Saturday, January 30, 2010

Half Broke Band Directors

I heard a great radio show recently about one of my favorite topics: writing family stories.  Kerri Miller, host of Minnesota Public Radio's Midmorning program, interviewed Jeannette Walls on Jan. 20 about her new book, "Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel."  Here's a link to the podcast: The story after a hardscrabble childhood | Minnesota Public Radio NewsQ.

Walls' first book was the memoir "The Glass Castle," about growing up with nomadic, eccentric parents.  Her new book is a story about the life of her maternal grandmother, a spunky, adventurous woman named Lily Casey Smith, who grew up in the early 1900s.  Although much of the book contains true family stories and events, Walls had to fill in some gaps in her grandmother's life.  Because of that, and because she felt she could best capture her grandmother's voice by writing in the first person, she decided to write it as fiction.

I found this to be an interesting approach to writing about an ancestor – particularly interesting to me because I have been researching the life of my great-grandfather, Bandmaster G. Oliver Riggs, for several years and still have some unanswered questions.  Do I write about what I know?  Do I wait until I have more information?

This photo of my great-grandparents, G. Oliver and Islea Riggs, was taken in June 1926 on a trip to Yellowstone National Park.  G. Oliver was organizing bands in the Northwest for instrument manufacturer C.G. Conn.  If you look closely, you can see the Conn logo in the car window.

Walls said during the interview that she approached the book as a retelling of oral stories handed down by her family.  She tried to stay as close to the truth as possible, with the goal of taking the reader back to that time and place in history.

I liked it when she said she hopes people who read her new book will be inspired to learn more about the lives of their own ancestors.  I hope they will, too.  She said she was surprised, during her first book tour, by how many people would come up and tell her their life stories.

“I want folks to start writing these stories down before they disappear.  I think that they’re incredible resources and gifts that we’ve all been handed down.  These patterns emerge in our families.  I think it’s important especially as we’re facing tough times in this country, economic tough times, to sort of be reminded that we all come from hardy stock.”

She touched on this topic again, toward the end of the interview, when she talked about the power of storytelling to turn sensitive or difficult experiences into stories of triumph and perseverance.

“Everybody has a story to tell.  You don’t have to tell the world like I did, but tell your children, put it down on paper, as a gift to them, this is where you came from, this is why you’re as strong as you are.  It might explain some of your quirks.  I think patterns emerge.  We should never be prisoners of our past, but our past does influence who and what we are.”

I look forward to reading her new book, as I continue to uncover and write my family's stories.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Carnival Capers at the Capitol

This year's St. Paul Winter Carnival continues through Sunday, and although I'm sure the remaining events will be full of frozen fun, I doubt any will match the wacky escapade from the 1917 Carnival that involved my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs.

First, a bit of background.  From 1911 to 1914, Riggs lived in Havre, Montana, where he organized and directed both adult and boys' bands.  He also played cornet in the Montana Cowboy Band.  Louis W. Hill, the son of railroad magnate James J. Hill, liked the Cowboy Band so much, he paid for them to travel to land shows in Minneapolis and Chicago in 1912 to perform with a group of Blackfeet Indians from Glacier.

G. Oliver Riggs is in the back row, second from the right.

Riggs moved back to Crookston in 1914 to direct adult and boys' bands in that northern Minnesota city.  But he stayed in touch with cowboy band, and in 1917, members of the band (renamed the Havre Cowboy Band) invited him to join them in performing at the St. Paul Winter Carnival, organized by – who else – Louis W. Hill.

Here's where the story gets good.  On the fourth day of the carnival, the Havre Cowboy Band joined with other visitors from Montana and from Oregon – about 300 in all – to "call" on the governor and the legislature at the State Capitol.

According to an article in the Jan. 30 issue of the St. Paul Daily News, "Business at the Capitol was suspended from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. while the Westerners took possession of the building, firing their pistols, giving Wild West whoops and singing their songs to the accompaniment of a band and drum corps."

That would so not happen today, for a variety of reasons.

The article goes on to explain how the group first played, sang and fired pistols in the rotunda, quickly attracting the attention of clerks and other employees, who gathered in the balcony to watch.  Then the rowdy group moved upstairs, greeted Gov. J.A.A. Burnquist in his office, and was invited to enter the senate chambers.

