Corning's Memorable Maestro
Charles C. Corwin
The ABCs of Good Music
Not long after their coming to Corning, Mr. and Mrs. Corwin became promoters of the first of three voluntary music enterprises to which Charles was to make an outstanding contribution. But before we describe these extracurricular activities, let us first leap ahead to Mr. Corwin's 25-year career as music director in the public schools of Corning's Southside, officially named School District No. Nine.
By 1922, the organist from New Jersey had won general recognition in the Corning area for his professional expertise. That year the school board of the Southside public schools invited him to become their supervisor of music. Training young people in musical appreciation appealed to him, and he was gifted along that line, so he accepted the bid. One technical problem had to be settled, however, before he achieved full-fledged status. For certification state law required certain academic courses in the field of musicology. Although Corwin lacked these credits, a solution was easily arrived at. He agreed to take the requisite courses at summer sessions over the next few years. He started off that very summer at Columbia University.
Vacation schooling pleased him, and he continued to take courses even after finishing the mandatory subjects. Thus, he studied one year at Cornell University; another at Northampton, Mass. (probably in a program offered by the Peabody Conservatory of Boston); and yet another, in voice culture, at the Chautauqua Institute on Chautauqua Lake. He also attended classes given by two outstanding choral directors: Olaf Christiansen, the choir specialist, at the Penn Hall School, Chambersburg, Pa.; and Fred Waring, the chorus leader, at Shawnee, Delaware.
Although according to his job description, he was also responsible for musical education in the elementary schools, Charles Corwin spent most of his time as a member of the high school faculty of Corning Free Academy. In the halls of the Academy, the tall, slim, ascetical man of forty, with thinning blond hair, firm jaw, and alert brown eyes, quickly became an accepted figure. Even in private the students of both senior and junior high referred to him as "Mr. Corwin," and held him in parental respect. Though he was strict and all-business, he was very kind, and obviously intent on promoting good music and encouraging the musical to develop their talent. One of his long-term pupils, reflecting recently on his zeal, observed, "If he were living today, he would be classified as charismatic."
As we ancient alumni of C. F. A. well remember, Charles's high school musical program was designed to include, somehow, every student, whether tune-eared or tin-eared. The jolly singalongs at the weekly assemblies gave everybody a chance to learn, if not the music, at least the words, of such old favorities as "Juanita," "Flow Gently, Sweet Afton," and the comic chantey, "A Capital Ship for an Ocean Trip was the Walloping Window-blind." For those who planned to take the Regents' music examinations, he gave classes in musical theory, harmony, and melody writing. (Corwin did little composing and arranging himself. The only piece I recall was a new school song that he wrote in 1927 to lyrics by our English teacher Miss Dorothy Veysey. It was solid and singable, but as he himself warned those students who requested it, the alumni who loved the old song would not take to the new. They did not.)
It was Charles Corwin who founded and patiently conducted the C. F. A. orchestra; the popular C. F. A. band; and even though he disliked the current fad-instrument, the C. F. A. Ukulele Club. It was he who created the Academy's Glee Club, and taught its singers to belt out such classic glees as "Invictus," "Goin' Home," and "Clank, Clank, Clank on the Anvil."
As we have already stated, Charles fostered whatever flair for music he discovered in his young students. Whether their bent was instrumental or vocal, he found opportunities for them to perform in public: at school, in local churches, and at club meetings. Each December he produced a Christmas pageant at the Academy. Then he would take some of his players and singers downtown to present a Christmas concert to the Rotary Club, of which he was long an enthusiastic member. Devotion to the traditions of Christmastide also prompted him to encourage both students and adults to sing carols around the neighborhoods.
No doubt about it, Mr. Corwin was a musical motivator par excellence. Perhaps the best illustration of his gentle compulsion was the treat he arranged in the early 1930s for the C. F. A. orchestra.
He had always tried to teach his players to learn the musical classics by playing them (and, of course, by listening to the recorded music then available); but by the time of the Great Depression few if any of them had attended a live concert by a major orchestra. Now, one November, Cornell University announced that Serge Koussevitsky and his Boston Symphony Orchestra were to perform at Bailey Hall. Corwin decided to give his young musicians a gift that would both please and educate them. Turning to his business friends (some of them probably fellow Rotarians), he buttonholed them for funds to buy concert tickets for his whole ensemble. He also organized a car pool to carry the players to Ithaca. That melodic evening was one that the C. F. A. instrumentalists would never forget.
Charles C. Corwin was obviously an asset to School District No. Nine. Mr. William E. Severn, superintendent of the district from 1929 to 1956, said as much. Expressing public amazement at the musician's multiple activities, both curricular and extracurricular, he asked, "How does he find time and energy to do so many things so well?"
© 1992, Robert F. McNamara