1940-1976 Seeman

Ernest Seeman    1940 – 1976

Ernest Seeman was born December 23, 1913 in Union Hill, New Jersey, son of Ernest Seeman of Schlingen, Germany and Rosina Schlozer of Riehen, Switzerland.  His father died of influenza when he was 6, and his family moved to Freeport to be near Swiss neighbors.  His musical training began with fiddlette lessons from Edmond Bergh at Union School.  Then his mother bought him a half-size violin, and he took lessons for two years from Orville Westgor for 25 cents per session.  Seeman’s mother took on washing and ironing to pay for lessons with Professor Ludwig Schmidt of Rockford.  Schmidt came to Freeport once every two weeks and also gave lessons to Alvin Niblo and Gaylord Browne.  He had a hefty fee of $3 per lesson, so when Seeman learned of his mother’s sacrifice, he really began to practice diligently.  Seeman rapidly progressed to first chair of the newly formed junior high orchestra directed by Karl Kubitz, who had just been hired to direct the high school band and orchestra and form instrument classes in the five grade schools.  Kubitz needed a French horn in the high school band and asked Seeman to learn.  Shortly thereafter, he began walking to the high school every Monday and Wednesday for band rehearsals.  Seeman’s ability earned him the position of concertmaster of the orchestra and principal French horn in band all three years of high school (1930-1932).  Kubitz also introduced him to viola, for which he earned many honors.  Seeman received a scholarship to the NHSOC both his junior and senior year, earned first chair in the 3rd and 4th annual All-State Orchestra in 1930 and 1931, and earned a seat with the NHSO in 1930.  Seeman graduated during the Depression, and Principal Fulwider withheld his diploma, allowing him to continue with his music and stay an extra year.  Seeman considered Kubitz his mentor, and during this time, Seeman was acting director whenever Kubitz was absent. 
            A local shoe store owner offered Seeman a scholarship to attend college at Illinois Wesleyan University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in music education in 1937.  Upon graduating, Seeman taught band in Peotone, IL for three years, but then returned to Freeport upon Kubitz’s request.  Kubitz was overburdened by the many students at the 8 grade schools, junior high and high school.  The board of education offered Seeman the job as assistant in the Instrumental Music Department in 1940 (E. Seeman, personal communication, 1971).  Kubitz remained the director of the high school band and orchestra while Seeman taught grade school lessons, junior high orchestra, and twice weekly string sectionals with the high school orchestra.  In 1950, Kubitz turned the high school orchestra over to Seeman, who directed the ensemble for 18 years.  Myron McLain, a former student, succeeded him as high school director in 1968, but Seeman remained in charge of the junior high orchestra until his retirement in 1976.  Seeman also held the position of chairman of the Freeport School District Instrumental Music Department throughout the last 11 years of his tenure.  His legendary orange sport coat, representing the Freeport Pretzels, still hangs in the orchestra office to this day. 
            Seeman joined the Rockford Symphony Orchestra in 1941 as principal violist and 1944 as concertmaster, a position he held for 25 years.  Other professional appearances include a 14 year term as concertmaster of the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra and then principal violist and frequent performances with the University of Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra at Platteville and the Beloit Symphony.  Seeman directed the Rockford Area Youth Symphony Orchestra for three years and the Second Presbyterian Church choir for 25 years.  Interlochen became his summer home from 1948-1950 when he was hired as the teacher of junior high orchestras.  He became good friends with Dr. Maddy, not only teaching beside him, but also playing in a quartet together and spending summers trout fishing.  Seeman studied in Japan one summer with Dr. Suzuki and used this method in his private teaching.  Although he was diagnosed with cancer in 1990, he continued to maintain a full studio of private students up until months before his death on January 19, 1999.  His wife, Phyllis, established a memorial fund to promote the string program in Freeport public schools (P. Seeman, personal communication, December 30, 2009).

