The members of the Mon Valley Community Band are as diverse as the musical genres they play.
In a break in the practice, held in the basement of the Donora Public Library, they share laughs between songs.
But when conductor Max Gonano’s baton goes up, all are serious and all about the music.
The band has been entertaining audiences for more than 100 years. And its history is as enduring as its music, and the members.
The Mon Valley Community Band’s origins date back to the early 1900s when John Jannotta formed the Order of the Sons of Italy Band shortly after emigrating from Italy, settling in Monessen.
The band would change names various times over the decades. For the Monessen Fireman’s Band, Jannotta not only directed the band but composed a number of the pieces they performed.
They were known as the Monessen Civic Center Band when they practiced at the city’s Civic Center. After Jannotta died in the 1950s, the band was dormant for more than a decade.
But by the late 1960s, former band members Adolph Jannotta and Henry Aloisi of Monessen reformed the group.
The group relocated and rehearsed in a building owned by retired steelworkers, thus becoming the Mon Valley Association of Retired Steelworkers, or M.A.R.S., Band.
Aloisi was the Charleroi Area High School band director and brought many of his students to the band.
The band’s name was changed to the Mon Valley Community Band when it moved to the V.F.W. Hall in Charleroi. Sam Bill took over as conductor. Retired in 2012 after 30 years as the band director at California University of Pennsylvania, Gonano was asked to take over the baton for Sam Bill, who was battling health issues.
He immediately began to help guide the direction of the music.
“By the time the music starts, you’ve done your work,” Gonano said.
“I look at the band I’m in front of and think, ‘How can I help to make it better? You’re a mechanic. You’re saying, ‘How can I make it run smoother?’”
Part of being in the band is social; it’s supposed to be, Gonano said. The strength of the band is its dedication to the music they perform.
“Nobody’s mamma, wife or grandchild forces them to play,” Gonano said. “And once they’re here, the attitude is good. Then, I’ll figure out the rest.”
Community bands traditionally evolve in one direction or another because personalities evolve, Gonano said.
“A band will take on the character of the people,” Gonano said.
“And this one’s a character,” joked Beverly Barncord, president of the band.
Barncord oversees the band’s schedule. An Elizabeth Township resident, Barncord, 53, has been a member of the band for 10 years.
“My kids were in high school, and they were playing. I got jealous,” Barncord said. “I called Mon Valley Music in Monongahela, and he gave me the name of this band.”
Barncord started playing at Lincoln Elementary School in West Elizabeth and continued through her first three years at Washington and Jefferson College.
“I got out of music because family and kids became more important,” Barncord said.
But as she saw her daughters, Danielle, now 21, and Shannon, 24, play at Elizabeth Forward High School, she admittedly missed it.
“It was always something I enjoyed,” Barncord said. “It’s so relaxing.”
There are currently 45 members in the band, comprising a standard band of woodwinds, brass and percussion.
“They mix rather well together by their love of performance,” Gonano said.
“We have a common goal,” said Barncord.
Most of the members come from the Mon Valley, but there are members from Washington, Fayette, Greene and Allegheny counties.
Paige Sands, a percussionist, is a freshman at Charleroi Area High School. Norm Gross, 86, of Bethel Park is a tenor saxophone player.
Gross joined the band a year and a half ago. He got his musical start playing the clarinet in sixth grade and played the saxophone by age 14 as a member of the North Catholic band.
He has played music ever since.
Gross played in the band that Bobby Vinton fronted, having known the famed singer when they both attended Duquesne University.
Drafted in 1951, Gross played in the U.S. Army Band for two years.
Now retired, Gross was business director for the Bethlehem-Center School District and played weekends in clubs for weddings and bar mitzvahs.
From 1993 to 2002, he played Dixieland music at a club in Castle Shannon.
“I like that when you play music, you work your mind,” Gross said. “It has to do with arithmetic. And there are so many different kinds of music, from jazz to swing to symphonic and rock ‘n’ roll.”
Mike Surovchak, a member of the band for 25 years, started as a freshman at Belle Vernon Area High School, encouraged to join by his high school band director Aloisi.
Gonano was his college band director.
Surovchak said Gonano is very good at choosing the right music for the band and getting the music to sound good.
“Under his leadership, we have such a cohesiveness to the music,” said the Whitehall resident, who grew up in North Belle Vernon.
A math teacher in the South Park School District, Surovchak wrote his thesis on the relationship between math and music.
“I love music,” Surovchak said. “I love to play it with other people who love it as well. All of the people I looked up to have moved on, but it is cool to see the change in personnel and the consistency in the music.”
Elizabeth Ambrose, 19, graduated from Bentworth High School in 2016. She is studying music education and psychology at IUP. She is eyeing a career either as a music teacher or music therapist. She plays alto saxophone, which she picked up four years ago.
She joined the band two years ago with a friend.
“It’s very laid back and yet there is an intensity to the performances,” Ambrose said. “A lot of the members are retired teachers or ex-performers. It’s nice to get a perspective on the music from them.
“Max is an excellent director. He is very inspiring for me. He is fantastic at making the whole band jell.”
The band plays 18 shows a year, generally 90 minutes in length.
The music runs the gamut from traditional light classic through pop, complete with singers” Gonano said.
“There’s definitely an avocation for music, to pay back their communities the best way they can with their performances,” Gonano said.
Gonano said the band has been able to survive, and thrive, for more than 100 years because of its ability to evolve.
“We changed with the times,” Gonano said. “We do different concerts, different music than they did 35 years ago.”
“I like to look in the eyes of the audience to see if they are locked in. You might hate one type of music, but if you like the next piece, I got you.”