As published in the

December 2006 National Band Association Journal


Music for Life

The Robbinsdale City Band – Celebrating 100 Years


By Michael Serber


Nowadays, few organizations, whether they are large global, corporations, small family-run businesses, or local arts institutions, live to celebrate their 100-year anniversaries.  Only those that fill a fundamental need, produce continuous high quality output and offer consistently outstanding service and value to their communities are able to achieve such longevity.


Since 1906, the Robbinsdale City Band (RCB), of Robbinsdale, Minnesota, has been one such organization.  For the past 100 years, this community band from suburban Minneapolis has served as a musical outlet not only for its members, who, for the most part, are non-professional musicians, but also for its audiences, who have enjoyed the band’s high-quality and stylistically varied musical performances for the past century.  As a result, this band has thrived over the years and is now poised to celebrate its centennial year in grand fashion with a healthy amount of community support and goodwill.


How did all this come to be?


In 1906 Robbinsdale, Minnesota was a small community on the northwestern edge of Minneapolis.  Its citizens were eager for the community to grow and the Robbinsdale City Band became a significant force to promote that growth. 


The birth of the band is traced back to the Grenell and Swift families, who decided to form a small band consisting of a dozen or so musicians (mostly made up of their own family members) to perform at a fundraiser for the new Robbinsdale Library building.  Ever since, the Robbinsdale City Band has been on hand to help celebrate civic festivals, holidays and other special events, business grand openings and local school functions.


In its earliest years, the band was comprised mostly of family members of all ages.  In the mid-1900s, when it was especially known for its marching precision and showmanship, the band was made up of teenagers and young adults. 


In 1969, the band reorganized into its present two distinct groups:  the Concert Band, consisting of post-high school adult musicians and the Marching Band, open to both adults and high-school students.  While the Twin Cities metropolitan area is a hotbed of community band activity with over a dozen bands, the Robbinsdale City Band is one of the only community bands in the area with both a concert and a marching unit.


The Current Band


Throughout its history, the Robbinsdale City Band has consistently drawn its membership from the ranks of amateur musicians – people who have made a living, not through performing on their instruments, but through other means.  The current membership of the band is no exception to this with members representing such varied backgrounds as accounting, business, design, education, engineering, homemaking, medicine, ministry, science, technology, and more. 


In spite of their different backgrounds, the band members share a common trait – they all love music and they love sharing that love of music with other people.  Public education is cited by many of the members as the only way they were able to learn to play an instrument.  The fact that they are still enjoying music and contributing to the community with their playing after 40, 50 or even 60 years is evidence that money spent on music education has been well spent.


The band has been known as a closely knit social group.  Members celebrate together for events such as weddings, births, and birthdays.  They have held reunions and annual banquets.  They have been present and eager to assist at the time of illnesses and funerals.  Many describe the RCB as a “family of friends.”  They joined the band because of music but found enduring friendships and a supportive, caring community.


What’s Special about the Marching Band?


The membership of the Marching Band currently ranges in age from 15 through mid-50s.  The band typically marches in about 7 to 10 parades each summer. 


For most of its history, the band marched with a traditional military style, performed traditional marches and wore traditional band uniforms.  The focus for the band was on precision and uniformity.


However, in 2004, the band decided to abandon this style in favor of a more entertaining, individual style.  This style, which has become widely popular with the audiences, features a non-traditional uniform of colored bowling shirts, khaki pants, colored high-top tennis shoes and sunglasses. 


Instead of traditional marches, the band’s repertoire now includes such popular crowd-pleasing tunes as Wild Thing, Build Me Up, Buttercup, and I Get Around.  Instead of a drum line, the 3-person percussion section simulates a drum set with a bass drum, crash cymbals, and a snare drum with an attached ride cymbal, cowbell and woodblock.  With a total membership of about 15, the Marching Band has the unique look and feel of a nimble, flexible marching combo.


As part of its new focus on entertainment, the band uses the inevitable delays in parades as opportunities to engage the audience.  When the parade stops and most other units just stand around, the band digs into its repertoire of creative “bits”, which include having audience members direct the band, playing “Happy Birthday” on kazoos to an unsuspecting audience member, or engaging an audience member in a fiercely competitive game of tic-tac-toe.