Freeport School Music:

            Three of the most beloved Freeport High School Orchestra traditions can be traced to Ernest Seeman as their founder:  the Holiday Pageant, the harp program, and Tri-II music festival.  Many students, past and present, recall that these two music concerts made for some of their most memorable experiences.  

Christmas Pageant:

The Christmas concert began as an annual vesper service including vocal ensembles and orchestra.  In 1934, 160 high school students were involved in this presentation / service held in a local cathedral.  The orchestra performed a medley of Christmas tunes and the finale, the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah (Polaris, 1935, p. 67).  The following year, the orchestra added “Pastoral Symphony” and “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” by Handel (Polaris, 1936, p. 93).  The program moved to the school auditorium and officially became the Christmas Pageant in 1959.   It included choral, orchestra, drama, art, science, home economic, and industrial arts departments.  Scriptural verse from Isaiah 9:6, Luke 1:20-39, Luke 2:1-8, Matthew 2:1-13, and Luke 2:8-21 were read and rendered.  It is described as the Christmas story told in verse, music, and tableaux.  It begins with a harp prelude and orchestra overture.  Then the choirs and orchestra alternate performances after readings and during tableaux presentations of:   I. The Angel Gabriel, II. The Annunciation, III. The Nativity, IV. The Shepherds, V. The Shepherds and the Angles, VI. The Shepherds at Bethlehem, VII. Three Kings Before Herod, VIII. The Star, IX. The Kings at Bethlehem, and X. The Adoration.  The program always concludes with the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah and an orchestra postlude.  It is a very large production.  Students practiced Wednesday after school and Thursday (and Friday if necessary) afternoons during school, with an all-school assembly on Friday morning as a dress run for Sunday’s two shows. 
            Despite its religious nature, it has always received support from the district and has been defended in times of protest.  A 1963 letter from Superintendent David Ponitz reads, “Ernie, Freeporters are used to the highest quality of performance from you and your organization; they were not disappointed yesterday.  Thank you for initiating the Christmas season in such a magnificent fashion.”  In 1964, Ponitz wrote, “The congregation felt real empathy with the world’s most meaningful and important story.  Certainly Sunday was a most joyous occasion for all the citizens of Freeport who saw over 200 students participate in the retelling of the Christmas Story.”  Lyle Reedy, Carl Sandburg principal, wrote, “We are fortunate in having a program that places the emphasis on the true meaning of Christmas.”  The most thorough depiction of the Christmas Pageant lies in a beautifully written article by Stan Buckles:

Mary Magdalene sits honoring the infant Jesus.  Round about her are the women of Bethlehem in rich dress, their robes celebrational, their attention rapt.  Beneath the elevated portrait and off to one side, three harpists grace the scene with heavenly glissandos…and suddenly, an orchestra breaks into a fugue.  From the rear of the hall, a choir floods the air with music.  Then a verse choir intones the wonderment of the birth itself.  And, from some distant hall is heard a brass ensemble, rich and pure of tone, heralding Christ the King….  The tumultuous scene is worthy of New York City’s Metropolitan Opera doing the triumphal scene from Verdi’s Aida.  But this is not the Met.  Nor is it Orchestra Hall in Chicago during concert season.  Freeport High School did all this…with the diverse talents of sophomores, juniors, and seniors – 295 in all, one-fifth the total high school enrollment. (December 22, 1973)

Two performances are given each year to standing-room only crowds.  Originally, tickets were free but necessary for admission.  If any seats remained five minutes before the shows, non-ticket holders were allowed to enter.  The program changed in name only to the Holiday Pageant in 1996.  It is now in its 50th year.

