By Rita Griffin Comstock, '68
A former MSU band member recollects the life, times and many contributions of an iconic figure of MSU history and of American culture.
There is no statue outside the music building on the MSU campus, no exhibit inside its brick walls honoring the genius of the man who taught thousands of students for 57 years, producing through them some of the best, if not the best, college concert and marching bands in the nation. But pass through the heavy oak doors of its West Circle entrance and head down the corridor on your right to 116 MB, the Director of Bands’ office. If the door is open—and it often is—you will see a portrait of him hanging on the west wall. There is no name indicating who he is—no little bronze tag affixed to the bottom of the frame, no card in a plastic sleeve underneath. But if you are old enough, you might recognize him anyway. It is Leonard Falcone, once the "Dean of the Big 10 Band Directors" and forever "The Father of the MSU Bands."
Those of us who attended MSU before the 1970's have indelible memories of Leonard and his band on the gridiron. Remember those crisp football Saturdays when the sight of the green and white marching machine kick-stepping onto the field ingrained in us a pride that even after all these years buoys the spirit? Many of us can still hear the echoes of its majestic, soul stirring sound at pre-games as the “MSU Fight Song” and “The Star Spangled Banner” swelled and filled the stadium, and picture Leonard mounting his wooden perch with an aura of high purpose during the half time shows, and from there summoning massive waves of musical drama with grand sweeps of his baton.
Current students may not know who he was, but Leonard Falcone left a permanent mark on the MSU they are familiar with today. The magnificent band they and nearly 20 million other spectators saw in the 2012 Outback Bowl had its roots in the Falcone marching bands of the 1950s and ’60s. Bands such as the high-stepping one that stunned spectators on September 2, 1952, when at the Michigan-MSU game it ripped onto the field in flashy new green and white uniforms—the first non-military uniforms donned by the band—in a fast tempo, 220 beat per minute kick-blast that was to become its signature entrance routine. Or the one at MSU’s January 1st, 1954, Rose Bowl game, when thousands of fans refused to leave the stadium after the game was over until it took the field and for nearly an hour played and went through its snappy drills as the crowd demanded “More! More!” Or the innumerable ’60s bands that performed the kaleidoscopic “Patterns in Motion,” an innovative choreography that became the model for all modern marching bands and provided a performance lexicon that led to many more changes in marching band style. “Patterns in Motion” can be seen today in our band’s pregame “Spinning the S” routine, when marchers form the “Block S” in a manner which leaves the audience wondering how they did it.
That Falcone is considered by those in the know to have been at the forefront in establishing the college band as a dominant force not only at MSU, but in American culture as well, is not surprising. His immense talent, and the fact that he served as MSU’s Director of Bands from 1927 until 1967 made him one of only a very few conductors in history to preside over and develop a band program from a small college through its growth years as a major university. When a new band shell was built on the banks of the Red Cedar in 1938 (it met its demise in 1959, a sacrifice to Ernst Bessey Hall) it was a triumph for Leonard and became a symbol of his success in popularizing the concert band medium. For 21 years he conducted open air concerts there with thousands of concert-goers showing up weekly to hear his band play. Though he led the MSU bands, both concert and marching, to astonishing heights, the truth of the matter is that getting them there wasn’t always easy. It took a combination of an extraordinary work ethic, solid character and sheer talent for him and the bands he built to succeed.
Like most of us, Leonard Falcone probably established his character and work ethic in his early years. As a young child in Roseto Valfortore, Italy, among other responsibilities he lathered men’s beards in his father’s barber shop and was already earning his own living as an alto horn player in the village band by age nine, a feat that also allowed him to pay for his music lessons. When he came to this country at 16, a small, naïve boy traveling alone from Ellis Island to Michigan without benefit of knowing the English language or the country’s customs. His brother Nicholas (who had immigrated two years before him and was the director of a pit orchestra in one of the fine silent film theaters in the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area of the day) helped him land a job as an assistant tailor and to find gigs as a theater musician.
