Campus music programs have storied history

By Rusty Johnson
Where's Brinda?
February 25, 2000


The Georgia Tech Chorale is one of the oldest performing groups on campus. The Chorale, along with other ensembles, make their home in the Couch building.

The Music Department at Georgia Tech has a colorful history, beginning in 1907 with an all-male Chorale, following with the rise of the Band in 1908. Both were first led by students and were not chartered until January 1, 1911. Two years later Tech hired a part-time non-student to head the department.

Georgia Tech's first band director was Frank "Wop" Roman, who wrote "I'm a Ramblin' Wreck from Georgia Tech" in 1919. The "Kitchen Confrontation" in the 1950s saw Vice President Richard Nixon and Russian Premier Nikita Kruschev singing it together. The Roman-led Band performed in "the world's first radio dance" on March 27, 1920. The Columbia Gramophone Company marketed the songs of the GT Band and Glee Club starting on November 13, 1925. Tech was the first Southern college to have a recording.

The evolution of the Chorale has also been unique. When Georgia Tech went Co-ed, according to Dr. William Caldwell, Director of Choral Activities, "there were enough women to create a women's choir," and eventually the two groups evolved into the current form, a mixed-voice Chorale. The merger took place under the direction of Greg Colson-Tech's first full-time choral director-who preceded Dr. Caldwell. However, the Men's Glee Club disappeared, and did not return until Dr. Caldwell brought it back in 1998. Also, there was a smaller group created under Colson called the "Technicalities," which later changed to "Vocalities." This group performed, according to Caldwell, "lighter music;" he turned it into an auditioned Chamber Choir in 1997.

Other performing groups include the Symphony Orchestra, which was created from the String Ensemble in 1996 by Ron Mendola, the Jazz and Percussion Ensembles, Symphonic Winds, Concert Band, Basketball Pep Bands, and various chamber ensembles. The Band has practiced in some unique venues, the most notorious being the "Quanzit Building," a military structure constructed during World War II. Other venues included the Old YMCA, which is now the Alumni House, and the Old Church of God Building, which was eventually demolished. In the mid-70s, the Music Department moved into the Couch Building. Built in 1928, it was originally an old Elementary School. Apparently, the building was in a state of disrepair.

"Birds were everywhere, half of the building had no air conditioning, the roof leaked, and windows were falling out," said Bucky Johnson, the Department Chair.

It has "come close" to being condemned. In 1983, Johnson showed the bathroom facilities to the POD (Physical Plant) and began complaining.

"The [representative] said they were fine, then put his foot down-it went through the floor," said Johnson. Although the building has come a long way since then, Dr. Caldwell still believes that the building is an embarrassment.

"One hundred college kids [are] sitting in a room designed for 30 fifth-graders. The quality of this facility is detrimental to the services offered to the students," said Caldwell.

By 1983, the sole piece of technology the department had was an IBM typewriter, and the Department only had, according to Johnson, "1.5 positions," which referred to its three part-time faculty members. Originally having to plot halftime shows by hand, then eventually on an Apple IIe, now the Department has over half a million dollars in technology equipment, including a 15 station computer lab, a percussion lab, and a lab used by James Oliverio, the composer-in-residence. The department's seven full-time faculty and one full-time staff member. Its course offerings have expanded from nine in 1983 to 45 today, with student enrollment increasing rapidly. It has risem from just over 500 in Fall 1994 to about 750 in Fall 1999.

Although the increased enrollment is encouraging, it has created a critical need for the department. Although there has been a rise in funding over the last several years, Johnson says that "the growth of the program has used up the increased funds." Currently funds come from its Tier II status in SGA funding, the College of Architecture, the Athletic Association, and alumni gifts.

Currently, the Music Department offers a Certificate and a Minor. However, since private lessons are a requirement for the Minor, the only concentrations available are in the current areas of expertise of the faculty: coronet, clarinet, and percussion. Voice is currently listed as a minor, but Dr. Caldwell declines to teach private lessons because "teaching private voice is different from teaching groups." About 14% of those students taking music classes wish to pursue a Minor.

"Since there are no music majors, there are no music scholarships," said Johnson.

Despite this fact and the disadvantage Tech has in student enrollment, the Marching Band is the second largest in the ACC. Johnson says that currently it makes little sense to have a School of Music because of Tech's proximity to Georgia State; however, few students cross-enroll because of inconvience and the fact that GSU classes frequently have no openings.

Dr. Caldwell likes the fact that there is not a School of Music "because of the politics that occurs." The lack of a music major also makes it easier for those who enjoy music to perform in top ensembles.

In Fall 2000, the Chorale will be moving from the Couch Building to the renovated Tenth Street Church, which is currently a warehouse. In addition to housing the Chorale, Dr. Caldwell looks for the sanctuary to become "a multi-purpose lecture hall, with some performance possibilities;" it has an audience capacity of 300, and will allow the Chorale to grow to 150.

Dr. Caldwell also envisions a "one night a week event" where students who have no time to join Chorale and faculty come together to enjoy singing in a non-binding function. In order to keep the Music Department together, and meet the demand for better practice facilities and more space, Johnson is currently hoping for a separate instrumental facility, with estimates at $1.2 million.

A survey completed in the late 1980s reported that 50 percent of incoming Georgia Tech students had prior music training. At the time, only about 200-300 students were involved in the Music Department. With the program growing at an ever-increasing rate, it is coming closer to its obvious goal of sharing the gift of music to as many aspiring musicians as possible. For more information about the Music Department, call (404) 894-3193 or email