewed restrictions. “We are trying to be as proactive as possible while staying open to the possibility that we may have to pull it back again if things decline,” he says.
Listen: The Fenton Community Orchestra musicians dust off some familiar tunes together.