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Music to their ears: Hunt Valley Wind Ensemble sounds like good idea to growing number of members

In a little over four years since its inception, interest is growing in the Hunt Valley Wind Ensemble for local amateur musicians.

According to founder Jenn Ambrosiano, 12 newcomers showed up for the December rehearsal, swelling the concert band’s ranks to nearly 70 members.

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At least one newbie attended a January rehearsal at Dulaney High School as well.

Heeding a call for euphonium players, Spiro Antoniades joined the band for the rehearsal and said that the transition went smoothly.

The Homeland resident said that he was originally an organist in high school, and didn’t begin playing the euphonium — a brass instrument that looks like a smaller version of a tuba — until four years ago.

“I wanted my son to be a better [euphonium] player,” he said. “I wanted to encourage him by playing myself.”

Some of the musicians, including Shari Malowitz, a fitness instructor, also play in the organization’s 17-member jazz ensemble. There is also a brass ensemble, and there are plans to add a flute choir later this year.

“We are your ‘town band’ and are striving to be known as a household name in northern Baltimore County,” Ambrosiano said, listing past performances at the Maryland State Fair, Maryland Community Band Day events and at Dulaney and Parkville high schools as part of the wind ensemble’s résumé.

Like many others in the diverse group that boasts musicians in their teens to retirees, Malowitz said that she did not play an instrument for 25 years before joining the group at the behest of her longtime friend and fellow Cockeysville resident Ambrosiano.

Likewise, Parkton resident Len Pilius, a field rep for Volkswagen, hadn’t played the trombone in three decades until joining the group.

He’s now on the organization’s board and his son, Ryan, is the assistant conductor.

There are no auditions to join, Ambrosiano said, and no one is turned away from the Hunt Valley Wind Ensemble, which has performed a wide range of music — from Broadway and Americana to marching band and movie-themed tunes.

Included in earlier performances were selections from “Harry Potter,” “How to Train Your Dragon” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” in its children’s concerts, and a Blues Brothers medley for more mature listeners.

“We’re a self-auditioned group,” Ambrosiano said. “We let musicians decide if it’s a good fit for them or not.”

And that is one of the wind ensemble’s most attractive attributes, according to California transplant and enthusiastic trombonist John Rivera.

“Part of the joy [of playing in the ensemble] is that it’s not intimidating,” said Rivera, a public relations executive with Lutheran World Relief. “There’s zero judgment about how well you play. But the skill level is very high, and playing with people like that makes you play better.”

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Some musicians, though, find the level of musical competence beyond their reach, prompting advice from Ambrosiano to take lessons in order to feel more in tune with the rest of the band members.

The only rule to join the Hunt Valley Wind Ensemble is pretty straightforward, and it pertains to weekly two-hour rehearsals held at Dulaney High School.

“I ask people to make rehearsals and performances a priority,” she said. “They are asked to attend rehearsals unless they are sick, have a planned vacation, a work obligation or have some other kind of family situation.”

The monthly gatherings are a fun experience in more ways than playing music, Ambrosiano added, noting that there is also a social component that is very appealing to her.

“Some of the coolest people I’ve ever met in my life have come through the band,” said the stay-at-home mother of three.

Malowitz enjoys the camaraderie as much as she likes playing the saxophone.

“I like playing music,” she said. “But it’s even nicer to be in a room with all my friends.”

The idea to form the musical group early in 2016 came from Ambrosiano’s heart. “I wanted to give people who played an instrument in high school or college to have a place to continue playing,” she said.

Unlike the Hunt Valley Symphony Orchestra and Hunt Valley Chorale, the Hunt Valley Wind Ensemble does not charge admission to its concerts.

On its website, the neighboring nonprofit symphony lists upcoming performances in the grand ballroom of the Hillendale Country Club in Phoenix in February and May, with tickets going for $15 or $20.

“We’re completely different groups,” Ambrosiano said. “They’re a symphony and we’re a concert band. And I wanted to provide performances to the community free of charge.”

The wind ensemble’s next event is slated for late April at Dulaney.

Ambrosiano’s initial organizational move was to create a Facebook page that gave prospective members an idea of what she was hoping to achieve — giving ex-musicians a chance to play again.

She then contacted the Cockeysville Recreation Department, which lists the wind ensemble among its adult programs on the cockeysvillerec.org website.

Her next step was to search for a conductor, and she found one right away in Dulaney instrumental music teacher Matthew Benner.

Ambrosiano said that she contacted Benner through her son’s music teacher at Warren Elementary School.

“I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to find someone, but within an hour I had a response,” she said. “Before I knew it, we had a conductor. He and I hit it off immediately.”

Beside being an accomplished musician, Benner also had access to the band room at the Timonium school.

Benner said that he grew up in Northeast Pennsylvania near Allentown, which has a long tradition of community musical groups, and was hoping to find one in the Baltimore area.

“There’s not a lot to do in this area if concert band is your thing,” he said. “For me to join, it was a no-brainer.”

By June 2016, the band held its first practice — and has been going strong ever since.

At the January practice, Benner kept his criticism constructive and the banter light, cajoling the musicians through their paces in a crisp two-hour session.

On composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ popular “English Folk Song Suite,” Benner entreated the musicians to “think English” as they rehearsed the piece.

“It can’t be so heavy that we get bogged down,” he cautioned one group of musicians about two contrasting ideas being played within the piece. “There’s a big difference between an elephant and a T-Rex, and you’re stomping around like a T-Rex.”

To another section, he said, “We want it to be bouncy, but we want it to move forward.”

None of the members seemed to take umbrage at the comparison, as soft conversations and gentle laughter filled the room during brief breaks from playing.

Gordon Uchenick, clutching a used bassoon — a reeded woodwind instrument longer than a clarinet, oboe, flute or English horn — that cost more than $3,500, said that he most closely watches the conductor for a cue (when the music slows down in order to change the pace or volume).

“That’s when he lets you know that it’s time to play [your part],” said the retiree who lives in Catonsville. “So that’s when you have to pay attention.”

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There is a wide variance of how much — if at all — musicians practice on their own.

Malowitz, for instance, confessed to not practicing at all at home, while Pilius plays the trombone every day.

“I usually don’t practice unless there is a section I can’t get at rehearsal,” Malowitz said. "I have five special-needs kids, so some things have to give.”

Pilius said that the band gave him the opportunity to rekindle his passion for the trombone.

“I play daily if I can because I really need it,” he said. “Matt doesn’t gives us any easy pieces.”

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