            Harp Program:  

Ernie Seeman was instrumental in creating the harp program in Freeport Public Schools.  He was introduced to the instrument while a student at the National High School Orchestra Camp.  He requisitioned the school to buy concert harps year after year while he had a very supportive superintendent (P. Seeman, personal communication, December 30, 2009).  In 1945, Merrilyn Hecht was listed in the orchestra personnel under cello and harp.  The next time a harpist is recorded is in 1950 when one is shown with the junior high orchestra.  Then by 1953, the high school orchestra photograph shows one.  Myron McLain recounted that when he was a student (1944-1952), they did not own any harps, but by the time he arrived as a teacher, they owned two concert pedal harps.  Seeman would announce that they were offering lessons to any pianist who wanted to audition and had a method for transporting a harp.  Once Carl Sandburg Junior High formed in 1969, they bought a troubadour harp so they could start students even earlier.  Ted Carpenter, the business manager for the school district, was a good friend to Seeman and assisted in the requisition of the many instruments.  Initially, Seeman taught the lessons himself.  Later, the harp professor from UW-Madison came once per month and gave private lessons to several students who paid for her to come (personal communication, January 10, 2010).  Faye Seeman, now a professional harpist, took harp lessons from her father in grade school and high school.  She stated that, although he was not a harpist, he was able to provide the basics for students. 

            The most important thing he taught me from the beginning was how to tune the harp, and that playing scales and theory were important.  I should not
            neglect to mention that, thanks to my dad, the school owned three pedal harps, which is almost unheard of then and now. (personal communication,
            February 1, 2010)         

            Tri-II Festival:

            The Tri-II Festival is another annual Freeport High School music event with a long history.  The Mississippi Valley Music Festival included students from 9 schools.  Students from Freeport worked in cooperation with students from Galesburg, Moline, Rochelle, Monmouth, and Kewanee.  In 1950, although the junior high students continued to participate in this festival for at least another 8 years, the high school portion of the festival disbanded.  Due to drastic increases in student population, the festival became too large to manage.  Clinton and Dubuque schools formed a new event, called II (Double I for two Iowa schools).  The inclusion of Freeport, Illinois in 1950 brought the name change to Tri-II.  Tri-Double-I stands for three schools and their two states.  Karl Kubitz, Ernest Seeman, and vocal music supervisor Dorothy Nelson were instrumental in organizing and promoting this event.  Stephen Hempstead High School in Dubuque joined in 1969 (50th Anniversary program).  The festival is a two-day event in which each school’s orchestra, band, and choral group presents an audition before three guest directors, each an authority in his field, and their peers from the other schools.  After a massive ensemble has been formed, students are put through two days of strenuous practice by the guest directors, and an evening concert is given by the massed groups.  Each high school takes its turn at hosting, students being transported by bus and entertained overnight in local homes with a dance mixer on the first evening.  Myron McLain was a student during the first Tri-II in 1950.  He recalled that it was held in Dubuque and Clinton the first two years because the junior high was under construction, and Freeport’s auditorium would not be complete until May 1952 (personal communication, January 10, 2010).  Housing in Freeport has been difficult since Dubuque Hempstead formed, increasing the number of students needing to be housed in Freeport.  Currently, the festival includes 240 students from Freeport High School and 430 from the two Dubuque high schools (J. Lehman, personal communication, December 28, 2009). 
            The Tri-II Music Festival is unique in the United States.  It combines high school music students from three schools across state lines and is open to all music students from concert ensembles at the participating high schools, regardless of ability level.  Students are not required to audition in order to participate.  Hundreds of participating students work with nationally recognized conductors for two days (now one).  Students get a chance to socialize with other music students and compare their programs to those of other schools.  Through this festival, three high schools come together, not in competition, but in a spirit of cooperation.  Students have the opportunity to work with some of the finest music directors and music educators in the United States.  Group rehearsals focus on the elements of rehearsal techniques, performance practice, leadership skills, teamwork, and collaboration for common goals, all with an emphasis on the pursuit of lifelong learning and the personal benefits of music making.  Additionally, students showcase their own school ensembles through their individual performances. 
            This unique educational experience requires an incredible amount of work and effort to ensure its success.  Tri-II costs include the planning dinner; printing of admission tickets, programs, and posters; police for crowd control, traffic assistance, and dance; music for dance; printed music and arrangements if necessary; housing and travel expenses for four conductors; piano tuning; accompanist; name badges; postage; recordings; directors’ reception; hospitality room; and flowers.  These costs are offset by earnings from concert admissions and donations and record sales.  The budget from 1969 shows $3258 in expenditures and $2492 in receipts.  Instrumental and vocal music covered the $766 deficit in house.  In 2001, the projected expenditures were $7850 with $3000 in receipts.  The festival has been funded by the school district, with the exception of meals, for the past 15 years. 
            Guest conductors have included outstanding university professors and professional musicians from throughout the country (see the list of festival conductors 1950-2009 in appendix).  One such exemplary musician is the Red Band guest conductor of 1970, Vaclav Nelhybel.  Nelhybel wrote a letter to Seeman dated May 18, 1970: 

