He was an ordinary-looking man, of average height, with a hairline which had already receded to the top of his head. The hair on the sides and back was just long enough, and wavy enough, to make you think of some old poet with ruffles at his collar.
Mister Emerson Ebert was not a poet. He did not wear ruffles at his collar, or down his shirt front or at his cuffs for that matter. He wore a plain two-piece suit and tie—a standard uniform in those days.
Because he was about my parents’ age, I thought him old. Actually, he and they were only in their thirties.
He was a musician. I don’t mean he played in the New York Philharmonic, or in Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians. He did not, as far as I know, write symphonies or even commercial jingles. But he was a musician nonetheless.
Here are some of the music things he did.
He directed the intermediate and concert bands that combined the instrumentalists of half a dozen public grade schools, and two junior highs, in Streator, Illinois (pop. 17,500). Although the junior high band was called “The Concert Band,” both organizations were in fact marching units. So in addition to conducting us musically, he taught us how to march; and not only how to march, but how to play instruments while marching.
If you have not done that yourself, Dear Reader, I suggest you give it a try some time. It’s not as easy as it looks from the Goodyear Blimp.
To have instrumentalists filling the intermediate and concert bands, Mister Ebert first had to teach scores of young savages how to play instruments. One does not teach beginners to play instruments in general, but rather to play specific instruments—all the various woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments.
For example, Mister Ebert taught me, and several of my classmates, how to play the clarinet. But he taught Johnny Stevens and Jack Spencer and several others how to play the slide trombone. Still other classmates he taught to play the flute, the saxophone, the trumpet, the cornet, the tuba, and all the different kinds of drums. Yes, French horns, too. And oboes.
You may inquire, “How does one man teach all those different instruments?” That’s a very good question. I don’t know the answer, but Emerson Ebert did.
I’m not sure you must totally master a particular instrument to teach it to beginning students. At least you need to know which end of the horn to blow into.
Professor Harold Hill’s Think System won’t do the trick.
You must teach the fingerings that go with each particular instrument. You must know a good tone from a bad tone, and how to achieve the former and avoid the latter. In other words, you have to know what you’re doing.
Did I mention that half dozen or so grade schools contributed musicians to the intermediate and concert bands?
But there was only the one Mister Ebert.
Streator was a smallish town. The high school may have had more than one band teacher, but all the grade schools had to share Mister Ebert.
Each week he went to each grade school and gave small group lessons to beginning students. A group lesson for the clarinets; another for the saxophones; another for the flutes, and so forth. A guy could use up quite a bit of time that way. But how else are you going to raise up instrumentalists to play in the band?
Apart from the question of technical expertise, there is the question of endurance. An aspiring musician must play a few hundred thousand bad notes before he or she consistently makes good notes. Our parents had to hear those bad notes when we practiced at home, which most of us did not do as much as we were supposed to.
Mister Emerson Ebert heard the rest of those bad notes at school.
I can testify that when you first pick up the clarinet, you must learn to produce a sound through a wooden reed affixed to a mouthpiece. It is a little like blowing on a duck call, but not nearly so mellifluous.
Mister Ebert got to hear all that. And imagine! He even got paid for it. What a lucky guy.
For all that, he was a surprisingly even-tempered man. I do remember one afternoon, however, when we clarinets were tootling away under his instruction in the practice room at Garfield School.
A rumor had gone round that Mister Ebert’s wife was due to deliver a baby at any moment.
He sat in a chair near us, using a wooden drumstick as a baton to beat a little rhythm for whatever song it was we were practicing. It was a hot, sticky day in early fall or late spring—and in those days schools were not air-conditioned.
One of us—it could have been me, I really don’t remember—hit a really sour note.
Mister Ebert’s hand flashed like Bob Feller’s pitching arm as he flung the drumstick across the room, where it crashed against the chalk rail at the bottom of the blackboard
That focused our attention.
He got up, walked across the room, and picked up the drumstick from the floor. Astoundingly, neither it nor the chalk rail nor the blackboard had suffered any damage. He walked back to his chair, sat down, and lifted the drumstick again into conducting position. He cleared his throat.
“Continue,” he said, and waved the baton.
The baby was born later that day.
The Grand Parade
Eventually, we entered junior high and became members of the Concert Band. We were given dashing blue uniforms with gold braid at the shoulders and gold stripes down the pants. The first time we wore these was for the annual Pumpkin Festival Parade in Eureka, Illinois, the Pumpkin Capital of the Free World.
“Now,” Mister Ebert said, “there are several units of horses marching ahead of us. So watch where you step. If you have to break formation to march around something, keep on playing and just get right back in line.”
I regale you with all this, Dear Reader, not in order to toot my own horn.
This post is not about me, but about Emerson Ebert.
But I must confess that, when we moved away from Streator when I was in eighth grade, I ditched the clarinet. I never became Benny Goodman. I never became any kind of a musician.
Oh, I sing in our church choir these days. That much I do. And I listen to music now and then. I like most kinds of music. But I seldom go to concerts.
Well, I do attend several school concerts each year, because our grandchildren perform. Elsie sings in the school choir and plays trombone in the band. Tristan is taking up viola.
At Tristan’s strings concert the other day, I couldn’t help noticing a few harried-looking adults in the ranks of youthful musicians, helping them tune up, waving hands and batons to lead them through their numbers—all the while enduring every note which come forth: the just right, the almost, and the nowhere near. With smiles on their faces.
That’s what brought Emerson Ebert to mind.
You see, without ever becoming a musician, I did learn a bit of music. I learned to like different kinds of music. I learned how to keep a beat. When I joined the Air Force and went to basic training, I already knew how to march.
I knew that you should watch where you step—always an important thing.
I can say I have experienced the exaltation that comes when sitting in the middle of a large ensemble of horn blowers and drum bangers all playing the same Sousa march at more or less the same time.
Thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of young people have received that experience because Emerson Ebert, or his counterparts across the land, have given it to them.
Occasionally we hear news of some school system making a budgetary decision to eliminate music programs—in other words, to fire music teachers.
Wrong move. Cut out almost anything else if you must, but let the Emerson Eberts of the world do what they do. We can’t be human without music.
By a happy coincidence, March is Music in Our Schools Month.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought.)