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River City Revisited

Trey Reely | May 2012

   In honor of the 50th anniversary of the movie version of The Music Man, I present an interview with the man who made it all possible. Now retired from a successful career in band directing, Harold Hill takes a moment to reflect on his early days in River City, Iowa and also offer up some tips for today’s band directors.

When you first got to River City, there was some resistance and skepticism about your work. How did you feel about being called a “bare-faced double-shuffle two-bit thimble rigger”?
   Whenever you’re new somewhere, there are many people who will resist change and give you a hard time, so it’s not anything that surprised me. Being called a bare-faced double-shuffle two-bit thimble rigger didn’t bother me at all. I’ve been called worse; besides, I’m still not even sure what that means.

Your success in River City was pretty dramatic. What are some of the keys to building a good band program quickly?
   First, you have to create a need. Of course, I didn’t have to create anything in River City. When I first arrived I saw nothing but trouble right there, right there in River City.

By trouble you mean pool?
Yes. Trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for pool!

Did you see other problems?
   Oh, yes. I saw boys rebuckling their knickers below the knees, reading dime novels, and telling jokes from Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang. They even had nicotine stains on their index fingers. And worst of all, the language – so many “swells” and “so’s your old man.” I could see the need for a way to keep the young ones moral after school.

What are some of your other ideas about building a band program?
   Well, you have to communicate with those parents. Particularly the moms, because they are usually the ones who really know what is going on around the home. Dads often have the “boys will be boys” mentality but the moms will have none of that.

What kind of advice would you give a first-year band director?
   First, you gotta know the territory. Second, you gotta have a system. I started with the Think System which I admit had its faults, one of them being that the only song we learned the first year was Beethoven’s Minuet in G. My second year I supplemented the Think System with a beginning band method, and we did much better. Our sports teams were excited when we learned more; Minuet in G never did get them pumped up.
   Third, keep learning. When I started teaching, I didn’t know a bass drum from a pipe organ, but I kept learning. Before you could say “bare-faced double-shuffle two-bit thimble rigger” I was teaching boys to play copper-bottomed timpani, big bassoons, and double-bell euphoniums. One thing I always say is that the idle brain is the devil’s playground.
   Fourth, don’t ever have 76 trombones in your band.

What are some of the qualities a band director must have to be successful?
When I started, my detractors said I couldn’t make a living selling big trombones, but I didn’t let that stop me. A band director has to have confidence and optimism. I never let anything, even a lack of knowledge, hurt my confidence.

I suppose you have to be a motivator as well.  Someone once said of you that when you dance the piper pays you.
   Well (chuckles) I don’t know about that, but enthusiasm can certainly make up for a lot of weaknesses.

There was a part toward the end of the movie when someone very loudly asks, “Where’s the band? Where’s the band?” What was it like when the band marched in right after they yelled that?
   I’ve never had a prouder moment than when those kids marched in wearing those brand new uniforms. And oh, the music they played. Not perfect by any means, but the parents sure loved it. Even today, the band at River City does its best to please the home folks. Interestingly enough, a long-standing tradition began that night. At the annual Fourth of July parade, the whole event begins with the crowd yelling, “Where’s the band?”

Who has directed the band since your retirement?
   After I retired my stepson Winthrop conducted the band for many years.

Winthrop’s the one who bears a striking resemblance to actor and director Ron Howard?
   Yes, he’s still kidded about that. Hardly a week goes by that some jokester doesn’t call him Opie or Richie. But thanks to me, his mom always gets called Marian the Librarian. I don’t think she’s ever forgiven me for that one. Winthrop’s daughter Winthropietta took over after he retired. Times have changed. Not only are there girls in the band now, they’re even conducting.

Why did the girls get to join the band?
   After we got all the boys busy with the band, we found that the girls started picking up the bad habits. You wouldn’t believe the trouble we had with those girls down at the pool hall. Once we got them in the band all the problems went away, and adding all those girls really beefed-up the woodwind section and helped me balance the 76 trombones, 110 cornets, and cannonade.

What are you up to now? Have you slowed down any?
   Haven’t slowed down at all. I spend lots of time at the library with you-know-who. I still work on ideas every day; I never could get the salesman out of me. I’ve been working on what I call the Sleep System. It’s a way to practice while you’re asleep. Students can go to bed at night, practice in their sleep, and then tell their parents and the band director that they practiced all night. As for other inventions, I’m still working on a good way to hold music while marching with a piccolo.