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Remembering the Days — 100 years of making music: The School of Music's centennial

Remembering the Days - episode 80

It began as a fledgling music department with only two professors and grew into one of the region's premier music schools. USC's School of Music is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2024. 


It began without a lot of fanfare … but gained momentum over time. And now the School of Music at the University of South Carolina is celebrating its 100th year, a centennial of making beautiful music, and through its many graduates and community outreach programs, spreading joyful sounds everywhere.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re marking the milestones of the School of Music’s centennial celebration. It’s a story that began in the jazz age of the 1920s and — except for a season of blues during the Great Depression — the narrative has hit many high notes in the decades since.

Tayloe Harding: “A lot of these schools in the South started with people that wanted, just wanted to make music that were on the campus doing other things. And then they made bands that were for celebrations and ceremonies, which for us in the South is football. So our history really emerged out of people wanting to play band instruments together. And then the institution started recruiting students not on purpose, but the students that wanted to come to South Carolina in the '20s and the '30s were very interested in having music be a part of the study that they were doing and getting credit for it.”

That’s Tayloe Harding who became dean of the School of Music nearly 20 years ago. He says the first official university support for music at USC came in 1914, and 10 years later — 1924 — a brand-new music department took up residence in Flinn Hall. Maurice Matteson was the sole music instructor and J.C. Lanham was the first band director. It was a modest start, but student interest was over the top. In just the second year, enrollment in music studies reached 147, and a year later, applied studies in piano, voice and violin were added, and soon after, organ and cello.

In 1929, USC hired Madame Felice de Horvath, who had been teaching violin at nearby Columbia College. She immediately tuned up violin instruction at Carolina and established the University Symphony Orchestra, which held annual concerts, first in Rutledge Chapel and later in Drayton Hall auditorium.

The 1930s ushered in the Great Depression, and faculty salaries at USC were slashed. Music Professor Maurice Matteson resigned. Those were dark days, but the music didn’t die.

By the 1940s, the music department was finding its rhythm again, moving into the somewhat more capacious Rutledge College building and launching its piano pedagogy program in 1945. That same year, the music department started an outreach program for nonmusic majors, and music appreciation became a required course for School of Education students.

The school then moved to what is now called Lieber College on the Horseshoe. Music director Hugh Williamson described the building as “quite spacious and charming. Of course, it is not suitable for music, he said, but it gives us five additional studios and seven practice rooms.”

I think that’s called making lemonade out of lemons.

In 1960, USC bought the former McMaster Elementary School building on Pickens Street, an old edifice, which became the new home for music and art. The music department now had much more space for band and practice rooms, studios and a concert hall.

Art Fraser arrived in 1963 as the new music department director, and during the next several years, enrollment grew and the department created the Concert Choir, led by Arpad Darazs, and a Chamber Music Series, which remains popular today. The music department’s first graduate degree — a master of music education — was offered in 1966, and more graduate degree options soon followed.

William Moody became head of music in 1973, and he proposed that the music department be elevated in status to School of Music. That change took place in 1983, and USC became a major center for music study in the Southeast.

A new band hall was built in the 1970s, and the Koger Center for the Arts was completed in 1989, giving the music school bigger and better performance and practice venues. School of Music director Manny Alvarez campaigned for a new School of Music building, and just a few years later, one was built right next to the Koger Center.

Two deans of the music school, Dorothy Payne and Jamal Rossi, served their respective tenures with distinction, and Tayloe Harding became dean in 2005. He says the School of Music has set itself apart from many other music schools by making a point of reaching out to the surrounding community.

Tayloe Harding:  “I think in terms of institutional missions — the mission of a particular school — they're so focused on the details of the music curriculum that gets students prepared that sometimes they're less intentional about the role that their students and their faculty and their alumni and friends play in music making, especially in the world right around them.

"And we're nationally known for being very intentional about that, making it a part of the education of the professional music student, but also keeping in mind that an important mission of the School of Music is to make communities happier, healthier, safer, more hopeful and more fulfilled through music by the work that we do intentionally.” 

What does that look like, exactly, making communities happier and more hopeful through music? Well, here’s what it sometimes sounds like.

