In Perfect Harmony

For nearly three decades, BandTogether has united LGBTQ+ musicians of all ages and skill levels to share beautiful music and performance with the St. Louis community.

Community

Story By Cheryl Baehr
Visuals By Michael Thomas

It’s a Wednesday evening in April, and the performance hall at the 560 Music Center in University City is filled with a sound as soaring as its grand Art Deco ceiling. This sonic joy comes courtesy of roughly 100 musicians under the direction of Gary Reynolds, practicing a concert band rendition of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” — one so stirring it visibly moved the small audience viewing the rehearsal.

This evening’s music evokes the type of experience you’d expect if you saw a pop performance at Powell Hall, yet this all-volunteer corps of musicians is gathered tonight under the banner of BandTogether, a community concert group directed by Reynolds and co-director Jeff Girard that has a mission much bigger than playing music. The group aims to create an inclusive, supportive environment where members of the LGBTQ+ community can come together to perform in a setting that is safe, relaxed, and welcoming to all. On Saturday, May 18, the band shared this free concert, titled “The Icons Tour!” with the St. Louis community.

BandTogether rehearses for an upcoming concert led by Gary Reynolds, Founder and Artistic Director.

For nearly three decades, BandTogether has been creating space for its members — some of whom are simply proficient enough to follow along and others who have professional-level playing skills — while sharing the joy of music with the St. Louis community through free concerts and performances in local parades. What started out as a small band of 10 musicians who gathered to march in the 1997 St. Louis Pride Parade has grown over the years to include roughly 200 members, including a color guard that has performed everywhere from Washington, D.C. to Australia’s famed Sydney Opera House.

Looking back, Reynolds understands the inevitability of BandTogether’s popularity, even if he didn’t expect it at the time he founded the group. A lifelong musician, Reynolds started the group after he found himself at a point in his life where he no longer had a given, school-centric outlet for his musical talents. He played instruments throughout elementary and high school and went to college with aspirations of becoming a school band director, but during his freshman year, he changed course and pursued a business degree instead. This meant that, for the first time since he was a young child, he had no musical outlet and was unwilling to simply tuck away his saxophone in a closet like so many musicians who find themselves in the same position. He tried joining a community band to satisfy his desire to play, but he could not shake the feeling that something was off.

Gary Reynolds, BandTogether Founder and Artistic Director.

“It just wasn’t the right fit,” Reynolds says. “Being part of a local community band, I didn’t feel like I could be myself. I didn’t feel like people wanted to get to know me. They didn’t know me as Gary — they knew me as the gay saxophone player. I felt like something was missing.”

Reynolds understood that his situation was not all that uncommon for musicians who, like him, played throughout their academic careers but lost their outlet once they left school. His own experiences, and supportive conversations with some friends, led Reynolds to the idea of forming his own band — one that would be geared towards musicians in the LGBTQ+ community. He had no idea whether or not such entities even existed or whether there would be enough people to form a group, but he decided to take out a newspaper ad looking for LGBTQ+ musicians to perform in that year’s June Pride Parade. To his surprise, 10 musicians came to the initial practice and pulled off a performance at the parade that felt so fulfilling, they decided to keep going as a group.

Since that initial performance 27 years ago, BandTogether has become part of the larger international Pride band community and an integral part of St. Louis’ music culture, putting on four concerts per year, marching in area Pride parades, and participating in other engagements like graduation ceremonies and sporting events. As Reynolds and Girard have observed over their decades of directing the band, its presence has been both a creative lifeline for its members and a source of inspiration and acceptance for those who see the performances. 

BandTogether members practice during a recent band rehearsal.

Darby Dachroeden, BandTogether’s marching and pep band director, is one of the many members who was so moved by seeing a performance, he decided to join the group. Like Reynolds, Dachroeden had been deeply feeling the need to have not just a musical outlet, but one that would allow him to freely be himself. Ever since he began taking violin lessons at age 5, Dachroeden knew that music was the way he could express himself. However, as he got older, he understood that meant having an outlet that would empower him to be his whole self — and that would allow him to be that beacon for others.

“Music has always been a big part of my life, and it wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized that my skills and love for music could help the queer community that helped me figure out who I was,” Dachroeden says. “To be in a place that combines my identity as a musician with my identity as a gay man is such an incredible feeling, as they are two of the most important and overarching parts of who I am. To be in a space where I can perform and direct and know that not one person there judges me for who I am is an incredible feeling.”

