Boom in Bands PUTS AMERICA IN MARCH TIME (Mar, 1935)

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TWENTY THOUSAND American communities support school bands which are trained by experts and stimulated by colorful national tournaments. This amazing new movement, transforming the old “town band” into a crack musical organization, is described by Mr. May, who recently told of the similar boom in drum and bugle corps

By Earl Chapin May

FOR three hot hours of a June Saturday, an excited multitude in Drake Stadium, Des Moines, Iowa, watched bands from Massachusetts, Colorado, Michigan, Ohio, and Iowa contend for prizes in marching. The spectators cheered like football fans when the marchers joined 5,000 other boys and girls and closed the Eighth Annual National High-School Band Contest by a thrilling rendition of Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever.

The moment official awards were announced, there was a rush to wire good or bad news to friends and relatives in communities actively interested in a contest between the pick of the 20,000 school bands which are increasing American harmony. Chosen by local, state, district, and national tryouts, the youthful contestants represented the best amateur performance on reed, brass and percussion instruments. They were the net results of a boom in bands which began two decades ago as an outgrowth of a boom in drum corps described in the September number of Popular Science Monthly.

Drum corps date from colonial days, and our first important military band was organized shortly after the Revolution. Our oldest amateur band in point of continuous existence is the Stonewall Brigade Band of Staunton, Va., organized in 1845.

But the myriads of juvenile school bands trace their descent from the Farm and Trades School Band organized during 1858 on Thompson’s Island in Boston Harbor. Like most other amateur bands, the Boston organization was started by kids who, probably inspired by brilliant though brassy circus bands, made “music” through tissue paper spread on common hair combs. These hair-comb musicians were joined by three young violin scrapers. Later additions were a bass fiddle or double bass; a saxhorn (which resembled the modern alto), and a cornopean, ancestor of the modern cornet.

A teacher named John Ripley Morse developed this nucleus into a band which became part of a thousand-piece organization directed by the famous Patrick S. Gilmore at the Boston Peace Jubilee of 1869. Keeping pace with the times, it won first place in its class at the 1929 Massachusetts Boys’ Band Contest and first prize at a subsequent New England Band Contest.

In the meanwhile, American youth ran amuck with the band idea. Before our current movement for better and bigger bands for juveniles was initiated, most small-town amateur bandsmen were terrible. I know, because I was one of them. As a boy cornetist, side-stepping lung trouble, I barged into leadership of the Rochelle (111.) Kid Band which grew into the Rochelle Military Band with a silver cornet painted on its bass-drum head.

We blew blue notes in imitation of our elders. The local undertaker taught us gratis. The group disbanded every fall, after cashing in on Fourth of July and county-fair engagements. Captious citizens often cussed us. Less crabbed ones dropped coins into our hats and thus gave us a fresh start each spring. This program was followed by most of our tooting con- temporaries. The Silver Cornet Band was colorful, but it and its public suffered from lack of professional guidance and systematic sponsorship.

Contests have taken most of the curse out of our amateur band performances. Local pride has been replaced by sensible supervision. Amateur band music has become enjoyable and cultural. Its improvement can be properly credited to the Landers Band Tax Law and the contest idea.

Major George W. Landers, of Clarinda, Iowa, started a movement in 1921 for legislation to permit minor cities to tax themselves for support of municipal bands. The law has been adopted in forty-eight states. Major Landers, well in his seventies, is one of the few reformers who have lived to see their reforms really working.

The contest idea, sponsored by the National Bureau for the Advancement of Music, the Music Educators’ National Conference and finally by the National School Band Association, began in 1926 with a national band contest at Fostoria, Ohio. Ten states selected would-be champion bands by competitive eliminations. The members of each band were selected by section competitions. A section is a division composed of the same or related instruments, such as reeds or brasses.

Thirteen bands—one from as far away as Ogden, Utah—participated in that Fostoria contest. Fostoria’s 10,000 citizens were hosts to the visiting band boys, who were not allowed to spend a penny in the Ohio community. The Joliet, Ill., High-School Band won on performance, appearance, and marching, by a fraction of a point.

