Let’s Run Away to the Circus Together!

Join us In Gainesville GA, July 14-19, 2020

Source: The Journal of The Association of Concert Bands (ACB)
Vol. 39 No. 1 February 2020

As a child did you ever want to run away to the circus?  Many of us as adults do just that every year!  Indeed, Windjammers Unlimited, Inc. (“WJU”), “The Circus Music Historical SocietyTM,” holds two meets annually.  Musicians, preservationists, and educators gather from all over the country to enjoy playing, performing and sharing traditional circus music.  Many enjoy learning about the historical provenance and significance of various pieces and contributing to their preservation.

Windjammers Concert Band

WJU, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, has three primary objectives in its mission: preservation, education and performance.  My focus in this article is on performance at “Windjammer” Meets and the Annual Convention but there is also much to be said about the organization’s preservation and education efforts.

Every year in January and July Windjammers gather together for several days of playing, learning and performing.  The Annual Convention is held in the Bradenton/Sarasota, Florida area every January.  As a Michigander, Florida is a very appealing convention spot to me!  The summer meet changes location every year depending on a number of factors including opportunity, historic events, and educational diversity.    

If you love to sight-read, like I do, you are in for a treat by joining us at a gathering.  When we arrive at a gathering, we each receive our own folder filled with 60-70 pieces; all the parts of the traditional circus band are represented.  We play each and every piece in the folder at least once, and typically twice.  The best part is we sight-read each piece up to tempo!  The second reading is often recorded for archiving purposes and supports our preservation activities.

I’m from the “faster is better” and “more notes are more fun” schools of playing.  As you can imagine, it is so much fun striving to keep in the saddle as the music gallops by! 

There are 3 full days of rehearsals at gatherings (Summer Meets and the Annual Convention).  At each, there are typically ten 90-minute “play & record” sessions plus concert rehearsals.  Multiple conductors lead the band with each directing six to eight pieces.   One or two from each group of pieces is selected to be performed at the final concert.  The final rehearsal is usually spent cleaning up the performance pieces, getting ready for the Center Ring Concert at the Sailor Circus in January or final concert at the Summer Meet.  Sometimes, there are multiple concerts or performances.

Now, I know all my horn playing friends out there are saying “bah, humbug, after-beats, no way”, but please listen because you may be depriving yourself of a fun and exciting experience.  At Windjammers we play much more than just circus marches.  We also play overtures, waltzes, polkas, ragtime, Latin rhythm, serenades, intermezzos and many other styles.  We play everything that traditionally would have been played at a live circus performance during the Golden Age of the American circus.

There is always more than one public performance at the Winter Convention in Florida. We begin the week, for early arrivals, playing at the Circus Ring of Fame Induction Ceremony at St. Armand Circle in Sarasota.  My husband John and I have been very impressed seeing circus performers from around the world attend to honor the multiple inductees each year.  We have also been amazed by the family ties and friendships that all the performers have with one another; the Circus World is a small one and they know and highly respect each other.  Even though many children of performers are raised within the circus, education seems to be foremost for everyone.  The performers are extremely talented athletes and well-educated in a very worldly fashion, having lived in many countries and often speaking several languages.

Other performances we’ve enjoyed during our attendance at the Winter Convention have included playing for a Continuing Education seminar offered to music educators by the Ringling Museum*. Those seminars focused on techniques for getting the most out of circus tunes, as well as information on the history of circus music. In addition, we have done outdoor concerts on the grounds of the Ringling Museum, performed in the River Walk band shell in Bradenton, and played an annual memorial service at the Cemetery where Merle Evans, legendary Ringling Band leader, and other circus celebrities are buried.  The Memorial Service is very moving and, after names of Windjammer members who have passed away during the year are read aloud, the band plays Nearer My God to Thee, Invictus March, Sinfonia and Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite.   There are few dry eyes …

Sailor Circus, Sarasota FL

On Saturday evening of the Winter Convention a banquet is held for everyone attending along with a dance afterward, music provided by a big band made of musicians also playing in the Circus Band.  On Sunday morning there is a group breakfast and short business or “State of the Organization” meeting.  From there we head to Sarasota and the Sailor Circus, hosted by the Circus Arts Conservatory, for our final performance and goodbye’s.  Windjammers buys out the house and offers free admission to everyone attending, further supporting our mission and outreach initiatives.

Sailor Circus Academy is America’s oldest youth circus with more than 1 million spectators throughout its history attending annual youth productions known worldwide as ‘The Greatest ‘Little’ Show on Earth.” Sailor Circus Academy provides after-school circus training in Sarasota, Florida. Students ages 8-18 learn to develop life management skills, gain self-discipline, bolster confidence and a commitment to achievement, all in a circus atmosphere.