It was in Ann Arbor that Leonard, while still in his teens, became an orchestra director at the important Wuerth Theater on Main Street, made a reputation for himself as an artist, learned the language, became an American citizen and got an education at the University School of Music, a private school with close ties to the University of Michigan. There, in the school’s outstanding orchestra, he rose to the position of concertmaster, playing on a violin he had won at an Ann Arbor street fair. It was an instrument that earned him a spot (which he declined) in the Detroit Symphony. Most of his future students were unaware of his violin prowess because of his overriding reputation as the world’s leading euphonium horn soloist. In 1927, just as sound was beginning to come to the movies, he was offered an appointment at Michigan State College as Director of Bands. He took it—just weeks after his brother Nicholas took the same position at the University of Michigan. They were to become a titanic duet of conductors who for years exchanged services in a spirit of cooperation and love of music, encouraging one another and their respective bands to reach greater and greater heights of musical expression.
The association between the universities and the brothers was so close that in 1934 Leonard Falcone became the conductor of both the Michigan State College and University of Michigan Bands when Nicholas, trapped in a devastating situation, was no longer able to conduct. It was probably the only time in the history of major university bands that a single director was in charge of two competing groups; little wonder that the local press, struck by Leonard’s ability, devotion and stamina, dubbed him “Iron Man.”
Toward the end of his life, as homage to his enormous influence on the music world, Leonard was awarded an honorary PhD from MSU. “As a little immigrant boy, shall we say, I have come to the top by being granted this doctorate,” he commented in an August, 1980, edition of the Grand Rapids Press. In 1984, he was inducted into the National Band Association’s Hall of Fame, joining the ranks of John Phillip Sousa, Carl King and Henry Fillmore. A year after his death, several of his former students founded the renowned Leonard Falcone International Euphonium and Tuba Festival and Competition at the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Twin Lake, MI, to provide “a continuing testimony to the profound influence of Dr. Leonard Falcone upon the lives of his students and the extraordinary level of artistry he achieved throughout his career on the instrument he loved.”
I don’t know who’s spent the most years devoted to MSU and its students, but Falcone is at least a final contender for the title. After his arrival on campus in 1927 at age 28 to take over as Director of Bands, he held the position for 40 years and then he followed it by another 17, teaching low brass students in his Music Practice Building retirement office, conducting the marching band in the “MSU Shadows” at home football games, and continuing to put his stamp not just on the school he loved, but on college bands everywhere. During Leonard’s years as Director of Bands at State, the school had grown more than 15 times over, from 2,568 students to 38,758 in 1967. He had taken its little known band from a small military unit with discipline problems and questionable playing skills to a nationally recognized 144 member marching sensation with a reputation for musical excellence that performed for four U.S. presidents (Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson), at the 1964/1965 New York World’s Fair, and at three Rose Bowl games (1954, 1956, and 1966)—not to mention for millions of fans across the nation both live and on television.
Fittingly, the “MSU Shadows,” the alma mater that will forever be associated with him, was the last music Leonard Falcone heard performed in his life, and the last tune played at his memorial service. It was there, at a “Mass of the Resurrection” at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in East Lansing on May 9, 1985, that the hundreds of former and current MSU band members, people who already knew Leonard as a devoted and generous man, discovered the depth of his dedication to MSU when they learned that he had willed his body to the Department of Anatomy. He had given the university his talent, his loyalty, his intellect, his heart, and finally, his very self. Can a man bequeath more to Michigan State University than that?
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Rita Griffin Comstock, ’68, played clarinet in the MSU Concert Band from 1964-65 under Leonard Falcone, and continued to play in various community bands including The Bay Winds (MD), the Fairfax (VA) City Band and the Maynard (MA) Community Band. In the 1970s, she worked as a writer for Prentice-Hall before becoming a mother to three children, Edward, Mary, and James, and later taught English at Stonewall Jackson High School in Manassas, VA. She now works for the Prince William County Public Schools, VA, and lives in Sudbury, MA with her husband, Ed.