By DAVID DUPONT
BG Independent News
The Bowling Green Area Community Band called in the Marines to help celebrate the band’s 10th year.
Saturday night, 10 years to the day of the band’s first concert, the BG ensemble, directed by Thom Headley and Catherine Lewis, hosted two other community bands The North Coast Concert Band, directed John Kustec, and the Defiance College Community Band, directed by Scott Rogers and Catherine Booth.
And to help conduct all those musicians the hosts invited Capt. Ryan Nowlin, one of the leaders of what’s considered the world’s greatest concert band, the U.S. Marine’s Washington D.C. band, “The President’s Own.” And if that wasn’t enough as a guest soloist, they invited Amy Horn, a 30-year veteran of that band, as French horn soloist.
From the opening National Anthem, done by the Defiance band in the Marine Band arrangement to the curtain call of “God Bless America,” taken at brisk tempo, the event was celebration not just of BG Area Community Band, but to the American band tradition.
There were stops at picturesque places and fittingly tributes some Ohio band directors.
Aside from the introductions each piece, the assembled musicians let the music do the talking, and it spoke in volumes, even when playing hushed passages.
The spectrum of the American band was represented from its pinnacle in the persons of Nowlin and Horn.
Nowlin conducted a number with all three bands and the finale when all 200 musicians crowded on the Performing Arts Center stage. Each band also played one of his compositions.
Horn soloed on “Hunter’s Moon” with the BG band. The piece was a wonderfully idiomatic display of the horn’s capabilities. There was even a humorous passage with slurs and intentionally wobbly rhythm, that made it seem like the hunter had imbibed in some moonshine.
With all the current and retired band directors in the ranks of all three ensembles, the night was celebration of music education’s role in nurturing that musical tradition, from elementary school when kids first pick up and instrument through college and teaching.
That’s the journey Nowlin has taken.
He started studying piano at 4. His family had a player piano in the house, and he would tinkle on the keys. His grandmother asked him if he’d like her to give him lessons.
He said “yes.”
She made it clear: “We’re not going to mess around. We’re going to learn to play the piano.”
He was still as committed as a 4-year-old can be.
When it came time for him to select a band instrument to play, he was inclined toward horn, but his older brother already played horn, so he picked trumpet because there was one in the family.
He played trumpet through high school. Then he got his braces off. That messed up his embouchure – the placement of the mouth on the mouthpiece. In trying to help him adjust, his teacher had him play a horn, which has a larger mouthpiece.
“It was much more compatible,” he said, both physically and musically.
This was in the middle of his senior year. He took horn lessons, and applied to Bowling Green State University.
Herb Spencer, the horn teacher at the university, agreed to take him into his studio though Nowlin had only been playing horn for less than a year.
Spencer let him know there was hard work ahead. “We’re going to build you up from scratch.”
Spencer was a bon vivant. Nowlin remembered that Spencer would travel annually to Belgium to solo with orchestras. Nowlin laughed in agreement when I added, “and drink beer.”
To prepare for the time zone change leading up to his departure, Spencer would have studio recitals at 3 a.m. in the morning.
One of his graduate students, Horn, taught his students in his absence.
Nowlin started writing while at BGSU. He remembers getting a quick lesson in the orchestration software Finale on a bulletin board before he headed to the computer lab in the basement of Moore Musical Arts Center. “I haven’t come up yet.”
After graduating in 2000 with a bachelor’s in music education, he taught for two years before returning to get his Master’s Degree in Music Education, studying with Bruce Moss.
He was director of bands at Brecksville-Broadview Heights schools when Horn reached out to tell him that the band’s staff arranger Stephen Bulla was retiring after 30 years.
Nowlin said he didn’t really think of himself as a composer or an arranger, He was doing what he wanted, being a band director.
After consulting with several mentors, including Mark Kelly, retired BGSU band director, and reflecting on the service of his three grandfathers who served in World War II, he decided to apply.
Still he wondered: “Am I worthy of such a stewardship?”
He threw his hat and resume of 150 compositions into the ring. “My country needs an arranger,” he said.
He was surprised by how prolific he had been. Only recently did he remember that when he was in high school he started writing by creating simple arrangements of Christmas carols for him, his brother and their trombonist sister to play at home.
The application process took five months. The other finalist was a staff arranger with the Air Force Band.
He enlisted in 2007, joining a band steeped in the nation’s history. The sobriquet “The President’s Own” was bestowed on the band by Thomas Jefferson after it played for his inauguration. The band had been formed in 1798.
This is the band that played as the White House was being built. This was the band that was playing in the White House foyer when the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It has played for presidential inaugurals, and funerals to “put our brothers to rest,” Nowlin said.
Nowlin was appointed assistant director in 2014 with the rank of captain.
The band’s various ensembles, including a country-rock group Free Country in which Horn sang and played guitar, perform more than 500 engagements a year.
The Strolling Strings played at the White House for the recent visit by Japanese Shinzo Abe. The ensemble played an arrangement of a Japanese folk tune, and Abe’s wife, Akie, stood up and sang, and her husband joined her.
That’s part of the band’s mission, Nowlin said, to provide entertainment and diversion for those making decisions of world significance.
He remembers being choked up at President Barack Obama’s inaugural hearing his arrangements used to support Kelly Clarkson singing “My Country ’Tis of Thee” and Beyonce singing “The National Anthem.”
Early in his career he wrote for student musicians where he tried to keep the basics of the arrangement simple enough so the young musicians could concentrate on the music.
Now he writes for musicians who can play anything that’s put in front of them.
But, Nowlin said: “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”
The music played Saturday in Bowling Green was full of tunes rooted in the heartland and orchestral felicities.
Hours before the performance the band played Nowlin’s “Impression” dedicated to one of Nowlin’s mentors the late Vince Polce and the founding director of the BG band, Nick Ezzone.
At one point, he stopped, and looked over to the tuba section and William Lake, retired BGSU professor of music theory, who’d just played a solo. “Dr. Lake! My world is turned upside down.”
The North Coast band played his tribute to band master and circus musician Henry Fillmore, “Oh, Henry!” Without quoting any of Fillmore’s music, Nowlin captured his rousing, sometimes raucous spirit, including plenty of trombone smears.
At the end, everyone came together under Nowlin’s baton. That included Horn, who took a seat in the horn section, to play arrangements she knew well from her 30 years in “The President’s Own.”
Nowlin even conducted the audience as they joined in singing God Bless America.”
As Nick Ezzone said after a few tunes at the BG band’s first rehearsal in 2007: “Golly! We have a band.”