What’s Special about the Concert Band


The Concert Band membership numbers about 60, with a wide range of ages, from 18 to 85.  Interestingly, a quarter of the band’s members have been with the band for over 25 years.  The band performs about 20 concerts each year, including concerts in Robbinsdale and other Twin Cities area parks, community centers, senior care centers and nursing homes.


The City of Robbinsdale uses its own portable band shell.  The use of this shell enables the band to perform in any of the city parks, shopping centers or public spaces three seasons of the year.


Children are very special audience members.  The band offers several opportunities for them to direct the band.  They are wide-eyed at amazement at the “control” they have over the band.


A favorite feature of many of summer concerts is the March Around the Park.  A band member directs the band while I lead the children (and their families) on a march all around the park wherever we are performing.  We weave our way through the playground equipment and up and down the rows of the audience.


Each year, the band performs at least one joint concert with one of the local high school bands.  The band enjoys performing alongside the school musicians since it allow them to demonstrate to these students in a very tangible and positive way that musical enjoyment and satisfaction through performing can last a lifetime and doesn’t need to end when they finish school.


The band also regularly participates in the Robbinsdale Adult Academic Program graduation ceremonies.  This is especially meaningful to this band of adult musicians as we help to recognize the accomplishments of other adult members of our community. 


The band has always been a very social group.  They derive great satisfaction, not only through rehearsing and performing, but also through simply spending time with each other.  In fact, several band members have mentioned they enjoy the rehearsals every bit as much as our performances.  Members especially look forward to break time, when they can sip a cup of coffee, munch on a cookie or doughnut and catch up with each others’ lives.  Oftentimes, they come to rehearsal feeling stressed from a long, hard week and they leave feeling much more relaxed, more “human.”.  If we can have at least one moment during the rehearsal to have a hearty laugh, we consider the rehearsal a success.


Band members are encouraged to share their life experiences with the rest of the group during the “Good and Welfare” portion of rehearsals.  The members love to hear about the special events in each member’s life, the accomplishments of their children, or anything else notable about current or former members. 


How the band is funded


For most of its 100-year history, the band has been very fortunate to have been totally funded through the City of Robbinsdale.  As an arm of the Robbinsdale Park, Recreation and Forestry Department, the City provided funding for all equipment, salaries, repairs and transporation expenses.


However, in the early 2000s, state aid to local governments statewide was slashed and the resulting local budget cutbacks affected many City departments, including ours.  This forced the band to pursue other means for raising funds.  Now, the primary means of raising funds include soliciting outright donations from individuals and local businesses, pursuing arts grants and producing an annual benefit concert to support the band. 


All of these efforts combined have been sufficient for the band to meet its financial needs.  Through the generosity of donors and supporters of the band.  The people of Robbinsdale and surrounding communities feel a sense of commitment to preserving the band.


How has the band commemorated its Centennial year?


To celebrate its Centennial, the primary intent of the band was to show its appreciation for the community that has supported it throughout the past 100 years.  The band wanted to provide a significant, lasting and worthwhile way to give back to its supporters.  To do this, the band took on several large projects:


“A Centennial Celebration” Concert


The culmination of the band’s centennial year was a huge concert entitled  “A Centennial Celebration” on November 19, 2006.  To show its appreciation and to demonstrate its commitment of service to the community, the band offered the concert to the public free of charge.


The concert featured special appearances by band’s former living directors, going back almost 60 years.  These former directors, Robert Mendenhall, Roy Olson and Roger Thompson, each were given the opportunity to once again lead the band.


The band also invited all its alumni (over 1,500 people) to a special alumni reunion celebration the night before the concert and to perform for the grand finale at the concert – “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”


Also featured at the concert was the premier of a new march that I wrote for the band especially for this occasion, entitled The RCB Centennial March.


The concert was hosted by John Reger, a weekend news anchor for one of the local TV network affiliates, who grew up in Robbinsdale.


Centennial Commissioning Project


The band commissioned nationally-known local composer Shelley Hanson to write a piece which was premiered at the Centennial Celebration concert.  Entitled Whiz Bang, this piece captures the spirit of the band and the variety of musical styles the band performs.  The title comes from the name of the popular (and somewhat risque) humor magazine, Capt’n Billy’s Whiz Bang, published in Robbinsdale in the 1920s and 30s.  Whiz Bang Days is also the name of Robbinsdale’s annual summer festival.  The piece is a fun rollicking, fast-moving, energetic work that features slide whistles, sirens, whoopie cushions and all kinds of other musical surprises and should be available for bands everywhere to perform.


