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Still Going Strong

R. Jack Mercer | November 2012

    Everyone likes to think his life has been special, and in my case it all started back in May 1945, when Northwestern School of Music presented me with a certificate that said I had completed the required courses to be a music educator. My job search led to a small school in Three Oaks, Michigan, population 1,000, that was looking for a music teacher. I applied and was invited to join their staff, teaching English, band, and choir, plus supervising two study halls. I also drove a school bus and was paid $2,000 a year.
    I was enthusiastic about our band program until we entered a contest. The judges made the following recommendations: It helps if you tune the band before performance. Where is the melody? The percussion is too loud. One half of the band is chewing gum.
    I had better success with the 55-voice choir. Our performance of Christmas Cantata captured the attention of the president of a small college in Lincoln, Illinois, who was visiting friends and saw the performance. He explained that Lincoln College was preparing for GIs returning to school and wanted to build up the music program. He offered me $3,000, which was a $1,000 raise, and I accepted.
    I prepared a Fine Arts Program for Lincoln College that included a band, choir, piano, and music theory. The veterans did come to Lincoln College, but they completely ignored the music program, and I was out of a job.
    The high school connected with the University of Iowa had a band that was designed to give music majors conducting practice. I accepted an invitation to join the staff, and my limited experience with bands soon became obvious. A the end of the year I was again looking for a job and enrolled in the university placement program.
    In the spring of 1948, superintendent Burton Jones from Creston, Iowa, came to the university in search of a band director. Our interview was cordial until he asked what beginning salary would be comfortable. After a moment I ventured a willingness to come for $3,000. He hesitated, and I feared it was all over until he said, “Would you be willing to come for $3,800?” explaining that the school board had fired its last director, and he had warned that it would take additional salary to get a more competent director. “Are you a more competent director,” he asked. My answer was yes.
    During the next ten years I gave concerts, sponsored festivals, and organized a community band. I also discovered that I had a special aptitude for designing and producing halftime shows, but one of them I would rather forget. It was homecoming and the band prepared a special show with dancers, footlights, and a smoke bomb mist. The show progressed smoothly with the dancing girls and footlights, but when it came time for the climax, things became unhinged. The smoke bomb was designed to add a misty background, but it completely obscured the dancers. The smoke hung so heavily over the field that the game was delayed.
    Weather is always a factor in Iowa, and for one show we had the halftime music recorded as a backup. That night temperatures fell below freezing, and the choice we faced was to cancel or perform without instruments. We chose to perform with the recorded music. A reporter from the Des Moines Register wrote an article describing this new trend in halftime shows.
    After ten years in Iowa, we moved to California after I wrote 115 letters to cities in the Berkeley, USC, and UCLA areas. Four interviews resulted in the Berkeley area and three in southern California. In 1958 there was a shortage of music educators, and the four schools near Berkeley found my experience at Creston to be attractive and offered jobs. My obligation to interview three schools in southern California precluded accepting them, and I went to interviews in Newport Beach and Corona. I was disappointed that Pomona had just hired a new director, but the principal offered that Chaffey High School was looking for a director. I arranged an interview with principal Ernie Payne.
    Following the interview, he gave me a tour of the 65-acre campus. The grounds and buildings were beautiful, and the 2,000-seat auditorium had once been a major performance venue for Los Angeles-based artists. The music building had two large rehearsal halls plus 12 ensemble rooms. I compared the Chaffey High School Band facilities to what I had in Creston: a fourth floor room I shared with the vocal department. I promptly accepted the offer to join Chaffey High School.
    When I described the 65-acre campus, multiple buildings, two rehearsal halls, and 12 ensemble rooms to my family, they asked if this was a nine- or twelve-month contract, would there be tenure, and what was the salary. I pleaded ignorance and called the principal for more details, which he supplied. He also asked if I would consider offering band in the summer as well. This was an unexpected opportunity to get a head start there.
    That first summer there were 23 freshmen and 42 returning band members. At the first home football game we gave the first performance and received a standing ovation.
    The Chaffey band received an invitation to be one of ten participating bands in a marching festival at the San Bernadino County Fair. When we arrived I could feel the tension rise in our young organization as they watched the competing bands, but this tension dropped away when we stormed onto the field. The Chaffey routine of precision drills with occasional dance steps sent the crowd cheering and applauding. Chaffey won its first of six consecutive Sweepstakes Marching trophies.
    Feeling confident that this new organization was ready to compete in other halftime tournaments, I discovered the Corona Marching Festival, which is judged by a drum and bugle corps staff. Each band starts with 100 performance points, and each flaw in the performance deducts points. We chose to perform a show with a Halloween theme. Drill team members added masks to their costumes. When the inspecting office investigated how the masks were tied in the back she found the strings were not the same length. Each drill team member was penalized. Only at the award ceremony did we learn that we were firmly in last place, solely because of the irregular strings in the masks.
    The next morning as I sat in the staff lounge, the superintendent came over to ask about the contest. He saw that I was upset and listened to my Corona Festival story, then asked, “If you are not happy with this tournament, why don’t you organize one of your own?” In 1962 I accepted the challenge and organized the Chaffey Tournament of Bands.
    Drawing on the Iowa and California tournaments I had seen, I tried to design the ideal event. Organizational procedures were to include no standing inspections; judges seated in the stands, not on the field; evaluations building up points rather than subtracting them; and judges that were music educators. For the first event I chose Clarence Sawhill, USC; Frank Piersol, University of Iowa; William Revelli, University of Michigan; Johnnie Beaudreaux, Los Angeles Rams Band Director; and Walter Beeler, Ithaca College (New York). I scheduled a parade, and everyone performed as a massed band for the finale. There was even a concert by the UCLA band, plus swimming and movies during off hours. So many schools applied that we couldn’t accommodate everyone.

