The summer I was 10, my parents would deliver me to the music department of Portsmouth High School two or three times a week for a group saxophone lesson. I had just finished fourth grade at Little Harbour School and had finally reached the age of eligibility for elementary school band. It was there that a very kind musician named Warren Muchemore patiently taught 20 of us how to put together and get a sound out of a saxophone. So if you’ve ever wondered what the origin story of the Portsmouth Music and Arts Center is, there you have it in a nutshell. To this day, when I take out a fresh bamboo saxophone reed and wet it in my mouth, the taste transports me back to that summer, in the dusty old piccolo room off the choir rehearsal room, where the seed for PMAC was planted.
While this story might sound unique, many such stories exist in the illustrious history of the Clipper Band (though not all end with a community music and arts center). One culminates with a drum major who becomes a successful pediatrician, another with a trombone player who is elected mayor of Portsmouth. There are literally thousands of individuals who give significant credit to their time in the band when it comes to their successes later in life.
This theme was evident on Saturday, Sept. 17, when more than 300 Clipper Band alumni and their families filled the gymnasium at the high school for a special reunion concert (We had to play in the gym because the band was too big for the auditorium). Mr. Muchemore was present in the audience, as was his educational partner of 40 plus years, former Clipper Band Director William Elwell. The two remain close friends in retirement and were as excited as any alumnus to reunite for the day. Joined by Mrs. Elwell, elementary band director to hundreds of alumni, the trio brought a magical nostalgia to the day for those of us who had not seen them in years.
Current band director Eric Gagnon and PHS Director of Performing Arts Steve Cirillo played an active role in the day, taking turns conducting a band that combined nearly 100 alumni with the current high school roster. Having carried the torch of the Clipper Band for more than 20 years, the reunion was as much for them as for Elwell and Muchemore.
While it was incredibly fun to come together and make music, the greatest joy arose from reconnecting with our fellow band mates. While a typical reunion only draws those who graduated in your class, this event welcomed graduates going back as far as the class of 1948 and as recently as 2016. Focusing on such a powerful common denominator – a passion for being in the band – sparked multi-generational connections that are hard to imagine in a school reunion. At the concert I sat among players who graduated before I was born and players who were born after I graduated.
What I came away with was a renewed and deeper understanding of the impact arts programs have on the lives of our students. It’s not just those of us who choose music or art for a career. In some conversations it seemed like four years in the band did more to prepare the non-musicians for life.
It reinforced that the return on investment Portsmouth receives for properly funding its music program is significant. Our reunion of Clipper Band members was a gathering of successful professionals and innovative entrepreneurs. People who credited the lessons learned on the marching field for their ability to excel in life.
For this I not only thank the Elwells, Muchemore, Gagnon, and Cirillo, but the city of Portsmouth and its leaders for believing that the arts play an important and central role in education. Let’s make sure that doesn’t change.
Russ Grazier, Jr., PHS Clipper Band Class of 1986. Co-founder, Portsmouth Music and Arts Center (PMAC).