To pay for the commission, the band came up with a novel fund-raising method called “Sponsor-A-Measure”.  With a contribution of $25, a donor could sponsor their very own measure” of Whiz Bang and receive a special certificate identifying “their” measure of the music.  We calculated that, by having every measure sponsored, we could completely cover the cost of the commission.


Centennial Book Project


Another significant output of the centennial year was the creation of a commemorative Centennial Book. 


While providing an account of the band’s 100-year history, this book, almost 200 pages long, is much more than a history book of the Robbinsdale City Band.  Conceived and edited by long-time band member, Karelyn Anderson, the book also tells the many musical stories of current and former band members, directors and even audience members told in their own  “voice”. 


These stories carry meaning, not only for those who are familiar with the band, but also for anyone interested in music and the many ways it enriches our lives.  Through these stories, the reader can clearly hear the importance of arts education in the schools, feel the value of encouragement and mentoring and understand the need for feeding not only the body and bank account, but also the soul. 


Full of funny and interesting anecdotes, photographs and more, this book paints a distinct portrait of the joys of community involvement and music-making.  The centennial book was printed and published by a local printing/publishing company, Osterhus Printing.


Centennial CD Project


The band also recorded a CD of most of the music featured on the Centennial Celebration concert and offered it for sale.  To create this CD, the band engaged a new, local company, Legacy Productions, that produces fund-raising CDs for school, church and other community groups.  While many of the band’s concerts have been recorded “live”, this recording project enabled the band to experience the excitement (and tension!) of a real, professional recording session. 


Logoware Project


The band also engaged a local graphic artist (who is also one of my adult private students) to update our logo and asked a local company to produce embroidered golf shirts, hats, sweatshirts and tote bags which we are offerering to the public for sale.


An “Offbeat” Moment

One of my other passions in life is running.  This year, as I celebrated my 50th birthday and mid-life crisis kicked into high gear, I decided to run in the Twin Cities Marathon in October.  The band was asked to provide on-course entertainment for the huge crowds and 10,500 participating runnners.  As a special “stunt” to help promote the band’s 100th anniversary, I decided that, in the middle of my run, I would stop when I got to where the band was performing and conduct the National Emblem march.  This march is significant to the band since it was published in 1906, the same year the Robbinsdale City Band was formed.




A theme runs through all the band’s centennial celebration activities:  this community band, which for 100 years has enjoyed the support of the community, has used its centennial year commemoration as an opportunity to give back to its community.  Throughout this year, for each of its major projects, the band has engaged local resources:  composers, TV news anchors, printers, publishers, CD producers, graphic designers and others.  Through this, not only has the band demonstrated its support for local businesses and community, it has also demonstrated the wide variety of talent and skills that exist within its own community.


Another theme of this centennial year has been the desire to create something of significant and lasting value.  Through the new music commissioning project, the band hopes to bring new music to life that can be enjoyed by people all over the world.  Through the Centennial Celebration concert, the band hoped to provide the audience, band alumni and current members lasting and enjoyable memories of a wonderful, significant shared experience.  The Centennial Book lives as a testament to the importance of music in people’s lives. 


Community Band = Community Support.  Community Band = Music for Life.


For more information about the Robbinsdale City Band, go to



Michael Serber has been a member of Robbinsdale City Band since 1970.  In 1976, he became the Director/Drum Major of the Marching Band and in 1991 he became the Director of the Concert Band.  He received a Bachelor of Music Education degree from Northwestern University in 1978.  Following graduation, he taught for one year in Dows, Iowa and for three years in Anoka, Minnesota.  He currently works for Ameriprise Financial in Minneapolis, where he has been employed since 1983.  He is a Life Member of the National Band Association.  Along with his wife, Julie, he also teaches private music lessons.  Michael and Julie have 2 children.  Their son, David, is a Journalism graduate of the University of Missouri - Columbia and is living in Mexico.   Their daughter, Rachel, is a Trumpet Performance major at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.