Joliet won again at Council Bluffs, Iowa, in 1927. In 1928, it won in its own home town, although Modesto, Calif., spent $15,000 of publicly subscribed money to send its boys’ band to Joliet in private Pullman cars. The Joliet High School Band thus gained permanent possession of the national championship trophy, and could not attend the Denver contest of 1929 except as guest band with Director Archie McAllister, its conductor. But the citizens of Joliet raised the expense money, largely through selling “Send the Band to Denver” buttons.

At Denver, the Nicholas Senn High School, of Chicago, topped them all, including persistent Modesto. It repeated this performance at the 1930 Flint, Mich., contest. Then Joliet, permitted to reenter the arena, carried away first prize for all class-A bands at Tulsa, Okla. By this time, the official National Contest had become so popular that it was necessary to classify the bands. Class A came from schools having more than 750 enrolled pupils; class B from schools having from 250 to 750; class C from schools having less than 250 enrolled pupils. By 1933, when seventy-five bands contested at Evanston, Ill., it was necessary to substitute for “first prize” in class A an “Outstanding Band” designation. Joliet got away with that one, too.

Bandmaster Archie McAllister might never have been a master of America’s champion high-school band or president ex officio of the National School Band Association had it not been for his lean- ing toward woodworking. Although he bought a brass cornet and started a rural band near Joliet in his youth, he had gone into Montana fruit ranching to make a living. As an avocation he turned to woodworking. His ability in his home workshop attracted the attention of the Jewish Training Schools in Chicago, which engaged him to teach carpentering and manual training. He later went to Joliet to do similar work in its public schools.

Archie’s first band of twelve young members rehearsed in his carpenter shop. He started his first public-school band with a $2 allowance for each rehearsal. This band was unpopularly known as “The Disease.” By choosing members for loyalty, as much as ability, he began to win prizes. Then he got a real salary as director and a trip for his band to Washington, D. C.

Archie McAllister’s method with the Joliet High School Band is typical of many of his competitors. He picks his players from all classes in a city of 60,000. Solo competitions for national prizes are among the later wrinkles in high-school band contests. Leonard Bradley, Joliet’s solo-oboe prize winner, is the son of a mail carrier; Raymond Tremmeling, who has won national prizes as a clarinetist, is the son of a street-car motor-man; Robert Harris, prize-winning French-horn player, is the son of an undertaker, while Glenn Henderson, twice winner of the national prize for cornetists, is son of an electrician. And there are several farmers in that band.

Jack Wainwright took Charles Munger off a farm near Fostoria and taught the boy to hold his mouthpiece loosely against his lips, to breathe from the diaphragm like a singer, to depend on his tongue for attacking a tone. In four years young Munger played a cornet solo with Sousa’s Band before 20,000 visitors at the Ohio State Fair!

Of course, the first step in selecting recruits and assigning them to instruments is to test them for tone sense.. An easy method is to play a tone like C or G on a cornet or piano, then ask the pupil to sound the same tone on his instrument. If the pupil can not do this readily, the teacher switches him to drums or cymbals where only a sense of time or rhythm is necessary.

Assigning pupils to instruments depends largely on the teeth. If a pupil’s teeth project abnormally, he is not destined for wind instruments. If upper and lower teeth overlap, they will make trouble in cornet playing. If they are large and meet evenly, they approach the ideal. If the lower teeth recede, they are almost hopeless for any horn with a small mouthpiece, which should be held at right angles from the teeth. This applies to all reed instruments except clarinets, which can be played with the bell pointing downward at an angle of thirty-five degrees.

The lungs, of course, figure in wind-instrument playing. Dr. James F. Rogers, of the United States Bureau of Education, has proved by statistics based on a study of hundreds of prominent musicians who lived between 1700 and 1900, that players on wind instruments live longer than the average. In certain cases, playing the saxophone, the flute, or the cornet has definitely stayed the progress of tuberculosis. But the formation of the teeth is all-important, for it is “tonguing,” and not blowing, that makes a good wind-instrument player.

