Modesto band tradition counts on experts, welcomes newbies

naustin@modbee.comJune 19, 2013 

    alternate textNan Austin
    Title: Education reporter
    Coverage areas: K-12 education, Yosemite Community College District
    Bio: Nan Austin has been a copy editor and reporter at The Modesto Bee for 24 years. She has an economics degree from CSU Stanislaus and previously worked at the Merced Sun-Star and Turlock Journal.
    Recent stories written by Nan
    On Twitter: @nanaustin

— It's 6 p.m. and Mancini Hall vibrates with a thunderous mix of horns, voices and scraping chairs as 140 or so musicians greet friends, find spots and tune up. MoBand is getting ready to disco.

Tonight's program will boogie with "Thriller" and tunes from Santana, Stevie Wonder and The Carpenters.

The Modesto Band of Stanislaus County, affectionately known as MoBand, started practicing Monday. At least, this band with this program started Monday. Every week, it changes.

"Just one week. It's all self-contained, so people can go on vacation or whatever," explained band veteran Betty Baughman.

She celebrates 30 years of piccolo and flute playing with the summer series this year. Her son played with the band while in high school, and she often sends in her better flute students.

"It's a good way to keep up their skills through the summer. It's good experience for them," she said. The sound doesn't suffer for a few inexpert notes, she said, "There's always a core of experienced people."

Among them is Norman Van Walterop, tuning his high-end bassoon alongside beginner Brandon Rexelle, 14. Brandon, a Modesto High sophomore, first picked up bassoon playing about six months ago and is new toMoBand. "I just want to get better," Brandon said.

Another fresh face this month is Chip Underwood, who played trumpet at Davis High and decades later returned to Modesto and his trumpet and cornet. "It's hard to walk through that door when it's been 40 years since you played," he said.

Underwood said he keeps hoping to see his estranged sons, who also play trumpet, when he walks through the Mancini Hall door each week. The common bond of the band seems like a way to connect apart from a difficult past.

"We all speak a certain language in music," Underwood said.

That sense of sharing a common chord resonates with trombone player Mitch Miller, as well, who returned to MoBand about seven years ago. "It's great to be back. It's definitely a piece of my heart and my soul that's been missing," he said.

He first played as a rare seventh-grader. "Normally, only high-schoolers get to, and I was completely overwhelmed — but I loved it," Miller said.

Age counts, but musical maturity is the marker. "We trust everybody to be at a level where with one rehearsal, they're able to play," Miller said.

MoBand starts with new music on six successive Mondays, then gets a second run-through each Wednesday. On Thursdays, that week's group of musicians takes their show to the Graceada Park stage. The schedule has one exception, for a performance on Wednesday, July 3.

George Gardner, MoBand conductor since 1979, said he led 149 musicians the first week of June and 155 the second. The numbers of each instrument fluctuate widely, but the balance worked out, he said. It always does.

"The purpose of the group is to give people a chance to play. It's not designed to be the perfect ensemble," Gardner said.

He works around such challenges by picking music with spirit, heft and even a little bombast.

While listeners groove to a disco beat tonight, Gardner will be keeping time with his baton and enjoying his favorite thing.

"What's most fun for me is having all these people come together to cooperate and play. I really, really enjoy high school students discovering the band and coming in to play," Gardner said. "This band builds ties to the community."

For more on MoBand, visit

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter, @NanAustin.


WHAT: Modesto Band of Stanislaus County's Concert in the Park series

WHERE: Graceada Park at Needham and Sycamore

WHEN: 8 to 9:45 tonight

BRING: A blanket, lawn chairs, drinks and a nosh

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