While 1892 marks the year of the founding of the Ithaca Conservatory of Music, it is the year 1922 when the first band appeared. The Patrick Conway Military Band School, affiliated itself with the Ithaca Conservatory and was one of the first institutions in the United States dedicated to the education of band musicians and band conductors. Pat Conway, established himself as one of the nation’s leading band conductors, having issued over 200 recordings and touring from coast to coast for over 30 years. His connection with the Ithaca Conservatory went back to 1896 when he joined the faculty as a teacher of brass instruments. The Conway Band School was remarkably successful, having among its alumni Col. George Howard, the first conductor of the United States Air Force Band, bandleader Les Brown (of the Band of Renowned fame), Allen Ostrander, longtime bass trombonist with the New York Philharmonic, Craig McHenry, longtime dean of the Ithaca College School of Music, a host of award winning public school band directors and a baritone player named Walter Beeler.
The Legacy of Ithaca College Bands
The IC Band Program Gains National Prominence
Soon after Conway’s death in 1929, the band school was absorbed into Ithaca College and had among its bandleaders, the great trumpet virtuoso Ernest S. Williams (1929-1931), and Music Educators National Conference Hall of Famer Jay Fay 1931-1932. But in 1933, the college hired Walter Beeler and it was Beeler who brought the Ithaca College band program to national prominence.
Walter Beeler became conductor of the Ithaca College Concert Band in 1932 and continued in this position through the 1960s. He briefly returned to conduct once again in the early 1970s. The reputation of the band as an outstanding performance ensemble led to a series of famous recordings on rehearsal techniques and added distinction to the college. Upon Beeler’s retirement, Edward Gobrecht became the Concert Band’s next conductor continuing the tradition of musical excellence. A wind band composition commission and competition prize named in honor of Walter Beeler was established and continues to this day as a major contributor to band music. Composers commissioned include such names as Paul Creston, Warren Benson, David Amram, Roger Nixon, Alfred Reed and Karel Husa. Composers such as Frank Ticheli, Adam Gorb, John Mackey, David Dzubay and Kathryn Salfelder have had their compositions honored and recorded.
A series of several conductors including the late Kenneth Snapp and Christopher Izzo contributed to the development of the emerging wind ensemble concept. It was Snapp who conducted the world premiere of IC composition professor Karel Husa’s Music for Prague 1968 which further cemented Ithaca College as a center for the study of serious wind music. Frank Battisti joined the faculty on a part time basis as Ithaca College’s first wind ensemble conductor (1981). Also, the repertoire band and the symphonic band were added to the curriculum to accommodate the large numbers of band students enrolling in Ithaca College. It was during the 1970s that Henry Neubert and Jack Bullock began their conducting responsibilities at IC.
Rodney Winther was the first tenured conductor of the Ithaca College Wind Ensemble and during his years the group released acclaimed recordings and also contributed to the repertoire several works including IC faculty member Dana Wilson’s Piece of Mind, which won the Sudler International Wind Band Composition Competition and the American Bandmasters Association/Ostwald Competition.
During the late 1980s and 1990s, the Wind Ensemble, the Concert Band and the Symphonic Band were solidified as the major ensembles for wind instrument students at Ithaca College. In 1992, as the college was celebrated its first century anniversary, a concert featured music from the Patrick Conway era to new commissions by Karel Husa and Warren Benson. There were numerous appearances by the bands at prestigious conventions regionally and nationally. In 1998, the School of Music added another band, a non-auditioned ensemble called the Campus Band, which traditionally accommodates more than 100 nonmusic majors. Now, with the four concert bands numbering over 300 musicians, the Ithaca College bands continue to earn accolades in artistry and musicianship nationally.
The proud heritage and enduring legacy of the bands at Ithaca College grows to this day. In the past ten years, the Wind Ensemble has performed at three national conventions; twice for the American Bandmaster Association, and once for the College Band Director's National Association. But perhaps most telling, is the incredible legion of alumni who claim the Ithaca College Bands as their performance ensemble. They continue to represent the tradition of excellent music making and music teaching throughout the United States and, indeed, internationally as well.