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Harpswell band brings storied musician back to conducting spotlight

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Harpswell band brings storied musician back to conducting spotlight

HARPSWELL — The last time Robert Modr regularly conducted a band, he was a music teacher in Europe, under contract with the U.S. Department of Defense.

Now he's returning to the conductor's spotlight on the other side of the world, in Harpswell, where his new Harpswell Concert Band will soon debut.

The new gig continues Modr's 60-year passion for playing music and sharing it with others.

This Sunday, the 50-piece band will play at the Harpswell Bandstand's dedication ceremony, an event that will celebrate the completion of a volunteer-led project to provide the town with a no-cost entertainment venue.

The band has been practicing for nearly three months. It includes a percussion suite, four tubas, nine trumpets, five instruments in the saxophone family, nine clarinets, three flutes, four French horns and an oboe.

"I'm having the time of my life with this (band) because many of them were hand-picked and they are excellent musicians that I've known," Modr said on Tuesday. "Even the ones I haven't hand-picked are musicians being pushed to their limit and I just love conducting again. When I retired in 2003, I missed it terribly."

The initiative to build the bandstand was spearheaded by Modr, 73,  along with friend Dan Huber, and the idea came from Modr's long experience as a musician.

It all started when he was 11.

Like many boys, including his older brother, he wanted to play the trumpet, but his parents resisted the idea of having two horns under one roof.

However, with his father being a musician, playing an instrument was imperative.

"It wasn't a question of being a musician, it was a question of which instrument you wanted to play," Modr said.

After struggling with the clarinet for a while, his parents eventually gave into his blaring trumpet dreams.

And soon enough, it paid off.

When Modr's brother, Al, entered the military, that left a hole in the six-piece Polish-American band with which he had been playing. Without Modr's consultation, the band "volunteered" the 13-year-old as the new trumpet player.

Modr agreed and joined the ranks of musicians far older than him – including a drummer in his 70s – playing events every weekend throughout high school. His father only stipulated that Modr left for the gigs "15 minutes before" they started and and came back "15 minutes after" they finished.

As it turned out, Modr's unusual stint as a professional teenage musician was the springboard for the rest of his life.

After high school, Modr served in the military with a few bands, including the Bugle Corps and U.S. Air Force Concert Band, and played at many events in the New York area. He even played at a parade celebrating the return of astronaut John Glenn from his first space mission.

After studying at the New England Conservatory from 1961-1964, Modr then ended up in Orono as director of music for the town schools until 1981. He then served in the same position for the Brunswick School Department until 1991.

That's when Modr was introduced to Dixieland.

He began playing it with the Royal River Philharmonic Jazz Band. Later, he accepted the Defense Department job teaching music to children of military families, a role that took him to England and then Italy.

During his time overseas, Modr won the department's Teacher of the Year Award in Italy for the 1999-2000 school year. 

"It was very cool," Modr said.

Even after retiring in 2003, Modr still teaches students to this day.

"I have to say, working with students – they just keep you young," Modr said. "... You don't get rich doing it, you get rich from the reward of teaching them."

This summer, Modr will also play with the Moose Mountain Jazz Band, which is scheduled to appear at the bandstand and has played local events in the past.

Modr said the band is partially responsibly for his original vision of the Harpswell Bandstand, which was inspired by one he played at in New Hampshire. He said the new venue is a treat to his ears.

"It's so 'alive' on the bandstand itself, I can hear everything. And then I went out to listen and (the music) blended so incredibly and it had to do with that consideration for acoustics," Modr said.

When it comes to why Modr continues to immerse his life in his music, he said it's "just for the love of it."

"When the audience gives you a standing ovation, you say, 'Wow, how often do you get to experience that?'"

Dylan Martin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or dmartin@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DylanLJMartin.