Alabama Mass Band offers opportunity for musician collaboration

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Issac Lanier (middle) playing alongside two AMB musicians.

By WVUA 23 Digital Reporter Mason Smith

As the young musicians trickle in one by one, the noise inside Stillman College‘s Thomas E. Lyle Band Center climbs to a crescendo. While members of Alabama Mass Band separate into sections based on their instruments, AMB Head Band Director Issac Lanier III is with the baritones, going over music with two collegiate musicians.

May 26 was the second rehearsal hosted at Stillman, and the second full week of practice for Alabama Mass Band.

AMB is a crossover between a statewide summer band performance group and youth program, where high school and college musicians share the stands and perform song selections. The group also includes former collegiate marching band members and current high school band directors who still have plenty of passion to play.

“It bridges music between younger and older musicians,” Lanier said. “It keeps tradition alive and gives people something to do in their spare time.”

Mass band in Alabama was born in Mobile in the mid-2000s before making its way to Birmingham as the Magic City All-Star Band around 2012. River Region All-Star Band followed in 2016, and in an effort for smaller groups around the state to combine their efforts into a statewide group,  Alabama Mass Band was officially founded in 2018.

“We’re doing this to save the musical band arts in Alabama,” said AMB Operations Manager Joshua McCree. “As you know, high school band participation has drastically decreased over the years, so this at least gives them a chance to see what students should strive for.”

Lanier, who marched at Alabama State University and Talladega College, has been a part of the mass band scene for over a decade. Now, as AMB’s head director, he leads this group of passionate men and women while helping younger members reach their full potential.

“The first thing is education on overall dynamics, articulation and group participation,” Lanier said. “We do travel throughout the summer for performances, and we do give scholarships. Also, although this isn’t a specific goal, students do get scholarships through the program.”

Outside of AMB, Lanier is the band director at Selma High School. In addition to building his own program, he uses AMB to continue teaching young players from his program and others the fundamentals of their instrument.

“AMB has helped me get to know my music and my notes on the trombone,” said Selma High School student and first-year AMB member Nathalia Effinger said. “It helps me learn the different slide positions. I’m still learning, but overall I like it.”

Most practices are held in Montgomery because that’s the closest city for most of the band members and Montgomery.

But for those in Tuscaloosa who want to participate, the two-hour drive can be rough, especially when you’re dealing with work or classes or don’t have your own ride.

As a result, Lanier and the AMB staff decided to add another location to their practice schedule: Stillman College in Tuscaloosa.

“Stillman has always been a second home to us,” McCree said. “A lot of dedicated members who’ve been rocking with us since the beginning are from here. We owe it to them.”

Among those members is Stillman College Director of Bands Robert Baxter III. Baxter is a longtime member of AMB, going back to when it was River Region Mass Band.

“It’s definitely a blessing to be in a place to help facilitate Alabama Mass Band,” Baxter said. “I’m glad to be able to have the resources to do that.”

Hosting the practices at Stillman also gives the opportunity for members of Stillman’s marching band, the Blue Pride Marching Band, an opportunity to participate. For some of those students, like California native Sir Ronald Hamlet IV, it is their first time seeing and participating in mass band.

“It’s been enjoyable. It’s really inspiring to see people who love what they’re doing,” Hamlet said. “It’s definitely a place to grow, a place to push yourself and a place to learn.”

A unique aspect of AMB is that the band takes on the makeup of bands normally seen at historically black colleges and universities. For a lot of Tuscaloosa residents, this is their exposure to an HBCU-style band.

“Getting out and performing for the community is one of our goals in AMB,” Baxter said. “When we perform in Dothan for a parade, that’s going to be the first time many kids in that region see a Black marching band. So we hope that in doing that, it has a cultural impact and significance, which will pique the interest of students and lead them to join bands in their relative communities.”

Regarding AMB’s local impact, Baxter also hopes that hosting the practices at Stillman will help with recruitment.

“It provides high school students or non-traditional students an opportunity to see the campus and facility, and if they have questions about the program or scholarships, I can answer those too.”

The students and staff are excited for the upcoming season, and if you attend an event, you’re likely to hear their signature chant: Lanier leads the band saying “A-M-B one time!” and the group responds with a booming “A-M-B!”

The Alabama Mass Band practices Monday through Friday throughout the summer, with Thursday practices held at Stillman and the other practices held in Montgomery. For more information, visit the AMB Facebook page or Instagram page.

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