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Reminiscences of Maywood Courtright

I Take Over the Heights Band and Orchestra, 1933

Shortly before it was time for us to leave Rivière du Loup for home I received a letter from MacEldownie informing me that he had taken a job in Iowa where he had gone to school and if I were interested in having the Heights band and orchestra I should apply at once as he had not yet informed the school board that he was not returning. I wrote to Booker and asked for the job. It wasn’t until the first day of school, however, that I knew I had been given the position. I had my master’s degree in instrumental music and was quite familiar with orchestral instruments but I had had almost no experience with band, especially marching band. I didn’t really want to take over the band but the two jobs were tied together so I set to work studying marching formations in anticipation of the fall football season. Another music teacher had charge of the vocal work, the choirs and glee-clubs; she also taught music in the grades.

Both orchestras were rather primitive organizations and were depending on students who had taken private music lessons for their members, except that the school owned two sousaphones (bass horns invented by John Phillip Sousa which could be carried on the shoulder instead of in the arms of the player), a baritone horn, two mellophones (one of which had been my introduction to band music) and a bass drum. The school also owned the violincello that Nina Coye had loaned me some years before so I could learn to play it. Nothing had been done about trying to find a student to play it. The orchestra was built around the piano which provided most of the background harmony and rhythm.

The first year I took over the instrumental music in high school I had one hour of orchestra and one hour of band. The rest of the time I continued teaching drawing. The rehearsal room was the stage of the school auditorium, only a few steps from the drawing room. Instead of an after school voluntary activity, as had been the case when Nina Coye was music director, music students now met on school time and were given full credit, the same as for any other class. Giving school credit toward graduation for music, art and manual arts was a fairly new development in education and was only gradually being accepted by the public. The teaching of instrumental music in the schools had, I believe, its inception in Richmond, Indiana, only a decade or so before 1930 and was only beginning to be a regular part of the curriculum. The first instrumental programs were designed to promote the development of school bands; orchestras came later or not at all. Not until Americans had been accustomed to hearing fine music on the radio and later on TV did support for training musicians at taxpayer expense make headway. No music had been taught at all in Paulding when I was in high school there; some years later Paulding High School had a band. Muskegon had a full instrumental music program in the school system by the time I arrived in the area and the high school had both a good band and an orchestra with new players being trained in the grades and in Junior High school to take the places of students who graduated. The school board had been generous also in providing such instruments as basses and tympani which parents could not be expected to buy. My friend William Stuart had charge of the orchestra in high school and in one of the junior high schools and likewise started students on the violin in some of the grade schools. Francis Martin, a very short man of French-Canadian descent, had about the same schedule except for the high school orchestra; he took it over when Stuart left Muskegon.

I was rather fortunate in the beginning in having several good violinists in my orchestra who had been trained by an old Norwegian living near the high school. His name was Nielson. The band was starting to show the effects of the depression. Fewer parents were able to afford to buy instruments for their children and membership in the band was shrinking as older students graduated. I realized, or course, that unless there were a crop of new instrumental players being started in the grade schools and continuing their training on into high school, the high school band and orchestra would, in a few years, practically cease to exist. At the end of my first year, therefore, I persuaded the school board thru Mr. Booker to let me use the hour from 8 to 9 to go to a different grade school each day to teach violin or any other band or orchestral instrumental instrument the student might have. I had learned to play all of them, after a fashion, by going to the stage where most of the students left their instruments overnight and practicing. Once you learn how to play one instrument it is not hard to learn another. I also had a few private violin students who came to our house for lessons on Saturdays. I charged them a dollar a lesson, the common rate for music lessons then.

One feature of my job as instrumental music teacher that I never liked was having to act as salesman. In order to work up an interest for music it was necessary to talk to PTA groups and other meetings where parents would be present and try to sell them on the idea of their offspring learning an instrument. I worked with different music stores in Muskegon and in Grand Rapids to put on demonstrations and put pressure on them to reduce their prices. My best propaganda, however, was to have small groups of my best high school students perform in assemblies where the younger students could hear them play. I spent a lot of time arranging and composing music for these groups both because I enjoyed composing and because it was hard to find music to fit a particular group. I tested all of the fifth graders in the school system for their ability to carry a tune and match pitches and rhythms then sent a note to the parents recommending a particular instrument, or, in rare cases, no music training at all. I could only give a few seconds to each student, of course, as I had them sent to me one at a time from their classrooms but it was better than no test at all. When a parent received a notice from the school that their child had definite musical talent and could receive free lessons at school on the instrument of his choice it was a strong incentive to get the child an instrument. I got more new students than I could easily take care of and had to meet some of them after school. If I thought the family could afford it I encouraged the student to take private lessons where he would get more individual attention. Teaching musical instruments in a class, especially violin, where the pitch of the note produced depends on the player’s ear and the two hands are doing something entirely different, is not easy. After the first two or three lessons I found it expedient to take only three or four students at a time for short periods rather than trying to teach the whole group for the whole hour. Stringed instruments don’t stay in tune very long either and that was another problem. I spent a big part of the lesson time keeping the children’s instruments in tune, fixing pegs so they wouldn’t slip, putting on new strings and fixing bows.

