A Big Sound from a Small Department
Music ensembles have been part of the fabric at Franklin & Marshall College almost since its founding, from mandolin groups serenading neighbors in the 1840s, to glee clubs and a pop orchestra in the 1920s, to the emergence of the marching band in the 1930s.
Two stalwart institutions in this rich musical history marked major milestones this year.
A celebration of two of the College’s ensembles took place April 12–15 when the symphonic wind ensemble, formed in 1937 as the F&M Band, marked its 75th anniversary, and the symphony orchestra observed its 25th year. Both groups drew alumni back to the College to play in a reunion concert featuring works by Schubert, Bizet and Holst and “Kilties March” by Samuel E. Morris, an F&M Band staple.
Among the performers were attorneys, doctors, clergymen and others from different walks of life, a living tableaux of the College's cross-disciplinary approach to learning. As students, they had widely varying academic interests and pursued disparate career paths, but the tie that bound them together at F&M was music, even before it became a major.
Kenneth M. Veit ’96, a geologist-turned-band instructor and former trumpet player in the symphonic wind ensemble, said being a musician at F&M was “a transformative process, a chance to be part of something bigger than yourself.”
Clarinet-playing alum John L. Neigh, M.D., ’55 said his band- playing days at F&M elicit some of his fondest memories. It was an extracurricular activity, but one that taught the values of discipline and teamwork. “You learned support through your (instrument) section,” he said.
For trumpeter Donald K. Roeder, M.D. ’57, the band was just as big a draw as the College’s academic reputation.
“My dad (Samuel T. Roeder ’24) had brought me to F&M in high school, and I realized they had a really good band,” he said. “I knew it would be a place I could continue playing and get a good education. Only after I was there (at F&M) did I realize I’d really hit a grand slam home run, going to a place with a good band and a very good pre-med program,” said Roeder, a now- retired surgeon.
Johnny on the Spot
Those were the “Johnny Peifer Years,” when alum John H. Peifer Jr. ’36 led the marching band as a volunteer director, arranging out-of-town gigs, rehearsing the then-all-male group to pitch-perfect performance level and keeping former band members connected to the College through regular newsletters and reunions. There is one word every alum interviewed for this story used to describe Peifer: “unique.”
“Underneath it all was this constant amazement that although John had no formal musical training, we could play all this repertoire,” said Charles K. Patterson ’54, a longtime Lancaster County administrator and former trumpet player in the F&M Band. When Peifer learned Patterson played French horn, he asked Patterson to join the band the summer before his freshman year, leading to an exciting road trip when the band traveled by train for a gig in Miami.
“We traveled overnight, sleeping in our seats. Some band members pulled out their instruments and played at three in the morning,” Patterson recalled. “When we got to Miami and were ensconced in a beautiful hotel, the first thing John did was a call a rehearsal—down by the pool. John was always trying to show off the band, and people gathered to listen.”
Who paid for the trip, the hotel, the band uniforms? That was one of the big mysteries of Peifer’s reign. The rumor is he paid out of his own pocket, only accepting a token salary later in life. Peifer took over the band the year he graduated, 1936, and directed it for 44 years, finally hanging up his baton in 1980. Peifer, who was an economics major at F&M and a successful insurance agent, died in 1991.
‘I Loved My Experience’
The legacy of cultivating talent, creating bonding experiences, and even just nurturing love for excellent music continued through the decades through today.
F&M Instrumental Conductor Brian Norcross, who formed and launched the orchestra in 1987, said a hallmark of the music program is making lasting memories for students who have been a part of it. “On a regular basis students pop me an email saying ‘I just heard a piece of music we played at F&M, and I loved my experience,’” Norcross said.
About 95 percent of today’s music performers at F&M are not music majors, a fact Norcross said he takes pride in.
Even though the music department is among the smallest at F&M, he said, “we’re among the biggest in terms of student participation. There’s an extraordinary reach to the program. Twenty percent of the campus is directly involved in making music.”
Reflecting on the Peifer era, Norcross expressed admiration for the camaraderie of that tightknit group.
“The band was amazing,” he said “They had an almost fraternity-like commitment to each other.”
Roeder agreed. “I think we all belonged to two fraternities,” he said of the years of the band that pre-dated coeducation in 1969. “Whatever fraternity you belonged to and the band. It’s difficult to know to which organization we had more loyalty. My band friends are still among my very best friends.”
Neigh, a retired anesthesiologist, characterized the band as the most important organization to which he belonged. “Besides my degree from F&M, the band is probably my fondest memory,” he said.
If the band’s close camaraderie stands out in many alumni’s memories from that era, more recent graduates have a different set of no-less-meaningful recollections.
“The students today talk about the experience of the pieces they performed, the extraordinary triumph of overcoming incredible artistic challenges,” Norcross said. “They’ll talk about when they did all nine Beethoven symphonies. Or Mahler’s Symphonies No. 1 and 5. Or world premieres.”
Norcross is excited about upcoming changes to the program, with an expansion of lesson offerings to include guitar and jazz piano.
“I thought we’d have a half dozen guitar students, but we had more than 40 express interest,” he said. He is also pleased that the department is entering a self-evaluation period to “rethink who we are and who we can be.” Whatever the outcome of that self-evaluation, the music department has already touched many lives and resulted in individual transformations.
Changed by Music
Veit said playing in the F&M symphonic winds ensemble, and being involved in the music program eventually led him to examine his own career aspirations. A geology major and music minor at F&M, Veit intended to pursue a career in his major. Along the way, he became involved in a graduate music program on an “avocational level.” This led to dropping the “a” from avocational and earning a music degree in addition to his graduate degree in geology and making music his career— first as a middle school band director and now as a visual performing arts school administrator in New Jersey.
Veit credits Norcross for lessons that remain with him, now as a teacher.
“My high school band director motivated you by scaring you,” Veit said. “Brian’s approach was always positive. He wanted you to have a great musical experience every day. He had a very healthy, student-centered approach,” one that Veit has tried to emulate as a band director.
Serena Weren ’04 had a similar experience under Norcross’ mentorship. “He became integral in my musical development,” said Weren, a geology and music double major at F&M. “His teaching and conducting were inspirational. He spent extra time instructing me and opening doors to new musical opportunities.”
Weren was turned on to music during her first-year seminar in music composition. Prior to that, her musical experience comprised one year of playing euphonium. Her involvement in the music program led her to change her postgraduate plans. At 18 she wanted to be a geophysics teacher. Now she is in a doctoral program in wind conducting at Arizona State University and hopes to become a band director.
She said she wouldn’t have found her calling if not for the opportunities available to non-musicians at F&M.
“F&M is about opportunities and collaborations that are not commonly given to undergraduate students at most institutions,” Weren said.
“If you look at F&M,” Veit said, “the people who study music there are not necessarily going into the music profession, but they're getting a great experience."
That “great experience” includes the hallmark of an F&M education—individualized attention from the College’s professors, instructors and leaders that often continues beyond graduation.
“I was at a band reunion once,” trumpeter Roeder said, “and I happened to casually mention to John (Peifer) that I was playing in a brass ensemble in Carlisle. The day of the program, I walked out, and there was John. He’d driven over to Carlisle to hear me play.”
At the April event, Roeder gave a talk on Peifer’s legacy. At the end, he pulled out his trumpet and played “Taps” for the late band leader, unsure if the sundown melody had ever been played for his good friend and former director.
Nearly 100 alumni came back to campus for the music reunions this spring, a testament to the strong role the ensembles played in their lives.
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