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Barbara Buehlman and The Midwest Clinic: A Complete Transformation

In the nearly 75-year history of The Midwest Clinic, the year 1980 stands out as a milestone- for that was the year that Barbara Buehlman was hired as Executive Administrator.   What happened during her 16-year tenure so completely transformed The Midwest Clinic, that you can separate the history into three distinct eras: Pre-Buehlman, Buehlman, and Post-Buehlman.  There was not a single aspect of the Clinic, from performers to exhibitors, vendors to hotels, concert tickets to the official conference program book, that didn’t experience profound change because of Barbara Buehlman.

Barbara Buehlman was no stranger to The Midwest Clinic when she was hired in 1980.  She had performed there as an undergraduate student at Northwestern University, and as a member of the Northshore Concert Band.  Most importantly, Buehlman’s Round Lake (IL) Grade School Band was invited to perform at Midwest twice, in 1965 and 1971.  When Buehlman was hired in 1980, the Executive Administrator position was part-time.  She did it while continuing to teach in Round Lake.  Because of her ideas, the need was soon realized for Buehlman’s position to become full-time.  Board member John Paynter, who was elected Midwest President in December of 1982, insisted he would not accept the position unless Buehlman was made full-time (See Mr. Paynter's original request here).  He wrote to his fellow Board member, “We agree that Barb is remarkable—even sometimes unbelievable — but certainly is not immortal!!!.“ Buehlman was already known for her administrative skills;  she was the Business Manager of the Northshore Concert Band, and since 1972, had served as Secretary-Treasurer of the Northern Division of the Illinois Grade School Music Association.  All of these experiences would become valuable in administering The Midwest Clinic.  

It did not take long for Midwest Clinic attendees to feel Buehlman’s impact.  Ray Cramer, former President of The Midwest Clinic, recalled, “What I noticed most after John [Paynter] and Barbara took over the Clinic was how the Clinic began to expand in the number of performing ensembles and clinics being offered. That transformation was pretty dramatic in the ‘80s.”  In 1980, the Midwest program book was 48 pages in length, printed in black and white, in a 6 x 10-inch format, without any advertising.  Two years later, with Buehlman in charge, the program book expanded to 8 ½ x 11 in size, had a full color cover, and included advertising.  By 1997, the program book had grown to 232 pages. Today’s Midwest conference program book annually exceeds 300 pages! The number of exhibitors also grew.  She negotiated with the Chicago Hilton (home of  The Midwest Clinic from 1973-2008) for more exhibit space, and worked aggressively to fill it.  In 1987, there were 984 exhibitors at the Midwest.  In 1996, Buehlman’s final Midwest, that total had nearly doubled, to 1,866.  However, no change was more radical, though, then charging to attend The Midwest Clinic.  Prior to 1981, there had never been a registration fee.  Early on, Buehlman realized that exhibitor fees were not enough revenue for all she wished to do at Midwest.  The addition of a registration charge did not impede the Clinic’s growth.  7,157 people attended Midwest in 1987.  By 1996, that number had increased to 12,684. 2018 attendance broke all previous records, reaching an unprecedented 18,123 attendees.

Because Midwest now charged registration, Buehlman felt an obligation to ensure the experience was worth it.  Her ideas were not solely restricted to the business side of the Clinic.  In 1983, she proposed to the Midwest Board to have chamber ensembles as clinicians.  The following Midwest had three chamber music clinics.  As concerts became more crowded, she strictly enforced the rule that students, children and guests would not gain admittance until five minutes before the performance.  This was to give priority seating to Clinic attendees.  When crowds continued to be a problem, she arranged for a closed-circuit television broadcast of the Wednesday evening military band concert.  This became a feature of the Midwest in 1997. She also proposed a concert ticket series, to keep crowds manageable. Today’s Midwest hosts two Wednesday evening military band concerts; undoubtedly because of Buehlman’s earlier attempts to make sure everyone was able to experience our nation’s premiere military bands perform at Midwest.

The amount of additions to Midwest during Buehlman’s tenure is staggering.  She worked with the University of Miami to offer college credit for Midwest attendance.  1988 saw the first-ever College Night, which has since become a Midwest staple featuring over 100 colleges, universities, and military music organizations.  The 1989 Clinic featured a Teacher Resource Center, which included demonstrations of music-related computer programs, a videotape library, information on job vacancies, and public relations materials about the importance of music education.  She also started a newsletter, Mid-West Motifs, to help publicize the conference.  

