Mark Bennett: Envisioning the day when we unite in gratitude

A community moment: Doug Keiser, shown here in his role as ISU associate director of bands, envisions a musical performance for residents of the Wabash Valley to experience online, in gratitude of those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.Joyful Noise, an ensemble based at Keiser’s church, Memorial United Methodist, would provide the music.

Americans were stunned, upset and anxious about the future. Terrorist attacks on symbolic U.S. sites had killed nearly 3,000 people.

Three days after 9/11, Indiana State University band director Doug Keiser asked a class of music students if any wanted to perform at a hastily arranged ceremony at Fairbanks Park later that evening 19 years ago. The event was meant to give Terre Haute residents a chance to console and support each other.

Almost every student’s hand rose. That night, while Keiser’s young musicians played “God Bless the USA,” a crowd of hundreds stood on the Fairbanks Park amphitheater’s hillside cheering and waving flags. “It was a great example of people needing a release,” Keiser recalled Monday.

A similar need exists today, amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

So, Keiser and the musical group Joyful Noise are planning an inspirational performance for later this year. It could be cathartic for many folks dealing with anxiety, uncertainty and stress. “We need to share some of those feelings, jointly, right now,” Keiser said.

Unlike the concert after 9/11, the Terre Haute community will gather online for this one. The importance of social distancing, to prevent further spread of the dangerous coronavirus, means a crowd of hundreds watching a group of 25 musicians in the same venue would be risky. Thus, Joyful Noise — an interfaith instrumental praise-music ensemble from Memorial United Methodist Church — will, at some point, prerecord a video performance for viewing on Facebook and YouTube.

Even recording musicians performing while standing inside the church, socially distanced apart, will have to wait until a time when such a gathering is safer, Keiser said.

Once that day arrives, their music will remember coronavirus victims and their families; people struggling with the disease; local front-line workers, such as police, fire, paramedics, doctors, nurses, CNAs, medical technicians, and service workers; and students among the graduating classes of 2020 at local colleges and high schools, unable to celebrate in traditional commencement exercises.

Keiser anticipates playing songs such as “Hymn to the Fallen,” a John Williams composition featured in the movie “Saving Private Ryan;” “Tribute” by Travis A. Cross; “You Raise Me Up,” made famous by singer Josh Groban; and “Homeward Bound,” a chorale piece (not the Simon & Garfunkel hit). 

A brass and wind ensemble has performed regularly at Memorial United Methodist for nearly three years, including the Sundays prior to Memorial Day.

“I think it’s important every year to honor those who have passed and for people of faith to give thanks for those who have sacrificed for us, and meant a lot to us,” Keiser said. “And, this year, we have even more to give thanks for.”

A vision for an expanded ensemble to perform around the community emerged in December. Keiser — also associate director of bands at ISU for the past 30 years — assembled a group of volunteers to play at the funeral of David Gibbs, the church’s music director and a fixture in Terre Haute music circles. “He was a great example of a servant,” Keiser said of Gibbs.

The strength of the music that day inspired Keiser. He figured such an ensemble would be ecumenical, bringing its music to other churches of any denomination and special events in the community. A group of 25 brass and wind instrumentalists and singers could play 10 outings a year. A grant from the church’s endowment had enabled Keiser to land enough equipment and instruments for the ensemble, Joyful Noise, to form and begin a schedule of rehearsals and performances.

“That was supposed to start this summer,” Keiser said, “but things have changed, obviously, and that’s been put on hold.”

Governors across the country ordered shutdowns of nonessential businesses and services in March. In Indiana, public gatherings were limited to 10 people or fewer. Social distancing, leaving space of six feet between people, was urged to prevent spread of the pandemic that has taken nearly 75,000 lives nationwide and more than 1,200 in Indiana. Last week, Gov. Eric Holcomb announced a phased-in reopening of the state.

Daily life has certainly changed. Feelings of isolation from staying home and avoiding unnecessary trips have tested people’s spirits. The solitude may also spawn a deeper sense of community in Terre Haute. “It’s also a time you can spend with your family, and go outside and talk to your neighbors by walking down the street, or from one driveway to the next,” Keiser said.

The concert, whenever it can finally happen, will be a moment when Terre Haute area residents can express gratitude “to the people that are serving us,” as Keiser puts it, and share their concerns and hopes for better days ahead.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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