By Dedra Cordle
While standing atop a hill in Southwestern Pennsylvania, overlooking a vast green space painted with wildflowers, Rich Hart could not help but to reflect on the sight. Directly before him was hallowed ground, the place where 40 passengers and crew of United Flight 93 tried to wrest control of a hijacked plane 15 years prior. There was no visible scarring on the rural field where the plane crashed down that September day but the reverberations of their actions could be still felt throughout the silent crowd.
“It was a very solemn, sacred experience,” said Hart, a native of Grove City.
As he recalled the memories of that day, thinking of all the lives that were lost, his mind drifted to a memorial concert he and his fellow members of the Grove City Community Winds were scheduled to perform later that afternoon.
It was just a few months earlier when the concert band was given an invitation to perform at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Somerset County. Not only was this invitation significant as they were the first non-local community band asked to play there, but they would also be playing ‘Flight of Valor,’ an original arrangement from Winds director, James Swearingen, who specifically created it to honor of those brave men and women.
After the emotional concert, which was witnessed by a community still healing from the horrific events, Hart looked around at his bandmates and felt humbled by the experience.
He said he couldn’t believe they had been gifted this experience, this opportunity to perform at a sacred place. As he did that morning, he reflected. He reflected on the formation of the band, his once held belief that it wouldn’t work out. He reflected on the impact the band has had on the community and on each other. He reflected on the tears that were shed, the souls they have touched. And he reflected on the fact that they have come to be known as one of the best representatives of central Ohio.
It was nearly 20 years ago when Hart answered a phone call that would change his life. On the other end was an old acquaintance who asked if he would be willing to play in a newly formed community band.
“At that point in my life, I wasn’t playing music as much as I wanted to,” said the 1973 graduate of Grove City High School. “It wasn’t what I majored in when I was at Ohio State and it wasn’t what I was doing professionally but ever since I was in high school, music has been everything to me. I knew immediately I wanted to do this.”
With roughly 16 members – a majority comprised of trumpet, trombone, clarinet and saxophone players – they knew they were not going to sound exactly as they wanted to at first.
“While some of them were professional musicians, there were others who were still getting back into the thick of things,” said the trumpet player. “We had some people who didn’t play their instruments real loud and it was always covered up by those who could. It was an interesting first couple weeks, to be sure.”
It was several months into their existence when a member contacted Swearingen, a former band director at Grove City High School who is world renowned as a performer, composer and educator, to gauge his interest in being their director. Hart thought it highly unlikely he would say yes to the proposal; Swearingen thought just the opposite.
“I told them I would commit to being the director for five years and that was it,” Swearingen said with a laugh. “Now here we are, more than a decade after those first five years and I’m still here, still enjoying it.”
He said the real selling point in taking the new venture was his love for the city and the people in it.
“I had the feeling of wanting to contribute to this great community and this desire to make things even better.”
His first order of business was to bulk up the numbers by recruiting local talent, most of whom were either professional musicians or current and retired band directors. He even snagged saxophone player Jim Staten, a former Airman of Note who is credited with improving the music program within the South-Western City Schools District.
Shortly thereafter, the Community Winds was 60-strong and garnering a reputation in the music community for their precision. They even gained a dedicated group of local fans, notable among those are Cindy Kazalia and Julie Oyster.
Kazalia said she had been listening to the concert band since their inception, drawn in by their exceptional talent and other-worldly sound.
“They always have a way to impact my soul,” said the long-time resident of Grove City. “Every time I leave one of their concerts, their performance just stays with me for a long time.”
For Oyster, who is the daughter of Staten, it is the combination of past, present and future displayed in the ensemble that touches her the most. She said a majority of the elders are known throughout the community for their dedication to music education and excellence, while the younger generation are known for their up-and-coming talents.
She said it also doesn’t hurt that their combined experience comes together beautifully during each performance.
“I would describe their sound as pure and professional,” said Oyster.
While the local fans may have known about these hidden gems, they slowly started to receive more attention outside of the city, and then eventually beyond the state.
In addition to performing at local churches, venues and festivals, the Community Winds were invited to perform at the Ohio Music Educators Association State Convention in 2012, then the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. that same year. In 2016, they were invited to perform at the Flight 93 National Memorial and then this summer were invited back to the WWII Memorial.
Swearingen said they did not have out-of-state travel plans in mind when the concert band was formed, but he called the recognition a great honor and a true reflection of the quality musicians and of the people in the city itself.
“We wouldn’t be able to continue to perform at such a high quality without the support of this great community,” he said, praising the city and the Grove City Community Club who helped provide a portion of the funding for the second D.C. trip.
As for Hart, he said he always has to lightly pinch himself whenever they perform as a reminder of how far they have come. He said he knows with the immense love his bandmates have for music, each other, and this community, they will continue to live on well into the future.