When the South Jersey Area Wind Ensemble started up it was just a way for music professionals to hone their skills. After one practice they realized the band was too good to keep behind closed doors, so they performed for the first time in public in a high school auditorium. Now, 20 years later, they just returned from playing at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

“When we walked in to warm up there was a silence over the whole band, looking out at that place, thinking about what’s gone before and what’s happened in there,” says President of the ensemble Karen Poorman of their participation in the Sousa Festival at the Kennedy Center.

Poorman has been president since the beginning, and started up the SJAWE, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a concert 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 24, with her husband in 1997 to abate their envy of college students, still able to play concert music in their schools’ bands.

Before it became commonplace for today’s entertainers to label themselves with just one name…

“My daughter was a music major at Rutgers, and my husband was the band director at Southern Regional, and I had worked with various bands. We would go to her concerts with the wind ensemble at Rutgers and see this wonderful band music being played, and we realized we couldn’t play it. We hadn’t been able to for many years,” she recalls. “To play concert band music you need a lot of people. We also knew that we couldn’t do it with a normal community band — with what we wanted to do we needed good players.”

The minimum requirement for an audition for the SJAWE is instrumental training at a collegiate level. When the ensemble first began, Poorman called on music teachers and casino musicians — the bandless instrumentalists who needed a musical home.

The difference between a wind ensemble and an orchestra is the former’s absence of a string section. For years, wind ensembles played orchestral pieces written in the 17 and 1800s transposed to exclude the strings. However, within the past 60 years concert band music has surged in popularity — another reason for Poorman and company started the SJAWE.

“More and more music was being written, and that’s another reason why we wanted the concert band, because we wanted to play this music that we’d never been able to play because it wasn’t written when a lot of us graduated from college,” Poorman explains.

Now in its 20th year, the SJAWE will celebrate with a concert ringing with nostalgia. To be held at the Stockton University Performing Arts Center, musical director and conductor Keith Hodgson will be joined by Dr. William Berz, who was the first guest conductor to direct one of the ensemble’s rehearsals. Christian Wilhjelm — who presented the SJAWE with the 2006 National John Philip Sousa Sudler Award for outstanding community band — will also make an appearance. At the performance, the ensemble will continue its annual “Side by Side” program, as well, where nominated high school students play along with the band. As for the music, the SJAWE has commissioned famous concert band composer Brian Balmages to create something special for the anniversary.

Bringing together the people who have shaped the South Jersey Area Wind Ensemble, as they grew from high school auditoriums to famous D.C. venues, will make for a memorable night for the many musicians who have benefited from the artistic outlet the ensemble has and continues to provide.

“There was a lot of frustration on our part that we weren’t able to play the new music and continue to play,” Poorman says of the ensemble’s humble beginnings. “Now, we are a professional development provider for the teachers. They can learn and continue to grow as musicians after they’ve graduate from college. They can continue to hone their playing skills so they don’t lose them … We also bring that concert music to the community, which wouldn’t be able to hear it other than on a high school level. We’re making that contribution to the community.”