The back row can be a pretty unassuming place.
For Dave Johnson, the last line of chairs is where he and Mark Bressler would, 28 years ago, goof off as young newcomers to the Dixon Municipal Band.
“When I started in the band, Mark was right out of college, the kid who sat next to me,” Dave said of the man who directs the band today. “We were the trouble-makers in the back row.”
A few years later, when Kent Nightlinger became the band’s director, there was a role to fill: Someone needed to announce the pieces the group was playing. Sort of moderate the performances.
“I sort of said, ‘I’ll do it,’ and he said, ‘Sure, go ahead,’” Dave recalled. “That was pretty much the interview.”
Against members’ urging, for 25 seasons, Dave has introduced the pieces from the seat of his pants in that back row. Except during the Christmas performance, when he reluctantly takes center stage to rattle off the composers, arrangers, and all the good stuff you need to know about what you’re about to hear.
Tucked away in that back row with his euphonium, Dave was enchanted by a young French horn player 26 years back.
“Twenty-six years ago, I sat down in front of him,” his wife, Ruth, said in a phone interview Tuesday. “And back then, I thought his jokes were funny.”
After a few months of dating, they were engaged. They’d have two children, Maribeth, who recently took her trombone to Northern Illinois University for her freshman year, and Patrick, a sophomore tuba player at Dixon High School. Dave says Ruth can play “pretty much every instrument in the band,” hence, she was an equally successful and beloved middle school band director for 18 years.
Again, from the caboose of the band, Dave found it surreal when all four family members played in the ensemble this past season.
“This year, to be sitting in the back, with both of my kids sitting on either side, and my wife out front, to see my family playing together, … that was really a special moment,” Dave said. “And then the fact that all four of us got to talk about it afterward. ‘Hey, how about this song? Did you hear who screwed this up?’
“We got a nice picture of all of us. That was a great night.”
With so many long-tenured members in the band, every night playing music is a great one. One of the keys to the group’s longevity is its ability to have fun while performing.
There are plenty of inside jokes, many of them finding Dave right in the middle of the punchline. He’ll playfully take jabs at sections of the band, then poke fun at himself.
“The other fun is they love to listen to me try to pronounce composers’ names,” Dave said. “Music is worldwide, and I have a tendency to butcher composers’ names.
“It’s all about paying the proper respect to the music, but having fun.”
After playing in the marching band at NIU, Dave looked to keep having fun with music. But he also needed an outlet. That’s what makes groups like the muni band so special, to the point that many of its members – Dave included – turn down pay to keep the band’s budget ample.
While, nationwide, muni bands are going the way of the dodo right along with so many other fine arts ensembles and programs, this area is chock full of them.
For Dave, music was (and still is) a tremendous outlet. He and his children were also multi-sport athletes. Of course, Patrick still is. So Dave relished his son’s wide eyes after that first performance together in the muni band, and how much it felt like a team that had executed a game plan down to the letter.
“It was pretty neat when he experienced it and said, ‘Dad, it’s awesome how we can sound when everything is just right,’” Dave said.