Under The Big Top

A "First of May" recounts her first Windjammers Unlimited convention

Source: Circus Fanfare, April 2010 Vol. 40, No. 2

Adrienne Cannon

Editor’s Note: Adrienne Cannon, WJU #3313, was a “First of May” (circus rookie) at the winter convention of Windjammers Unlimited in 2010.

“You’re going to do what?”

I know that reaction is coming after I announce to my friends that I am going to play in the clarinet section of a circus band. I love the look of surprise on their face as they envision me playing under the Big Top for the elephants, clowns and acrobats. “No elephants,” I say, but “yes, I am going to do just that.” Even though my voice is enthusiastic, I am a bit uncertain as to just how this adventure will work out.

Months before, at my home band rehearsal a fellow musician had mentioned Windjammers Unlimited. I was intrigued by the thought of playing circus music in Florida under the Big Top for a live circus performance. Could I do that? Circus Fanfare magazine’s pages revealed a world of circus music enthusiasts of all ages. I became a member of Windjammers.

“I’ve gotta’ do this!” I say to myself, and in mid-January I travel to Bradenton, FL to find myself seated in a rehearsal room with 75 other musicians. There is another similar band rehearsing in the adjacent hotel ballroom. My colleagues come from all over North America and though there are a few young educators, most of us are older musicians (I can tell by the color of our hair); one of our sax players is 94!

We play many, many selections. The folio of music handed to us contains 72 marches, waltzes, polkas, and smears—those are the novelty musical flourishes that trombonists relish performing, using all the slide action they can muster.

We clarinet and flute players specialize in ornamental runs and trills when we are not playing the melody. Usually, the trumpets carry the melody line, and you can guess that the tubas’ steady “oom-pahs” give our band a depth that only brass instruments can. The percussion section reliably keeps us together on the beat.

We are challenged to sight-read at a rapid pace, trying to find our way through repeated sections, “dog fights,” vigorous introductory passages, and da capo instructions (back to the beginning). Please, I think to myself, don’t play an imaginary “stinger” (the last note in a march) when it is not written there and nobody else is making a sound!

Break time! Finally we can relax a bit and move into the tropical courtyard, basking in the sun and leaning back in the pool chairs by the hotel fountain. Occasionally we can smell the sweet fragrance of oranges drifting over from the Tropicana factory just across the Manatee River.

The week is short and after days of morning, afternoon and some evening rehearsals, suddenly our concert performances are upon us.

Education Band woodwinds 2010

I have been assigned to play in the Education Band. Local music educators have been invited to the early morning clinic by the Ringling Museum. Our director speaks to the music educators about teaching today’s young people the short, fast-paced marches that captivate young players with lively rhythms that are easily mastered. We demonstrate by playing short selections while he explains how the distinct pieces are used to accompany the different kinds of circus acts: a Fanfare to call the crowd’s attention; “climbing” music to accompany the acrobats; waltzes that lend grace to the high wire acts; appropriate rhythms to accompany the prancing horses and the lumbering elephants; and the danceable, bumbling “rags” for clowns while they perform their goofy routines.

The director explains that circus musicians play practically non-stop during the performances. They follow not just his baton, but his hand signals for starting, stopping, and switching selections depending on how the performers speed up, slow down, or stop and start their performance to suit the moment.

As part of the Windjammers tradition, our convention ends with musical performances to accompany the students in a P.A.L. Sailor Circus show. I am assigned to play in the Center Ring Band. We move to the Big Top on our last day to assemble for our performances.

Center Ring Band getting ready to perform at the
Sailor Circus Big Top, 2010

The Big Top is a permanent structure in downtown Sarasota that is modeled after a traditional canvas tent. On this winter day in Florida, the temperature rises and we all feel the heat, just as we remember the hot and dusty circuses from our childhood. (Ed. note: Air conditioning was added during a major renovation in 2019.)

The Circus Band musicians play an introductory concert. Our Center Ring Band plays next, performing at our very best level to demonstrate the proficiency we gained in rehearsals over the past week.

Windjammers who are experienced in accompanying circus performers join together in the Circus Band to play for the demanding non-stop circus performance. They follow the cues of the director, whose eyes are not on them, but on the circus acrobats whose movements will determine the rhythm he directs. He moves the tempo of the music to the performers so music and performance climax together.

The performers are young, well-trained local students, who, instead of an ordinary gym class, have chosen this rigorous avocation. These young people practice many hours each day in preparation for this sold-out public performance, and their twice-yearly public shows. We are awed by their skills but as we watch from the stands, every so often we tear our attention away from their acts to listen to the stirring circus music that accompanies their acrobatic display. We marvel at the stamina and ability of our fellow musicians playing in the Circus Band.

“All Out and Over!” is marked for 4:00 PM, Sunday afternoon on our convention schedule. With the last note, we wish our new friends good-bye and drift away to check out of the hotel and catch planes. Who knows, maybe we’ll see each other at the Summer Meet in July? We are pleased with our performances and enthusiastic about our week as Windjammers. As we walk out of the tent, most of us are already making our plans to return for our next convention and performance of circus music “Under the Big Top.”

About Joe Shearin 16 Articles
Joe (WJU #3773) is an Editor and Contributor at MYWJU.ORG in addition to being a Trustee, Secretary and Trombonist in Windjammers Unlimited.