William E. Watt and the Graham School Band of Chicago, Illinois: 1895-1911

Article excerpt

The first school bands in the United States developed in residential facilities dedicated to providing a home and an education for delinquent, disabled, and orphaned children. These ensembles supplied music for various events at the school, supported military drills, provided vocational training, and helped develop good public relations between the institutions and their communities. Early examples include bands at the New York Institute for the Blind (1836), the Boston Asylum and Farm School for Indigent Boys (1857), the Chicago Reform School (1862), and the New York Soldiers' Orphans' Home (1873). (1) Several private and parochial schools also sponsored bands in the mid-1800s, including the Christian Brothers' Academy (circa 1865) and the Holy Family School for Boys (circa 1869) in Chicago, and St. Gabriel's Grammar School and the Italian School in New York City (circa 1870). (2)

Bands did not appear in the public schools of the United States until the late 1800s, when high school students organized instrumental groups to support the home team at athletic events and other interscholastic competitions. These bands were extracurricular in that they rehearsed outside of the instructional day and did not receive academic credit or funding from the Board of Education. Although students often served as directors, it was also common for the school principal or a local professional musician to teach beginners and conduct the ensemble. In addition to supporting school and community activities, high school bands of this era often performed professionally to raise money for instruments, music, and uniforms, and occasionally to generate income for the students themselves. (3) Some of the first public high school bands in the United States developed in Ann Arbor, Michigan (circa 1885); Denver (circa 1891) and Salida (1895), Colorado; Greenville, South Carolina (1893); Live Oak, Florida (1896); and Galesburg and Pontiac, Illinois (1897). (4)

A handful of public elementary schools also organized bands in the early 1890s to perform for patriotic celebrations, generate school spirit, and establish goodwill within the community. In Columbus, Ohio, for example, bands at the Garfield, Front Street, Rich Street, and Spring Street elementary schools participated in processions and ceremonies honoring the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus landing in America, held on October 12, 1892. (5) Two years later in New York City, a band from Grammar School No. 54 performed in the annual Memorial Day parade and then accompanied the Alexander Hamilton Post of the Grand Army of the Republic to commemorative exercises at Woodlawn Cemetery. (6) Although little information exists about these ensembles, some groups may have consisted of drums, fifes, and bugles rather than typical brass and woodwind instruments. (7)

Most bands during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were all-male organizations due to the military nature of the ensemble and the attitude that marching and playing a wind instrument were unfeminine and too strenuous for females. Although several all-female bands existed during this time, the public generally considered these groups a novelty and bands of males and females together were rare. (8) School bands followed suit until the 1920s when many all-male organizations began accepting girls. This change in practice was likely in response to the evolving attitudes toward women in society (9) and the development of the band from a military-style marching organization of mostly brass into a symphonic concert ensemble that included a large woodwind section--instruments considered more suitable for females. (10)

Progressive Education

Many of the first school bands in the United States led an ad hoc existence that depended on the interest and availability of students and leadership, and the need for music during athletic seasons, school assemblies, and graduation. By the early twentieth century, however, many schools began to see bands as a means of meeting the diverse goals of the progressive education movement that began in the late 1800s and lasted until the 1940s. …