Innovative musician encouraged children to share musical talent
Many schools in the past hosted Christmas or holiday-themed concerts at this time of year. While the event may be dubbed “winter concerts” now, the joy of music remains the same.
Eighty-five years ago, students at Michael Dowling School for Crippled Children in Minneapolis received national attention for their school orchestra. The students participated in orchestra for the very first time, thanks to the remarkable Elmer Clingman and a federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) project.
The WPA helped millions of American left unemployed by the Great Depression. At its height in late 1938, more than 3.3 million Americans worked for the WPA.
The December 5, 1936 Minneapolis Star had a story headlined “Crippled children overtop handicaps to play music.”
“This is the story of one man’s understanding and how it is bring happiness to the lives of Minneapolis crippled children,” it said.
Dowling pupils formed an orchestra, under the direction of Clingman. For children whose only chance to be musicians was to sing in chorus, being in an orchestra was a prized experience.
Clingman was a prominent Twin Cities musician and organist at Simpson Methodist Church in Minneapolis. He had a background in music therapy. The orchestra was believed to be the first of its kind anywhere. It quickly attracted national attention.
The notion of the orchestra got its start in 1934 when Clingman met Evelyn Herrala. Herrala had no hands or feet, and used a wheelchair. She wanted to be a musician. Clingman had a special slide trombone made that she could hold and play. She also learned the piano. She presented concerts and later joined the Minneapolis Marshall High School band and orchestra.
The 29-piece Dowling orchestra had 79 student musicians. Instruments were all specially designed. Teachers at Dowling donated instruments, as did music companies, the Shriners and the Big Sisters organization.
“I would rather give one year’s work for these little people, than 10 years at any other job,” Clingman said.
All of the children were taught to transpose so they could rehearse at home. The ability to transpose music is an essential skill for a musician’s development.
“The children are now busy preparing letters for Santa Claus, asking for more instruments. There is a shortage just now, and as many as five children share a horn – each having an individual mouthpiece, however,” the newspaper article stated.
Clingman’s work at Dowling received national attention. His death in January 1942 at age 66 was a sad time for the school students.
Most of Clingman’s student musicians are gone now. Herrala led a busy and full life. She graduated from Marshall High School and Hamline University. She and her sister were their first family members to attend college.
Herrala spent her career in public relations for Goodwill Industries in Detroit. She was honored in Washington, D.C. in 1955 as the first National Goodwill Worker of the Year. She moved back to Minneapolis after retirement and maintained her interests in politics, nature and her church. She died in 2006 at age 88.
The History Note is a monthly column produced in cooperation with the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Past History Notes and other disability history may be found at www.mnddc.org