BY TOM KNAPP, Staff Writer
They hurry through the streets of Lititz in the predawn stillness of Easter morning.
Sunrise is hours away. There's barely a sound as the group pauses beneath a streetlight, takes a collective deep breath and celebrates the coming day with a clarion song of trombones, trumpets and tubas.
"If I was home, this is how I'd want to be wakened for Easter," Cindy Scibal says in a hushed voice as she trots toward the next street corner. I wonder why she's whispering; she is, after all, just blowing a trombone outside someone's house at 4 a.m.
She's one of some two dozen members of Lititz Moravian Church who are spread over the borough in three groups, each greeting the coming day with a selection of sacred music.
"We're the first to proclaim the risen Lord in a town that is usually pretty quiet -- and the coolest small town in America -- and that's exciting," Marilyn Winfield says over breakfast in the church basement before the performances begin.
Winfield is director of the Lititz Moravian Trombone Choir, and it's been the choir's duty for nearly 250 years to spread the word of Easter.
One might expect there to be some dismay, perhaps even outrage, from residents of this town as the mellifluous tones blare forth from brass instruments, unmuted, on sidewalks and street corners from 3:45 to 5:45 a.m.
Not so. At the first stop by the southbound group led by Cindy Scibal's husband, Gary, an SUV pulls up at the intersection as a group of nine musicians begins to play. The driver stops the engine and sits quietly until the tune is done, then starts the vehicle and drives on with a wave.
At the next stop, a lone person's applause comes from a dark house across the street. A few blocks farther along, a woman's voice comes from behind a closed door: "Happy Easter," she says softly. "Thank you so much."
At some houses, there are faces at dark windows. At others, the lights are on -- some folks look forward to the tour and make a point of being up for the choir's visit.
And some homes remain silent and dark, the sound sleepers inside blissfully unaware of the brief concert taking place on the sidewalk outside.
According to choir president John Reidenbaugh, the group formed in Lititz in 1771. The tradition of heralding Easter with trombones is even older, he says -- the custom dates to 14th-century Germany and was continued by the Lititz congregation as early as 1766.
"We're one of the oldest brass choirs in existence," Reidenbaugh says proudly.
At least two other Moravian communities -- Bethlehem and Winston-Salem, N.C. -- have similar traditions, although Reidenbaugh says he's not aware of any others in the United States.
The tradition harkens to a day before alarm clocks.
"It's a way to tell the community that it's time to get up and come down to the sunrise service," he says.
The sonorous tones of trombone and tuba might not be everyone's alarm clock of choice -- particularly when it goes off outside your window at 4 or 5 a.m., and without a snooze button.
But Reidenbaugh says community reaction is generally positive.
"I'd say with 99 percent of the people who hear it, it's well-received," he says.
"Sure, every now and then, you have someone who's had a hard night and wanted a full night's rest," he admits. However, he doesn't recall any unpleasant confrontations over the yearly performance.
"We get people who ask, 'Couldn't you play closer to our house?' Other people will tell us they slept through it," Reidenbaugh says.
Because Easter fell early this year, a lot of people likely were sleeping with their windows closed, he adds.
"Some people purposely set their alarm clocks -- that's kind of defeating the purpose of what we're doing, actually -- so they can be sure to be awake to hear us."
Reidenbaugh, who plays trumpet, has been part of the Lititz group since 1961 and missed only one Easter performance -- in 1971, when he was unable to make it home from college for the holiday.
The choir originally consisted solely of soprano, alto, tenor and bass trombones. The group allowed valve instruments to join in 1893.
"Trombones are the minority now," Winfield says with a laugh. "We're mostly trumpets."
The musicians, ranging in age from 13 to 80, begin their mobile concert at 3:45 a.m. outside the church, where they divide into three groups.
One group walks north, one heads south and the third hops in a van to tour the outskirts of the town. Each group makes 25 to 30 stops, playing just a few minutes at each.
Their routes are well-mapped, with organizers taking extra care to ensure they stop when possible near the homes of Moravian church members -- maybe playing an extra tune if they know they're near the house of a sick friend.
"We play at designated spots ... usually at street corners or under streetlights," Reidenbaugh explains.
The musicians talk quietly as they stride at a brisk pace between stops on their route. Sometimes they pause and listen -- often, one of the other brass choirs is audible in the distance.
The march also is punctuated by the less melodic sounds of choir members clearing spit valves and occasionally making motorboat sounds to keep their lips limber in the morning chill.
For Gary and Cindy Scibal, this year's outing is extra special. Their son, Art Scibal, works abroad and has been unable to join them for the last several years. This year, although he's teaching 12 time zones away in the Philippines, he participated in the first chorale via Skype on his mother's smartphone.
The divided choirs make their ways back to the church in time for the sunrise service, which begins with a brief liturgy in the church at 6:15 a.m.
Congregants then head outside to follow the trombone choir -- playing antiphonally, or in alternating parts -- to the cemetery for further worship.
Continued from 1