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ROOTED: Newmarket Citizens’ Band brings pomp to circumstances

The band — a community staple celebrating a 150th anniversary this year — is one of the oldest continuously running community concert bands in Canada

For 150 years, the Newmarket Citizens’ Band has provided entertainment and enjoyment to festival and concert-goers, event attendees and regular music lovers, completely free of charge.

They proudly offer a broad repertoire of traditional community band fare, from marches to individual concerts, original compositions to fan-favourite waltzes, polkas, rags, pop and more.

Now freshly returned to outdoor concerts following a two-year COVID-19-related hiatus, the Newmarket Citizens’ Band’s sights are set on celebrating a very special milestone: their 150th anniversary as a band. The accomplishment isn’t one they celebrate lightly, as it reaffirms their title as one of the oldest continuously running community concert bands in Canada.  

“Personally, for me, band is my happy place on Tuesday nights,” said Connie Learn, president of the Newmarket Citizens’ Band and member since 1974. “You cannot be in band, playing, watching the conductor, counting, doing all this multi-tasking that you have to do in order to be in a band, and worry about everything else that’s going on in your life or the world. It’s just one of those activities that takes you away.”

The Newmarket Citizens’ Band was officially founded in 1872 — though the roots of the band date back to as early as 1843 —after a petition was circulated by three sons of the postmaster William Roe to raise funds for the purchase of instruments.

Local businesses and members of the community proved generous, raising a total of $319 — approximately $10,000 in today’s money. One of these charitable donors was Robert Simpson of the Simpson department store chain, one of the original businessmen on Newmarket’s Main Street.

“We know for a fact that there were other, previous bands in the Newmarket area going back to around 1852, we think,” said Linda Guenther, vice-president of the Newmarket Citizens’ Band and 20-year member. “But for our purposes, we start in 1872, and we’ve been in continuous operation since then as the Newmarket Band.”

The Newmarket Citizens’ Band has long cemented itself as a staple at community events. Since the 1930s, they have performed in the Newmarket Santa Claus parade, and also participate annually in Newmarket’s Remembrance Day parade and ceremony and Veterans Day ceremony. Playing for residents of local long-term care homes is another common excursion for them, and something they plan to restart, outdoors, soon. Performing civic duties is an important aspect of the band, members say.

“The band has been really involved with its citizens over the years,” said Learn.

A film held by the Newmarket Historical Society archives even shows the band leading a parade as local soldiers headed off to fight in the First World War, and, years later, assembling for a very different kind of concert as the same soldiers were joyously welcomed back home. The Newmarket Citizens’ Band performed the same duties during the Second World War, helping to keep the community’s morale high.

Friendly competition has proved another mainstay of the Newmarket Citizens’ Band through the years. In the 1950s and '60s, they competed against other bands at the CNE and in the concert band category at the Waterloo Band Festival. Up until the community band category was dropped from the York Region Lions Club music festival due to a lack of community band entrants, they also competed locally.

The Canadian Band Association Cavalcade of Winds, held annually in North York, has become the Newmarket Citizens’ Band’s main competitive event.

Many of the approximately 40 members making up the band today have fond memories of events that link the band’s past to the present day. Guenther recalls performing at the post-renovation and restoration reopening of Newmarket’s Old Town Hall in 2016, following four years of closure; an occasion that mirrored the band’s performance at the hall’s grand opening in 1883.

Since 2016, they’ve continued the historic practice of performing in the building by holding ticketed concerts on the upper floor.

“The history is just really neat to think about,” said Guenther. “All those people were there back in 1883, and here we still are, doing our civic duty by opening this historical and wonderful new cultural venue that the town put a lot of love into.”

As one of Canada’s oldest community bands still active today, the Newmarket Citizens’ Band has seen its fair share of spotlight. The National Film Board produced a documentary, Goodbye Sousa, about the band in 1973, and in 1996 they made a guest appearance on Citytv’s Breakfast Television.

As part of the Newmarket Citizens’ Band’s 150th anniversary celebration, they will be releasing a comprehensive history of the band, which will stretch back to the early years before they were officially formed.

Though they’ve been forced to shelve many “more expensive” plans due to the disruption of COVID-19, the band is also planning a Nov. 5 concert at NewRoads Performing Arts Centre, where they will debut a brand-new composition.

After years of online rehearsals, restrictions on gatherings, and more than some uncertainty, the Newmarket Citizens’ Band is looking forward to performing in person again. They have seen a promising growth in new members since re-opening to in-person meetings, adding to their membership of passionate musicians, music teachers, high school students, and out-of-towners displaced following the closure of their own local bands — among others.

Rehearsals are held each Tuesday, and musicians of all experience levels, teenage and older, are welcome to attend. For more information, contact [email protected].

“We want to make sure that there’s people around for another 150 years to run this band,” said Guenther.

“Nobody in the band can really play by themselves,” said Leanna Karremans, who joined the Newmarket Citizens’ Band in 2017. “There’s this big teamwork aspect to being part of a band… there’s camaraderie.”