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Blawenburg Band, Since 1890, Strong as Ever

By David Cochran | Posted December 14, 2023


In 1890, two years before famous composer and bandmaster John Phillips Sousa started his popular Sousa Band, several musicians gathered in the upper room of the Blawenburg blacksmith and wheelwright shop to play music together. They called themselves the Blawenburg Band.


A greatly expanded version of that band is still playing today, 133 years later. It is one of the oldest and longest-playing bands in New Jersey. The first band had a handful of musicians compared to the more than 75 active band members that continue the tradition today. Jerry Rife, Phd, Professor of Music Emeritus at Rider University, takes great pride in the quality and longevity of the band he has led for the past 38 years.


He joined the band as a clarinet player in 1985 at a time when the band was in leadership transition. Later that year, he became the conductor. It is Rife’s philosophy and drive that have expanded the band, which does 20 to 25 performances a year.

Blawenburg Band


Most bands of this size do just five or six yearly performances. Members of the band practice once a week for most of the year, except for the summer when they do as many as 15 performances. Rehearsals are held on Monday nights, currently at the Montessori School on Cherry Valley Road in Montgomery Township.


Most performances are also on Monday nights to assure that a maximum number of band members are available. “We’re a community band made up of volunteer musicians,” Rife said. “In the hour and a half we rehearse, no one wants to have a lot of idle talk. They joined the band because they want to play, so we play,” Rife noted.


Because it is a community band, not everyone can play every performance. Smaller venues may only require 20 band members, while the two command performances, the concerts in June and December, bring out 50 or more musicians. “We need 37 different instrumental parts for a concert,” Rife said, “so we like to be sure we’re covered.”


Some of the smaller venues are nursing homes and retirement communities. Summer is a big time for outdoor concerts, the Hopewell Railroad Station and Princeton Shopping Center are popular venues for these. They have been giving concerts at the Griggstown Reformed Church Harvest Home for over a century. “We do these concerts because we have a cardinal rule in the band that we want our music to be available to everyone,” Rife says. “This is also the reason we don’t charge our audiences at performances.”


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Another tenet of the band is the music they play must be enjoyable to both the musicians and the audience. Rife always polls the band members about what they like to play and what the audience would like to hear. Blawenburg Band performances are never the same.


Another key to the band’s success is programming. Rife has a dedicated Board of Directors that takes care of all the administrative details of the band. This frees him to do what he loves – developing the program for the performances.


Rife describes the early days of his career as a teacher in Kansas as being an academicallytrained director, designing traditional programs. Along the career journey, he studied the master, Sousa, and viewed him as a role model. As he worked as a professor of music at Rider University and led the Blawenburg Band, he realized that Sousa played what people wanted to hear. When he started to program like Sousa, Rife said it made all the difference in the performances he produced and the band members they attracted.


Rife chooses pieces that are short in duration and organized so they have a contrasting style and speed. The anniversary concert held last June at the College of New Jersey is a good example. He starts with a patriotic song, often the National Anthem. He might follow with an operatic selection, then jump to a march. Rife says the band is family. “I love these people,” he says.


Part of the reason this organization has become so close-knit is the way members join the band. There is no formal audition. If a trumpet player wants to join, Rife assesses whether they need another trumpeter. If they do and the candidate has had previous experience playing in a band, they are invited to come to three rehearsals. Rife then asks the band family how the person fit in and if their musical quality was similar to the band. If there are a sufficient number of trumpet players, the candidate is put on a waiting list.


Once in the band, members receive a coveted red Blawenburg Band shirt. Some band members have been with the band for as long as their conductor. “The future looks fantastic,” Rife says. “We’re at the top of an upward spiral, and we’re still going up.” With the guiding principles fostered by Dr. Jerry Rife—to work hard to create good quality music that is entertaining and fun to play for all people—you get a formula that foreshadows a bright future.


Holiday Concert

December 16

3 pm

College of New Jersey, Mayo Hall, 2000 Pennington Rd, Ewing Township

There is no charge for the concert, but donations are accepted.

For information on the Blawenburg Band’s performances, visit blawenburgband.org.


David Cochran is author of the Tales of Blawenburg blog (blawenburgtales.com) and Where Are They? The Missing Men from Marlowe Mansion (dcochran.net).

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