What a great pleasure it was for me to participate in your Tri-City Festival.  Yes, those youngsters did it again—they gave a magnificent performance of Sine Monine, and I loved working with them.  Time and again I marvel at the technical skill, musical maturity, enthusiasm and dedication of young musicians such as yours….  I must confess that at first I was a bit shocked when I saw that row of harps; but they did help the strings quite a lot!  Thank you again for two wonderful days and a most rewarding experience.

The world premiere performance of “Sine Nomine” was given by Nelhybel just two years earlier at the International Music Education Society meeting in Dijon, France.  Interestingly enough, the connections with Dr. Joseph Maddy continue through Tri-II as well when he served as guest conductor of the 1953 festival (Polaris, 1953, p. 123). 
            The festival has remained largely unchanged throughout the years.  Even though the Clinton flood of 1965 postponed the event for a week, it has been held every year since it formed.  Over time, it changed to include four high schools, two in Dubuque (Senior and Hempstead) and then three again when Clinton dropped out in 2001.  This founding member school withdrew after 51 years due to negative feelings on the part of a few administrators.  Unfortunately, they dropped just a few days before the festival, causing much damage control to restructure housing, ensembles, the schedule, and literature.  In 2008, the event became a one-day festival due to the increasing demands on the students’ time and difficulties in accommodating so many students.  It is hoped by all involved that the concept and philosophy of Tri-II will endure for a long time, despite changes required by the times. 

Items of Interest:

In 1951, orchestra rehearsals were held daily, and sectional tryouts were given every 6 weeks (Polaris, p. 124).  By 1952, renovations to the junior high were finished, including a new rehearsal room for the high school ensembles (Polaris, p. 118).  Students no longer needed to traverse the spiral metal staircase to rehearse in the small tower of the high school.  Typically, the orchestra performed ten times per school year, concerts spaced a month apart.  The orchestra of 1954 included 63 students with 3 harpists.  Besides its normal appearances, the ensemble also performed at a new Easter concert, combining with the Janesville high school orchestra.  Seven district entrants received a 1st rating, and 5 members earned membership in All-State (Polaris, p. 115).
            Freeport Orchestra owns an extensive music library, including string solo, duet, trio, quartet, quintet, chamber orchestra, and full orchestra literature.  A large library of theater orchestra music was also donated to the ensemble.  Many of these date back to the silent screen days and were used by Seeman’s orchestras in the pit for plays and assemblies.  Seeman recalled that, in 1952

we moved into long overdue quarters which afford us the finest facilities and acoustics.  Our orchestra unit contains a large 40’ x 60’ rehearsal room properly treated acoustically, and office with telephone, two libraries, two workshops – one for repairing all string instruments and rehairing bows.  We do all our own adjusting and repairing of string instruments including our harps, which are sent to us from the National Music Camp for use during the year.  We train our own student librarians who spend one school hour per day here on the job in the orchestra library attending to most details of filling folios, setting up festivals, etc.  They receive library credit toward graduation and also are paid a meager sum for their work. (personal communication, 1955)

