Thursday, August 10, 2006


(News-Herald, August 10) This evening, the Franklin Silver Cornet Band celebrates its 150th anniversary.
That’s a long time for an institution. In 1856, the country had only fought in two wars. Venango County had a population of roughly 25,000. There was one superintendent of schools for the whole county; his annual salary was $500.
In 1856, town bands were not all that common or widespread as they would be thirty years later. We’ll probably never know what prompted the creation of a band in a small community where farmers still grazed cattle in the city parks.
Old Stuff goes through four stages. Stage 1: Look at this cool new thing. Stage 2: We’ve grown comfortably accustomed to this old familiar thing. Stage 3: I think it’s time to throw out this old piece of junk. Stage 4: Look at this fine, valuable antique.
Lots of good stuff gets lost in Stage 3. Every family has a story about some object that they regret throwing in the trash. Franklin started the Stage 3 wholesale trashing of many great old buildings. Antique dealers make a living being smart enough to pick future valuables out of the trash.
An organization is much more fragile, much easier to lose. It’s an invisible bond that has to be passed on like a flame. Once it’s snuffed, it’s hard to bring back. So how does a group survive for the Really Long Haul?
Embrace your tradition, but don’t wear it around your neck like a giant half-ton medallion. The two worst reasons to do something are “We’ve always done it that way” and “We’ve never done it that way.” The people who came before you probably knew what they were doing, but you’re the one standing right here right now. For 100 years, it was traditional for the band not to include women. There may have been a time when that tradition made sense, but the time came when it made sense to get rid of it.
Compromise when you have to. There were times when the band was small and weak, barely able to squeak out a tune or two. It would have been easy to say, “Well, if we can’t do any better than this, we might as well call it quits.” But then all the good years of fine music that came later might never have happened. It’s nice to strive for excellence, but if you’re in it for the long haul, you have to expect some lean times and just push on through them.
Have good leaders, but rotate them. In 150 years, many good people have devoted a great deal of time and energy and passion to the band—more people than I could ever list here. But that core of leadership has been regularly rotated and replenished. In any organization, if you’ve had the same leadership for decades, you are headed for trouble.
Remember who and what you are. There are so-called town bands out there that are staffed entirely with paid professionals, and others that turn up their noses at teenaged musicians, and others that push older players aside to make room for the new young guns in town. I say “Phooey” to the lot of them.
A town band is about amateurs, about friends and neighbors volunteering to bring something special to the community, about generations of people from all across the community sitting down together to make music. It’s easy to get so caught up in the music part that you forget about the human element, but a town band is about so much more than music.
Have fun. One of the distinctive characteristics of the Franklin Band has always been that, while we take the music seriously, we don’t take ourselves very seriously at all. I have certainly known people who approach making music as if it were a painful chore, and others whose giant egos have become a straightjacket keeping them stiff and stodgy. If it’s not fun, why bother?
These principles work, I suspect, for any organization. I’ll bet they’re a big part of what has kept the Venango County Fair going for fifty years. The county fair folks are to be congratulated for that—in many ways the band and fair are similar in keeping alive a slice of traditional American life. Do enjoy some of the fair this weekend.
Tonight we are going to celebrate. The current band will be out in force, and a couple dozen former members will gather from near and far to join in. It’s like a reunion gathering for a very large, very extended family. We’ll play some cool music well, have some fun, and enjoy an occasion that’s rare in the whole country. We hope you’ll join us.

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