This Fourth of July, PBS will broadcast its star-spangled A Capitol Fourth show live from the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Tom Bergeron of Dancing With the Stars fame will host a program featuring performances by top musical artists, from American Idol Season 12 winner Candice Glover and Smash star Megan Hilty to five-time Academy Award-winning composer and conductor John Williams and pops conductor Jack Everly. A fireworks display will cap the evening’s festivities.
Washington, D.C., may be home to the country’s largest Independence Day celebration, but many American cities and towns hold similarly rousing, fun-filled events that draw big crowds and ignite patriotic pride.
Over the years, I’ve taken part in many Fourth of July fesitivities — on beaches, rooftops, riverfronts and balconies, in amusement parks and mall parking lots. I’ve enjoyed each and every one of these events, from the congenial company and yummy food to the rollicking bands and glowing sparklers. But no Independence Day gathering has been as memorable or as meaningful to me as one I was invited to 10 years ago but couldn’t attend.
It was held in Baytown, Tex., a town of about 73,000 people, located 22 miles east of my birthplace, Houston. That evening, the Baytown Symphony Orchestra performed John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” our nation’s official march. My father was the guest conductor.
The performance was followed by thunderous applause. While that may not seem like a big deal it definitely was — because my dad wasn’t a musician. He couldn’t read a single note of music.
He was, however, an avid music lover and although he had never had a music lesson, he was a devoted listener. By playing various recordings over and over again he had taught himself to appreciate the nuances that different orchestras and conductors could bring to their performances, the minute variances that truly distinguished them. He had also taught himself to play harmonica by ear.
Over the years, he experimented with other hobbies (stamp collecting, target shooting and fishing among them). But listening to music and writing humor were persistent pursuits that helped him inject passion and pleasure into daily routines ruled by traditional family and work obligations. The soundtracks to my childhood were great symphonic works that my father played on his homebuilt stereo and his own harmonica renditions of Mozart’s Eine Kliene Nachtmusik and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.
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My dad had won the opportunity to conduct the Baytown Symphony Orchestra by scribbling a bid on a clipboard at a silent charity auction. My guess is that it wasn’t the size of his donation that secured him the spot so much as the fact that few others had dared to bid — even an accomplished musician (especially one who had never conducted) might not want to master a new piece of music and interpret it with an unfamiliar orchestra in front of a large crowd.
I was surprised that my father hadn’t shied away — he was not a particularly adventurous man. When I heard that he had landed the gig, I wondered if, at the time of bidding, he had asked himself what he would do if he were to win.
What I know for sure is that once he did, he felt completely obligated and excited by the chance to perform publicly. Risk-taking may have been a foreign concept to him, but unwavering commitment to a task — especially one involving music — was not.
My dad began immersing himself in the score in the same way he always had — through careful listening. He played recordings of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” over and over again until he had committed each note and each instrument’s part to memory, had fully explored the emotional terrain of the piece and determined what he wanted to bring out and how. A couple of live rehearsals gave him a chance to work things out with the orchestra.
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I believe that, for him, the applause at the end of the concert confirmed that he had succeeded in bringing his long-held dream to fruition, his ambition to really perform music — not just in his living room in front of speakers but before a large crowd, with professionals.
Though family and work commitments prevented me from attending my dad’s concert in person, I was later able to watch a video of it with him alongside me. His hands began punctuating the air as the music swelled and I could sense his enormous pride when scenes of the rapt audience came up on the screen.
The Origins of 'The Stars and Stripes Forever'
Sousa’s energetic work was designated our national march in 1987. According to the PBS A Capitol Fourth site, John Philip Sousa composed it on an ocean liner on Christmas Day 1896 as he and his wife were returning from a European vacation. They were at sea when he learned that the manager of the Sousa Band, David Blakely, had died. Sousa wrote about the composition's origins in his autobiography, Marching Along:
Here came one of the most vivid incidents of my career. As the vessel (the Teutonic) steamed out of the harbor I was pacing on the deck, absorbed in thoughts of my manager's death and the many duties and decisions which awaited me in New York. Suddenly, I began to sense a rhythmic beat of a band playing within my brain. Throughout the whole tense voyage, that imaginary band continued to unfold the same themes, echoing and re-echoing the most distinct melody. I did not transfer a note of that music to paper while I was on the steamer, but when we reached shore, I set down the measures that my brain-band had been playing for me, and not a note of it has ever changed.
Just as the march has become an integral part of U.S. celebrations and the American way of life, my dad’s performance of it became an integral part of his life. And his approach to learning the piece for his conducting debut was oddly similar to Sousa’s approach when composing it. My dad mastered the music in his head, playing it with his “brain-band” over and over. In doing this, he revitalized both his spirit and his mind.
The style of learning he undertook — delving into a new area of knowledge in a way that required him to discover, invent and be creative — has been shown to help us live a life worth living as we age. Applying this type of immersion to the arts can have an especially profound effect on the mind, helping to keep it active and bright.
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Personal Freedom Is a Matter of How We Conduct Ourselves
In the days leading up to the Fourth, I find myself looking at the little bronze statue of a conductor that sits on a shelf in my apartment and I reflect on what the holiday came to symbolize for my father. He had many things to be proud of — stellar academic credentials, a lovely family, a long and solid career and three books of humor. Yet he counted this Baytown performance among his most significant achievements. The sense of accomplishment he derived from it stayed with him for the rest of his days.
I gave him the statue shortly after his performance to let him know how proud I was. “Conducter Guy,” my name for the little bronze man with the baton, was the only thing I took from my Dad’s house after he died. On a daily basis, it reminds me that the ways in which we conduct ourselves determine whether we feel shackled and starved or unhindered and full.
A Personal Declaration of Independence
The Capitol Fourth site describes a letter that Thomas Jefferson sent to Roger C. Weightman on June 24, 1826, to decline an invitation to come to Washington, D.C., for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It was the last letter that Jefferson, who was gravely ill, wrote. In it, he says of the document:
May it be to the world, what I believe it will be … the signal of arousing men to burst the chains … and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form, which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man…. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.
Jefferson was talking about liberty in a broad political context, but I believe he would have resonated with my father’s way of defining self-governance — a wholehearted commitment to a personal ambition. So much the better that his ambition was to interpret a classic anthem of freedom.