Music and orneriness come together in German band

The name Schniggle-Fritz in German means “ornery kid,” according to Lonn Richards, founder of the Schniggle-Fritz German Band.

That may be an appropriate description for five musicians who get a little ornery between tunes when they perform in their German band around the state.

Richards of Hillsboro plays first clarinet in his band.

The band was formed in 1975 when Richards was part of the music faculty at Tabor College. The committee for the college’s annual German dinner asked Richards to play German music for the event.

Richards said he “had the music for this kind of thing because it was there in the files, so I got a group of students up the first time” to play for the dinner.

But the students didn’t want to participate the second year, so Richards found adult musicians willing to join his band.

Steve Hanneman joined Richards that second year. Hanneman, who farms outside of Hillsboro, plays the trumpet.

“We’ve been in it ever since it began,” Richards said, “but the rest of (the band members) changed.”

Eventually, Ralph Vogel, a tuba player and retired elementary principal in Inman joined the band. Vogel also teaches part-time in the Central Christian school district in Hutchinson.

Robert Bartels, also from Inman, joined after Vogel. Bartels, a retired banker, plays second clarinet.

The fifth member of the present band is Dennis Schmidt, a Buhler resident, who plays trombone. Schmidt is retired from an advertising position with Hesston Corporation (now called Hay & Forage).

Schmidt, who plays with other bands, enjoys the Schniggle-Fritz band because it’s “great fellowship and fun.”

Richards said, “We don’t like to play longer than an hour at one time.”

After an hour it’s time for a break, he said, even though sometimes the band is asked to play for only 30 minutes at an event.

The group tries to limit performances to certain communities. They agree to play in Hillsboro, Inman and Buhler “and we don’t intend to change,” Richards said.

“If we go elsewhere, maybe we’ll charge, and maybe we won’t.”

The band did perform recently at the Newton Apple Blossom Festival.

“I don’t think we got paid for it,” Richards said. “We don’t do it for money, we just get together.”

One exception is the Bethel Fall Festival, where each band member will be paid $25.

“Of course, we like to be paid mileage,” Richard said about playing beyond the local area.

The Schniggle-Fritz Band performed most recently at the Hillsboro Arts & Crafts Fair.

They are not strangers to the local fair.

Richards said the first time they played at the event was to help the late Vernon Wiebe advertise and draw crowds to his “Sausage Crafters” food booth. Wiebe positioned the musicians near his booth where he served his German sausages. The band was paid in food, not money.

The band plays a variety of German music. During any given session a crowd might be treated to polka music, waltzes, marches and sometimes some rag-time tunes are thrown into the mix.

The group pulls their tunes from a set of five well-worn music books. The tunes in one book have German titles with English sub-titles. This book has a variety of jokes listed in the front.

Joke-telling, sprinkled among the music sets, was traditionally a part of a German band’s entertainment in the “old country,” Richards said.

Another book, titled “Whoopee-John Band Book,” is frequently used by the musicians.

A favorite tune with the older Mennonite Germans is “Die-Lorelei.” Richards said people in the audience like to sing along with that one.

The most requested tune is “Beer Barrell Polka.” Richards said he is in the process of writing a musical arrangement of the song, so the band can oblige the request in the future.

He said the group is careful about the appropriateness in their choices of the tunes, times and events where they perform.

The band won’t play on Sunday mornings or at any event where beer is served.

Some of the music in their library was originally composed for a full instrumentation band, but they have adapted it to their present five-member band.

“We make it work,” Richards said.

Richards assumed the position of leader of the band from its inception.

“Because I’m the one who started this, I’m the one that usually calls the tunes up and sets the tempos,” he said.

The group plays four to five times a year, with summer and fall being their busiest times.

Their colorful costumes add to the festive appeal of the group.

Vogel found their trademark black hats and his daughter made their red vests. Richards is quick to point out the vibrant red socks each member wears when performing.

The group doesn’t have any fancy recording sessions, no compact discs, no stressful competitions, no long-range future plans to have to worry about.

Richards said the wives are supportive unless a date conflicts with their personal schedules.

If one member isn’t available for a performance, the entire group declines to play because they need all five instruments to perform.

Sometimes the band can find substitutes for the clarinet, tuba and trombone positions, but they’re still looking for a stand-in for the trumpet spot.

Richards said he doesn’t know of any other German bands in Kansas doing what their particular band does, although some bands play polkas at a Czechoslovakian festival in Wilson.

It’s not unusual for members of the audience to stand up and pretend to direct the band as one young enthusiast did at the recent Hillsboro Arts and Crafts Fair, Richards said. The band took it in stride and joked with the audience about the young man’s antics.

On another occasion, at a festival in Kechi, Richards said a woman from the crowd was so moved by their music she came up to dance unabashedly in front of the band.

The band members “can find more things to joke and laugh about between numbers,” Richards said.

“Once in a while we get places where everybody is quiet and listening and I always tell them ‘all right guys, we ‘gotta straighten up now.’

“Our main purpose is to support our communities and our German heritage and have fun.”

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