FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) - Like many Army veterans residing in Fairbanks, Fairbanks Community Band conductor Greg Balvanz got to sample living in different communities across the country before deciding where to retire.
He chose Fairbanks because of the people, he said. Specifically, because people are nice and friendly here, but also because they’re idiosyncratic.
“I kind of like that they’re a little quirky. When you meet people that are quirky, they’re not really judgmental. And you don’t find that all over the world,” Balvanz said in an interview this month while taking a break from building a handicap ramp for his wife’s occupational therapy business. When he’s not playing or conducting music, Balvanz operates handyman business Living Well.
Being nonjudgmental is an important skill for his current role as the Fairbanks Community Band maestro. It’s a world away from his previous conducting work in the U.S. Army, where he directed elite musicians in military bands throughout the country, including the Alaska-based 9th Army Band during a stint in Fairbanks between 2001 and 2004.
Even though the community band musicians are volunteers, he holds them to a high standard. At a recent rehearsal, Balvanz stopped the band many times to make suggestions, peppered with dry jokes.
“If it were up to me, I’d get rid of the breath marks but I know you guys need to breathe sometimes,” he said as he helped the clarinet section with its phrasing on a countermelody to “America the Beautiful” called “Amber Waves of Grain.”
CLARINETIST BY CHANCE, CONDUCTOR BY CHOICE
The clarinet was Balvanz’s first wind instrument. After a brief and unsuccessful set of piano lessons, Balvanz found himself playing the clarinet because he was sick the day instruments were assigned in his 5th-grade band in Iowa City. He learned what he’d be playing after his mother called the band director.
“She told me, ‘You’re playing clarinet.’ And, of course, I said, ‘What’s a clarinet?’” Balvanz said. “So she gave me a Pete Fountain album and told me to go downstairs and listen to it. So that was it.”
Balvanz liked playing the clarinet and the music from the jazz clarinetist. His lifelong interest in music began.
Balvanz later switched to the tenor saxophone, which he plays today in the UAF Wind Symphony. But, more than any instrument, Balvanz enjoys conducting. He directed his high school marching band as a drum major and later worked for seven years as a middle and high school music teacher in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
What does he like about conducting? Balvanz stopped to think a moment before answering the question.
“The best part about being a conductor is when the band is able to musically rise above the black and white page of music in front of them,” he said. “Music is expressed emotion, and when you can get past the mechanics and the technique and play with emotion as an ensemble, that’s the best feeling of all. And it’s not just me. Everyone can tell.”
As much as he likes conducting, in 1988, Balvanz was burned out with teaching and decided to audition to be a musician in the Army. He chose to audition with the clarinet because it’s much lighter than the tenor sax and he knew as a soldier he’d need to haul it around. Plus, clarinets were in demand in military bands at the time, so there were more opportunities for advancement.
In Balvanz’s 25-year career in the Army, he played with military bands in North Carolina, Germany and Texas. He became commander of bands in 1996 and conducted bands in Alabama; Fort Wainwright; Washington, D.C.; and Washington state.
A few years after completing basic training and military music school, Balvanz was sent to Saudi Arabia with the 82nd Airborne Division as the military prepared for Operation Desert Storm. In those days, Army musicians had secondary job responsibilities as military policemen.
“We played for troops and dignitaries before the war started,” he said. “When we started bombing, all the instruments went into storage and we supplemented the MPs.”
Balvanz was eventually moved to the infamous “Highway of Death” in Iraq. He helped supervise the prisoners taken along the heavily bombed Iraqi convoy on the road connecting Iraq and Kuwait.
The military occupational specialty of musicians has since changed so that they’re no longer required to be backup military police during wartime.
RETURN TO FAIRBANKS
Balvanz joined the community band after moving back to Fairbanks in 2012 and seeing the band’s holiday concert. He became the conductor in 2015.
The band is a constantly changing ensemble of between 40 and 50 musicians that rehearses on Thursday nights at a former television studio in the south Fairbanks industrial area. The band performs four main seasonal concerts a year and also supports community events such as the Golden Days Parade, the Tanana Valley State Fair and the return of veterans to Fairbanks after trips to war memorials in Washington, D.C., through the Honor Flights program.
The community band composition changes based on the seasons and the waxing and waning interests of the amateur musicians. Some musicians have been with the band for more than 20 years, others have joined the band after more than a decade away from playing their instruments.
Balvanz is always recruiting for the band. These days, he said it could really use the help of a few more flute and percussion players, but he can find a place for anyone who can play music. In his experience with the band, nobody who wants to play has been turned away.
“These are not professional musicians, but they enjoy it to the point where they take it seriously,” he said. “You’ve heard the term ‘greater than the sum of all its parts’? That’s how they play.”
Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com
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