The Holton-Elkhorn Band, shown in a summer concert, changed the venue for its annual Christmas concert, set for Dec. 8. Formerly held at the old Sprague Theatre downtown, this year it’s moving to the James A. Wehner Auditorium at Elkhorn Area High School, which can seat more than 800 people. The concert is free and tickets are available at the Elkhorn Area Chamber of Commerce. (Submitted photo)

EAHS venue will allow more people to attend

By Heather Ruenz

SLN staff

The Holton-Elkhorn Band has held its annual Christmas concert in the Walworth County Performing Arts Center, the former Sprague Theatre. But this year, in an effort to ensure everyone that wants to attend can, they’ve decided to change the venue.

“The Sprague is a great, local setting but only seats about 200 people and I get about 50 tickets to give to the band members for their guests,” said Fred Palmer, conductor and manager of the band.

On Saturday, Dec. 8, at 7:30 p.m., the Holton-Elkhorn Band will take the stage in the James A. Wehner Auditorium at Elkhorn Area High School, which accommodates about 810 people.

“The move will take away from the downtown venue, people want to hear the band and we hear every year about the limited number of tickets, so this was the best answer,” Palmer said.

It was by happenstance – or meant to be – that Palmer wound up in Elkhorn.

“I was a UW-Whitewater grad assistant and my wife, two sons and I were driving back from Illinois to Whitewater. We went through Elkhorn and I saw the water tower with the horn on it and thought, ‘Wow! I bet they have a great music program.’ Back at UW-Whitewater I searched the job marketplace and there it was… EAHS was looking for a band director so I applied and got hired,” he said.

Palmer, who retired from teaching at EAHS in 2011, has been directing the Holton band for the past 18 years.

He was a member of the band – he plays trumpet – when its director at that time was Sue Swoboda, who taught band at the high school for two years before transferring to Elkhorn Area Middle School.

“It’s according to Frank Holton’s will that the job goes to the high school band director,” Palmer said.

“Sue was a wonderful director, and when she retired, I slid over to the director’s seat,” Palmer added. “And now, the high school’s current director, Sarah Wuttke, directs a couple of pieces now and then so I can play.”


He said the recruitment for the Holton-Elkhorn band generally takes care of itself. Members are paid – via funding from the Holton Foundation with additional support from the City of Elkhorn.

“It’s one of the only bands in the area that pays its members. That limits how big I let the sections get, but it always seems to work out. If we’re short a position, we find someone or they find us,” Palmer said. “It’s generally people that become accomplished with their instruments and want to use that talent. We all like to make music.”

The band usually has between 40 and 44 members with 48 being the largest, according to Palmer.

He said everyone has his or her own equipment other than the percussionists, who use the high school’s equipment.

“Working with the school district is a great partnership. We practice in the band room at the high school and they have staff transport the percussion to the band shell in the summer,” he said.

Joy of making music

Palmer said the band features musicians anywhere between the ages of 16 and 80, including several area band directors and current or graduated UW-Whitewater music students.

“If we get a gap, I’ll ask Sarah, ‘Hey, you got a good tenor sax player?’ or whatever and sure enough, she always does. So that’s usually how the high school kids get involved,” he said.

He said the bands at EAHS always have been strong, but when you’re working with a band featuring numerous musicians who’ve played for 20-plus years, that takes it to a whole new level.

“We’re in tune. They watch and listen and they’re right with me. It’s magical,” he said.

Palmer said it’s challenging – for both the summer series and Christmas concert – to keep the favorite tunes while attempting to feature a fresh lineup.

“The Holton Band music library, which is at the high school, and the EAHS library, are both large so we rotate the music. Of course, I have my favorite pieces that will sneak in for several years, but eventually we set them aside for a while,” he said.

When prepping for a concert, Palmer and Wuttke will meet to pull the music – choose the pieces to play and place the music in the appropriate folders for each musician/instrument chair.

He said Swoboda taught him the importance of variety, something he still does today.

“It’s important to have a variety, and I try to always do some pieces the kids will enjoy to keep it suitable for the whole family,” he said.

In the summer, the band performs six consecutive Friday night concerts at Sunset Park beginning the third week in June. They rehearse on Thursday nights and perform on Fridays.

For the upcoming Christmas concert, the band will rehearse twice that week – on Wednesday and Friday, with the concert on that Saturday.

“The rehearsals are long … about two hours, but we have to get through 16 pieces of music.”

The Christmas concert is offered free, but guests are encouraged to get tickets in advance, available at the Elkhorn Area Chamber of Commerce.

“The band is really a community effort that benefits the Elkhorn community, and is what the Holton family wanted to maintain,” Palmer said.

“I hope we fill the auditorium for the Christmas concert and all the people that have wanted to get to a concert take advantage and come out and hear the community band,” he added.

To donate to the band, send checks to Holton-Elkhorn Band, c/o Fred Palmer, N6674 Club House Circle, Elkhorn, WI 53121.

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