By the end of my third year as a music teacher the high school band was a very small group and to make any kind of showing at football games and parades - we always had to march on Memorial Day and Labor Day - I asked former students who had graduated to play with us. Most of them were glad to do it. They got to see the football games free, for one thing, and they felt they were helping the school. I remember one boy in particular who always came when I needed him, Robert Henderson, a tall, solemn trombone player who lived on Sanford Street next door to where we had started housekeeping. After I bought my trombone I put on a Heights band uniform and marched myself. It was not much fun playing at football games when the weather was below freezing. The trombone slide would freeze fast and the valves on trumpets and horns would stick fast.

After the students I had started in the 5th grade had reached junior high - the 7th grade - I needed an orchestra there to give them the experience of playing in a group and an incentive for improving their technique. I also requested that the school board buy several instruments that could be loaned to the students, some three quarter sized celli, three or four full size, two violas and a set of tympani. A year or two after that I ordered some string basses and cymbals.

From the start I had not enjoyed directing the band and I didn’t feel that I had the right temperament for it. I was not enough of a showman and not aggressive enough. I decided after a few years that I would talk to Mr. Booker about it. I told him I was not the right type for a band director and described what kind of man he should hire. That was at the end of the school year. When I got my assignment in the fall I discovered I was to have the orchestra - besides senior and junior high orchestras I had organized a grade-school orchestra which met after school once a week - and teach string instruments. A young man, only two or three years out of college, was hired to direct the band and teach band instruments, which suited me fine. Members of the band were, many of them, a rowdier bunch than those who played in the orchestra. When they gathered on the stage at the beginning of rehearsal, for example, a half dozen of them would gather around the drums and start raising the rafters before I could get there from the drawing room. It was almost impossible to quiet them down so rehearsal could start. Marching at football games and in parades, preparing for transportation when games were out of town (the band always wanted to go, of course) and other such chores had very little to do with music and I was glad to have someone else do it. The new band director’s name was Paul Liddicote.

The quality of a musical group like an orchestra depends upon the ability of the individual players who make it up. How to get each student to improve his technique was a problem after the youngsters I had started in the grades got into high school because of the press of other activities and lesson assignments. Some of them even had to drop out of orchestra for a semester because of conflicts in scheduling. On this whole, tho, most of them played with the orchestra all through high school. Even tho they had little or no time for individual practice at home, the hour a day playing with the orchestra improved their playing. The outstanding musicians, those really interested in improving, took private lessons from Mr. Nielson, Frances Martin or Stuart and I always had a few private pupils on Saturdays myself.

With new players coming up thru the grades and junior high, the size of the high school orchestra expanded until there was hardly room on the stage for everyone. Having more violin players than I needed I switched some of the taller ones to string bass and viola so that I finally had a full symphony string section, the goal I had been aiming at. The piano is actually a percussion instrument and interferes with the smooth flow of tone in an orchestra, especially in soft passages, so I eliminated it and trained piano players on the tympani. It takes a keen ear to tune the tympani while the full orchestra is playing, perhaps in another key. It had one girl who was a whizz at it. I usually had good woodwind and brass sections and there was no problem with finding percussion players because of the students who played the drums in jazz dance bands. The difficult with them was to keep them quiet when they were not supposed to be heard, during the slow movement of a symphony for example. For a lively young dance band drummer, who is accustomed to pounding out the beat on the dance floor to sit quietly counting 80 or 90 measures before he can hit the bass drum once must have been very frustrating. I can sympathize with him.

I worked much harder and longer hours after I started teaching music that I had as a drawing teacher. When I started a new player on the bass or viola, for example, I had to do my teaching after school at the student’s convenience as a rule. Since violin, viola, cello and bass are all constructed on the same principles, four strings played with a bow, the student only needed half a dozen lessons to learn to read in a different olef and get the feel of the fingering, then he (usually she) was able to go ahead with no more help from me. What took the most of my time, however, was arranging music. I was crazy about symphony music and wanted very much to expose the pupils I had charge of to the things I enjoyed so much, symphonies like Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Tchaikowski, which were much too difficult for a high school orchestra. Therefore I got Mr. Koehn to print me a lot of music paper and spent hours writing out all of the orchestra parts, simplifying where necessary so my orchestra could play it. I had to eliminate the very hard passages but kept the principal themes. I doubt that any other high school orchestra director anywhere spent as much time as I did copying music. There was a real need for the sort of thing I was doing and some of the music publishing companies were beginning to put out simplified versions of classical works. To find them I searched thru music stones in Muskegon and Grand Rapids and even drove to Chicago on more than one occasion. My brother John was studying art at the Art Institute there and living in a garret just north of the Loop and I was able to stay with him without the expense of going to a hotel.

Table of Contents
Second Trip to Quebec, Summer of 1933
The May Festival

Last modified on 16 April 2018 @ 23:31