You can say that one merry band does indeed march to the beat of a different drummer.
The Beat Goes On marching band of Portland, Ore., has made a quite a name for itself in the mere 2½ years it’s been struttin’ its stuff in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. And now that beat will lead the musicians to China in September. The organizers of the Shanghai Tourism Festival discovered the band online and invited it as the only U.S. band to perform at the five-day event.
What makes the Beat Goes On stand out? For starters, almost all of its members are over age 50. Not to mention that their repertoire is more Lady Gaga and Earth, Wind & Fire than John Philip Sousa and Broadway show tunes. The funkier the music, the better.
“We’re all about putting smiles on faces,” says director Steve Tolopka, 59. The retired Intel engineer played clarinet and saxophone in high school and college, then took a long hiatus before resuming in the mid-1990s.
That’s pretty much the story of most of the band’s 120 members, who include baton twirlers and a color guard. They rehearse about twice a month and perform about 25 times a year — everything from parades and pep rallies to barbecues and birthdays that have already taken them as far and wide as Canada and the Bahamas.
Most members live in the Pacific Northwest, but a few come from as far away as Ohio, Texas, Arizona and California to play at special events. “We have people who’ll play anywhere, anytime,” says Tolopka. He recalls one last-minute gig held before dawn on a cold November morning. “And they thought it was fun!”
Band members have come to expect the unexpected while performing — like an 80-something twirler dropping her baton down a sewer drain or a band member peeling away from the parade route to sit and rest. “The prophylactic ibuprofen is not unknown to us,” Tolopka admits. But hey, it’s all about having fun along the way.
The band is always recruiting new members. But older musicians are most likely to take the bait: Their kids are out of the house, they have free time and they miss playing. “They’re mine,” Tolopka says.
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