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November 1991 Revelli – The Most Determined Director, By Harvey Phillips

Most directors know the story of William D. Revelli, from his starting a band from scratch in a small Indiana town and establishing an outstanding high school program, then bringing to a major university his personal standards of excellence and professionalism. Before his arrival there, students smoked in rehearsals and the band’s music library consisted of The Victors, The Yellow and Blue, and little else. Revelli stayed at the university until his retirement, and today is regarded as the dean of American band directors.
   There is more to the story, though. Revelli worked rigorously to achieve excellence: he taught solfege to junior high students and required them to sing every note of their band music; he took 10 years of lessons with Chicago Symphony members just so he could demonstrate good tone to his pupils. This is the other side of his story.

Who were your primary musical influences and what opportunities were available to you?
   My first musical influence was my dad who developed a great love for opera growing up in Milan. He regularly attended La Scala and as an adult owned the old Victor recordings, which had terrible fidelity but contained the voices of Caruso and greats of the time. My mother loved music, too.
   While growing up I became infatuated with music because of Dad’s influence. He was in the theater business, and gave me a violin for Christmas and signed me up with an itinerant teacher who came once a week to our little town of Panama, Illinois. The teacher was a delightful man; I owe a lot to him because he motivated me, but his influence in developing my musicianship was nil. He couldn’t play any instrument. After four lessons with him Dad sent me to St. Louis to study with Dominic Sarli, who was a violinist in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Because he could only teach me on Sunday mornings, I got up at 4:15 a.m. and caught the 5:15 train to St. Louis, and returned at 10:30 p.m. That was the beginning of my musical career.
   Sarli was a wonderful man and a fine teacher who motivated me and did a good job teaching fundamentals. He recommended that I go to Chicago Musical College to study with Leon Sametini, who had a worldwide reputation as a concert violinist and teacher. Upon finishing high school I went to Chicago Musical College and graduated from there; after which I played professionally in Chicago movie theaters. At that time orchestras accompanied silent movies in the larger theaters, but when movies with sound made their debut, theater musicians lost their jobs. To earn a living I gave private lessons and soon discovered that teaching was my greatest love. I finished a music education degree at Columbia School of Music in Chicago because a performance degree did not permit me to teach in public schools; in one year I completed the entire course and received my music education degree. I applied for several jobs but didn’t get any.
    Finally a job in Hobart, Indiana opened up, but I had never been in Hobart, and didn’t know anything about it. That job was a Godsend to me; I look back now and feel the good Lord was looking down on me. I have had only two positions in my lifetime: one was Hobart, the other was the University of Michigan. In both places I started from scratch. Hobart had only three music students in the whole school system: Eba Sandstrum played the violin and studied in Chicago; Nick Cavarillo, a clarinetist; and Margery Lutz the pianist for the choir. Those were the only students in that school system who played an instrument, and I was supervisor of music, or what we would today call a coordinator of public school music. I never knew what the title meant because I never had anyone to supervise, only myself.
   After three weeks of school, I had the itch to start an instrumental program. I was the music man of the community; because there were no instrumental groups, my day was spent teaching music to kids from the kindergarten on up. I took my violin to class and played while they sang. I taught grade school music, junior high chorus, high school chorus, mixed chorus, madrigal club, the whole works from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. After four or five weeks of this I asked Guy Dickey, superintendent of schools, for permission to organize an instrumental program in the Hobart schools. He thought it would be wonderful if I had four or five students to play at the basketball games; that was his concept of music education. He was a wonderful man, just was not aware of what a music education program could be. He supported my efforts and gave me permission to start but informed me that there was no place to rehearse, no time to rehearse, and no budget; but I had what I asked for, permission to start an instrumental program. There were fewer than a hundred students in the high school, so I recruited from the junior high and began instrumental classes starting in fourth grade. My band met at 7:00 a.m. in the chemistry room, where we moved equipment out and put down music stands and chairs; each student had a responsibility. After four weeks we could do that in a minute, wasting less time than programs with all the facilities.
   We had no budget, so instruments came out of attics, some having been there since the Civil War. I started instrumental classes in fourth grade, but only on clarinet, cornet, violin, and piano. The band consisted of junior high and senior high students, and because we met at 7:00 we had no conflict with other classes. There were 22 people at the first rehearsal and we had a good balance, with all instruments represented except the double reeds.

How did you establish a balanced band?
   I consulted privately with parents before their child entered the program. I had physical and musical tests, which I still believe in, but I chose the instrument for the child. If the father had played trombone and his son could adapt to the instrument in the attic, that’s the way it came out. This was the beginning of the Hobart School instrumental program and the first band mother’s club in the United States. I don’t think there were any band parent’s clubs before that.