At USC’s String Project, children in grade school through high school (and even a few parents) learn to play the violin, the viola, the cello and the double bass.

Gail Barnes: “It takes about three years before they have a degree of comfort and facility that they can really play. I mean, there's lots of motor skills involved. There's, you know, learning how to read music. Our first-year classes are doing really well this year. I have a particularly exemplary class of seniors who are teaching."

That’s Gail Barnes, longtime director of the String Project, which gives undergraduate and graduate music education students some of their first exposure to teaching.

Beth Reed earned her Ph.D. in music from USC and is a music education professor at Miami University of Ohio. She’s also the executive director of the National String Project Consortium, which helps colleges and universities around the country to emulate USC’s String Project model. She says USC’s String Project has trained a legion of string teachers, including the teacher who taught her to play cello at age 10.

Beth Reed: “Looking at the network of teachers that have come out of the String Project, I think, is a really important part of this story, too. How many String Project alumni are actually teaching right now in public schools in South Carolina and beyond? I mean, they're all over the country. I think we have a lot of strong string programs because of that."

The USC String Project is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, which means that community program has been thriving for fully half of the existence of the music school.

A more recent addition to the School of Music’s community outreach is the Congaree New Horizons Band, which invites adults 50 and older — some of whom have never played a musical instrument before — to join the band or one of the many ensembles.

Mandi Schlagel directs the program.

 Mandi Schlagel: “It started off with people who probably played in high school, who were now coming back to play. And it's grown from that first concert band to multiple concert bands, civilian and veteran concert bands, jazz bands, jazz improvs, clarinet ensemble, flute ensemble, a Dixieland ensemble. We're trying to start a trombone ensemble. We have a modern band that's kind of a cover band. I'd love to start a glee club because I love to give people an opportunity to, if they've never been comfortable using their voice, to use their voice to sing, I'd really love to see that happen.”

Ed Brown is a Congaree New Horizons band member, a retired forensic psychologist who served in the Army for 30 years.

Ed Brown: “I don't have to be the best tuba player in the city. I just have to go and have fun and play and do the best that I can.”

Ray Dunnavant earned a bachelor’s degree in music from USC and was about to wrap up his master’s in music when he got involved in the Congaree New Horizons Band. Fifteen years later, he’s still up to his treble clefs working with the band.

Ray Dunnavant: “I've taught people that all they claim to have known about music is how to turn the radio on in their car. And that person went from that to being able to play saxophone within two years. So I tell people, you can have no musical background whatsoever, and we can start you from scratch and get you up to where you want to be. And as Mandi always says, your best is always good enough.”

The Congaree New Horizons Band will perform concerts this spring, May 1st and 2nd. The USC String Project will present its special 50th anniversary performance on April 19th at the Koger Center. There are many other events and performances in the works for the School of Music’s centennial celebration this year so be on the lookout if you’re looking for a musical fix. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the School of Music’s Carolina Band will be marching and performing in this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.

On a final note, music dean Tayloe Harding says celebrating 100 years of making music is no frivolous thing. Music, he says, strikes a harmonious chord for world peace.

Tayloe Harding: "The more music, more people can make more, more music from more cultures that can be made, the more likely we are to live as in peace as a people. Because music leads to peace. It unites people if it's used the right way. I think of the famous recitals given by Vladimir Horowitz that I think, and that many scholars think are cool, you know, warmed the Cold War. Tango helped establish democracy in Argentina over the years. Nelson Mandela was very forward about how music helped thaw apartheid. And of course, John Lewis, the famous civil rights leader and late representative of Georgia in the United States House of Representatives, was passionate and often talked with me and others about how important music was to the civil rights era in America.

"So those things tell us that if that music needs to be leveraged more fully in the future for uniting and bringing peace to people and understanding one culture or another through the music that they make and a shared making of the music and listening to the music helps lay that groundwork. That's the future of music in higher ed and in America."

That’s well said and that’s all for this episode. On the next Remembering the Days, we’re going to look back at USC's centennial at the turn of the 20th century and especially its bicentennial celebration in 2001. How did USC throw a major birthday party for itself? We’ll find out on the next episode.

For now, thanks for listening and forever to thee.