Myron McLain noted that the facilities at Carl Sandburg were not done to the same quality as the junior high/high school music wing.  The music room floor was made of cement and the ceiling was steel.  The sound echoed in the chamber (personal communication, January 10, 2010).
            Seeman formed a large pit orchestra each year from 1954-1977 to provide pre-, post-, and scene music for the Junior Class Play.  In 1955, a 40 piece string section tape recorded a 15 minute radio broadcast for WFRL (Polaris, p. 86).  The high school orchestra continued to do this for many years.  Students could also earn the opportunity to perform with a professional ensemble.  Since Seeman was so actively involved in the Rockford and Dubuque orchestras, he frequently invited high school orchestra members to rehearse and perform, all of them carpooling together, often up to two full vehicles.  The junior high performing ensembles at this time included boys glee, girls glee, 7th grade chorus, mixed chorus, training band, concert band, and one orchestra.  A 1966 Spring Concert program given by the high school music department shows the orchestra to have performed:  “Polovetsian Dance No. 2” from Prince Igor by Borodin, Second Movement from Symphony No. 1 (Nordic) by Hanson, Allegro from Concerto Grosso for two violins and cello by Vivaldi, “Claire de Lune” by Debussy, Fourth Movement from Ballet Egyptien by Luigini, and “Onward Ye Peoples” by Sibelius.  The 1971 Spring Instrumental Music Festival began with the National Anthem, 8 orchestra pieces (including a mixture of serious, folk / pop, and concerto works), a 9th grade boy’s quartet (Mozart Quartet K. 137, 1st movement), and concluded with 4 harp works.    
            Students in Seeman’s orchestras studied a large quantity of quality literature, performed frequently, and traveled often.  Even Junior High and Carl Sandburg orchestras traveled to nearby towns to perform.  For example, in 1974, the Junior High Orchestra performed in Dixon, and the Sandburg Strings in Stockton; in 1975, the Junior High Orchestra performed in Janesville, and the Sandburg Strings in Lena-Winslow.  Students were also encouraged to learn other instruments or form small ensembles after school.  Another longstanding facet of the orchestra is its participation in the musical or variety shows presented by the high school.  Typically, the first half of the show was concert numbers performed by the orchestra and vocal ensembles.  The second half was a variety show, or musical.  An article from 1964 entitled “FHS Special” explained how the variety show had replaced the FHS carnival as the annual moneymaker for the yearbook. 

Such a student performance is a good antidote to the published accounts of teen-age promiscuity and the increasing numbers of youngsters who drink, smoke, and take pep pills.  The “Special” displayed to the public the leaders of the next decades. (Freeport Journal-Standard, February 24, 1964, p. 4)

            Many outstanding students came up through the high school orchestra during the tenure of Ernest Seeman.  In 1964, the following Freeport orchestra students earned positions in the Youth Orchestra of Greater Chicago, performing at Orchestra Hall:  Lance Elbeck, concertmaster; Daniel Irwin and Anne Woodhouse, violins; and Martha Babcock, cello.  Miss Babcock also won the position of principal cellist at All-State that year (Polaris, p. 67).  In 1967, 5 students were selected for a summer, European tour.  Greg Ray, Kathy Nichols, Ruth Woo, Suzanne Silver, and Mark Ascher traveled to Dijon, France with the 90-member Illinois All-State Orchestra at the International Society of Music Educators’ Annual Convention (Polaris, p. 93).  Coincidentally, this is the same convention mentioned earlier as having premiered Nelhybel’s “Sine Nomine.”
            While under Seeman’s direction, the Freeport orchestra program experienced no cuts from the district.  “It was a continual fight, but Ernie was good at it,” recounts his wife, Phyllis.  His reason for retirement was the many roadblocks Superintendent Ashby brought before the music programs.  One of these included denying private lesson teachers use of the school buildings in 1976, including the harp professor (personal communication, December 30, 2009). 
            Faye Seeman, daughter and student, sums up the direction of the orchestra under her father, Ernest Seeman: 

The general level of interest and attitude was excellent.  Being given the opportunity to travel, perform often, and have weekly lessons was really important in the total success of the program.  My dad was a character and always found ways to make us laugh, had fun with the music, and really put his heart and soul into teaching.  He was an inspiration to many students who passed through his doors. (personal communication, February 1, 2010)