"... in a few moments the senate chamber was packed with Westerners picturesquely dressed, who sang and cheered while the cowboy band played and the Glendive (Montana) fife and drum corps performed.  The Havre cowboys, becoming enthusiastic, emphasized their music with frequent pistol shots that reverberated against the ceiling and caused the senators to put their fingers in their ears."


After the show was over, the Westerners gathered on the front steps of the Capitol for a photo shoot.  The Minnesota History Center has a photo of the group in its online database.

I didn't know anything about this event until yesterday, when I found the article while researching at the history center library.  I wish I'd known about it last month, when I took my first official tour of the Capitol while chaperoning Sebastian and a group of his classmates from Northfield Middle School.

The sixth graders were respectful and asked some good questions while we were in the empty senate chamber.  Sebastian liked it so much, he added "politician" to his possible careers list, along with national parks ranger.  Maybe now he'd like to add cowboy musician?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Picturing Red Lake circa 1946

I don't regularly read the obituaries in the Star Tribune, but the one in Thursday's paper for Monroe Killy caught my eye.  Killy, who died Jan. 16 in Edina at age 99, befriended and photographed members of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, and other Minnesota tribes, in the 1930s and 40s.  His photos were published in numerous books on American Indian culture; some photos can be viewed online through the Minnesota Historical Society's photo database.  Others are posted on the Red Lake Net News site.

I'd never heard of Killy, but after reading about him, I wished I could have talked to him about his experiences.  I also would have liked to ask him if he knew of my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, who briefly directed a band at Red Lake High School on the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota.

Riggs came out of retirement in the fall of 1945 to organize the high school's first band, composed of white and American Indian boys and girls.  He rented a room at the Hotel Markham in Bemidji and traveled by bus to Red Lake, 25 miles away, to instruct the students two days a week.

 This article is from the Jan. 11, 1946 issue of the Bemidji Sentinel.

In letters to his son Ronald (my grandfather), Riggs wrote that because the band attracted more interest than anyone expected, the school was short on instruments – only 26 for the 47 band members.  He was hoping to convince the school board to buy enough to supply one to each student.  But before could present his case, he died of a heart attack on Jan. 25, 1946 (exactly 64 years ago this Monday).

We'll never know what the band might have accomplished if Riggs had had more time.  Given his track record, it's likely that the band would have become well-known for its musicianship and discipline.  And although a person could argue that encouraging the Indian kids to learn their tribe's own musical traditions might have been more appropriate than having them join a symphonic band, it appears, to Riggs' credit, that he cared more about his students' musical abilities than the color of their skin.

"I have 1 girl (Indian) on clarinet who is very musical and also equally intelligent.  One Indian girl on trombone of Tom Pederson type," he wrote, referring to Pullman "Tommy" Pederson, a St. Cloud Boys' Band member who became a famous trombonist.  "I have 1 big husky Indian boy on bass, and he is a dandy. ... We have white children also, but so far the Indian children are doing the best work."

I have a few newspaper articles about the band, but I haven't been able to determine if any photos were ever taken.  If so, I would love to see them.  I'd also like to track down former band members and ask them what they remember.  Did any of them continue in music?

If I could travel back in time, I'd have all kinds of questions for my great-grandfather: What it was like to live during the time period when the government was trying to force American Indian tribes to assimilate into white society?  What was it like to be a young boy in the 1870s, performing at dances for white settlers of the Kansas prairie?  What was it like to travel to Chicago in 1912 with the Montana Cowboy Band to perform with a group of Blackfeet Indians from Glacier?  What was it like to spend the last days of his life teaching white and American Indian kids to play music together?

Of course, neither pictures nor words could ever adequately capture those experiences.  I guess you just had to be there.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Music as Inheritance

As I cleaned off my desk this morning (a much-dreaded but overdue task), I rediscovered an article from that I read and printed a few months ago, Is There a Music Gene?  I had been pondering that very question when I originally found the article, thinking about how being musical goes back on the Riggs side of my family for multiple generations.

 Pictured above is the Crookston (MN) High School Orchestra, in about 1917.  My great-grandfather, Director G. Oliver Riggs, is seated in the center of the photo.  My grandfather Ronald holds a clarinet and is in the second row, third from the right.  My great-uncle Percy is in the front row, to the right of the drum.

According to the article, some scientists now believe that music may have been an evolutionary adaptation, and not a cultural invention.  This genetic predisposition to music may have arisen as mothers used singing to more successfully calm their babies (and avoid attracting predators), or as being musical made people more attractive to the opposite sex (were there stone age band groupies, I wonder?).

