and the evolution of a music program
While William Stewart was not Muskegon High School's first band
director, he was, without question, the director who established
the school's reputation as one of the finest prep bands in the
nation. Nearly 50 years after his death, his influences
still permeate music programs throughout the West Michigan area.
William Stewart, a native of Howell,
Michigan, earned his Bachelors Degree at Ypsilanti
Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University) in
1934, and taught instrumental music in the public
schools of Eaton Rapids from 1934 to 1936. As a young
teacher, and accomplished clarinetist, he added to his
skills by playing in the Lansing Symphony
Marius Fossenkemper, first clarinetist with
the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, had been his teacher for
four years, and profoundly influenced his musicianship
in general and his dedication to a beautiful basic tone
quality in particular.
William Stewart began his work in
Muskegon in 1936. He earned a Masters Degree from
Northwestern University during the summers of 1938-41,
during which time
Glenn Cliff Bainum (band director) and
Domenico De Caprio (clarinet instructor) became
important influences on his musicianship. His success
with the instrumental ensembles of Muskegon High School
was immediate and profound. He may be the only public
school music teacher in the country ever to have
developed a nationally recognized marching band, a
nationally recognized concert band and a nationally
recognized concert orchestra, and to have personally
directed all three and kept all three performing at the
outstanding caliber of the Muskegon groups for more than
The Muskegon High School
Marching Band under the direction of Stewart
performed a completely different and wonderfully
creative half time show for every home football
game played in Hackley Stadium for 24 years.
Special effects included the invention of hat
lights and footlights (patented in the name of
the Muskegon Band), black lighting, unbelievably
beautiful and elaborate props, innovative
involvement of the crowd, fireworks, and a grand
piano on the field for Gershwin's Rhapsody in
Blue. When Stewart's marching band visited other
schools, their coming was usually considered a
phenomenon to behold. In 1949 a Royal Oak paper
announced, "Muskegon is bringing its nationally
famous 120 piece marching band." An out-of-town
visitor to a Muskegon football game wrote to the
Muskegon Chronicle: "Then there was the band! We
love football, but brother, what a band! School
bands are so generally school bands; but the
Muskegon High Band is in a spectacular class by
The Muskegon Concert Band won
superior ratings in district and state contests
annually. They were invited to perform several
times at the Midwest National Band Clinic in
Chicago, and in 1957 the national publication
First Chair of America featured the members of
the Muskegon Band and dedicated the issue to
them. Typical of the Chronicle reviews the day
after a Muskegon High Band concert are these
words from 1952: "It was a packed auditorium of
enthusiastic fans, and the band played. ..as
near a perfect performance as can be expected of
high school musicians."
Merle Evans, famed director
of the Barnum and Bailey Band (the "Toscanini of
the Big Top"), described Stewart's Muskegon Band
as "the finest high school band I have heard in
forty years of traveling across the country."
William D. Revelli, Director of Bands at the
University of Michigan, described the Muskegon
concert Band as: ". ..superbly taught and
conducted; a great credit to its community,
state, and nation! I wish you could take the
band on a national tour. It would do much for
our band programs in the high schools of the
William Stewart built the
Muskegon High School Orchestra on the model of
the great professional symphonies of our
country. In 1952, two years after the Muskegon
High School Band had been featured at the
Midwest National Band Clinic, the organizers of
the clinic invited (for the first time) a high
school orchestra to perform. That orchestra was
William Stewart's Muskegon Orchestra, which was
awarded a plaque for excellence at the clinic.
Wayne Dunlap, as Orchestra Conductor at the
University of Michigan, wrote that the Muskegon
High School Orchestra' , ...plays with such
style, authority and precision ...you put many
college orchestras to shame." Romeo Tata,
Conductor of the Lansing Symphony Orchestra,
said of a particular performance by the Muskegon
High School Orchestra, "I never heard the Grieg
played better by any orchestra."
William Stewart organized the Band
and Orchestra Parents Association (in 1936 it was the "Band Mothers"
- and the members of the band were the
"Band Boys") to help with the great amount of supportive
work that was needed, and he had a staff of hard
working, dedicated teachers at his side. Still, to quote
a colleague of the time, , 'he burned up energy as if
there were no tomorrow." In the process he served the
community in every way conceivable. He did everything
humanly possible to include large numbers of students in
the band (e.g. rewriting parts for the less capable
members), he served very consciously as a role model for
students, and he inspired all those around him. His two
compositions, "Red and White" (originally "Men in Red
and White") and "Muskegon High School Alma Mater", are
two wonderful pieces of music that have become an
important part of Muskegon High School heritage.
from a 1960 Graduate
Professor, Temple University’s
Boyer College of Music
June 18, 2008
does time go?
William Stewart’s death is now 48 years
in the past.
My biography of him is 38 years in the
And yet, as I think of him now I realize
that my perspective tends to be frozen in time.
I’m eighteen years older than he was at
the time he died, and yet I think of him as
mature, wise, and in charge.
He was a force to be reckoned with—a
force that would tear down a brick wall to
achieve a goal.
People like William Stewart never recede
If anything, they grow larger. I said most of what I have to
say about William Stewart in my 1980 biography,
but I might add a few thoughts that have come to
As I pursue my own work, I realize ever
more how passionately driven the man was.
He carried sounds in his head—sounds of a
warm, lovely, musical symphonic wind band and
symphony orchestra—and he was determined that
the high school students in his charge would
produce those sounds.
In retrospect, I think the
reasons for his determination were many.
He was determined to satisfy his own high
musical standards, as if his high school
ensembles were instruments upon which he played.
He was determined to show doubters what
high school musicians could do, as when he
programmed Verdi’s Manzoni Requiem excerpts for
the state festival after being told by
colleagues that it was unplayable by a high
He was determined to give to all the
students he taught a supreme musical experience
through which they would learn to discriminate
between the musical and the unmusical.
He was determined that we would carry
away from our experience with him something to
enrich our lives.
And he was determined to lay a foundation
for instrumental music at
High School that would
live after him, and on which subsequent programs
could be built.
So now hundreds of us do live
enriched lives rooted in the work of this driven
And we realize that for all his admirable
virtues, he suffered a serious shortcoming.
Unwisely, he left his own health
unchecked as he spent sleepless nights
re-writing parts, charting marching band
formations, and organizing band and orchestra
While he was teaching us to have our
equipment ready and in good working order at all
times, to wear our uniforms neatly and with
pride, to behave well in public, and to play
like professional musicians, he appears to have
been leaving his own physical welfare too much
So in 1960 we heard the
shocking news that William Stewart had died of a
heart attack while driving his car.
And now, in 2008, we remember that
long-ago death in a way that we remember few
He left a mark.
A piece of him lives for as long as we
We have a dimension to our lives that we
cannot imagine being without—a dimension that
would be missing if not for William Stewart’s
dedication and sacrifice on our behalf.
For that we must be eternally grateful.
William Stewart's mode of operation
was damaging to his health, and undoubtedly contributed
to his death on December 22, 1960, at the age of 48. His
wife, Ruth, and his sons, Michael and Martin, were
joined in their grief by teaching colleagues, students,
ex-students, the community of Muskegon, and music
educators across the state and nation. William Stewart
will not be forgotten by those who knew and loved him,
nor by those of subsequent generations who have
benefited, and who continue to benefit, by the masterful
piece of work that he did during his twenty four years
at Muskegon High School.
Biographer - Darrel Walters
Muskegon High School Alumni page