It must have taken the complete support of the school, parents, and students to get such a program underway.
   The administration was wonderful. There were no scheduling conflicts because the band practiced before school began, so there was no reason for academic teachers to be concerned. Guy Dickey supported me all the way through, and the principal of the junior high was equally interested; parents were marvelous and the kids were super. It was not as difficult as it might seem.

When did you present your first concert?
   We started rehearsals in the latter week of September, and our first public appearance was not in concert, but at a basketball game. We weren’t ready to play anything; I had to mark fingerings above the notes because many students had not yet learned to read notes without fingerings. We played Military Escort until it was coming out of our ears. We played the introduction, the first strain and put a tonic chord on the end of it and repeated it three times; that was our first piece. We then played the introduction, the first strain, then the second strain and put a tonic on that. That was our second piece. Next we played the introduction, first and second strain and the trio. That was our third piece. Then we’d play the breakup strain and go back. We had a whole repertoire in the same piece and played it about nine times.
   The gym was the only place we could give a concert, but the basketball coach thought that people walking on the gym floor might ruin it. We had bleachers, but you wouldn’t want to play a concert that way, so the band mothers gave a couple of chicken dinners and had enough money to buy a tarp to protect the gym floor. Later they put up a stage. I can’t think of anyone who began an instrumental program with as many obstacles: we had no place to rehearse, no program, no budget, no place to give concerts, and no tradition, although there are some traditions that I wouldn’t want to inherit. Nevertheless, this was the beginning of the Hobart Band, and most people don’t realize that we also had a good orchestra and a choir that won first-place in the district festival. The program was not just band, although you must remember that in those days there were no national orchestra contests.

Hobart is now famous among music educators and band directors for the music education program you established there, but when did you feel the program had substance?
   From the beginning I was happy with the tremendous enthusiasm of the students and support of the faculty, administration, and parents. In my 10 years there only three students dropped out of band. That is hard to believe today.
   I can’t tell you how many times I visited a student’s home to motivate a child and revive waning interest. I made telephone calls, wrote letters to parents; I did not just open the rehearsal room and have a rehearsal. It was a day and night job with sectional rehearsals after school and individual lessons at night. Anyone in Hobart could tell you that the daily schedule of Revelli was 7 to 11. We had musical clubs, recitals, Sunday afternoon vesper concerts, and I was enthusiastic and loved even moment from the day I started.
   The real evidence of what we were doing from a musical standpoint came in 1929, when we won the first state contest in Bloomington. In those days there was no divisional rating, it was all by rank: only one first place, one second, one third. If you were first or second place, you were eligible for the national band contest. When we won this state contest in Bloomington, it was the first time Hobart had ever won anything; the people were ecstatic. We took a train from Indianapolis to Gary, arriving at 2 a.m. Everyone came from Hobart to greet us, and I can still hear their automobile horns honking, waking everybody up and telling the whole population of Lake County that Hobart had come back from Bloomington with the first place trophy.
   That was a great moment, not because we won but because the band had played beautifully. The national contest was held in Denver, and specified a warm-up march, a required selection, and then you went directly to sightreading three numbers. The biggest obstacles for us were getting the money for the trip to Denver and meeting the instrumentation required by the National Bureau for the Advancement of Music. Every band had to have that instrumentation or take a penalty of 1/2 point for every instrument less than 8 flutes, 1 interchangeable on piccolo; 2 oboes (if the score called for English horn, you could substitute but take a 1/2 point penalty); 2 bassoons; 2 Eb soprano clarinets; 24 Bb clarinets, 2 altos and 2 bass (the contra had not come into existence yet); 4 saxophones, 2 altos, tenor and baritone. The brass requirements were 6 cornets, 2 trumpets, 2 flugelhorns, 6 French horns, 5 trombones of which the 5th must be bass, 3 euphoniums, 6 tubas of which 5 were to be Ebs, and 4 percussion.
   When we played our first national contest in Denver, John Philip Sousa, Edwin Franko, Goldman, A.A. Harding, Frank Simon, Arthur Pryor, and a couple of others judged us; those seven judges were the giants of the day. Our best possible grade, if we had played a perfect performance, was 86; I had only 8 clarinets, 1 oboe, 1 bassoon, 3 horns, and 3 flutes. What made it more difficult was the required Two Oriental Sketches by Cecil Burley. How do you play oriental music without an oboe and a bassoon? We did it by muting the cornet as a substitute for the oboe, and I still have the comments of Sousa, Harding, and Goldman. We came out with a grade of 85.4 out of a possible 86, losing .6 of a point in the required performance and sightreading.
   We made the finals and had to play again. They averaged finals with preliminaries and sightreading, so it wasn’t one performance; there were three. We came out second, even with less than the required instrumentation. To get there we traveled by train and slept in the yards in Denver. The mothers wanted the band to look beautiful, so they washed all the white trousers and hung them on trees around the Denver railroad yards. Soot from a train ruined them; we had to wash them again at midnight.
   When we returned from that contest we had $4,000 left over and $4,000 in 1925 could buy a lot of instruments. I bought two oboes, two Heckel bassoons, four French horns, two euphoniums, three tubas, a timpani, and a baritone saxophone, which was everything we needed to complete our instrumentation.
   The fruits of my grade school program of small classes became apparent when I had a 60-piece junior high school band. With four cornets, four clarinets, four violins, piano, and percussion the sessions were like private lessons. We were in no hurry, and I had everyone singing solfege. Harold Bachman first heard my band when we were rehearsing El Capitan, taking it in a slow six instead of two, and the kids sang every note instead of playing their parts. Bachman wrote an article on my rehearsal techniques after seeing that.
   I have never been enthusiastic about putting beginners in full band and prefer small beginning classes to avoid the hazards of poor embouchures, hand positions, and other problems. I had a wonderful junior high band of 80 players by the time I left. It walked off with first place in the Indiana contest every year.

