Anyone who’s seen the Tacoma Concert Band live can attest to the indescribable feeling you get listening to it play.
I sat dead in the middle — in seat 23 — just under the overhang of the second story, where founder and conductor of the band, Robert Musser, had instructed me to sit. Poised to experience the perfect reverberation of sounds, and enveloped by the beauty of the Pantages Theater, I waited for the 60-player band to finish tuning instruments and begin.
Like the lead in a waltz, Musser guided the band with movement that flowed effortlessly through his whole body. Next year he’ll take his final bow and walk off stage with 37 years as the band’s conductor. Watching him on stage during a concert dress rehearsal in February was mesmerizing.
To say they’re incredible feels like a complete injustice to the experience I had that night. When I dipped behind the back of the stage and walked to my car, I felt both hypnotically revived and completely exhilarated. And to think, the all-volunteer band has been at a professional level since its first rehearsal in 1981
Three decades of excellence
In 1981, Tacoma lacked community bands that played at a high level. Musser, an established music teacher at University of Puget Sound, knew a number of musicians who would love to play, but had nowhere to do so. So, he started making some calls, and every person said yes.
“This band was founded from the beginning as a community band that plays at a professional level,” he said. “It did in the beginning and it still does. I knew how good we were going to be because I recruited players that are the best players. So the band began at a high level, and it stayed that way. The musicians were so excited after the first rehearsal because we sounded so great. They were just kind of standing around in the parking lot and just marveling.”
“I remember thinking, ‘This is the best band I’ve ever played in.’”
Dennis Dearth, one of the early bassoon players, said he remembers being surrounded by some of the best musicians in the Puget Sound area.
“It was the first rehearsal, and the music was already sounding great and it got even better,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘This is the best band I’ve ever played in.’”
Dearth and trumpet player Morris Northcutt describe Musser’s style as demanding but approachable. They both studied under him at the University of Puget Sound, where Musser taught for 34 years before retiring in 2005. He had the same intensity and high expectations then as he does now.
“The way he conducts can draw out the best musical part of your playing,” Dearth said. “He makes you play more than just the notes on the page. It can be very expressive, and that was new to me. (Musser) was able to bring emotion out of the music.”
The first year or so, Musser selected “heavy” classical pieces that required some of the highest musical expertise to play. It was one of the first things he changed during the evolution of the band. Not only was it taxing to the players, but also he quickly realized the audience loved spirited marches, and Broadway and movie melodies. So he changed the set list. From then on the band played a few difficult pieces, accompanied by a few lighter songs, a couple marches, and a soloist.
“The whole idea is variety,” Musser said.
And for a community band in Tacoma, it’s received a dizzying amount of local and national accolades. The most prestigious is the Sudler Order of Merit of the John Philip Sousa Foundation. The honor recognizes “outstanding musical achievement over a long period of time,” Musser said.
In 1989, The Tacoma Concert Band was only one of two that had received the Sudler Scroll.
The band has also been invited to play all over the world. In 2007, it attended an expenses-paid music festival in France and played the finale concert with a packed crowd that begged for encores. In 2011, they toured in the Czech Republic, Austria, and Hungary, and, in 2015, the band went to Spain and participated in an international band contest in Valencia. In 2018, Musser’s final season, the band is traveling to Ireland and Scotland.
The final year
There’s a lot to look back and marvel about.
The band’s first concert at the Pantages Theater in 1986 is among the most memorable, Musser said, and was also its first John Philip Sousa concert. Sousa conducted one of the most famous musical acts in the world, touring for 40 years in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The original rendition of Stars and Stripes Forever was written by Sousa and is recognized as the official march of the United States.
Audiences adore the Sousa concerts, Musser said. The band dresses up in Sousa-era garb and during the final number, Stars and Stripes Forever, they drop the American flag. “People just love that,” he said. “And we’ve been doing that concert ever since.”
It’s hard to believe he’s coming up on his final season, but it’s time to retire, he said.
“Retiring is always difficult for me,” he said. “When I retired from UPS in ’05, that was the most difficult decision because I loved my job. You reach a time, for various reasons, that you feel now is the time. That’s where I am now.”
He’s been tied to the schedule of the band for nearly 40 years and said it’ll be a refreshing change to take-off last minute for a vacation.
He intends to stay involved, as long as the band wants him to. He might take up playing an instrument again.
“You don’t know what you’re going to miss until it’s gone.”
“You don’t know what you’re going to miss until it’s gone.”
Northcutt said it’s difficult to gauge how different the atmosphere will be until there’s a new conductor. He has more respect for Musser now than he did as a kid.
“You don’t know what you’re going to miss until it’s gone,” he said. “I worry I’m going to miss everything about him — the expectation of excellence, the feeling that we’re part of something bigger.”
The influence Musser has had on Dearth is similar. He was inspired to be a music teacher because of his relationship with Musser, and he’s borrowed portions of his teaching style from him.
“His touch on students goes beyond his students. A lot of (Musser’s) students have gone on to be music teachers.” Dearth said. “His touch goes to their students, and their students’ students. His influence will go on for a long time.”
Robert Musser’s Musical Evolution
Musser’s storied musical career begins in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and took him all across the United States. Growing up in the capital city of Pennsylvania, Musser first took up the saxophone. During the popularity of the ’50s dance bands, he started playing the clarinet so he could double on it while playing in the high school dance band.
During his undergraduate years at Lebanon Valley College, he slowly began learning the rest of the woodwind instruments — after being encouraged by his professor — and was only the second person in the school’s history to play his recital on four instruments.
Upon graduation, he taught music in Littlestown, Pennsylvania. at public schools for two years and moved on to University of Michigan for graduate work.
For two years, he lived in Honolulu and played professionally with the Honolulu Symphony, the Royal Hawaiian Dance Band, and taught for a period in a public school, as well as offering private lessons at the University of Hawaii.
The two-year stint made him realize his love for conducting and teaching, so he accepted a job in the San Francisco Bay area and taught high school for five years on top of playing professionally.
From there, he started teaching at Wichita State University for three years and then landed his dream job at University of Puget Sound. At UPS, he was the director of bands, professor of oboe and saxophone, and the chairman of winds and percussion for 34 years.
Upon retirement in 2005, the Mayor of Tacoma proclaimed April 22, 2005 Robert Musser Day, “celebrating the contributions of this outstanding educator, musician and mentor,” according to the Tacoma Concert Band website.
Musser is an elected member of the prestigious American Bandmasters Association (an honorary organization of distinguished band conductors), received the Sudler Order of Merit for outstanding contributions to bands and band music, has been awarded the National Band Association Citation of Excellence, and was elected into the inaugural class of the Washington Music Educators Association Hall of Fame.
He’s taken the Tacoma Concert Band on numerous tours regionally and internationally and has been a guest conductor of bands and orchestras throughout the United States, Canada, China, Russia, and Ukraine.
He and his wife, Nancy, live in Lakewood. Between them, they have five boys and nine grandchildren. A lifelong athlete, Musser skis, and plays golf and tennis to stay active.