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Michigan Musical Legends – Dr. Harry Begian

by Dr. Jon P. Nichols

The career of Harry Begian began and developed right here in the state of Michigan. He is a noteworthy example of the way talent and dedication can inspire one’s personal musical growth and accomplishment. His success in educating students through the quality performance “of music that contains no gimmicks” can encourage all of us to carefully seek examine and evaluate quality literature through which we can educate our music students.

Early Years and Musical Development

Harry Begian was born on April 24, 1921 in Pontiac, Michigan. He and his two brothers were first generation Americans born to Armenian immigrants. During Begian’s preschool years, his father moved the family from Pontiac to Dearborn, where the Begian children attended elementary, junior, and senior high in the Dearborn Public Schools. It was here, in grade school, that Harry Begian became interested in band music. He heard a band in his school and became enthralled with the sound. He was provided a used cornet by his school band director and began instrumental study, as did most of us, in his school band. During the 1930’s, America was in the grip of the Great Depression. There was no money in the family for private lessons so the bulk of Begian’s musical growth was due to his own musical interest the talent that existed within him, and regular practice and effort. “I knew early on,” he said, “what I wanted to do and what I wanted to achieve.” His love of music, particularly the literature traditionally performed by symphony orchestras, was evident and he made it a priority to hear live performances whenever possible. While in junior high, he would “sneak into the Masonic Temple to hear the great conductors – suck as Reiner and Koussivitksy, – rehearse the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.” He loved the sound of an orchestra and the conductors he observed were his early heroes. Their rehearsal techniques formed the basis for his own rehearsal procedure – “communicate nonverbally as much as possible.”

Begian continued to seek out live music performances throughout his school years. He heard the great baritone artist Leonard Falcone from Michigan State College for the first time at a concert at Highland Park High School. Shortly thereafter, he heard the University of Michigan Band under William D. Revelli. Many subsequent years of personal and professional contact with these two “Italian musicians” showed him “what musical quality was possible with bands and solo wind instruments and what methods were effective in achieving that kind of quality.”

During his senior year in high school, Begian began studying with Leonard Smith the renowned principal trumpet with the DSO and later conductor of the Detroit Concert Band. A thirty-minute lesson with Smith cost $10.00 in 1938. This was precisely the amount Harry made as an usher at the Rio Theatre in downtown Detroit on a Saturday. He continued lessons with Leonard Smith after enrolling at Wayne University. From Smith, Begian learned the importance of rhythmic accuracy and consistency. His studies at Wayne concluded, he earned a Bachelors degree in music education in 1943 and an appointment to the music faculty of McKenzie High School in Detroit. Shortly after his appointment to the McKenzie faculty, he was drafted into the United States Army.

By the time he finished his military service, Begian was married and returned to Wayne as a graduate assistant to band director Graham Overgaard. During his assistantship he complete his Masters degree. After the summer spent studying at Tanglewood (the summer home of the Boston Symphony), the Detroit Public Schools called him to become Director of Bands at Cass Technical High School – a trend setting high school somewhat similar to what we term “magnate” schools in present day education. The year was 1947 and a new era for Harry Begian, the students at Cass Tech, and for standards of high school band performance, was just beginning.

The Cass Tech Years

Cass Technical High School was a three-year high school consisting of 4500 students. It was, at the time of Harry Begian’s tenure, the only school of its type in Michigan and the first Detroit high school to establish a special program for gifted young people. Students not only satisfied basic college preparatory requirements but also studied a rigorous curriculum in one of 23 areas of study in the arts, sciences or mathematics. There were nine classes per day at Cass, each lasting forty minutes. Students at the school had to live in the Detroit school district in order to apply and were accepted based on their academic standing and an entrance exam. Students in the arts and sciences were accepted by invitation only.

