Cleveland Heights High School Instrumental Music Department (IMD) History 

This history was presented by Susie Kaeser during the IMD Centennial Celebration Concert that took place Saturday, February 23, 2023, at the Cleveland Heights High School. For more information, read the Heights Observer article, Heights IMD and alumni celebrate 100 years.


On behalf of BOPO, the IMD staff, and the musicians of Heights High school, welcome to tonight’s concert – a celebration of 100 years and counting, of the Instrumental Music Program. The Deena Reece Evans performing arts center is the place where much of that history took place.  We are so glad you are here tonight to celebrate the beginning, development, and tradition of music making at Heights, and to pay tribute to the important role music plays in all of our lives. 

I appreciate the chance to give you a quick view of the first 100 years of instrumental music – a history that has served our youth and our community in innumerable ways and contributed to our reputation as an arts community. 

Early History

I found much of the story in high school yearbooks, Marian Morton and the Women’s Civic Club histories of the community. This is what I’ve learned. 

The first 40 years of the program established the framework, reputation and traditions of the Heights High Instrumental Music Program. It was shaped within the development of our community and the school district. The evolution also reflects changes in popular culture, education philosophy, student needs, and national history. 

The core of the music program is the three long-standing performing groups: band, orchestra, and jazz band – they emerged one at a time between 1920 and 1960. In each case, the group started as a club and then became an official course taught by a music educator. During this period the expectations for instrumental course work and standards for quality took root. High school musicians not only attend music class, but they perform for the public, compete and travel. Some march too. We currently have three different levels of performing groups – a tradition established by the middle of the 1930s. All these traditions define what we do now!

Let me start at the beginning. In 1901 the 1,500 residents of Cleveland Heights separated from the East Cleveland Township, and incorporated as an independent hamlet, becoming Cleveland’s second suburb. 

The Cleveland Heights school district was formed the same year and for the next 50 years, the “school board fought a running battle to finance and build and staff schools fast enough to keep up with its growing population.” The population of Cleveland Heights peaked in 1960 with more than 61,000 residents. In 1966, our school district had 20,000 students in 16 schools. As the baby boom hit high school age, Heights High enrolled more than 3,400 students and the graduating class had 850 students. Today district enrollment is around 4,500 and the high school enrollment is closer to 1,600 kids.   No matter the size of the school, music remains essential.

The new school district built its first school on the current site of Boulevard Elementary School. Starting in 1904 it served elementary and high school kids. In 1907, five students made up the first high school graduating class. In 1914 the district opened a bigger building just south of the Lee Road school as a junior high and high school for 500 students. Within a year an addition was needed to house up to 1,500 students. By 1926 it had become Roosevelt Junior High and the high school relocated to this building.

The district had a progressive education agenda encouraging students to be able to learn from projects and solve problems. Year by year, new subjects were added to the curriculum – in 1903 the district added music and hired Ms. Ida Bloom, a graduate of Oberlin Conservatory of Music. The 1911 high school annual includes a picture with 4 student musicians and is labeled as the orchestra. The faculty advisor is not named, who knows if it is Ms. Bloom. The trail goes cold until the 1922 yearbook that provides a more definitive story.  

According to the 1922 Caldron, we have students to thank for launching instrumental music. In October of 1920, “3 timorous adventurers entered Mr. Burtt’s office, where they asked to have an orchestra.” The new principal was positive and promised, “Prove yourselves to be in earnest and credits will be given for orchestra work.” A 15-member orchestra with string and wind instruments began to meet after school, directed by Mr. Schweiker, a science teacher.  The 1922 yearbook proclaims: “The Junior High School Orchestra was launched with the Senior one in the school year of 1920-21.”  This was perfectly feasible since they were all housed in the same school building. The alumni association reports that the first concert was performed in the fall of the 1921-22 school year. For the next three years the faculty advisor for this music club was, Mr. Ellis Downey, a mathematics and biology teacher.  

