by Allison Churchill
Some years ago, Steven Behnke, a horn player studying at Manhattan School of Music, volunteered to put together an ensemble to play for the Memorial Day festivities in his hometown of Ridgefield, New Jersey. He recruited some fellow brass players, and they assembled on the green. He made sure the repertoire was filled with patriotic tunes.
That experience led Steven to form the Patriotic Brass Ensemble in 2010, a group that spawned other ensembles in almost 50 cities across the United States.
“It always bugged me when our high school band played for ceremonies like Memorial Day that we didn’t do anything patriotic for the soldiers being honored,” said Steven. “I thought of all those veterans from World War II and the Korean War who were having memorial services. They deserved better.”
When performing at that initial event in his home town, Steven's brass quintet played such old favorites as America the Beautiful and When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again. The performance was a hit, and it was inspiring to see hands raised in salute during The Star-Spangled Banner.
Steven gained a deeper appreciation for this music when his grandfather, a World War II veteran, moved in with his family. He had been a bugler during the war and though he didn't generally talk much about his experiences, he opened up to his grandson when Steven played one of the bugle calls he'd learned.
In addition to its annual gig at the Ridgefield Memorial Day event, the Patriot Brass Ensemble began to book performances at other venues: retirement homes, hospitals, parades. “We found we could make good money at corporate events,” says Steven. “Then we would be able to lower our rate for people who really needed us or even perform for free.”
The ensemble’s repertoire grew, from Sousa marches to “Amazing Grace,” which is often requested at memorials. They even put together a medley of Civil War tunes to commemorate the conflict’s 150th anniversary. “Music should be entertaining,” Steven says, “but it also needs to have a purpose. That’s what we try to do in our performances.”
“Word spread about us,” says Steven. “Other players wondered why they couldn’t have groups in their own areas.” Ensembles were launched in Boston and Washington in 2012; the next year, groups were started in Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Pittsburgh and San Francisco.
Steven teaches each new unit lead some military traditions, such as how a color guard presents the flag during a ceremony.
Wherever the ensembles play, the message is always the same. Every song is a way to say “thank you” and “God bless you” to our vets through music that can never be forgotten.
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