Standing before a couple dozen pint-sized observers, John Bechen explains a few of the basics about saxophones.
The sound is made by air traveling over a piece of wood called a reed. Saxophones come in multiple sizes. And the bigger they are, the lower the notes they can play.
The little eyes in the audience widen when Bechen’s fellow quartet member Charles Kesinger blows into his baritone sax — the biggest in the group, and nearly as tall as the audience members — to demonstrate.
“That’s down in the basement!” Bechen exclaims.
At the First United Methodist Church Kids First Preschool on a recent afternoon, the River City Reeds saxophone quartet’s commentary was perhaps more elementary than usual, but the group’s playing was no less stirring than their typical community performances. Soon, the children were swinging to the “Pennsylvania Polka” and shaking bells along with “Sleigh Ride.”
The quartet comprises Bechen, 54 and the only nonretiree, on the soprano and alto saxophones; Kesinger, 68, on baritone; Elaine Roberts, 67, on alto; and Clyde Bysom, 95, on tenor. The group, which practices every Wednesday in addition to performing for free throughout the community, has been going strong since stemming off from the New Horizons Band more than a decade ago.
The only non-original member, Kesinger, joined when Alan Whitehouse retired a few years ago. After all, space is limited in the coveted small performance group that is a quartet.
“This is one of the things that keeps me going,” Kesinger says. “It’s fun to sit here and play. This is probably as much fun as anything I do.”
The River City Reeds’ main audience is retirement homes, Bechen says. They’ve also played for the Welcome Club of Lawrence and the Visiting Nurses annual convention.
“We’re a service group, so we don’t play for money,” Bechen says. “I mean, we’ll play for food ... but we consider ourselves a service group.”
The Reeds try to tailor their playlists to the audience and the season, which is why regular practices are important.
They’re also good for camaraderie, Bechen says, as the musicians often grab coffee or a bite to eat afterward.
Each member, however, is an esteemed musician in his or her own right.
“It’s a very intimate experience to play in a quartet,” Roberts says. “I consider it a privilege to play with this group.”
Outside the River City Reeds, Roberts also plays the hammer dulcimer. She has a music degree and has played her saxophone in duets and community bands for more than 20 years.
Bysom, who also plays clarinet, started playing in the fifth grade “and never did quit.” He’s still playing the same saxophone he had in high school and the Kansas University band, and he plays with more than one group.
“I play with anyone who’ll have me,” Bysom says. “My doctor says he’ll start worrying about me when I quit blowing my horn.”
Kesinger has a degree in music and taught band for nearly 20 years. He likes that the River City Reeds allows him to keep sharing music with others.
Bechen, who also has a music degree, works as a “voicer” for Reuter Organ Company.
Playing soprano sax for the preschoolers, Bechen taps his feet, wiggles his shoulders and tips his horn up for the high note at the end of “Pennsylvania 6-5000.”
He also pitches in to pack up the others’ instruments and sometimes carry them, which is something the others joke about. After all, he’s the youngster in the bunch.
“That’s why he’s still got energy,” Kesinger says, laughing.