Traces of Colonial American Music Education

Throughout the years of my own formal music education, I’ve learned that it’s very difficult to talk about music from a historical perspective. Sometimes the musical language regardless of notation system is so emic that it can seem like secret code – even among similarly stylistic composers certain terms are not identical – and most of the time I walk away just knowing that the sounds and dates by which we recognize styles and genres are probably older than the written proof of its existence.

Sandwiched directly between the famous Tanglewood Institute in the west and the city of Boston in the east, the small town of Hardwick, Massachusetts links the New England past with the New England present. It happens to be where I grew up, and my experiences living in Hardwick shaped my own music education, as well as my own methods and practices.
In August of 1762, a uniformed man stood on the triangular township common, a grassy slice of land incorporated about twenty years prior by an English Nobleman. The man was a Harvard graduate (class of 1732 according to the notoriously-correct Wikipedia) named Timothy Ruggles, a politician from the Boston area. Surrounded by market fare, livestock, and children playing in an obstacle course built from stacked bales of hay, he declared the inauguration of the very first Hardwick Community Fair. Mr. Ruggles (who favored the British during the American Revolution) thus established the first annual community fair in the United States – in Hardwick, Massachusetts. The fair itself as a weekend-long event would be the social highlight for the next few centuries. It still thrives today on the same site of its inaugural year, carrying on the New England traditions of farming education.

As the town evolved, so did its music, and therefore the emic sounds that shaped it. At its foundation, instrumental musical training was a familial apprenticeship taught on porches, whereas sacred vocal music was taught as a segment of the diffusing puritanical church in the early years of standardized education. To synopsize, during the mid-1800’s, valved brass instruments became prevalent both in Europe and the U.S. In Hardwick, the creation of a town band turned into a military band for the local militia and an outlet for community entertainment on the village common. During the industrial revolution, small bands (and baseball teams!) formed around town representing various textile mills that popped up. I had several family members perform in these small bands and work in the factories. Soon after that the larger community band was formed to perform regular concerts, and to march in parades and ceremonies.

Likewise, the next town over had formed a singing society for all ages (this organization still thrives today and is called ‘Band of Voices’ – not the initial name as the organization has phased in and out over the years). Soon however, instrumental music became part of the local curriculum, and students who wanted to learn how to play an instrument had the opportunity and the means.

Of course, it was a lot harder to travel in the horse and buggy days of New England than it is now, but to put things in perspective: today the residents of Hardwick can travel an hour by car to the west to listen (or study) at Tanglewood. Likewise, they can travel an hour east to hear the Boston Symphony. They can travel an hour south to the birthplace of Charles Ives or two hours farther to slip into Manhattan, and just a few hours north to Rochester, New York –home of the Eastman School of Music. Yet even today, the small town has a population of less than a few thousand, and the children still play in an obstacle course made of stacked bales of hay each August during the fair. That is, the simplicity of it all still resonates regardless of proximity to such resources, and regardless of how fast-paced society moves. I’m very gratified that these places surrounded me as I grew up, and thus I was privileged to exposure in terms of notable musicians, marvelous ensembles, admirable music educators, well-equipped programs, and an arts-loving community.

In Barre, just the next village over, a bandstand was built in 1859 on the common. It was used for Sunday evening concerts by the community band, just as the tradition remains today. Its founding conductor, Severino D’Annolfo, wrote several pieces for the band that were in the style of John Philip Sousa including “Barre Common March”, “American Legion Auxiliary March”, “Salute to the G.I.”, and “Tranquil and Alert”. Those pieces are still performed every year.

Although the group has been through a handful of conductors since its conception, it is a very archetypal community band in that through the years it has patterned the ensemble to the musical standards it performs and to the age-range of its audience – typically both the very young and the very old with very little variance in between. Ensemble members are typically ‘musical elders’ of the community mixed in with both white- and blue-collar workers and a small handful of local students lucky enough to fill out instrumentation.

As a personal aside, my father died when I was very young (seven), which meant that I was raised with the village concept on a very genial level. Several of my extended family members were local teachers and school administrative staff, which leant itself to concession on more than a few occasions. As an upshot, I was invited to play trumpet in the community band when I was nine, and continued until [literally] the day before I moved to New Orleans in 2002. The organization became my family over several years, and even furnished a scholarship that allowed me to continue to study music in college. Thus, my goal with a conducting degree is not to teach school music, but to harbor the ability to conduct a community organization somewhere and continue the tradition that was so important to my education.

Community bands in New England also play[ed] a financial role in the surrounding area through marketing and advertisement. Historically, local businesses, farms, and co-ops sponsored concerts. Program book fundraising drives are held annually, and it is still considered a source of pride for your business to have your ad show up in the new season’s program. As nearly everyone in the town would be in the audience at one point, it has always been an excellent form of advertising. Prior to other media outlets, it was imperative for exposure, and thus local music contributed to the neighboring economy.

Today in the surrounding area of Hardwick (within two hour’s drive) there exists several community bands and choirs, two professional orchestras, several colleges/universities, and countless other arts organizations. The prevailing idea behind so many musical youth organizations is that in order to keep local kids out of trouble, you need to give them something positive to do. With that in mind, there is a great deal of community support. As the area is predominantly middle-and-upper class, there is not a huge lack of arts funding in comparison to where I live now (New Orleans).

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