Saturday, December 31, 2011

Reflections on Another Musical Year

New Year’s Eve is always a time for reflection and for making plans, so it seems appropriate to consider what I’ve accomplished with this blog in 2011, and what’s ahead for the G. Oliver Riggs project in 2012.
I don’t know what 2012 will bring, but I’m pretty sure it won’t involve me wearing a tutu.
There are different ways of measuring success; I could pull some statistics from Google to tell you what 2011 posts are among the most read (Jump: A Composer Discusses Her Craft is tops with 343 views), or how many people from South Korea have found my site (820), but the truth is, I don’t know how to make sense of all that information.  What’s gratifying for me is to know that people are reading the blog and occasionally commenting on posts they have enjoyed.  

It’s difficult for me to pick favorites from the past year, partly because I’ve written so many, I sometimes forget them (that’s the problem with having a 44-year-old brain).  There are a few that stand out as being particularly gratifying to write, such as My Musical Manifesto, which articulated my feelings about the importance of music education in the public schools.  I also am proud of ones in which I’ve used my research to connect the dots between G. Oliver and other historical figures (like Doc Putnam’s Gold Star Band).

It was fun to discover this year that G. Oliver taught music to a group of nuns in St. Cloud (Sister Act: the G. Oliver Version); I definitely plan to follow up on that story.  I was pleased to finally write a couple of posts about my grandfather, Ronald (including A Young Man in the Jazz Age), and I still plan to write a few more about his career. 

I loved writing the most recent blog post about my dad – goodness knows, there’s plenty more material there, like his winning a spot in the National Band in high school and being directed by Henry Fillmore – so you might read more about him in 2012.

I have not yet had the chance to address the career of G. Oliver’s other son, Percy; my dad has been uncovering more details about Percy’s career as a band director in South Dakota, and I look forward to delving into that material for some good stories.
Brothers Ronald, left, and Percy in 1957
You can also look forward to some posts about G. Oliver’s early career as a teacher at the Iowa Wesleyan Conservatory of Music in Mt. Pleasant.  My dad and I have been invited to give a presentation at Iowa Wesleyan College in March as part of the Friends of the Harlan-Lincoln House’s 2012 historical lecture series.

I started this blog in January 2010 out of frustration; I had compiled mounds of research about my great-grandfather’s life and career with the hope of writing a book about him, and I thought writing a blog would help me figure out a structure for the book and give me direction for my writing.  One hundred and 31 posts later (or 132, if you count this one), I am not much closer to writing a book proposal, but I have gained more from the experience than I ever expected.  The blog has become an invaluable way of sharing information with family members and friends, it has helped me make connections between the past and the present, and it has taught me how important music is in my life.

I look forward to another year of exploration and discovery in 2012! 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Play the Birthday Trumpet Fanfare!

Today is a special day; it’s the birthday of an exceptional musician, teacher and human being – my dad, William Johnson Riggs.

My dad was born in Thief River Falls, where his dad Ronald was working as a band director and teacher.  The family soon moved to St. Cloud, and that’s where Dad grew up. 

It’s not surprising that music has always been an important part of Dad’s life; his dad was a band director for several years before he became a college professor; his mom, Eleanor, and his paternal grandmother, Islea, both played and taught piano; and his paternal grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, was a well known bandmaster who died when Dad was 7.

Ronald with baby William and G. Oliver
My dad was a little boy when G. Oliver gave him a cornet lesson outside the woodshed at the Riggs family cabin on Grace Lake – a moment captured in the photo at the top of this blog.  Something about the instrument must have resonated with my dad because he followed in G. Oliver’s footsteps and played the cornet for several years before switching to trumpet.

Dad with his sister, Dana, and brother, Bob
Dad grew up near Barden Park, where G. Oliver’s bands played summer concerts, and where the St. Cloud Municipal Band still plays.  He graduated from St. Cloud Technical High School and got a teaching degree from St. Cloud State University.

Dad's first teaching job was in Alexandria, Minn.  He only planned to stay a year or two.  He met my mom during his second year of teaching (which was her first year there), and the rest is history, as they say. 
I love this photo of my dad, my brother Pete, and baby me, sleeping on my dad’s chest.
My dad continued to play his trumpet in a number of bands, including the Alexandria Big Band, as I was growing up.  His love of performing inspired me to take up the French horn in sixth grade and continue playing through two years of college.

Dad and me playing a duet on Christmas Eve, 2008.
Dad retired from teaching high school several years ago, but he seems to keep busier than ever with his music gigs.  He used to play often for weddings; now, funerals are more common.  He plays regularly for church services and at nursing homes, and he plays with so many different groups I have a hard time keeping them all straight.

Dad playing a September 2011 gig with the Salty Dogs at Sixth Avenue Wine & Ale in Alex.
When he’s not performing in a concert of his own, he’s often in the audience cheering on his grandchildren.  Much to his delight, the latest family members to take up the trumpet are my brother’s 11-year-old twins, Sam and Lauren.

Mom and Dad with all seven grandchildren.
Dad is the heart of the ongoing G. Oliver Riggs research project, and I’m thrilled to be his duet partner.  We already have accomplished more than we’d ever expected, and I look forward to another year of adventures in 2012.

Because I can’t deliver his present over the blog, I will close with an Ole and Lena joke:

Ole bought Lena a piano for her birthday. A few weeks later, Lars inquired how she was doing with it.
“Oh,” said Ole, “I persuaded her to switch to a clarinet.”
“How come?” asked Lars.
“Well,” Ole answered, “because with a clarinet, she can’t sing.”

