A Tribute to Richard E. Brittain (1917-2010)
“I have fond memories of the friendships of all involved with The Midwest Clinic and the faculty and students of VanderCook.” – Richard E. Brittain, 2006
Renowned music educator Richard E. Brittain served on The Midwest Clinic’s Board of Directors from 1974-2006 and received The Midwest Clinic’s Medal of Honor in 1996. A man of deep loyalties, Brittain was also involved with VanderCook College of Music for much of his life. He received his BM ED, MM ED, and Honorary Doctorate from VanderCook, and devoted himself to the college in many capacities, including serving as its President from 1975-1982, and as Band Conductor for thirty years. He conducted the band at The Midwest Clinic for twenty-seven years, presenting over fifty new works. Brittain and his wife, Sofia, were involved in their Westchester, Illinois community for half a century. Their children, Bonnie and Robert, were airline employees who helped Richard and Sofia visit over thirty countries and learn about the cultures of many nations.
Here, we remember Richard E. Brittain with an interview he gave upon his retirement from The Midwest Clinic Board of Directors.
How did you choose music education as a career?
I was the student director of the Frankfort, Indiana High School Band conducted by Aubrey Thomas, a VanderCook School of Music graduate. (In 1950, School of Music was changed to College of Music to better depict the scope and level of its degree program.) Mr. Thomas observed my efforts and suggested I choose music education as a career and attend VanderCook. I enrolled there in 1935. During my high school years, I organized a dance band under the name of Eddie Britt, and several of its members enrolled at the school along with me.
Who were your musical mentors and what were the greatest lessons they taught you?
H. E. Nutt, the third President of VanderCook College, was my leading mentor. His forte was teaching basics to young students with original materials he developed such as his Scale and Rhythm Card and Prelim Rim. I studied with other learned professors such as: Hale A. VanderCook, Guy Earl Holmes, Clifford Lillya, Leeson, John H. Beckerman, Lillian Poenisch, Joseph Olivadoti, Harris V. Bergh, Merle Isaac, Clarence F. Gates, and Ralph C. Lewis. Theirs was a process of teaching how to learn to be humble, to analyze music theories, develop good work habits, and organize what needs to be accomplished so as to move on to greater heights.
If you could give a young band or orchestra director some advice about developing his or her musicianship and becoming a better teacher, what would it be?
The young director must face and make a difficult decision: do I intend to be a professional performer or a music conductor with teaching and musical skills. A performance choice should probably study with performance professionals and learn the literature needed for performing. The music education conductor choice should seek an education from a college noted for featuring knowledge of all instruments and teaching techniques. Either decision should place great emphasis on a high degree of skill on one’s major instrument. A music education major can still find time for performing.
How did the 1946 new band music reading session that was the origin of The Midwest Clinic come about and what was your role in this event?
At the end of my military service late in 1946, I returned to VanderCook to continue a teaching career and help plan a music reading session to bring directors materials missed during the four years of war. Arrangements were made to have the event on Saturday, December 7, 1946, in the gym of a local YWCA. H. E. Nutt, Neil Kjos Sr., Howard Lyons, Harold Bachman and I were some members of a core of musical experts who invited local directors to "sit in" with the VanderCook Band in performing the new issues. About 120 were in attendance and at the end of the day Howard Lyons declared, "This is a great service for teachers and should be taken downtown." At that time, it was agreed that Lyons Band Instrument Co. would finance the clinic and VanderCook would perform and schedule other musical events.
How did this reading session become an annual event and what were the most important changes in the first few years?
Flushed with the success of the 1946 reading session, the planners decided to have a December 1947 repeat effort at the Hotel Sherman. This was to be for two days under a new name: Mid-West Band Clinic. By invitation, the Joliet High School Band was the first group to present a formal concert on Friday evening. VanderCook performed the next morning and spent the afternoon with "sit ins" reading new music. Eighty new pieces were played in the two days. Each band was to perform fifty percent new music and include two easy selections on their programs; this request set a precedent for future programs. The future also brought about the election of officers, incorporating with the State of Illinois, a Constitution with By-Laws, and a geographic expansion of performing musicians. The mission of the clinic is to perform new compositions and present expert clinicians to demonstrate fundamental teaching and performance techniques to assist music educators with their careers.
What are your recollections of this reading session and other organizers?
The first Clinic had a friendly, informal atmosphere, with guest conductors for the "reading session" volunteering from the audience. Scores were placed on a table and directors could pick a new publication to conduct. Some composers and arrangers were present and offered insight into the interpretation of their works. It was a beautiful sight to observe old friends greeting each other and others making new friends. There were no printed programs or recordings of the 1946 forerunner of The Midwest Clinic. I conducted the first number, which was a march written by Henry Fillmore titled Mt. Horeb, after a resort community in Wisconsin. Music was furnished by Kjos Music, Educational Music Bureau, Carl Fischer, Rubank, and Gamble Hinged Music. These publishers all felt that all levels of music needed to be published and presented. This still is one of the foundations of The Midwest Clinic.
Can you tell us about the role that VanderCook College of Music has played in The Midwest Clinic?
VanderCook School of Music was a founder of The Midwest Clinic and its band will have performed a concert at each of the 60 years through 2006. As a “Van-Grad” with organizational experience, Lee Petersen was invited to help plan the 1946 reading session and his skills led to his becoming the first Executive Secretary of the clinic. His responsibilities included organizing the complete clinic programs and program books, arranging for clinics and clinicians, working with directors of performing groups, providing facilities for exhibitors, and registering clinic attendees. The faculty and administration worked with Lee until 1969 when he retired and moved to California. VanderCook has been active in all aspects of the clinic since its inception. In 1948 there was a need for a better way to display the scores of the music to be played. As a solution, H.E. Nutt and I secured lumber for counter space to show the music and supported the lumber with various lengths of one-inch pipe threaded on both ends. Threaded flanges were attached on each end of the pipes to make display areas of different heights.
What have been the most significant changes to The Midwest Clinic in the last sixty years?
It is evident that there has been a huge increase in female teachers and conductors of instrumental music in the past 60 years. The philosophy and practice of practical ideas expanded to include the artistry of performance and presentation of more difficult publications. The quality of instruments and music accessories such as stands, chairs, risers, and uniforms were improved over the span of time. The introduction of exhibits completed the circle of music education for those in attendance.
As you look back through your history with The Midwest Clinic, what events stand out as your favorite memories?
Fate dealt me a wonderful hand in that my career has been full of outstanding events: receiving The Midwest Clinic Medal of Honor 1996 and Honorary Doctorate of Music Education from VanderCook 1988, and the joy of presenting such great soloists as Doc Severinsen, Louis Bellson, Vincent Abato, and Sigard Rascher. I have fond memories of the friendships of all involved with The Midwest Clinic and the faculty and students of VanderCook.