    One morning, I walked into Principal Payne’s office and announced my decision to retire. I was burned out. He looked shocked and thought I was kidding. He suggested that I come back the next day before making a final decision. He spoke with the superintendent and members of the school board and they granted me the first sabbatical given in the history of the district. He emphasized that a sabbatical report would be expected.
    I thought about taking a trip around the nation visiting directors to learn how they raise funds and operate their programs. The idea ripened into a 7,000 mile trip interviewing 222 band directors in 13 states. The materials from these interviews became “The Band Director’s Brain Bank,” published by The Instrumentalist in 1970. After this invigorating trip, it was easy to return to the excitement of the Chaffey band.

Onatrio/Chaffey Community Show Band
    In 1985, after 27 years at Chaffey High School, I finally convinced my administration it was time for me to go. I enjoyed six months of peace and tranquility until one afternoon there was a knock on the door. There stood Ontario’s Chief of Police, Lowell Stark. Lowell had been first chair trimbone in the concert band and the top sergeant of the marching band. He brought greetings from 42 former members of my high school band and asked if I would organize a Chaffey Alumni Band. I had many questions about music, a rehearsal hall, and an auditorium for performances. He assured me these problems had already been solved.
    The new band became part of the Chaffey District Adult School. Musicians signed up to take band as a class. With great hesitation I accepted the position under three conditions:

1. I will never rehearse the band.
2. I will never hear any bad notes.
3. I will be the only band member with a monopoly on making mistakes.

    My hidden purpose for these rules was to make certain that the band became a recreational activity for all of us.
    On the night of the first rehearsal, I arrived. With 15 minutes to go before the call time, no one appeared and it looked like the end of a crazy idea. Suddenly, the door burst open and one group of musicians followed another. It was like a family reunion with hugs and laughter. I was caught up in the festivity, and things didn’t settle down until I suggested that maybe we should get out our instruments and tune. The band has continued on for 27 years.
    My career began with a single year in Three Oaks, Michigan before eventually coming to Chaffey for 54 years. During that time I have taught six superintendents and sixteen principals. All became strong supporters of music education in the development of young men and women through music education. Of all the accolades from my career, the dedication of my band room as Mercer Music Hall remains the greatest.