It was under Buehlman’s watch that The Midwest Clinic truly became an international conference.  In 1982, she provided assistance for a group of Australian band directors to attend.  Russell Hammond, one of the leading figures in the Australian wind band movement, was part of that group.  He later wrote to Buehlman, “One can never be the same after attending the Midwest – and the change is always for the better.” Buehlman provided similar assistance to band directors form West Germany, Japan, Jordan, Norway and the Soviet Union.  International attendance to the Clinic had increased to the point that the word “International” was added to the Midwest’s name in 1986.

Because Buehlman had brought her Round Lake bands to Midwest, she had an appreciation for how special it was.  She was thorough in her communications with the directors of all the performing groups, making sure everyone was aware of the policies, deadlines, schedules and more.  Buehlman expected every group that performed at Midwest to follow the same policies.  This meant a military band or adult community ensemble was held to the same rules as a junior high or high school group; no exceptions were to be made.  Numerous directors wrote to Buehlman, sharing their gratitude for her guidance through the process.  Donald Schleicher, then director of the Williamsville South High School Concert Band from New York, wrote following a 1983 performance, “If everyone in this world was as conscientious as you are, we would have a problem-free world!” 

In order to ensure the Midwest ran smoothly, Buehlman oversaw a staff that included stage managers, registration staff, and ushers.  The identifiable blue vests worn to this day by the VanderCook College of Music student workers were Buehlman’s idea. Buehlman was a constant presence during the Clinic.  She was on the convention floor by 7 a.m. and did her final inspections at 10:30 pm.  After hotel construction disrupted a clinic at the 1989 Midwest, she expressed frustration she hadn’t been notified.  Just as she was a strict enforcer with performers and vendors, Buehlman held the same expectations for her staff.  On the Sunday evening before the Clinic was to begin, each staff member was presented with a binder filled with schedules, seating charts, flow diagrams and other pieces of information relevant to the Clinic’s success.  Any staff member who did not follow the expectations was certain to hear from Buehlman.

Though Buehlman’s work was behind the scenes, her efforts did not go unrecognized.  In 1995, she was awarded The Midwest Clinic Medal of Honor award.  The following year, Buehlman received the Meeting Professional of the Year award from the Association for Convention Operations Management.  Chicago Hilton staff had nominated her.  Members of Buehlman’s family have commented that the Meeting Professional award was the most meaningful of any honor Buehlman received in her career.  It validated her switch from band director to administrator. 

Kelly Jocius, who followed Buehlman as Executive Administrator, has observed that while Buehlman made radical changes in the business model of The Midwest Clinic, she did so while being cognizant of Midwest’s mission.  Jocius wrote:

While the conference grew in size and renown, she never lost sight of its mission (which is) to serve instrumental music teachers of all levels, circumstances and backgrounds … Always implicit in her decisions was the question, “Are we doing this because it advances the mission, or is something else driving or distracting us?” In my opinion, no quality has meant as much to the success of the Mid-West Clinic as that sincere focus on serving music teachers, and no lesson more valuable to me.

In a career that lasted from 1960 – 1997, Barbara Buehlman achieved national renown in various aspects of instrumental music education.  Her Round Lake Grade School Bands achieved the highest levels of success possible.  She wrote numerous band arrangements, several of which that are still in print.  Her setting of Blessed Are They from Johannes Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem appears on many state lists of recommended literature.  Buehlman was recognized throughout her career; in addition to the aforementioned Midwest Clinic Medal of Honor and the Meeting Professional of the Year, she was elected to the prestigious American Bandmasters Association (only the second female to achieve this), received an honorary Doctorate from the Vandercook College of Music, and had the Barbara Buehlman Young Conductors Award from the Illinois Grade School Music Association named after her.  

Even after all that she achieved, Barbara Buehlman's work as Executive Administrator of The Midwest Clinic was where she made her most profound impact on music teaching and learning.  Her final Clinic (1996) would have been nearly unrecognizable from her first as Administrator (1980).  Buehlman’s 16 years as Midwest Clinic Executive Administrator completely altered the scope, breadth, scale, and business model of the event.  It is no exaggeration to say that without Barbara Buehlman today's Midwest Clinic would be a very different experience for everyone that attends.

*Thank you to Timothy Todd Anderson (Director, University of Massachusetts Minuteman Marching Band) for assisting Midwest with this most important and special page about Barbara Buehlman. The dissertation from which this information originates is:
Anderson,T. T.(2009). Barbara Buehlman: a study of her career in music education and as a pioneer of the female band director movement (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign).