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Connection and joy: alumni gather for UPEI Wind Symphony reunion

'I feel great. The band played beautifully. The presentation was unexpected — they caught me off guard,' says UPEI Wind Symphony conductor Karem Simon. (Isabelle Gallant/CBC - image credit)
'I feel great. The band played beautifully. The presentation was unexpected — they caught me off guard,' says UPEI Wind Symphony conductor Karem Simon. (Isabelle Gallant/CBC - image credit)

A group of about 60 musicians gets ready to rehearse onstage at the Dr. Steel Recital Hall at UPEI.

Over the chatter, there's the trill of a flute, then the warm sound of a trombone and a clatter of snare drums.

It looks like the usual weekly rehearsal for the UPEI Wind Symphony, made up of wind, brass and percussion players, but there's more excitement than usual in the hall.

"I haven't been in this building in probably 20 years and it just, it looks a little different, but the feel is exactly the same," said trumpeter Lisa Sanderson.

Isabelle Gallant/CBC
Isabelle Gallant/CBC

Sanderson is one of many UPEI music graduates who returned to the campus's music building for a wind symphony reunion Dec. 27-29.

"When I heard about this reunion, there was no way I was going to miss it," said Sanderson, who graduated in 2003 and went on to become a music teacher.

"Things I use every single day in my daily life and with my students, really a lot of it has come from playing in the wind symphony, and that foundation and from Dr. Simon," she said.

Karem Simon has conducted the group for 24 years. He will retire at the end of this school year, and as the current chair of the department, he's already handed over the group's conducting duties to brass professor Dale Sorensen.

Isabelle Gallant/CBC
Isabelle Gallant/CBC

Simon had the idea for this reunion back in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled a March performance for the band.

"I thought, 'Why don't we bring everyone back in December and have a post-Christmas reunion?'" said Simon.

"Which for those who had graduated in 2020, it would have provided them with some closure. And for all the other alumni, it's an opportunity to reconnect, rehearse and perform."

'United as a result of this institution'

The pandemic caused further delays, and this is the third time the band has planned the reunion.

Many of the participants are more recent graduates or community members who play with the group regularly. But some, like Sanderson, returned for the first time in a long time.

Isabelle Gallant/CBC
Isabelle Gallant/CBC

"From my position on the podium I'll look out and I see all of these musicians … it could be as much as 55 years in the difference between the youngest and the oldest," said Simon.

"They are united as a result of this institution where they have studied."

That idea of unity among the players also struck Sanderson.

"We all have this connection through this stage and through UPEI and through Dr. Simon," she said. "It's very humbling and it's very powerful to think about all of the lives that have been changed through that ensemble."

He inspires people to really work hard and make good music, and it's very exciting to be in a room where everybody is on his page. — Rowan Fitzgerald

One saxophone player is likely the longest-standing member of the group onstage today. Rowan Fitzgerald, a retired Charlottetown music teacher, has been with the band for 20 years.

"I love watching Karem work and I love being a part of his ensembles," said Fitzgerald.

"He inspires people to really work hard and make good music, and it's very exciting to be in a room where everybody is on his page, as it were, and making music together. It's a joyous feeling."

'It's for the joy'

Those feelings of connection and joy are also what Sanderson strives to bring to her own ensembles at Harbour View High School in Saint John, N.B., where she teaches music.

In the last 15 years, inspired by both her UPEI experience and the school band programs she grew up playing in on P.E.I., Sanderson has created a band program at the school from the ground up.

Isabelle Gallant/CBC
Isabelle Gallant/CBC

"I started with what was called a stage band and it was just whoever played an instrument at the time," said Sanderson. "There were 22 of us and it took almost a whole year to learn one song. It was the theme from Austin Powers. I will never forget it."

She then lobbied to start a Grade 9 band class, and the program grew from there.

"When [kids] join a band, like, they didn't know what they were missing, right? There's just so much joy there and so much connection. So it was an easy sell. Once we got rolling, it was easy to bring everybody into that community," Sanderson said.

There are now 200 students in Sanderson's band program.

"Why do we learn an instrument and play music?.… It's for the joy and the ensemble playing, you know. For the connection, the personal joy but also the joy in the group. And I think that's, I've just been chasing that forever," she said.

After just two-and-a-half days of rehearsals, the reunion band gathers for its public performance in front of an appreciative audience full of family and friends.

Near the end of the program, Fitzgerald surprises Simon by presenting him with a plaque and a book of memories from former students.

After the show, Simon greets each musician backstage to say thank you and congratulations. There are handshakes, hugs and smiles.

"I feel great. The band played beautifully. The presentation was unexpected — they caught me off guard," said Simon.

"It exceeded all expectations," Sanderson said of the concert.

"There was just an energy in that room … it was the most fun I've had in a very long time, and I have a pretty fun life."