The article cited three interesting facts in support of the idea of music as an evolutionary adaptation:

• The oldest known musical instrument, a carved bone flute found in a cave in Slovenia, dates back 40,000 years, when humans coexisted with Neanderthals
• Every culture incorporates music as an essential part of its rituals
• The brain's right temporal lobe is activated when people hear music

Other experts aren't buying it.  The article quotes Steven Pinker, psychology professor at Harvard and author of How the Mind Works, as saying that "music is auditory cheesecake."  He believes that humans invented it because it makes them feel good, not because it helps with survival or procreation of the species.

Maybe someday scientists will identify a music gene, and we'll know conclusively.  In the meantime, I'm putting my money on the biology.

And now, it's back to the desk.  If there is a gene for organization, I clearly didn't inherit that one.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Music: the Anti-Drug

My great-grandfather, Bandmaster G. Oliver Riggs, ran his own anti-smoking campaign decades before people in the United States began to understand and acknowledge the harmful health effects of using tobacco.  Riggs not only warned his own two boys, Ronald and Percy, about the evils of smoking, he passed on this message to all the young men he directed during his lengthy career.

I'd heard this through other sources, but it was reinforced Saturday when I had the pleasure of interviewing Howard J. Pramann by phone from his home in Duluth.  Pramann, a 91-year-old retired electrical engineer, played cornet in the St. Cloud Municipal Boys' band from age 10 until he graduated from St. Cloud Technical High School in 1936.

He said Riggs gave anti-smoking lectures at almost every weekly band practice.

"As a result of all his lectures, I never did smoke my whole life," said Pramann, who was born in 1918.  "He was ahead of his time."

Riggs' aversion to smoking was due to the influence of his own father, Jasper, a Civil War veteran who used tobacco heavily but despised the habit.  There's more to this story – it also involves an heirloom violin – but I'll explain it in a future post.

Back to Pramann: I won't claim that abstaining from smoking is the reason he is such an active, energetic senior (he still takes classes at the University of Minnesota Duluth for the fun of learning).  But I think it's pretty safe to say that his music experiences as a young man enriched his life in immeasurable ways.

Pramann started his adventures in music at the piano bench, at age 8 or 9, under the tutelage of my great-grandmother Islea, G. Oliver's wife.  After Pramann joined the boys' band, he also got to know my grandfather Ronald and his brother Percy because they occasionally helped direct the band.

What did Pramann enjoy about playing in the St. Cloud Boys' band?  He learned a lot of different music, by a variety of composers.  The band put on a weekly parade in the summer, marching and playing through different residential areas.  The band also traveled to other cities for conventions or special events, like in 1934, when they traveled to St. Paul to perform for a live National Junior Chamber of Commerce radio program broadcast nationwide on the NBC blue network.  Minnesota Gov. Floyd Olson, who delivered a speech during the show, praised the St. Cloud group as "the best boys band in the United States."

Pramann recalled, "He spoke so long we didn't get much of a chance to play."

Pramann played cornet for two years in the St. John's University band, and for one year at the University of Minnesota, before giving it up to focus on his studies.  As he explained to Riggs after quitting the U of MN band, "I figured I wasn't learning anything there compared to what I did in the St. Cloud Band." 

Friday, January 15, 2010

Taken for Granite

Last year, when I was writing an article for AAA Living magazine about New Ulm's historical video podcast walking tour, I heard that St. Cloud had received a grant to create a similar tour.  I lost track of the project until last week, when I happened upon the site during a Google search.

I was excited to see that one of the St. Cloud podcasts was about Barden Park - that is, until I watched it and discovered a glaring omission. 

The video spot explains the history of the park, how it was first named Central Park and later renamed for Charles Barden, a longtime parks board member.  It also explains that the central feature of the park is the octagonal bandstand, built in 1925 out of St. Cloud granite.  And then - it neglects to mention anything about the band itself.

Hello, historians.  It's a bandstand - without the band, it's just a stand.  And I can't let that stand.

The year the bandstand was built, my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, was the director of both the St. Cloud Municipal Boys' Band, pictured above in the white uniforms, and the St. Cloud Municipal Band, wearing dark uniforms and sitting inside the bandstand.

In August 1925, 5,000 people thronged the park to attend a concert that included performances by both bands and concluded with a community sing.  Not all concerts attracted an audience of that size, but the band continued to hold regular, popular summer concerts at the park through Riggs' 20-year career as director. 

