Every Friday morning, the community center at Robert E. Gross Park comes alive with the sound of music. Musicians congregate weekly with their sheet music, stands and instruments in hand and transform the multipurpose room into a band room. They settle into their seats, assemble their instruments and warm up, sending a dizzying cacophony of scales dancing through the air. The array of notes dissolves into silence when the clock strikes 10 a.m. and band director and conductor Paulette Westphal takes the podium at the front of the room. She raises her baton and the musicians ready their instruments — it’s time for the Burbank Community Band to begin its rehearsal.
The Burbank Community Band has brought together volunteer amateur and professional musicians in and around our neighborhood to rehearse at the same time and location each week for nearly four decades. The group spends their 90-minute rehearsals perfecting a diverse repertoire of patriotic marches, showtune medleys and traditional symphonic works that has provided the soundtrack to community events since the 1980s. They’ve kept up this tradition to preserve and pay homage to their long history dating back to the 1940s, when employee-musicians at the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation laid down the foundation for what would become the band.
During World War II, the men and women of Lockheed Burbank worked around the clock to manufacture twin-engine fighter aircraft to support the war effort. Their sacrifices of laboring long hours to serve their country didn’t go unnoticed by Lockheed management, who, in a concerted effort to build morale, provided the employees with a wealth of recreational and leisurely activities so that they could socialize and recharge between shifts. Among the activities on the recreational calendar printed in the Lockheed Vega Star company newsletter were badminton, ice skating, drama club, camera club and, of course, band. The first mention of the Lockheed Employees Recreation Center Band was in a calendar entry dated April 22, 1940, which noted that band practice was to be held at the John Muir Junior High School cafeteria at 7:30 p.m. Following that date, the band was listed regularly as having practice or entertaining Lockheed employees at various locations during noon breaks.
In the 1980s, the band began rehearsing at its present location at the park, which was owned by Lockheed at the time. When Lockheed relocated to Palmdale in February 1993, the band decided to remain in Burbank and held rehearsals wherever it could find space. Ultimately, Lockheed donated the recreation center and its surrounding property to the city, with the condition that the band would be allowed to rehearse at the park. In 1997, the band shed its old name to become the Burbank Community Band, and in 2012, a board of directors was formed and the band was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.
Today, the band has evolved from its roots as a recreational wartime pursuit to something much more: a community within the community where musicians gather to perform for the love of music.
“On the most basic level, the band provides an outlet for community musicians of all skill levels,” says Westphal, who has served as band director since 2011. “Music is important to so many people, but especially to those who’ve spent time acquiring performance skills.”
Currently, the band is composed of nearly 60 members who play wood and brass winds, percussion, keyboards and electric bass. While it’s open to people high school age and older, the majority of members are in their 70s, with some of the oldest musicians in their 90s. “Most of our members learned to play music many years ago and have either played their whole life or returned to playing after a long hiatus,” Westphal says. Despite the band’s varying skill levels, she adds, “we have a lot of fun performing our art form. There’s always a feeling of teamwork to get a piece of music as perfect as we can — such joy!”
Along with providing a space for musicians, a big part of the band’s mission is to use its talents to give back to the community. One way is through serving the children of Burbank and surrounding areas by performing at their schools and teaching them about music.
“We enjoy our outreach to young children very much,” Westphal says. “When we perform at elementary schools, we play fun music for the kids and engender an interest in learning a musical instrument by demonstrating each instrument to our audience. We also perform joint concerts with high school students. In the past, we’ve played with Glendale and Burbank high schools.”
Westphal says these performances give the band an opportunity to raise awareness of the many benefits of music education, which include building self-confidence, improving coordination and assisting with emotional development. “Music is the fabric of our society; it can shape our abilities and character and greatly contributes to intellectual development,” she explains. The performances also let young musicians know that there’s an ensemble waiting for them if they decide they want to continue playing after high school or college.
In addition to schools, the band “is glad to provide a musical dimension to city ceremonies, charitable fundraising events and holiday occasions throughout the community,” Westphal says.
The band has three regularly scheduled performances throughout the year: a free winter concert held at Forest Lawn’s Hall of Liberty, and civic Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies at McCambridge Park. The band is also contacted by community organizations to help with fundraising efforts. A few years ago, for instance, it teamed up with First Christian Church to raise funds to completely furnish one of 11 apartments being converted for homeless veterans in the city.
And sometimes the band just plays of its own volition.
“Just this past December we did something unusual for us,” Westphal says. “A small group of band members did a flash mob performance where we just showed up on the central library lawn and played Christmas carols.”
“People seem to enjoy hearing us play,” she says of the reactions the band has received. “Some people are very complimentary, while others go a step further and donate money to help the band.”
Although the band has come a long way since its beginnings, its goal remains the same: to celebrate music and support the community. “The main thing we want to emphasize is our availability and sincere desire to play for the community in and around Burbank,” Westphal says. “We especially want to play for the children in their schools.”
For more information on how you can join the Burbank Community Band, visit burbankband.org.