The Importance of Our Ancestry

Tom Merrill • Travel/Festivals • April 6, 2018

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A story was relayed to me by a band director friend. She was at the Midwest Clinic in Chicago, and while walking through McCormick Place overheard a portion of a conversation between a group of young band directors.

“Who is Ray Cramer? How do I know that name?” “Is he dead?” “He founded something.”

My friend, who is quite passionate about such things, managed to refrain from…let’s say…giving them a piece of her mind. But as we discussed this a few days later at a holiday gathering, I told her it was an insightful observation into something that had been on my mind lately as a festival planner.

At the risk of self-promotion—one of the things we strive to do with our festivals is have well-known conductors on our adjudication panels. We do this, first and foremost, because they’re incredible musicians and educators with tremendous levels of expertise to offer the groups that participate in our events. We even publish on our website who will be on the panels so interested directors know the quality and background of the people who will be working with their students. Our company founder and president counts several of the “living legends” among his friends, and they gratefully participate in our events each year.

What my friend’s story of the overheard conversation did was reignite thoughts I had grappled with recently regarding our clinician rosters: do the “names” of our profession really matter to the younger generation of teachers?

As far back as middle school, long before I thought I was going to be a band director, I knew of Frederick Fennell. His photo— arms outstretched, face a portrait of pure musical joy—stared back at me, as it did to thousands upon thousands of band students, from a paper music store folder with the word “LISTEN” in giant print. We maybe didn’t know who he was or what he did…but we knew he was someone important that had something to do with band.

As I embarked upon my music education studies, more names were added to the roster. While working the Bands of America summer camp I was introduced to John Paynter, Eugene Corporon, Anthony Maiello, and many others. An independent study project of compiling recordings of standard repertoire introduced me to military ensembles and outstanding collegiate bands—the President’s Own, the Air Force, Eastman, University of Illinois, University of Michigan. With those came more names. Bourgeois. Gabriel. Hunsberger. Begian. Revelli.

I began to recognize that these and other individuals were regarded as the “giants” of my chosen profession…admittedly, in many cases, because there were people who were smarter than I was telling me so. But it was by listening to their recordings and watching them work with the ensembles they led at summer camps and honor bands that I began to truly understand WHY they were giants. I realized they were some of the founding fathers of the comparatively young wind band medium, setting the standard for what excellence looked and sounded like. In short—if I wanted my group to sound great, do what they did.

This roster has been an invaluable resource to me throughout my career both in the rehearsal room and in planning festival and clinic experiences for hundreds of ensembles. It influences everything from how I wanted my band to sound, to what repertoire I selected, to what study books, videos, and recordings I purchase, to who I call to be part of an adjudication panel. That first set of names has continued to evolve into an ever-expanding list including the students of those early icons and magnificent university programs, as a way to simultaneously embrace the history and capture the next generation putting their own mark on our genre.

In short, these teachers and leaders became a “true north” on a compass towards excellence—a reference point guiding me on a path charted long before I even set foot there.

Consider the parallels. Imagine an orchestral conductor who had no idea who Arturo Toscanini was. Or Leopold Stokowski. Or Leonard Bernstein. And why they were important to the field. How much credibility would that person have? Why should we as band conductors expect any less of ourselves when it comes to knowing the heritage of our profession? At a time when it’s never been easier to find historical resources— whether recordings, score analyses, or even “how to” articles— there should be no excuse for not being familiar with those who blazed the trail that allowed school bands to flourish. Conversely, at a time where via social media or YouTube “anyone can be a stars” we need these examples from our history in order to sift through the exposure saturation of mediocrity to get to true excellence.

So, back to our young directors at Midwest. If given the chance, what would I say to them? I applaud you for being here; much like myself at that age, you possess a desire to learn more and work towards success in our field. Now—take the time to browse the resource books and recordings, attend some sessions, and learn more about your musical ancestors. Spend some time talking with the older, more experienced directors whose generation crossed paths with these remarkable conductors. Look hard enough, and you’ll find some of the icons are still around. They have made your life’s work possible…and certainly will have fascinating stories to share.

Tom Merrill is the executive director of Festivals of Music. He has over 25 years of experience as a music educator, travel planner, and festival organizer.

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