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The band plays on: Union Fire Company in Ballston Spa keeps tradition alive

The band plays on: Union Fire Company in Ballston Spa keeps tradition alive

Eleven musicians sat in a half circle inside Ballston Spa’s Union Fire Company No. 2. The trumpets a
The band plays on: Union Fire Company in Ballston Spa keeps tradition alive
John Roche, leader of the Union Fire Co. No. 2 band, provides guidance and baritone horn notes for the "ever ready" group of musicians. "Ever ready" is a department motto.
Photographer: Ryan Zidek

Eleven musicians sat in a half circle inside Ballston Spa’s Union Fire Company No. 2.

The trumpets and piccolo were ready. So were the clarinets, bells and baritone horns.

John Roche was looking for more. “Where’s our tuba?” he asked.

“He was here,” said one of the players, almost surprised that anyone could lose a tuba player inside a fire station.

Roche decided not to look around the two nearby fire trucks, police-fire truck and vintage MacBoston fire car. He was in the mood for “Invercargill,” the marching tune Alex Lithgow named after his home town on the South Island of New Zealand.

A wall of brassy sound filled the firehouse on the top of Milton Avenue. In a minute, a second piccolo joined the group. Another few seconds passed and Jake Reiter — and his tuba — found a spot near the big bass drum.

Assistant Chief Mike Bashore lowered the boom on the drum. He’s not in the band, but was just helping out on a recent Thursday night.

“I just enjoy the music,” he said. “I like marching behind them.”

The 14-piece band played on, with the station’s front and back doors wide open as dusk cooled down a hot summer evening. Nobody complained about the heat.

Time was when a black-and-white Dalmatian dog was part of every fire department. So was a band that represented firefighters in parades, picnics and other community gatherings.

The Dalmatians have faded, and so have the musicians — few fire departments roll out marching bands in New York. Pittsford, near Rochester, has a big band. Buffalo and Levittown, on Long Island, have pipe and drum bands. But paid and volunteer firefighters mostly play the sirens now, and only suit up for gigs at fire scenes.

“I joined in 1958, and it was here way before me,” said band leader and baritone player Roche, who took a break in service and rejoined the department in 1971. He’s been the station’s music chief since 1972.

Union’s band currently has about 30 members, and most of them are just community musicians — they’re not department members. “No one gets paid,” said Roche, 71, a former longtime teacher in the Shenendehowa Central School District. “When we go out and play and if we make a little money, it goes into an account that we get pizza and food with, and fix our uniforms with.”

So far this year, the Union company band has played in both the Saratoga Springs and Ballston Spa Memorial Day parades. Saratoga’s Flag Day parade made the schedule, so did Ballston’s Eagle Matt-Lee Fire Company’s 200th anniversary party. Still to come are Ballston Spa’s “Concert in the Park” in Wiswall Park on August 4 and the Turning Point Parade in Schuylerville on Aug. 7.

“We do the National Anthem, we do ‘God Bless America,’ a bunch of marching songs like ‘Peacemaker,’ we’ll play ‘Lexington’ and ‘Invercargill,’ ” Roche said.

The band master believes Union’s group has survived for so long because of its informal nature.

“We don’t get real crazy about it, it has to be this way, a relaxed scene,” Roche said. “If somebody misses a parade, you don’t yell at them, because all of us work, we have jobs. I don’t work anymore but sometimes I have to take care of my grand kids . . . but people don’t get yelled at for missing things.”

Community feeling

There’s another reason.

“A lot of places don’t have little, tight communities,” Roche said. “Ballston still has a community feeling.”

The feeling is mutual between the musicians and the firefighters. In December, the men, women, boys and girls in the department visit streets near the fire station and play Christmas carols.

“We started one year as a goof, just because the weather was OK,” Roche said. “But those are the neighbors who have to listen to the sirens all the time.”

The band played “Peacemaker,” reading notes printed on small booklets that rested on black music stands. One late arrival, firefighter and trumpeter Mark Metz, had a little trouble finding some music and turned pages back and forth.

“It’s in there somewhere,” Roche said.

“That’s it — got it!” Metz said.

People keep coming to the Thursday night rehearsals for different reasons.

“It’s different than a professional group,” said Heather Thomas, 40, of Ballston Spa, who plays trumpet. “Everybody’s here because they want to be here. There’s every walk of life in this band,” Thomas added. “And it’s a way to be part of the fire company without being a firefighter.”

Lauren Leadley, 32, plays piccolo.

“It’s good for people who love music,” said Leadley, who also lives in Ballston Spa. “And want to continue playing past school.”

Thomas and Leadley might have had other influences. Roche is their father.

Others like the tradition factor.

“I like playing with these guys,” said trumpeter Peter Bisnett, 40, of Alplaus. “I’ve been playing with the band for 28 years. It’s one of the things that has kept me playing my whole life.”

Piece of americana

For some of the players, a fire department band is a piece of Americana — just like picnics, apple pie and baseball games.

“It is very traditional, and it is one of the last of the dedicated marching bands for volunteer fire companies in the state,” said Jake Reiter, who put down his tuba for a quick interview.

Reiter didn’t mind the attention. He gets plenty of looks when he marches with his deep-sounding horn.

“Kids get a kick out of it,” he said.

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at wilkin@dailygazette.com or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter.

His blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/wilkin.

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