Seventy six trombones led the big parade
With a hundred and ten cornets close at hand.
They were followed by rows and rows of the finest virtuosos,
the cream of ev'ry famous band.
Seventy six trombones caught the morning sun,
With a hundred and ten cornets right behind.
There were more than a thousand reeds springing up like weeds,
there were horns of ev'ry shape and kind.
There were copper bottom tympani in horse platoons,
thundering, thundering, all along the way.
Double bell euphoniums and big bassoons,
each bassoon having his big fat say.
There were fifty mounted cannon in the battery,
Thundering, thundering, louder than before.
Clarinets of eve'ry size and trumpeters who'd improvise
a full octave higher than the score.
Seventy six trombones led the big parade,
when the order to march rang out loud and clear.
Starting off with a big bang bong on a Chinese gong,
by a big bang bonger at the rear.
Seventy six trombones hit the counter point,
while a hundred and ten cornets played the air.
Then I modestly took my place as the one and only bass,
and I oompahed up and down the square.
Meredith Willson (c)1957
In the summer of 1958 Meredith Wilson, the Music Man, came to River City (Mason City, Iowa) to form a band that was made up of 76 trombones, 110 Cornets and a thousand winds. It marched down Federal Street, the main street in town, to thousands of spectators. And indeed there was a base, tuba, near the end of the band, and I was the tuba player. In reality there were 6 of us playing Sousaphones.
How I got to be in that band and how music shaped my life is one of my most endearing memories.
In the 3rd or 4th grade my mother presented me with a trumpet one of my uncles had had and singed my up to join my local elementary school band. Why she did this has always been a mystery to me. My mother or father had never played an instrument and neither were musical to my knowledge. Although I thought my mother had a wonderful voice in her younger years. The trumpet had come from one of my uncles but I had never heard that any of the Fraser family had any particular musical talents. Perhaps she started me because it was a cultural influence in Mason City.
Mason City, Iowa at the time was known nationally for its emphasis on music as part of the educational experience. Each elementary school had a band. All elementary schools picked promising students to form an all city band. Each Jr. High had a band, a marching band, and a symphony orchestra. All this led to the High School band and orchestra which were highly selective. In addition there was also a Marching Band which participated in half time shows in sports and marched in annual parades.
The setting of the musical pecking order was further stressed by the annual music contests. These started at the elementary level and continued through High School. Each year you picked a musical piece to learn. The skill level of the piece was significantly higher than you current skill. After a period of weeks of practice, usually with a tutor, you performed this piece before a panel of three judges. You were rated on the difficulty of the piece and your skill level of accomplishment. You received either 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th place. You were not judged against other participants but rather against yourself the difficulty of the piece you had chosen. First place meant you had accomplished your goal at improving you skill. Second place meant you did OK. And 3rd and 4th place were considered failures. My perception was that judging was usually fair and nothing was given to you. You practiced, practiced, practiced and if you practiced enough you got a 1st place ribbon.
After about a year, or maybe it was months, it was obvious, to me even in the forth grade, that I was not going to excel at playing the trumpet. One day the band director, he traveled from one elementary school to another, suggested that I take up a different instrument. What did I think of playing the tuba? I didn’t even know what a tuba was, but said, “OK.” He brought in this giant thing that rapped around me several times and so my introduction to playing the tuba began.
The tuba, a wind instrument, generally plays in the lower registrars of a musical piece providing bottom base sound. In the music we played it often emphasized the rhythm of the piece; om, pa, pa. At least in the beginning much of the music was easy to play and did not incorporate difficult rhythms. It did require a lot of breath and skill at holding a specialized armature to reach the lowest of notes. Learning to breath from the diaphragm was an absolute necessity. If done correctly a beautiful tone is created; if not, a harsh flat buzzing noise often associated with marching bands is emitted.
Besides developing some specialized technical music skill, you also develop some muscles. In elementary school I started to learn on a sousaphone, the form of the tuba often associated with marching bands. While most students provided their own instruments, those playing specialized instruments were provided for by the school system (a measure of how important music was to the educational system). Two or three times a week the Band Director would come to school and help us learn our craft. At least once a week we would play as a group. I do not remember taking the tuba home in elementary school. It would have been almost impossible given that the instrument weighed at least 20 to 30 lbs and came in two parts with each part having its own case, and given that my parents had no car at the time, no bus from school to my house, and we were expected to walk about a half mile home. I suspect the tuba stayed at school and I would practice there after school.