Originating in 1949 as a small high school gymnastics class, Sailor Circus has grown into a spectacular circus school that is one of the top in the USA serving students in the 4th through 12th grades. Through extremely rigorous interdisciplinary performing arts and psychomotor skills programs, students learn circus arts in a safe and nurturing atmosphere. Sailor Circus Academy students are recognized as future leaders and major contributors to the circus legacy in Sarasota.**

Our next summer meet is July 14-19,2020 in the North Georgia Mountains in Gainesville, about an hour from Atlanta’s City Center.  Summer Meet performance venues vary and are driven by the locale and available facilities.  WJU works closely with local officials in planning the events.  We are focused on the local people.  We play to local audiences.  We’re spreading the word and sharing knowledge in a fun atmosphere!  Group scenic and historical side trips are always available for attendees.  In 2020 group bus trips are being coordinated to Lake Lanier and Helen, GA.  Interested? Join WJU and then contact Dianasue Walton at WindjammersGA@gmail.com for more information regarding the 2020 Summer Meet.

Lake Lanier

Lake Lanier is a reservoir in the northern portion of the U.S. state of Georgia. It was created by the completion of Buford Dam on the Chattahoochee River in 1956, and is also fed by the waters of the Chestatee River.

Helen GA

Helen, GA is a mountain town in northeast Georgia. It’s known for its vineyards and Bavarian-style buildings. Unicoi State Park offers a lake and campsites. Trails run through the Chattahoochee National Forest to the Anna Ruby and Raven Cliff waterfalls. In Smithgall Woods State Park, Dukes Creek is known for trout. Hardman Farm State Historic Site includes an 1870 homestead and the Nacoochee Indian Mound burial site.

Although I have mainly written about “Performance” within Windjammers Unlimited, I do not want to overlook the other two objectives stated within our mission, “Preservation” and “Education”.

Our goal is to preserve one of the rich traditions of the circus: music.  Members receive a bi-monthly publication, the Circus Fanfare, which includes articles, pictures and stories of the history of the circus as well as what is going on in Windjammers Unlimited.  We are building a library of original pieces of music, performed throughout the history of the circus.  Eventually, as resources permit, we want to make this available for loan to our members.  Even if you do not play a musical instrument, consider joining WJU to support these efforts.

We educate our members and reach out to local communities to educate them as well about the history of music in the circus.  At our performances we play all different types of music that were played for specific acts (trapeze, horses, lions/tigers, clowns, juggling, high-wire, etc.).  At gatherings our conductors enlighten us with stories and anecdotes about the pieces we’re playing and their composers.  In addition, we discover much regarding the circus and circus music by reading the Circus Fanfare, mentioned above.  All this is yet another reason to join us.

We also reach out to area high school and college students and offer scholarships to attend a meet or convention and “share a stand” alongside the members.  We do our best to inform Community Band members about our organization; word of mouth is our best marketing tool! 

You can learn so much about the circus just by participating in a convention or meet.

  • Do you know why the circus band players are called Windjammers? 
    They were historically called Windjammers because they jammed so much wind into their instruments in the process of playing six to seven hours every day.
  • Yikes, Stars and Stripes!  If you are ever at the circus and Stars and Stripes is played by the circus band, get the heck out of the tent as fast as possible.  Do you know why?
    This famous Sousa march was played in the circus only to indicate a disaster happening, such as an escaped animal, a seriously injured performer, or a fire in the tent.  Merle Evans pegged it as the “Disaster March”. Otherwise, Sousa marches were never played during a regular circus performance as, perhaps, being too militaristic and regimented for the circus!  (Yes, there was a bit of friction between Sousa and Evans.) 
  • What/Who is a “First of May”? 
    A novice performer (band member) in his or her first season with the circus. Shows usually opened on the first of May.
  • Do you know when a Galop is played? 
    A Galop is played during daredevil acts, such as trick-riding or other wild animal performances. Often considered as “exit” or “blow off” music, it was generally used when trapeze fliers dropped to the net following their aerial performances.  Also, a galop served well as animals raced into or out of the ring!
  • Why would the circus band play a waltz? 
    Because the smooth and continual swing of the ¾ time is perfect for the trapeze artists.  In fact, the flyers timed their moves to the standard 60 bpm tempos. 
  • What about the screamers, when are they played? 
    They are short introductory marches used to stir the audience and get them excited about an upcoming performance (Entry March of the Gladiators by Fucik is a very good example. By the way, the circus people called that one Thunder & Blazes.)
  • Why does Windjammers do a Center Ring Concert? 
    Because traditionally this was presented during the living Circus.  It was a pre-show event that presented the band as a featured Act.  The concert always began with an overture and we still do that.   In the past, it was also an opportunity to educate rural Americans on music popular on Broadway, London or Paris, and was considered a “cultural event” by attendees. 

Are you eager to learn more about the circus, play some really fun and very challenging music, see a bit more of your country, and make lots of new musical friends? Consider becoming a Windjammer – it’s a win-win opportunity! Visit circusmusic.org or call me at (269) 342-0059 for more information.

May all your days be circus days!

All WJU members attending the Winter Convention receive a free pass to peruse all the areas of the fabulous Ringling Museum.

** https://circusarts.org/programs/sailor-circus-academy/