Being a violinist, how did you learn so much about wind instruments?
   I studied clarinet and cornet for a year, but when it came to flute, trombone, tuba, French horn, saxophone, and percussion I knew nothing. I had fingering charts all over my room; it was the blind leading the blind. I didn’t know the flute embouchure, so after one of my weekly cornet lessons with Hale E. VanderCook I said, “I feel terrible. I’m teaching a high school band, and I feel incompetent. I don’t know the instruments and I’ve got to do something about it, but what? I don’t know what to tell them.”
   That wise old man said, “If I were to describe a rose to you, I could describe its shape, its size, its color; I could draw you a picture of one, show you a photo of one, and you’d have a good idea of what a rose looks like. If I spoke into eternity, though, I never could describe its fragrance. That’s how important it is to study these instruments. You’re the music man in Hobart, and you’re the only one who they will hear tone from, and they have to hear that tone. Just produce a lovely tone; you don’t have to be a great player, but produce a lovely tone and know the proper techniques. Get a fine teacher; don’t go to anyone second-rate but go to the best there is.” That was on Tuesday night; on Thursday night I had my first lesson with Ernie Liegl, first flutist with the Chicago Symphony in the basement of Orchestra Hall. For 10 years I studied there every Thursday, then went up to hear a concert afterwards. After Liegl I studied with Albert Barthel on oboe, followed by bassoon lessons with Hugo Fox, then Max Pottag, who was second horn and a fine teacher. I studied percussion technique with Bill Ludwig Sr. who was in the orchestra at the time. It was this learning process that was instrumental in my getting the job at Michigan.

Are today’s instrumental techniques classes comparable to private study of the various instruments?
   As far as I’m concerned, private study is the way to learn. I already had a degree in performance and in music education, but my music education degree provided me with no knowledge of the instruments. You can graduate with a music education degree from any university and never know a thing about some of the instruments. You won’t know the fingering of the bassoon, you will never have it to your lips, never play a note on the oboe, tuba, trombone, or French horn, yet you will graduate and conduct a beginning class of students that have never heard a note on those instruments. There are band directors who never held a timpani or bass drum stick or played a cymbal. This is a quack way of teaching; it is not the proper approach. Today many students study privately, but many don’t. Band directors should get enough fundamental training to produce a fine sound on each instrument. There are students in isolated little towns who never hear a good sound because their teacher can’t produce one.
   Today the music education program has taken
 second place in the minds and interests of many 
universities. They are defeating their own 
purpose, because public school music is the 
cradle of it all. If universities want fine students,
 they have to question where they will come 
from. If a public school music student is
 well trained, his performance ability at the
 college level will be better than if he were poorly 
trained. The music education programs in most 
universities are not strong instrumentally. They 
neglect the fundamental training that is essential
 on all instruments for a successful career in 
conducting in public schools.         

Harvey Phillips is Executive Editor of The Instrumentalist and Distinguished Professor of Music at Indiana University. (bio from 1991)