In the fall of 1954 The Instrumentalist was starting its 9th year of publication and had just moved to new offices in Evanston, Illinois, undergoing a management reshuffle at the same time. After years with the same drawing on its cover, the magazine now sported a different image each month. The November 1954 issue featured the 100th birthday of John Philip Sousa, and page 12 of that issue made a proud announcement about a new John Philip Sousa Band Award, endorsed by his two surviving daughters.
The announcement did not mention that no such award yet existed, but progress came quickly during the ensuing winter months. Instrumentalist founder Traugott Rohner made multiple trips to the House of Williams, a Chicago firm that made custom jewelry and awards to oversee the progress on the new awards. Despite, or perhaps because of, his exacting scrutiny, the results were two truly beautiful awards: the Sousa plaque with a red, white, and blue flag and a desk piece with a stunning side view of the man himself. These iconic images soon became familiar to generations of directors and students and the pinnacle of achievement in high school bands.
During the most recent awards season, we discovered a folder that included painstaking details of the earliest awards sales. In the first year, a grand total of 224 student awards were sold plus almost as many Sousa plaques. The dollar in 1954 went farther than today and the earliest awards cost schools $6.50 for a student combination and $19.50 for a wall plaque. When one award was returned by a director in 1963, the publisher wrote an indignant letter to the House of Williams:
I am certain that you will agree that the quality of the enclosed Sousa Desk Piece is not up to the desired quality.
What gets me is that it would pass anyone working on it. Is there is some way in which these can be checked and stopped before they are shipped to us?
This letter makes us smile because it reminds us of Traugott Rohner’s enduring pursuit of excellence, whether it was with his high school ensembles or the magazine and awards he founded. It also mirrors notes we send occasionally to our current manufacturer. Mistakes then and now don’t happen often, but perfection remains the elusive goal.
As a new school year begins, we are reminded how good things almost always begin insignificantly – but with a vision for something greater. We know two successful directors who proclaim that their proudest achievement was taking an underachieving orchestra at their school and growing it into a sparkling ensemble.
With the teaching challenges of the past two years, directors will need every tool in their kits to rebuild and strengthen music education in their communities. Inspired ideas and hard work can lead to enduring things.
James T. Rohner