A one-of-a-kind band: American Legion Band members love their music

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BRATTLEBORO — Susan Lemei has only officially been the American Legion band director for three weeks, but she started "filling in" last June.

The circumstances weren't happy. Ray Brown, the band's previous director, died unexpectedly in June. The band got the call while they were at a concert in Bellows Falls after Brown didn't show up for the show. In the middle of the concert Bill Wessel, the band manager got the call. Wessel said there was only one thing the band could do in the wake of the tragedy, keep going. So they did, with Lemei filling in as band director.

The Brattleboro American Legion band is the only American Legion band in Vermont. Most of the band members are local but some come from New Hampshire and the northern part of Vermont. The band has been going strong since 1990. It started off as a band primarily for veterans or people associated with the armed forces. Now, Wessel said, about one-third of the total band are veterans.

The band is open to people with all experience levels. Joanne Corey, who is in her 80s, started playing percussion only a few years ago. Now she's a percussionist for the band.

The band includes high schoolers, college students, and people Joanne's age and older. There are about 45 members in total, Wessel said.

"You just come and show up with your instrument, no matter how good or bad you are, everybody's very accepting," Corey said.

Lemei joined the American Legion band in 2005 and started off playing her tuba. She misses the opportunity to play her tuba in the band, but she still gets to play in four other local bands. When she's not playing or conducting music, Lemei works as a doctor at Grace Cottage Hospital in Townshend.

Wessel said he took off 30 years from when he was playing percussion in high school. He said his situation is pretty normal.

"It's just like riding a bike," he said.

Band members play because it's fun, Lemei said. "They live to play their instruments and they like the group."

They like playing music, she said, and the American Legion gives them a supportive environment to do just that.

The band is all very close, Corey said. When Brown died the band played at his funeral, and when the original band director, Bruce Corwin, died, the band played at his funeral, too.

The band plays some "heavy stuff," Wessel said. They play a lot of classical music such as works from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and John Holt. Being an American Legion Band, they also play a lot of patriotic numbers.

"The Stars and Stripes Forever," is Corey's favorite.

The American Legion band plays a number of concerts and participates in a number of local events. They also play concerts in other states. Every year the American Legion has a national convention, the Brattleboro band has been to three of the conventions. They compete against three other Legion bands in concert.

In 2002, the band went to Charlotte, N.C. and placed fourth; in 2006 it went to Salt Lake City and placed second; and in 2015 they went to Baltimore, Md., and placed third. This year they're going again. The convention will be in Minneapolis. When the band goes, Wessel said, it competes against much larger bands. The overall cost will be about $30,000 to bring out the whole band.

Wessel said the band intends to raise funds for the trip. The next concert will be today at 10 a.m. at Veterans of Foreign Wars, in Brattleboro.

Harmony Birch can be reached at hbirch@reformer.com, at @Birchharmony on Twitter and 802-254-2311, Ext. 153.


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