A Special Band from a Small School

By Violet Moran

Vernon Mauritson, nicknamed Mort, wasted no time in recruiting me when I transferred from a one-room country school and entered seventh grade in the town of Sunburst, Montana in 1946. He made band sound like a great opportunity. He had decided that it would be perfect for me to play the clarinet. I didn’t even know what a clarinet was. He handed me an old metal clarinet, a book of beginner’s lessons, and gave private and group lessons.. My family suffered while I practiced a couple hours every night but they never told me to quit. Pop called the clarinet my squawk box.

Main Street, Sunburst, Montana, 1950s

Even though I was only nine years old, I was designated “first chair” of the band the very next year, which is a little like the concertmaster in an orchestra. Mort got sheet music for me to play solos in state competitions and during band concerts. He knew he could count on me to practice hard and play well.

 I think Mr. Mauritson knew how important these achievements were to my emotional state. I was almost three years younger than my classmates and he gave me a way to rise above my role of a country hick or ugly duckling. Soon Mort spoke privately to Pop and amazingly persuaded him to loosen his stingy wallet and buy one of the very best clarinets for me. That made a difference because it had a better tone.

Band concerts were a big deal in our rural community because there were few other entertainments. Our band received many awards in competitions but we really shined as a marching band. We performed fancy formations at half time of every basketball game. That was big entertainment for small towns and people packed the bleachers.

Because of the excellence of our band, we were invited to be the honor band at the Portland, Oregon Rose Festival in June, 1952. This Festival is not as large as the one in Pasadena, but there were many floats and bands and the five-mile parade was watched by millions.

It was amazing that my Sunburst, Montana high school with a total enrollment of 150 students had 120 of them participating in the Portland Rose Festival. The town of Sunburst had a population of only one thousand.

 We had a lot of extra band practices before and after school, causing me to miss the school bus. Mom arranged for me to board in town when necessary with a family who were devout members of the small Assembly of God church. This led to a serendipitous mind-opening experience. The family went to church on some weeknights and it would have been inappropriate for me to refuse to go with them. The services were interactive, with people waving their hands and continually calling out phrases such as “Amen,” “Tell it, brother,” and “Praise the Lord.” There were times when someone would “swoon” or begin to speak in tongues. That excited everybody as a sign that Jesus was really truly present with us. At my Lutheran church, nobody even said Amen unless it was written as part of a prayer. I hadn’t known there were different ways for people to worship.

Getting ready for the Portland Rose festival, our little town did many activities to raise money to purchase uniforms and pay expenses for the trip. In addition to standard band uniforms, they also acquired Western uniforms of custom-made 10-gallon cowboy hats and plaid Western-style shirts that we wore with new dark blue jeans. Portland may be further west on a map but Montana was always considered a more western place. The people in Portland liked it best when we wore our Western attire.

Twirlers in the Sunburst High School Band, in their western costumes

Mort recruited as drum major a tall and handsome former student, Raymond Gallup, who had recently returned from serving two years with the Marine Corps in Korea where he was wounded twice. He and Mort put us through boot camp. At the five-mile parade, there were first-aid stations to treat those participants who dropped out because of foot injuries, fatigue, heatstroke, or other reasons. We were very proud that not a single one of us dropped out of the parade for any reason.

The Drum Major and Mort developed a series of whistles and baton movements to communicate what we were to do — which songs to play and which formations to perform. We could be marching down a street in standard parade formation and suddenly startle the onlookers by splitting apart with each row going in a different direction, some marching toward the spectators on the sidewalk, before doing an about-face and returning to formation.

In addition to leading the parade, we gave several other performances in Portland. Most unusual was the day we went downtown in our Western-style uniforms and marched single file in heavy afternoon traffic, weaving between cars and never missing a note or a step. There were a lot of cars honking their horns and I’m not sure whether that was like applause or telling us to get the H_ out of their way. I’m pretty sure it was positive because I never heard anybody holler a negative remark.

 Mr. Mauritson was not required or expected to work so hard in making the band excellent, but his hard work resulted in proud memories for the entire community. Being part of a group, such as an athletic team, debate club, or performing group, has been proven to have a positive effect on intellectual and emotional development of young people. Plato said that he would teach children physics and philosophy but that the arts, such as music, are the key to learning.

I am not exaggerating when I say that I think my experience with the band saved me from suicidal thoughts that probably occur, even briefly, to most teenagers. All members of the band made a commitment to be the best they could. Achievement does wonders for self-confidence.

I have special appreciation for my favorite teacher, Mr. Vernon Mauritson, because of all that he did to help me develop self confidence. The entire band and community developed a sense of pride. Mort was an exceptional teacher.

© 2022 Violet Suta Moran

Violet grew up on a farm in Montana just 8 miles from the Canadian border and about 70 miles east of Glacier Park.  After getting a degree in nursing at Montana State University in Bozeman, she literally picked Madison, Wisconsin off the map as the first place she was going “on my trip around the world.”  Delayed by marriage, 3 children and administrative positions in facilities including University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, trips to many different countries came later. For the last 20 years before retiring,Violet ran her own nurse consulting business. In retirement she enjoys travel, dance, and blues, often in combination. She has recently published a biography of her grandmother titled The Unknown Life of Anna Lozing.

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About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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