Moravian wind players have accompanied singing at Moravian funerals since at least 1731 in Herrnhut. Over these 283 years, band members have been called to service by many different means of communication. The community in Herrnhut was small enough for word-of-mouth notifications — everyone knew who had been called to the more immediate presence of the Savior, and when the services were, and that the trombones were needed.
By the 20th century, the telephone became the medium of choice. Each congregation with a band or trombone choir kept a list of players ready and willing to be called and come to play for funeral. In the mid-20th century in Winston-Salem, at least, school-age players were excused from school to play for the service.
Over the years, more congregations in the Winston-Salem area were having trouble “fielding” a band for funerals. Workplaces and schools were unwilling to allow players to be absent during the week, so congregations were dependent upon retirees. This still worked for those congregations with a large band and many retired members.
Smaller congregations had more difficulty. At some graveside services there were very few (if any) players. I recall going to a service in the early 1990’s for which the band consisted of an alto sax, an alto horn, and a tenor trombone. (We sang the hymns anyway. Enough of us knew them to be able to “pitch” them once we heard the first alto and tenor note.)
Brother Denny Fordham, as director of the Moravian Church Bands of the Salem Congregation, maintained a “funeral band list” consisting of the names, instruments and telephone numbers of players willing to play for funerals of any congregation. This list was made available to each congregation’s band leader, but most of the time no “extras” were called upon unless the congregation felt the deceased brother or sister was of some special importance, or if it was known that there would be very few band players. Still, the telephone was the medium of communication.
For many years, the Friedberg-Enterprise band and the Konnoak Hills Moravian Church band had joined with the band from Calvary Moravian to form “Band 3” for the Salem Congregation Easter Sunrise Service. This affiliation had resulted in these four congregations informally helping each other for funerals.
Jimmie Snyder, of the Friedberg congregation, writes:
“I played one service where it was me (alto sax) and three trumpets. Needless to say, our sound was lacking in some areas… I felt bad for the family. To think ‘Daddy’ had spent his entire life as a faithful Moravian and when he died, this was the best the church could provide for band. I remember thinking that every Moravian deserved a decent band if the family requested one…
“Grady Shelton, band director at Calvary at the time , Sharon Willis, ‘Band Mother’ at Calvary, several others and I started discussing our concerns about the state of the “Moravian Band” and our desire to provide better bands. We all felt we were somehow missing a great opportunity to witness for our Lord and Savior and to provide some level of caring and comfort to families that had lost a loved one.
“I don’t remember exactly how it happened or who made the suggestion, but we decided to start an e-mail list of bandsmen who were willing, on short notice, to respond to a God’s Acre somewhere and play for a funeral of a Brother or Sister we did not even know. Of course, it was not important to be a member of the congregation needing the band… After a fairly short period, the interest grew…Sharon Willis and I both began compiling an e-mail list.
“It was slow going at first. We had some doubters as to our purpose and were even called ‘hearse chasers’ and ‘interlopers.’ However, we only played where we were asked to play… we were convinced that what we were trying to do was needed and most of us felt it was our calling.
“As we began receiving more requests, our e-mail lists grew, as more and more asked to be included on the lists… We have grown to a group of bandsmen who represent many different congregations. We are even able to provide enough players that we can cover two funerals at the same time and still have 25 or more at each service. We have been called on to play as many as three funerals in one day. We always play under the direction of the requesting congregation’s band leader.”
In its first year (2004), the “e-mail band” was called to play 33 funerals for 11 different Moravian congregations. Last year (2013) it was called for 143 funerals for 30 Moravian congregations and one non-Moravian church.
The band plays in bright hot sunshine, in pouring rain, and in weather so cold that the instruments freeze up. This group no longer plays just for funerals — the “e-band” is called upon for ordinations, installations, building dedications, services honoring police officers and firefighters, the dedication of a new sanctuary for a Catholic congregation, and a prelude for parents’ weekend services at High Point University. The group does not replace any congregation’s individual band, but simply provides support, especially for funerals.
Jimmie Snyder continues:
“As we play together, many of us have developed friendships we would not have had were it not for the e-mail funeral band. Bandsmen who would never have played together are now friends and confident in each other’s abilities… None of us do this for personal glory but for the glory of God. It is our way to witness and provide comfort and support to grieving families. It is impossible to describe the feeling when family members flash a smile in the direction of the band and you realize the impact the band has… We are no longer individual congregations with small individual bands. We are now truly a ‘unity of the Brethren.’”
Jimmie, who keeps the e-mail list, is right about the development of close personal relationships. The band has often gone to play at the home of a member who is ill or has a family member who is ill — scheduling the visit to be sure it is OK with the family. Moreover, when there are two funerals in a single day, many of the bandsmen meet for lunch in between services.
Another “side effect” is that the individual congregation bands are playing better, because more of their members are playing more of the time! The players are comfortable following different directors, playing at different tempos, and playing different selections of tunes.
What other ministries of our congregations would benefit from using technology to facilitate cooperation of this nature? ?
The Rev. Dr. Nola Reed Knouse is director of the Moravian Music Foundation.
From the September 2014 Moravian Magazine