Dachroeden knew that BandTogether would be this outlet after watching the group perform in the 2019 Pride St. Louis Grand Pride Parade. He joined the group that year and quickly moved into a leadership role due to his background in music education. This position has allowed him to witness others open up as performers thanks to the group’s safe and inclusive environment, but it’s also made him realize how important it is to represent that to the larger St. Louis community.

Darby Dachroeden, BandTogether Marching and Pep Band Director.

“Being the pep band director, I get to watch us go out into the community, see different queer spaces, and think about how we can make those better and how BandTogether is such a different style of performance than what people are used to,” Dachroeden says. “Most of the time, you have either a small band or a single person, but having an ensemble the size we are show up and demonstrate that we can be talented musicians and be part of the queer community helps bring people in because of the sheer size of our organization. Now that we’ve gotten this big, we are making even more of an impact and getting to spread our message wider.”

As co-directors of BandTogether’s color guard, Landen Hardin and Becky Simpson have a large role in spreading that message. Founded by Michael Melton about a decade into BandTogether’s existence, the color guard consists of roughly 30 members. The color guard perform the style of dance found in large band corps that uses equipment such as flags, rifles, sabres, and other props to put on choreographed routines. Even more so than music, color guard is the sort of activity that is difficult to participate in once its performers are out of school, so Hardin and Simpson have felt such joy in the opportunity it has given them, and that they, in turn, are giving to others through their direction of the group — even some who, as Simpson explains, may have always wanted to pursue but felt that they were unable because of the cultural climate when they were in school. 

Becky Simpson, BandTogether Colorguard Director.

“We have people come to us after seeing us perform in the (St. Louis) Pride Parade say, ‘Oh wow, this is something you can do as an adult?’ Or they will tell us it is something they have always wanted to do and never tried,” Simpson says. “Many of our members did not have the opportunity to do color guard back in the ’90s because they didn’t see a lot of men in cheer and color guard. It’s great to see guys in cheer and color guard now, but back then, that wasn’t very common. In some places around the country, they wouldn’t even be allowed to try out. We’re welcoming on so many different levels. It is a very no-barriers, welcoming and inclusive space.”

But it’s not just the act of performing that is so fulfilling. For Hardin, there’s nothing more thrilling than the feeling he and his BandTogether color guard members get from the spectators who show their support from the parade sidelines and audience seats. It’s what proves to him that what they are doing is resonating with people on a much deeper level than simply enjoying a beautifully choreographed show. 

“Being able to represent your community during a great celebration, and seeing the mounds of people that show up for the parade is so enormous,” Hardin says. “Walking down Market Street and seeing crowds of people hypes me up, and I know it hypes everyone else up, too. Knowing that you are part of something larger than you and celebrating is incredible. You are showing love to your community, but you are also getting love back from them.”

Artistic directors Gary Reynolds (pictured left) and Jeff Girard in conversation before rehearsal.

That desire for community engagement is why Girard and Reynolds have always, and will always, make BandTogether’s concerts free and open to all. Just as they do not want performers to feel excluded based on their identities and abilities, they do not want audience members to feel they cannot afford to come out and see art. To them, this creates an inclusive space for everyone to enjoy music while spreading their message to even more people across the St. Louis metro. 

“I feel like we have been successful not only in our mission of being able to have a musical and performance outlet in a safe environment for anyone who wants to be a part of it, but we have also been successful in putting a positive face on the LGBTQ+ community,” Reynolds says. “It has been important to shine a positive light on the community.”

That Reynolds, Girard, and everyone involved with BandTogether may have had even some small role in bringing about that change is more meaningful than Reynolds could have ever imagined. 

“I feel like I am at a point now where I can stand back, look at what we have done, and say life is short, but I feel like I have left my mark no matter what,” Reynolds says. “I am thankful for that.”

Pictured left to right: Landen Hardin, BandTogether color guard Director, and Jeff Girard, BandTogether Artistic Director.

Join the Story

  • Watch BandTogether’s last concert of the group’s current season on YouTube.
  • Learn more about BandTogether and keep up with the band’s concert schedule on its website.
  • Connect with BandTogether on Facebook.
  • Support BandTogether by making a donation.