One former band member who went on to play in the U.S. Navy Band, Leonard Jung, told me there was always a popcorn wagon at the park during concerts, where people could buy popcorn and Cracker Jacks.  Some concertgoers wouldn't get out of their cars.

"They'd just sit in the car, and when a number was through, for applause, they'd all honk their horns," Leonard said.

The park is located in the St. Cloud State University neighborhood, and the St. Cloud Municipal Band still plays summer concerts there, in a showmobile near the bandstand.  Concertgoers enjoy root beer floats and sit on benches or bring their own lawn chairs.  The photo below was taken at one of those concerts, in August 2008  (My dad, William Riggs, is in the trumpet section).

So, to set the record straight: the history of Barden Park is entwined with the history of the St. Cloud Municipal Band.  You can't have one without the other.  Musical contributions to the park's history should not be overlooked or taken for granted.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Little Brain Music

I read this news story online yesterday, Mozart Effect, about a study that showed playing Mozart music to premature babies helped them gain weight faster.  The story notes that the researchers didn't try any other music besides Mozart, so it's unclear whether John Philip Sousa or the soundtrack from Glee would have the same effect.

Why Mozart?  The Israeli researchers apparently chose Mozart because of a 1993 study indicating that listening to the repetitive melodies of Mozart's music seemed to temporarily improve college students' performance of spatial-temporal tasks. 

The story also notes that this so-called Mozart effect can be taken too far, as evidenced by the Baby Mozart/Baby Einstein controversy.

The study is published in the journal Pediatrics.

I don't have any background whatsoever in the connections between the brain and music, but I think it's a fascinating topic.  I am a fan of Mozart (especially his Horn concertos), and I am especially fond of listening to classical music when I am writing.  I am sure it feeds my creativity somehow. 

I'm pretty sure it isn't causing me to gain weight faster.  That I can blame on the post-Christmas chocolate that's still in the house.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Practice Makes ... One Grumpy

My youngest child, 9-year-old Elias, has determined that piano practicing is no longer fun. He's been taking piano lessons for more than two years, and he's become disenchanted with the routine. Reading the notes is work. Learning new songs is work. Playing them without any corrections is work. Twenty minutes at the piano goes sooo slowly, compared with 20 minutes at the computer.

That's one reason why I feel it's so important for him to continue. Kids are used to instant gratification when it comes to just about everything else in their lives. It seems reasonable to insist that they persist with an activity that requires patience and attentiveness, and that doesn't offer shallow rewards or praise (you have reached the next level; you have earned 200 points).

But I also don't want him to associate playing the piano with being miserable. So I am going to work this week on finding ways to rekindle his interest, so he will eventually motivate himself, and will be less dependent on my nagging. Is it more enjoyable if I sit with him and help him? Should I find some popular sheet music he'd like to learn? Should I let him spend half of his practice time making up songs (something he's pretty good at doing)?

My older kids, Louisa and Sebastian, went through the same stage. Neither one takes piano lessons anymore, but Louisa will occasionally sit down at the piano and try to work out a song from a musical she likes. That's ultimately what I'd like for all of my kids. I don't expect them to become professional musicians. I do hope that through the drudgery of practicing, they acquire enough skills to get to the stage where they simply enjoy the experience of making music.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Another Use for Tic Tac Candy

I've never played a string instrument, other than a piano. I was a brass player all the way, a French horn player from sixth grade through my second year of college (where I was a proud member of the concert band, pep band and the Drake University Marching Band). So I've learned all kinds of things as my 11-year-old son, Sebastian, pursues his adventures of playing the viola.

Like: violas play in a different clef - not treble or bass, which I'm familiar with, but alto. That was one of the first things I learned, when he started playing the instrument in fourth grade. It's like one of those eye tricks, to look at the alto clef and try to read the notes. I can't do it.

Another thing that surprised me was finding out that string players don't start out using their bow. They first learn to pluck the strings. Makes sense, but I'd never thought about it before.

And now, as a sixth grader, Seb's starting to learn vibrato. Yesterday, his private lesson teacher, a viola player with the St. Olaf College Orchestra, gave him a plastic box of orange Tic Tacs and an assignment: eat half of the Tic Tacs and then practice shaking the box, as though his fingers are rolling over the strings to create the vibrato effect.

I'm not a big fan of Tic Tacs, but if learning to play a string instrument had involved shaking peanut butter M&Ms in my hand, my school music experience might have taken a different turn.