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Old Lyme Town Band members dust off their instruments

Old Lyme — The Town Band is back — again.

The original Old Lyme Town Band began in 1886, when musicians rehearsed in a room at Shore and Ferry roads and continued performing until 1910, the band's website says. It wasn't until 1975 that Michele Smith Dickey, the granddaughter of one of the original members, decided to resurrect the band in preparation for the country's bicentennial celebration.

The second incarnation of the Old Lyme Town Band was in continuous operation for more than 45 years — until the coronavirus pandemic forced a hiatus early last year.

Now, with the band's roughly 40 members resuming weekly rehearsals at Christ the King Church in Old Lyme, things look a bit different than they did before.

Chairs and music stands at Monday evening's practice were spread out in a circle instead of rows so that the musicians wouldn't have to blow on the person in front of them. Some wore face masks with slits to allow the mouthpieces through, and woodwind and brass instruments sported bell covers to slow the spread of aerosols.

Another significant change was the man standing at the center of the circle: newly hired band director Rich Chiappetta. The retired high school teacher replaced band director Carolyn Whinnem after she decided to relocate to be closer to family.

Chiappetta's gestures were wide and flowing as he spoke above the music to describe the "legato" approach of a work called "Yorkshire Ballad." It is a composition meant to evoke the green valleys of northern England, according to composer James Barnes.

"Here we go, nice and easy," Chiappetta told the ensemble. "There's nothing staccato in this piece."

Chiappetta retired in 2017 from a 41-year career as a public school band director. He taught for renowned music programs at schools including Trumbull High School, East Lyme High School and Robert E. Fitch High School in Groton.

He describes community bands as an important opportunity for musicians — such as his former students — once they leave the high school band room. "I really believe in the community band because I hate to see them give up playing when they get into their busy lives," he said.

The band rehearses for two hours once a week year-round, Chiappetta said. It performs in numerous summer concerts and at several holiday events.

"It's a lifelong activity that I think keeps people sharp, because it's a mental thing, it's a physical thing," he said. "The more people that can dust off their instruments and join these local groups, the better."

And for some, it's a family thing.

Michele Smith Dickey has remained a part of the band since she resurrected it in the '70s. Now, her daughter, Lauren Girasoli, and son-in-law, Brian Girasoli, of Old Lyme, have joined in.

Brian said he started playing in the ensemble in 2010 at the urging of Travis and Sue Board, two friends from his marching band days at the University of Connecticut. He occasionally works as a copy editor and designs newspaper pages for The Day.

Despite not having picked up the euphonium — that's an instrument similar to a baritone horn — in the 12 years since he'd departed UConn, Brian decided to give the community band a try.

"And I found I liked it," he said. "Then I met Lauren, and yadda yadda yadda, here we are."

Yadda, yadda yadda includes a 2016 wedding and the birth of daughter Cecilia, now 2 years old.

He noted that Lauren, a percussionist, got started in the band when she was around 12 years old.

"Now maybe our daughter will be able to play when she's a teenager, too," he said.

His friends Travis and Sue Board of Deep River represent another multigenerational aspect of the band. Members since 2009, they are now joined by daughter Audrey, a 10th grader at Valley Regional High School.

Sue recalled Audrey coming home from school back in fourth grade to announce she'd decided to play the clarinet, which the young musician described herself as "oddly good at." Last year, she was selected as the prestigious first chair in the clarinet section at school.

Travis said his daughter can be a little reluctant to come to the Monday night rehearsals when she already gets band time at school. But he said there's a lot of value in learning from the other members.

The varied hobbyists in the group work day jobs as teachers, lawyers and dentists, among many others. Students and retirees fill out either end of the wide spectrum.

"We know that playing with more experienced musicians makes you a better musician," Travis said.

Chiappetta said the idea of the community band as a lifelong activity holds true for him as a music director. While he also works as a substitute teacher for a select group of band directors in Waterford, Groton and Ledyard as needed, he said the Old Lyme band gives him the opportunity to continue to do what he loves on a regular basis.

"When you've been a band director for your whole life and then all the sudden it stops, you kind of miss it," he said.

Chiappetta plays the drums. He is also a brass player who picks up the trumpet, trombone and baritone horn at least once a week to keep his "chops in shape," he said.

This year's schedule of concerts includes stops at Soundview Beach in Old Lyme, the Old Saybrook Town Green, the Thankful Arnold House in Haddam and a holiday performance at The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center on Dec. 15.

Chiappetta said audiences of all ages will find something to like, from John Williams' "Star Wars Theme" to Percy Grainger's "Country Gardens."

"It's basically a tune that everybody, once they hear it, will be able to whistle back," he said of the catchy Grainger piece.

Band librarian Ann Lander of Old Lyme maintains the band's catalogue of more than 500 musical pieces. She was there for the band's formation more than 45 years ago and never left.

In between keeping up the library and helping to promote the club, Lander is a French horn player. And, at this week's Monday evening rehearsal, the veteran of the community band could be seen at the bass drum during the percussion-heavy "You're a Grand Old Flag."

Lander, a retired French teacher who spent the final 22 years of her career at Valley Regional High School, exemplifies the lifelong community band musician.

"In my younger days when I was working, it was a break from teaching. You forgot about teaching for those two hours you were here rehearsing," she said. "And now in my retirement years, it's probably the same."

e.regan@theday.com  

Editor's Note: This version corrects the spelling of band director Rich Chiappetta's last name.

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