Matthew Cover knows you people on the outer edges of the Mancini Bowl aren’t necessarily there for the music. But don’t worry, it’s OK with him.
The MoBand veteran performer has risen through the ranks of the long-running community band since joining more than 30 years ago as an eighth-grader and is now its assistant director and band manager. The Modesto summer ritual regularly draws thousands to Graceada Park for its six-week run to meet friends, bring picnics and, oh yeah, listen to the music.
“People inside the bowl are listening to the music more than the people over the hump. Those people are there to kind of hear the music and mostly relax, eat, drink and socialize,” Cover said. “For the musicians, the food and smells and laughs waft onto the stage. You hear full conversations – we can hear you, we’re not a movie. But we’re not there to perform a ‘formal concert,’ like you would at the Gallo Center where the audience is respectful and quiet with no unwrapping candy and unruly children. We know we’re in a park, there are 5,000 people hanging out. Everyone is there to have fun.”
Modesto Band of Stanislaus County will enter its 95th season Thursday. The all-accepted, all-volunteer band averages about 130 performers each show, ranging from returning veterans such as Cover to high school students.
Modesto native Cover, 45, started in the band as a student at Hart-Ransom Elementary School in 1982. He has played ever since, after graduation from Modesto High, Modesto Junior College and beyond. He earned his master’s in music education from the University of Michigan and returned to the Central Valley to teach.
For 10 years, he has taught in the Hickman school district and also has worked with Hart-Ransom and Hickman charter school students. He leads five bands, two jazz bands, two guitar classes and beginning recorder students. Cover also has been the music director at First United Methodist Church in Modesto for five years.
A clarinetist (same as the Mancini Bowl’s namesake), Cover has transitioned from student to teacher under longtime MoBand Director George Gardner. Cover took over as band manager and assistant conductor last summer and since has stopped playing in the concerts as regularly – instead managing behind-the-scenes aspects, stepping in occasionally to conduct and interact with the audience.
What does the band manager do?
I am responsible for putting together the band’s program, getting all the advertisers on board, all the advertisements submitted to the printer, coordinating the run of printing and picking up the programs every week. I also make sure we have stands and chairs for rehearsals and performances, and do setup and tear-down at rehearsals and performances. Then during the concerts, I float. I’m in the audience and sample food. I visit and try to stir up new advertisers. I sell Modesto on the community and the loveliness of the event.
How do community bands such as MoBand work when there are performers of all skill levels and ages together?
Usually, the older members of the group help the younger students. They know it’s an educational and learning moment for these kids. Music is one of those activities if you’re 70, you can still be awesome. It’s not like football or other sports where if you are 70, you don’t want to throw the ball around anymore. It’s different with music, you can model perfectly what needs to be accomplished at any age. So at a break, you can single out some of the young players and talk with them.
Why do so many of the performers, as you do, come back summer after summer to play for free?
It’s friendships. It’s like going to summer camp – it’s those summer friendships. You hope to see the same people and it’s only six weeks, so you don’t get sick of each other. Some of it is the same music you’ve played for 30 years, some of it is new. You wonder, will George program anything new this year? Maybe something from “Frozen” this time because it’s so popular? You’re just always excited to do it. It’s like a family reunion, I guess. You do view those people as family. You all share a common bond.
What pieces usually draw the biggest crowd response?
Patriotic ones are always awesome. Anything that is a singalong gets a lot of applause. Rock ’n’ roll songs – ’70s, ’80s rock stuff – that really gets toes tapping. And no one can pass up the Sousa marches. If we don’t play those at the end, the pitchforks and torches come out and we are herded back on stage until it happens.
Music, of course, is only part of the experience – what are some of the most impressive food spreads you’ve seen?
People get creative, they don’t just bring KFC in a bucket. I mean, some do. But people bake food, make things special for the night. Inside the bowl it’s shish kebab this, hand-rolled that. My mother makes homemade cobbler and root beer floats. People bring full-blown sheet cakes – and they share it with the people around them. There’s radical hospitality that just flows through the park on those nights.
Why do you think MoBand has been able to thrive for 95 years?
I think it’s the Modesto community, the people who come to the concert make it a success. It’s not the band of people who show up to do the work. It’s the people who come to the concerts. The hospitality, the friendships made with blanket neighbors. It really speaks to the friendliness of our community. It’s simple entertainment. We encourage people to visit, enjoy and spend time with family and friends. People are just there to have a nice, free evening. We don’t charge – never have and never will.