The Instrumentalist

Articles August September 2022

A Community Bands Together To Honor Its Musical History



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This is an inspiring story of a small-town music program that used the isolation of the pandemic to learn about community history and commission an original work honoring that history.



    As directors, we know the value of exceptional music. We spend hours searching for repertoire that matches our ensemble’s needs and merits the investment of every fleeting rehearsal. Each player and audience member is searching for something different, and our job is to bring them together around music so compelling that they all find what they are seeking. As we negotiate our ever-changing philosophies and sometimes conflicting priorities, music is often the only answer we find. This is the story of how commissioning a piece brought our band and entire community together when nothing else could.

Boston, Massachusetts, 2019
    The 2019 New England Conservatory Conducting Forum began with the usual succinct introductions, participants offering their names and where they were from. Juilliard, Eastman, NEC, and Potsdam were all represented by the time I announced, “I’m Lindsey Williams from Owego, New York.” There was silence, followed by Frank Battisti’s exclamation to Professor Peltz, “Charlie, she’s from Owego!” Another pause. “I know, Frank,” he replied with a smile. I wondered why my little town was of any significance until Professor Battisti turned joyfully back to me to announce, “I student taught in Owego in 1953!”

Owego, New York, 2020
    I began a Zoom class by announcing that we would be brainstorming topics and research methods for our Owego Free Academy Band History Project. During the uncertain days of 2020, directors tapped a variety of ideas to keep students engaged during remote classes. Unable to go out, we searched attics for old programs, photos, newspaper clippings, and yearbook entries about the band. We contacted extended family, neighbors, and friends, asking for favorite music memories, and we began to share our story.
    Because we couldn’t travel in our time, we traveled through time. Old newsletters shared by Zoom returned us to eras of early morning rehearsals. Local experts, disguised as our grandparents, made us laugh with tall tales of impressive but oppressive hot wool marching band uniforms, travel fiascos, and grand musical collaborations. Past directors scanned programs documenting celebrations from every season. Slowly, we pieced together a timeline of long periods of stability punctuated by the disruptions of war and recessions.

Timeline, Created Spring 2020
    Old yearbooks offered fascinating insights and information. We discovered the director in 1900 was the prolific composer Phillip Paul Bliss, and Frank Tei, the director from 1920 to 1943, led the band in live radio broadcasts every Sunday. Our hearts broke for the band of 1943 as director after director was drafted, and one extraordinary woman, Evelyn Wells, taught band, orchestra, and chorus until the war was over. Yearbook photos brimming with exuberant faces in the huge bands that followed in 1946 reassured us that we, too, would recover.

Commission Begins, Fall 2020
    One tale led to another, and we wrote to Frank Battisti, asking him what he learned while student-teaching at OFA. His reply was immediate, “I learned how important it was to be thoroughly prepared for every lesson, class, and rehearsal!” When asked for advice he said, “Appreciate all the experiences you have and everyone who provides them for you. Strive to give the best you can to all your endeavors. And commission!”
    “Commission? Where should we start?” we asked.
    “With Dana Wilson, of course!” he replied without a moment’s hesitation.
    That is what we did. Inspired by our past directors and their bands, we called Dana Wilson, retired composition professor from Ithaca College, with the story of Fannie Beaumont, a composer and one-lady band, who performed in Owego in the early 1900s on piano, trumpet, percussion, and voice simultaneously. With her story unearthed at the centennial of women’s suffrage, it was the perfect time to share her voice with a new song. We shared Fannie’s story with Dana Wilson and explained that we wanted to commission a piece with her in mind to honor Frank’s 90th birthday and the past 100 years of community music making in Owego. As soon as he heard Frank’s name, he was in.
    We next set up fundraisers and applied for grants. Asking for money felt unfamiliar and difficult at first, and many people had never heard of commissioning music. Countless phone calls and emails went unanswered, yet after considerable dead ends, we partnered with the Owego Hose Team (from the village fire department), our local historical society, the Owego Rotary Club, and the Arts Council of the Southern Finger Lakes to get the project off the ground.


Owego Free Academy Band in 1927 with director Frank Tei, (left)

    The Owego Hose Team helped us raise money with an excellent chicken barbecue, and the Arts Council advisors read draft after draft of our grant applications until we secured one. Our historical society shared Fannie’s manuscripts with us, and one exciting piece, Rotary March, caught our attention. It was her gift to the Rotary Club in 1935 and would now inspire Dana Wilson’s new composition for us, The One-Lady Band from Owego.