Under Begian’s leadership, Cass Tech Band members performed the most prestigious and ambitious wind literature available including music played only by a few “daring university bands.” Word spread about this unique high school band and its conductor – not by festival ratings, since the Cass Band did not attend annual band festivals. Rather, the band’s reputation grew because of the quality of its performance, the sophistication of the literature studied, and by concerts presented at the Midwest Clinic in 1954 and 1961. Begian had established himself as an outstanding conductor and was invited to become a charter member of a new organization for nationally recognized school band directors – the American School Band Directors Association.

Recently, some 25 recordings of the Cass Band were placed in the National Archives of the Library of Congress as part of the “Harry Begian Collection.” John Whitwell of Michigan State University indicated that these recordings were an inspiration, made by “the finest high school band ever developed in the nation.” This opinion is shared by former student Myron Welch, former director of the Okemos High School Band and Orchestra, and currently Director of Bands at the University of Iowa. Welch loaned his Cass recording to the author in the summer of 1967, saying simply that there was “a lot of good stuff” contained in the recordings.

Doctoral Study and University Level Teaching

The high quality of the Cass Tech Band and its conductor continued to be a matter of recorded. However, Begian felt a need to continue his own musical development during the Cass years by studding flute with the great woodwind pedagogue Larry Teal. After some twenty years as a music student and conductor, Begian had finally found a teach who, in his words, “became my friend and musical father.” Teal befriended Begian as no previous teach had done – serving as an advisor on career challenges, musical interpretation, and advanced doctoral study.

Teal moved on to become Professor of Music at the University of Michigan and encourage his friend to begin advanced graduate study. Teal explained that the enviable tradition of musical quality in the Cass Technical High School Bands demonstrated Begian’s prowess at motivating and conducting high school students. He was convinced this same prowess could also be shown on the collegiate level and knew that the doctorate was the “passport and union card” for university level teaching position. Begian was encourage to start doctoral study from others as well, notably William D. Revelli. During the late 1950’s, Revelli was interested in establishing a doctoral internship in band conducting at the University of Michigan – a program that in concept was similar to the one Harry Begian himself created at the University of Illinois in the early 1970’s. Revelli wanted Begian to be the first person to receive a degree under this new curriculum. Unfortunately, Revelli could not persuade the academic community at Michigan to approve such a doctoral program.

Even though he was not able to earn a degree in conducting at Michigan, Begian decided to enroll in a doctoral program in music education. Completion of his doctorate illustrated further the diligence and work ethic that have been hallmarks of Begian’s educational and professional careers.

His first university level position was that of Director of Bands at Wayne State University – his own alma mater and a music department and prepared students for careers as school music teachers and conductors. While at Wayne, Begian also served as a festival adjudicator, clinician, and as conductor at various summer music camps – notably the popular Youth Music Program at Michigan State University. In 1966, the Director of Bands position at Michigan State University became available upon the announcement of conductor Leonard Falcone’s retirement. Begian loved the MSU campus and admired Leonard Falcone both as a person and as a Michigan musical legend. He was invited to join the MSU faculty in late 1966 and assumed duties as Director of Bands in July of 1967, carrying on the long and distinguished tradition established by his predecessor.

Begian’s style of program planning was similar to that of MSU’s recently retired Falcone. Like Falcone, Begian effectively combined new music with the body of literature already in existence – original band selections, noteworthy transcriptions, and world class marches. The Begian years at Michigan State were highlighted by the creation of the Symphonic Wind Ensemble and one additional concert band to augment the existing offerings of Marching, Concert, and Activity Bands. The Michigan State University Symphonic Band under Begian’s direction continued to be a powerful musical inspiration for the teaching careers of many current music educators in Michigan – the author included.

When Mark Hindsley of the University of Illinois announced his retirement in 1969, a search was instituted for his successor. Harry Begian surfaced as a leading candidate for the position and after hearing Begian’s MSU Symphonic Band in March of 1970 the search committee offered the faculty for three years and enjoyed his work in East Lansing the opportunities offered by the Illinois position were more than he could pass up. After all, the University of Illinois Bands enjoyed a tradition of excellence that began in the early 1900’s. Under the visionary leadership of Dr. Albert Austin Harding, the Illinois Band program was the prototype of developing university bands across the county. Over the years Harding’s assistant directors moved on to enviable positions in the profession. Numbered among this elite group of conductors were Glenn CliffeBainum at Northwestern University, Raymond F. Dvorak at the University of Wisconsin, and Mark H. Hindsley who succeeded Harding at Illinois. The University of Illinois provided considerable support for the performing arts as evidenced by construction of the spacious Krannert Center – a major complex that houses one of the finest existing performance halls in the nation.