Tone is made, primarily, on any musical instrument with a cup-shaped mouthpiece, by the tongue’s attack. Hence you will never see a good bandsman puffing out his cheeks when playing. While Frank Fitzgerald was director of the Rockford, Ill., Military Band he might be the only cornetist on a march down Main Street, but you could hear him at all times above forty other instruments. He weighed less than 130 pounds, and was not barrel-chested. A dimple showed in each cheek while he played. But he got plenty of volume while hitting high C’s and high E’s, because he used his tongue properly and played with the “non-pressure system.”

This system was then a novelty. Under it, high tones were made by contracting loose lips, which thus did not become sore or grow weary from “punching” and vibration, and were not deprived of their natural blood circulation. The bands from Mason City, Iowa, and Harrison High School, of Chicago, and the famous band from Joliet, could not have won the three highest honors at Des Moines last June if their members had depended upon blowing into instead of tonguing their instruments. Moderately thick lips do the best work in metal, cup-shaped mouthpieces. Size of player and size of instrument are not necessarily associated. B. A. Rolfe, distinguished band leader and brilliant cornetist, is notably tall and ponderous. Clara Bloodgood, weighing 110 pounds, plays the exceedingly difficult “triple-tongue” solo (written originally for the cornet), Levy-Anthem Polka, on the Sousaphone, largest of all brass instruments. And she doesn’t get red in the face or puff out her cheeks, although the Sousaphone is a double B-flat bass horn weighing thirty pounds—sometimes forty, depending upon the thickness of metal tubing used.

Possibly made curious by the impressive development of school bands, Prof. Carl E. Seashore of the University of Iowa and Prof. Elmer E. Jones of Northwestern University have made elaborate laboratory tests on more than 5,000 students to determine alertness, rhythm, dexterity, precision, memory, and coordination of brain and muscle possessed by prospective instrumentalists.

So far, most of the amateurs join bands through pure love of music. Intelligent instruction keeps them going.

The Arthur, 111., High School has 160 pupils. Its class-C band of eighty-two members, directed by George C. Wall, was creditably placed in the second division at the 1933 National Contest. The school maintains a second or “feeder” band of twenty members.

Four years ago the Washington High School Band of Sioux Falls, S. D., had practically no musical experience. Director Arthur H. Thompson took hold of it. The band now permanently possesses a first-prize trophy won three times in succession in state contests.

Winning bands must play classical selections with sixty or more able members and a balanced, symphonic instrumentation. Most class-A bands have 100 members.

Lenoir, N. C, has a population of 4,000 and a high-school band originally sponsored by the local post of the American Legion. That band started the high-school contest idea in North Carolina, as a class-B band. It got so good it had to step up and compete, under a handicap, with class-A bands from cities ten times larger than Lenoir. But it kept winning prizes.

Last year the North Carolina State Legislature made drastic cuts in school appropriations which threatened to put an end to systematic school music. The citizens of Lenoir promptly voted to pay a tax to keep its band going.

In addition to pointing steadily toward state and national contests, nearly all school bands hope to have representation in the National High-School Band which is instructed by eminent musicians for eight weeks each summer at Interlochen, Mich. This band camp is unique.

The 200 or more members of the National High-School Band are carefully selected by local music supervisors and by Dr. Joseph E. Maddy of the University of Michigan. The band feeds into the National High-School Orchestra.

Dr. “Joe” Maddy, father of the Camp at Interlochen, believes that ten years from now each of our cities of more than 10,000 population will be supporting a genuine, all-American symphony orchestra. Maddy, who came up from a small town band, is not a visionary. He is supremely practical.

1 comment
  1. Blurgle says: July 2, 20085:54 pm

    This is very interesting. I’m not sure why it ran in Popular Science, but it’s a great article.

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