Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Magic of Massed Performance

I’m sure most of the 800-plus band and choral students involved in last night’s 2012 Missota Conference Music Festival – including my daughter, Louisa – weren’t aware of how impressive it was to see them all gathered in the Northfield High School gymnasium before the finale concert.  After a long day of practicing, performing, listening and waiting, they were ready to go home. 

I’m sure not every parent in attendance appreciated the coolness of the event, either.  Some might have preferred to stay home – it was a Friday evening after a long, busy week, the school was crowded, and – gasp – they had to pay to attend (note: the cost was the same as any high school sporting event – I’m just sayin’).

Music students from eight schools, including Northfield, assemble for the concert.
Where’s Louisa? She’s in the center of the massed band, warming up on her French horn.
But I loved it, from the moment the massed band played the opening notes of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” until the closing notes of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”  performed by the combined ensembles of the massed choir, the select choir and the select band. 

Sure, the trumpets in the massed band weren’t spot-on (there were 14 students on the trumpet 1 part and 44 trumpets in all), the clapping by the massed choir in the gospel song wasn’t uniform, and a couple of the select choir’s songs sounded similar to my untrained ears, but hey – there were 800 student musicians from eight schools gathered in the gymnasium!  That’s 800 students who share a passion for music – what’s not to love about that?  What about that doesn’t deserve accolades and inspire optimism for our future?
Participating schools were Academy of Holy Angels, Chanhassen, Chaska, Farmington, New Prague, Northfield, Red Wing and Shakopee
It inspired me because it shows that the teaching of music and art in the schools continues to be valued and continues to make a difference in kids’ lives.  The students may not remember this concert as the No. 1 highlight of their high school career, but the encouragement and dedicated effort by teachers and staff that made the event possible will surely have a lasting impact, regardless of whether the students continue to pursue the arts after high school.

I know this because I know my history – my personal history as a former high school and college band member, but also my family’s music history.  I have met elderly men who once played for my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, in the St. Cloud Municipal Boys’ Band, and they’ve told me with emotion in their voices how much that experience they had as young boys influenced their character and their approach to life. 

So when I saw those student musicians in the gym, I also saw all those students who came before them, and when I saw those guest directors step up on the podium – including Timothy Diem, director of the University of Minnesota marching band and assistant director of the U of M bands; and Timothy Mahr, director of the St. Olaf College Band – I saw my great-grandfather, and I saw my grandfather Ronald, and I saw my great-uncle, Percy.

It was easy to make the connection to my grandfather, Ronald, because some of the students who participated last night were from Farmington High School.  Ronald was the band director in Farmington from 1933-36, and 76 years ago, on April 17, 1936, Farmington High School hosted a similar festival.

Five hundred band and choral students from six schools participated in the Mississippi Valley League Music Festival that day: Cannon Falls, Farmington, Hastings, Lake City, Wabasha and Zumbrota.  Ronald directed the Farmington band in its afternoon performance, and G. Oliver directed one of the massed band pieces in the evening finale concert.  Another guest conductor was James Robert Gillette, director of the Carleton College Symphony Band.

A St. Paul Dispatch photo and article previewing the festival.

One of the massed band pieces was directed by my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs.
Afterward, an editorial in the Farmington newspaper called it a glorious event, and the description could just as easily apply to the event I attended last night:

“Performing before a jammed auditorium, the massed glee clubs and massed band, made up of six schools, sang and played with rare skill and splendor ... there was no competition between schools, no prizes; hence all the schools went home feeling they had gained – and not lost – something.  We who attended the grand festival caught the spirit of cooperation from the young artists, and we came away with a feeling that it was fine and good to have been there.”

I would conclude there, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that one of the Farmington students in that 250-member massed band at the 1936 festival was a flute player named Eleanor Johnson.  I’m grateful that she had a positive experience in the band.  You see, Eleanor was my paternal grandmother; she married Ronald 1 1/2 years later, after he had moved to Thief River Falls to direct the high school band in that northern Minnesota town.
Eleanor Johnson Riggs, 1919-1980
You just never know where the music will lead you.

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