Owego, New York, 2021
    Students collaborated with Dana Wilson with questions about influence, instrumentation, length, and difficulty level. Wilson did what every great musician does: he listened and responded with sensitivity. In one Zoom visit, Professor Wilson explained, “As a composer, you explain your ideas by putting a strong idea into different contexts. You give it to the saxophone and give it to the flute, and you say the same thing in different ways. It is a way of explaining to the audience your ideas and to use the full ensemble to make that statement in a powerful way.”
    Anticipation increased as the delivery of the first draft approached. Then one morning, a simple email entitled “New Piece” arrived in my inbox. My heart pounded faster as I read it. After a few minor revisions, we sent the next draft to Mr. Battisti.


Cover Art by Alyssa Stephens

    Within the hour, I answered my phone to hear him exclaim, “I love it. It’s exciting, new, and fresh. When is the premiere? I want to be there.”
    The band began by reading the score together, something we had done rarely before the pandemic. We compared it to Fannie’s original compositions, finding motives from the source material in the new work. We played ideas across Zoom and shared practice videos to unify our interpretation. Excitement exploded across unstable internet connections, obliterating the isolation-induced epidemic of enervation and indifference. In a moment everything changed. We had a job to do for ourselves, for the music, for Dr. Wilson, Mr. Battisti, and Ms. Beaumont. This wasn’t just a project anymore. This was our story. This was art.
    As we dug in, however, creating a musical click track became an obstacle for us, and we had to enlist outside help yet again. We called past OFA Jazz Night artist, Chris Bill (best known as the most subscribed-to brass musician on YouTube), and described how the piece needed initial rubato to develop into a laid-back groove, and then gain momentum to the final impacts. He worked into the night on new audio edits, and I rushed to my inbox each morning in anticipation of sharing them with the class.
    With the final click track and recording instructions ready, we began creating our performance. About half of the students recorded from home, while half came into school one at a time to record with the school’s microphones and sound gear. Alumni, past student teachers, community members, and students logged take after take, getting it just right. By May, Chris Bill was at work mixing the audio with his recording engineer, Jason Staniulis, and producing the video for a virtual premiere.



    We worked with Chris Bill as we had with Dana Wilson, discussing blend and balance, impact points, and the visual reinforcement of these musical elements. While Chris and Jason edited the piece, students created their own music, cover art, and videos about the commission process to share at the premiere.


The Virtual Premiere of The One Lady Band from Owego

    As student Allison Shoen aptly remarked, “At a time when it was so easy to feel separated from everyone, like there was no end goal to work towards, this piece allowed us to connect as a band and work towards something we felt honored to be a part of. This piece kept us focused on making music and allowed us to know why we do this, even if we had to do it behind screens or six feet apart with masks.” Even the barrier of time could not stop our commission from combining the passions of artists, performers, entrepreneurs, educators, and audiences. Everything was right here all along. All we needed was something to band us together.
    We scheduled a YouTube premiere and watched it together on Zoom the morning of June 9th with friends, families, Wilson, Battisti, and numerous community members.The reception was wonderful. Dana Wilson gave us each an essential part to play and a work of art that only revealed itself when we made it our own. He had given us a priceless gift.
    Later that week, a small group of seniors traveled down the road to the local radio station, WEBO, for an early-morning interview before the radio premiere of our commission, The One-Lady Band from Owego. Just like OFA band director Frank Tei had done in the 1920s, our band would be broadcasting on the radio waves once again. We imagined his pride, and Fannie’s, knowing we told their story with our own. We smiled because we did it with a song.

 

 

Lindsey E. Williams

Lindsey E. Williams


    Lindsey Williams has directed bands and jazz bands at all levels in the Owego Apalachin Central School District since 2007, hosting and earning many gold ratings at NYSSMA festivals. She attended The Boston Conservatory at Berklee, founding their National Association for Music Education chapter and receiving her MMED and BM in Flute Performance,
summa cum laude, along with the Conservatory’s Outstanding Music Educator Award.
    To hear
The One-Lady Band from Owego visit https://youtu.be/AMUp3KZn_X0?t=92. To learn more about commissioning from OFA Band Members visit: https://bit.ly/3PUnC7j. If you are interested in performing the work please contact Lindsey Williams at [email protected].

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