Begian discussed the Illinois offer with Leonard Falcone. “He told me that if he were years younger and offered such a position, he would take it.” Begian accepted and for the first time in his life, was moving out of Michigan and to a prestigious conducting position in Illinois.

Begian remained at The University of Illinois for the remainder of his professional teaching career, retiring in 1984. While at Illinois he maintained the strong musical tradition of the Symphonic Band and its recording series. Begian’s Illinois recordings, some 60 in number, are considered the finest of their kind and include the very best in traditional and contemporary band literature. He recently produced 15 CD’s from the finest of his original 60 records for Mark Custom Recordings. As at Michigan State, Begian increased the number of Illinois band organizations by adding a second symphonic band. Students from across the nation came to Illinois to study under his leadership, enrolling in the newly created doctoral internship in band conducting. Begian was also able to bring former student and well-known American composer James Curnow to Illinois as his assistant director.

After one year of retirement Dr. Begian returned to the podium as conductor of Purdue University’s Symphonic Band from 1985-1987. He has continued his service to the profession as a member of the Board of Directors of the Midwest International Band and Orchestra Clinic, as a published author for professional journals, and as a guest conductor for bands at all levels and in all parts of the world. He recently completed eleven years as a faculty member of Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Twin Lake, Michigan.

Conducting and Music Making – His Life’s Work

Harry Begian’s professional career was evenly divided between secondary and university levels. In that time he inspired student musicians to seek the best in themselves and their music. He learned from the great musical masters of the twentieth century and grew killed at his craft. His professional stature is exemplified by convention appearances logged by ensembles under his direction, by his election to leadership positions such as the presidency of the American Bandmasters Association, and by numerous awards presented to him by organizations such as the National Band Association, ASBDA, and the Academy of Wind and Percussion Arts. In 1994 he was enshrined in the Band Conductors Hall of Fame in Troy, Alabama. Such achievement is significant in our profession, and illustrates a legacy of hard work and the constant pursuit of the finest performance possible. When asked to comment on his proudest achievements, Begian cited the request to contribute his Cass Tech recordings into the National Archives of the Library of Congress and the invitation to conduct a concert with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. “I had three days of the most wonderful rehearsals; as fine as the rehearsals I used to have with my Illinois Band and the concert was the biggest thrill — a standing ovation and several curtain calls from a symphony orchestra audience.”

Band conductors and teaches at all levels have learned much from the example set by Harry Begian. Former student John Heath of Batavia, Illinois remembers Begian’s rehearsal preparation and his intensity on quality music making. “Dr. Begian gave 100% concentration and focus to his music making. Few of us can claim that much intensity to the pursuit of quality.” John Whitwell calls Begian the “consummate professional conductor/musician and friend.” He further said that . “I never had the opportunity to study under Harry Begian. However I and every wind band conductor cannot help but be profoundly influenced by him and his career.” He was called the “band director’s conscience” by the late John Paynter. “Harry practices his craft the way we all know we should.” And indeed Dr. Begian continues to practice his craft the way I and all who have come under his influence know it should be done. He achieved success and notoriety in this, the greatest of all professions, the old fashioned way – HE EARNED IT!!

Dr. Jon Nichols has been Director of Bands at Wyoming Rogers High School in Grand Rapids since 1987. His 29 year teaching career has included instrumental music teaching at the elementary secondary, and collegiate levels. Nichols earned degrees from Michigan State University and The University of Iowa. Prior to his present appointment he taught in Muskegon, Alpena, Vicksburg, and Bemidji State University in Minnesota.