And practice I must have. In the 5th grade I was invited to join the all city elementary band which meant I had achieved enough proficiency to make a contribution to a full band. This band had probably 30 to 40 members selected from all the elementary schools. It had a full complement of every type of instruments, trumpets, trombones, French horns, clarinets, flutes, oboes, saxophones, drums, and, of course, tubas. There were probably three tubas. This band practiced once a week at one of the Jr. Highs. I don’t remember lugging my tuba there. I do seem to remember taking my mouthpiece home and playing a different instrument there. Playing in this band was quite and honor as it got you special recognition in school and it got you out of class often to play concerts in the different schools.
You also got out of classes when the annual music contests came around each year. Of course, we needed extra time to practice. Another way recognition was given to those who were involved in instrumental music.
In Jr. High, grades 7 through 9, there was a fuller complement of those involved in instrumental music. Each Jr. High, there were 2, had there own band. And as the athletics of each school competed with each other so too did the bands. There were no actual official scores kept, except how many 1st place ribbons were earned by each school at the annual music contests, but there was a lot of bragging on who was the best band. Each school had there own band director whose purpose was to craft a unified skilled band through individualized instruction of each section within the band. There was at least on period of day in which you were practicing on your own, in your section or with the band as a whole. I seem to remember that there was a mixture of getting out of class and giving up free study time to do this. While in elementary school was focused on learning the instrument, Jr. High focused on playing as a group. Again, as in elementary school, there was an all city Jr. High band. Being selected for that band, which I was, meant you had achieved a certain recognition for you skill level.
High School was the crown jewel of the instrumental program in the city. More financial resources were directed to this program than any other. An example of this was the musical instruments provided. I played a tuba. Typically a band may have one, or two, or perhaps three. But Mason City had six tubas and they were not sousaphones which one would expect. Sousaphone could double as bass instruments in a band, but could also be the base instruments in a marching band. The mid-west states were known for there marching bands. The six tubas were double B flat that cost in today’s market $7,000 to $10,000 dollars each. Besides tubs were bassoons, oboes, tympani drums, and other instruments also costing thousands of dollars.
Another indication of the level of importance of music was Weiner Music Hall. There was a separate gothic looking building, a block away from the High School specifically designed for music education. This is the only building of its kind that I know of in Iowa or maybe in the US. The main room had cement risers for a complete orchestra, band, or choral group. There were several individual practice rooms and a full recording studio. Unfortunately, this building was torn down and made into a parking lot when the High School moved to a new location east of town.
Improving your musical skills was based on competition. Each section within the band was ranked from first chair to last. In larger sections, such as the clarinets, there were higher and lower sections. Each week each section met to practice with the band director. Your skill level was noted and you moved up and down in chair ranking. While seniors tended to dominate 1st chairs, this was not always the case. In my freshman year I was 5th or 6th chair. But I did manage to move to 2nd and 3rd chair in Sophomore year and in my Junior year I was either 1st or 2nd chair. This continuous competition even continued between different sections of band. The band director was always berating a section for not playing up to level of another section; “Flutes, you not playing as well the clarinets!” “Listen tubas to the French horns.” During practice you could always feel the tension of playing to a higher level. The music we were given to learn was seemed to be more difficult, in not impossible for a band to play. It was not simple Sousa Marches. Often it was written for orchestras and transposed for band. We were challenged to be as good as the music. And the technique seemed to work. In competition with other bands, we always seemed to be the best. Year after year the Mason City Band was invited to National Competition in Chicago where we always seemed to excel.
Being in the band, though it was full of hard work, had its perks. For one you were expected to practice a lot; not just with your fellow sections, but individually; not just on your own after school or at home, but during school time. Passes were given to you to get out of classes so that you could practice. You would leave class, come to the music building, get your instrument and sit in one of the practice room for a period of time, and return to class. This was unsupervised. In did not need to be supervised, because your skill level was continually being measured. You had better be practicing! This did hot sit will with academic teachers, but the band had priorities. Passes had your name on them, the time of day to leave class, the length of time you would return to class and the signature of the band director. The band director handed these passes out a day or so in advance of the time of the time to practice. And because there were so many people in the band, he didn’t actually sign them; he stamped his signature on them. Actually he had a practice of stamping books of blank passes in advance. There were a number of us who were able to obtain books of passes. And there may have been occasions when we would get out of a boring class. And maybe forget to stop at the music building, it was a block away from the high school, and continue to the down town area, only another couple of blocks away. There was a pool hall in the downtown area. Shades of those youngsters in the play 76 Trombones who buckled their knickerbockers below the knee!
This article is still being written. Current date 11/2/08