Farewell to the Toonas – HORIZONS 2023

Published 6:20 am Friday, March 10, 2023

The Toonas are saying farewell. The young, accomplished musicians are all nearing high school graduation and will be going their separate ways, but their time as a band has impacted the members, their families, and their community for years to come.

The group of friends formed in the Brandywine Community Schools. As fifth graders, members Abbie Hubbard, Hayden Seggerman, and Joseph Rizzo were mentored by Brandywine Elementary Principal, Jim Boger.  He recognized their musical interests and wanted to nurture them. A musician himself, he guided them into forming the Brandywine Creek String Band. The group would play at school events and for retirement homes. Within a year, Sam Douglass had also joined the group. As the school year ended in 2017, the students were looking at a new grade in a new building, with Boger unable to be as directly involved. They chose that moment to grow into the next phase, adding member Cael VanSandt and creating the Toonas.

Each member came to music from a unique background. Seggerman, who contributed bass and vocals to the Toonas, described finding his way into performance through his sister during elementary school, playing small characters and getting interested in theater and music. 

Rizzo, who played guitar, bass, piano, and sang in the band, was born into music. His family on his father’s side were all guitarists, so it was natural that he started strumming at seven months old and learned to play at five years old. As a kid, he took lessons and attended workshops. Drummer Sam Douglass also took a lot from Rizzo’s home, spending time playing drums and picking up on the family’s musical vibes. Hubbard, who played bass, piano, and sang in the group, was always attracted to music, singing as a child, taking part in musical theater,  and joining the Performing Arts Workshops in 3rd grade. Toona’s guitarist, bassist, and vocalist VanSandt also had a love for music from the start, singing songs, especially country music, so much that he eventually had a YouTube channel of him singing his favorites. After taking a pause from music, he found interest again at age 11 and received a guitar for his birthday. He learned from his friend Joe Rizzo and took lessons from Mr. Boger.

The Toonas formed out of a moment of inspiration as the group were playing together and decided it would be fun to make a band. Initially thinking it would just be an activity for the summer, they had no idea how big they would grow. With Joe’s house being the hub of music, they started out in his garage, playing for hours on hot summer days. They described the Rizzos as encouraging, noting that the parents eventually even rearranged the house to accommodate the band moving into an upstairs bedroom. The entire band were thankful for the support of their parents, saying they were very involved in the success of the Toonas. Joe’s mother, Melissa, was the first to gain the title “Mom-ager”, for helping them manage gigs and emails. The other moms followed soon after, while the dads assisted with sound and tech. Principal Boger continued to play a part as well, working with the moms to book a show playing for preschoolers. At that point, they described themselves still as a “kid band”, but their growth would come very soon.

They fondly recalled their first show, an impromptu entry into a talent show. The group was busking in Battell Park when they realized there was a talent show going on nearby. They scrambled to gather their gear, making it in time to not only participate, but to win the show.

“There’s a handful of shows that were turning points,” said Cael.

He recalled their first show playing at Joey Armadillos for a Project Graduation fundraiser. This was their first time getting “a taste of what being a band was really like”, playing at night in a bar setting. Joe remembered playing at Kubiak’s, where his grandfather had once played, using that same grandfather’s guitar. The band also noted memories of playing at the Acorn Theater in Three Oaks and the experience of playing at South Bend’s former venue, Vegetable Buddies, where they spent time with renowned local musicians who treated them as equals.

“It was a real taste of a venue experience with a green room and a bunch of miscellaneous bands from the area,” described Hayden.

The last official Toonas show took place this past Halloween at the Rizzo’s Blooming Bus Farms, their homebase for five years. Each member recalled the joy of their tight group connection, being close  and sharing inside jokes. They noted that even the hassle of waking up early for Sunday morning practices gave to fond memories of having fun and hanging out as friends.

In the new year, the Toonas are working on bringing their two original songs, History Repeats and Fool’s Gold, into a recording studio. They thanked their parents for pitching in, as well as supporters who purchased t-shirts, to help cover the costs. They want to release both digital and physical versions, hoping to have the release as a memory for themselves and for everyone who went on the journey with them.

The Toonas are looking toward the future. Some will continue in their musical pursuits; Cael is playing in the thrash metal band, Deprave, while Abbie is continuing solo work and recently made it into the Michigan School Vocal Music Association State Honors Choir, with hopes to be accepted into the All State Choir. Joe was accepted into the District All Star Band, has a new group, Silver Linings, and will pursue a musical education degree. Even those who aren’t pursuing music in an official capacity will continue to play for fun and hope to continue jamming with their Toona friends whenever the opportunity arises.

“The last five years have been the best I’ve ever had, growing up and playing music with my friends,” said Cael.

The rest of the Toonas all agreed.