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Feature: MSU's Music Man

  • Author:
    Rita Griffin Cornstock
  • Published:
    Summer 2012

Those of us who attended MSU before the 1970s 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 ashy 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 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 that 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 the 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 has 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, “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?

Rita Griffn Comstock, ’68, played clarinet in the MSU Concert Band from 1964-65 under Leonard Falcone, and continued to play in various Community bands including  e 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.

Solid Brass: The Leonard Falcone Story (Blue Lake Press,2011) , by Rita Griffn Comstock, tells the inspirational saga of virtuoso band leader Leonard Falcone, whose life journey—including more than four decades at MSU where he worked tirelessly to establish musical excellence.Readers of this magazine can receive a 20 percent discount— visit MSU. All proceeds from book sales support the Leonard Falcone Endowment Fund, which provides music scholarships at the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Twin Lake, MI.


By John Madden, ’85

In the spring of 1984, I had the privilege of performing as principal trumpet player in the MSU Symphony Band. Although he retired in 1967, Professor Falcone was often in the music building, when healthy. He taught, attended concerts and football games, and often had band members whispering, “Isn’t that Leonard Falcone?”

I was thrilled when I learned that Dr. Falcone was healthy and able to guest conduct the Symphony Band.The repertoire he chose included a classic “Falcone transcription” of a march titled “Torino.” I was assigned a tricky little solo line for the 1st cornet part.

On our first reading of the march, we were enthralled by Falcone’s exuberance on the podium. When I played the solo (thinking I was performing well), he stopped the band. “Who’s playing the cornet solo?” he queried, looking through thick tinted glasses. “I am, Dr. Falcone,” I said. He replied, “No, no, no, no. Do it again, not so fast on the 16th notes.” So I adjusted. After some more attempts, he said, “Please see me after rehearsal.”

I arrived at his office in the Music Practice Building the next day, expecting to tweak the solo to his liking and to quickly move on. I played for him. After my first try, he said, “Much better!”

The magical part of this story is that the lesson turned into an intimate chat about music and music making. We visited for several hours (I skipped 2 classes). He asked me questions about what I wanted to do with my career. He played his baritone for me, after not playing it for years. I had to oil the valves for him. It sounded as if he never put it down. His embouchure was perfect. He was 86 years old at the time.

We then played reel-to-reel tapes of his MSU Concert Bands, including a recording of Torino. I asked him a ton of questions. We had the kind of visit I imagine he had with hundreds of students over his 40-year career at MSU. Perhaps he heard me as a trumpet player who needed help or perhaps he heard some potential in my ability to be artistic. I’ll never know. Those three hours in his office changed my life.

So many of us have only heard the legend, heard the recordings and learned of his legacy second-hand. On that day, I became one of the privileged few “Falcone students.” It was a blessing, as he passed away the next year. What we talked about that day is always present in my current teaching.

John Madden has been director of the Spartan Marching Band since 1989.