Happy birthday, Dad!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The 21 Days of Pre-Christmas

It’s been a wonderful, hectic, music-filled month, and it’s not over yet!  Here’s a summary of the concerts and activities that have enriched our lives during the past three weeks:

Five horns harmonizing (Dec. 8: Louisa’s French horn section played during Winter Walk)

Two Lucias processing (Dec. 9: Louisa was a Lucia attendant at the Northfield Swedish Club’s 36th annual Lucia fest)

Ten fingers dancing (Dec. 9: Steve, Louisa and I attended a piano recital given by Ina Selvelieva, a visiting professor of music at St. Olaf and the pianist for Little Women, the Musical)

One hundred forty-five youth choir members rejoicing (Dec. 10: Louisa and Sebastian performed in the Northfield Youth Choirs winter concert at Carleton’s Skinner Chapel; Steve joined in on two of the large group pieces)

Four drummers drumming (Dec. 13: Elias sang at the Greenvale Park choir and band concert, which included an enthusiastic percussion piece)

Seven orchestras bowing (Dec. 15: Sebastian played in the middle school and high school orchestra concert)

Twenty-eight students singing (Dec. 16: Elias performed a music program with his fifth grade class)

And a standing ovation at the Orpheum (Dec. 16: Steve and I took our kids and his parents to see Les Miserables at the Orpheum)

Because we will be in Iowa for Christmas, spending time with Steve’s parents and his sisters and their families, we are having our own little family celebration tomorrow evening.  We will continue our tradition (borrowed from my childhood) of having each person either perform a song or read a Christmas-related story or poem before we open gifts.  I haven’t decided yet what I’m doing; the last-minute preparation is part of the excitement.

It’s hard to believe that 2011 is drawing to a close.  I am eager to see what musical pleasures await us in 2012!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Fine Arts Programs Need Boosters, Too

I should be cutting back on activities and additional responsibilities during this busy time of year, but instead I have plunged into another commitment: last week I joined the board of the Northfield Fine Arts Booster Club.

I couldn’t really say no (although I did postpone the decision for months, due to a number of other commitments this fall) because one of the group’s projects is to collect new and used musical instruments and get them into the hands of kids who want to play.  This is a cause close to my heart.  If I’ve learned one thing from researching my great-grandfather’s career as a band director, it’s the importance of making instruments accessible to all, if you’re hoping to build and maintain a quality program.  That’s step one, before you can begin to teach kids to play, and before they can begin experiencing all the amazing benefits of music education. 

G. Oliver worked hard to procure enough instruments for his students in every town in which he directed a band; when he died in January 1946, he was in the middle of an effort to convince the school board to purchase more instruments for the band he had organized at Red Lake High School.

The Northfield Fine Arts Booster Club formed in 2010 and is just now launching the instrument donation program, “Instruments for All,” which is modeled after a similar program in Apple Valley (see this September 2010 Star Tribune article).  The Northfield Area Foundation is providing a $5,000 matching grant for the program, which is great news.  The big push for donations won’t begin until after the holidays, but we already are accepting instruments as well as lesson books and other supplies.

You can drop off band instruments at the Bridgewater Elementary School office, and orchestra instruments at the Northfield Middle School office.  For more information, you can visit the group’s website or new Faeebook page.

If you’d like to make a financial contribution, you can mail a check to the Northfield Fine Arts Boosters, 1400 Division Street, Northfield MN 55057 (Please make checks out to “NFAB” and write “Instruments For All” in the memo line). Or, you can visit the NFAB site at GiveMN and donate online.

The Northfield Fine Arts Boosters Club isn’t just about supporting music; it aims to provide resources and promote community support for all the fine arts programs at Northfield High School, including speech, theater and visual arts.  I’m thrilled to be part of an organization with such an important mission.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Sister Act: the G. Oliver version

Just when I think my dad and I have uncovered all the stories we’re likely to learn about my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, something unexpected bubbles to the surface.  This week’s revelation: G. Oliver was the Whoopi Goldberg of St. Cloud.

OK, that’s an exaggeration, but it will make more sense if you’re familiar with the 1992 movie Sister Act, featuring Whoopi Goldberg as a woman in the witness protection program who hides in a convent and coaches the nuns in the choir  (It’s also been turned into a Broadway musical; we saw the cast members perform a song from the show during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade last week).

I’m fairly certain G. Oliver was never in a witness protection program (unless that’s another surprise waiting to be unearthed).  But according to Dick Egerman, whose family operated the popcorn wagon during band concerts in St. Cloud’s Barden Park, G. Oliver did provide musical assistance to a group of nuns known as the Benevolent Beethoven Benedictines.

“Apparently this group of nuns, hearing of the fame and generosity of G. Oliver, approached him explaining their dedication to teaching, preaching and prayer: they expressed a need for fun and culture. Music was the answer,” Dick revealed in an email to my dad this week.  "It is reported that G. Oliver agreed to teach them the rudiments of music, provided they furnish their own instruments.  The nuns from capable families got instruments, and the others got to sing in the choir.”

Dick has a credible source for this story: his mother, who played tuba in the group but left the order after a short time.

“Family lore reports Mother left for three reasons: female tuba players were not respected on the same high level as trumpets and other horn players; Mother had no rhythm; and she did not look good in black,” he wrote to my dad.

His mother married and had eight children, including Dick, who claims to have inherited his mom's lack of rhythm.

I am grateful to Dick for sharing this fun story, and I’m eager to learn more about the details of this musical collaboration between G. Oliver and the nuns.  Sister Act had a sequel; you can bet that this blog post will, too.