Mr. Burtt kept his promise. In February of 1926 the 26 -member orchestra changed from an after-school club to an in-school course as did the Glee Club. Mr. Percy, a music professional, was in charge of vocal and instrumental music. The orchestra played patriotic music, performed for their fellow students, and at graduation. By the way, that graduating class formed the Heights High Alumni Association.

The next fall, on September 8, 1926 the first group of high school students walked through the doors of this school, and the orchestra performed that day to welcome them. They also performed on the radio and in the community for civic groups. Music options grew that year with the formation of the banjo club.  

The program took another step forward in the 1928-29 school year when interest in instrumental music had grown and it was time to divide the band and orchestra. Mr. Ernest Bodenweber, the junior high music teacher spent two days a week working with the marching band and concert band. During the 1929-30 school year Height High had a full-time instrumental teacher, Mark Hindsley. The city had grown to be home for 50,000 residents – more than live here today. 

As the IMD blossomed, the stock market crashed, igniting the Great Depression. Nonetheless, in 1930 the band got new uniforms – probably the first uniforms!  In 1932 the school board provided “depression lunches” to its hungry students, and teachers took a 10% pay cut. Our teachers kept their jobs but worked for half the pay.  It wasn’t until 1942 that pay levels were restored. 

BOPO began in 1933. Parents provided the extra hands needed to manage uniforms, staff concerts, and plan and chaperone travel, and to raise funds to support the program. BOPO has been here ever since and we have BOPO to thank for sponsoring this celebration.

Despite uncertain economic times, the instrumental music program came to maturity in the 1930s. It was the start of the golden age for music and the formation of its enviable reputation as ensembles participated in music contests at state and national levels and frequently came away with excellent ratings or as winners.  

Both band and orchestra grew in numbers and reputation. The 1939 Marching Band was 120 musicians strong, and the orchestra had 90 members. By this time band and orchestra each had multiple ensembles.

Financial hardship did not stop Heights students in this upper middle class community from participating in the state band contest in 1931, the National Band Contest at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, or beginning a new band tradition – a military ball for band members in 1935. The yearbook for 1937 captures the essence of the program from the student’s perspective: “the intoxicating joy of a successful performance….the thrill of working together as a group toward the common purpose of performing fine music in an artistic way.” 

Two of the Heights most prestigious performers – Eunice Podis and Robert Weiskopf – came from the class of 1938. She went on to a career as a piano soloist with the Cleveland Orchestra, and he founded and directed the Suburban Symphony. 

In 1940 Cleveland Heights became the 11th largest city in Ohio with a population of 55,000 people. And in 1942 University Heights became part of the Cleveland Heights school district, helping to increase the ever-growing school population.

World War II affected high school life in the 1940s. Students helped sell war bonds, collected aluminum to recycle, and had a club to generate patriotism. The 1944 yearbook is dedicated to the Heights graduates who died in the war, and during the football season in 1946 the marching band paid tribute to the military by depicting the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. The November 25, 1945 band concert was hailed as the first peacetime recital in four years. From 1948 well into the 1960s every band concert ended with a performance of the “Stars and Stripes,” accompanied by the appearance of a huge flag.

In 1948 the Heights Band was invited to be the first high school band in the nation to perform on the steps of the U.S. Capital in Washington, DC. Making it “the most famous high school band in the country.”

In 1945 a new ensemble arrives on the Heights scene, the High Hats, a dance band. The wood working class made the music stands for this new 18-piece jazz orchestra.  This is the era when jazz was the most popular music in the world, and dancing to live music was a popular pastime. Cleveland had more than 150 venues for dancing to live music performed by jazz bands. Now Heights High had its own dance band to go along with marching band and concert band.

The jazz band reappeared in 1952, and then shows up intermittently in subsequent years called at times Jazz Band, Dance Band and Stage Band. In 1957 this extra-curricular activity became a for-credit course and a permanent fixture of the IMD. By then television had started to displace live entertainment and dancing, and the big-band era began to fade. But not at Heights High. Interest in jazz has remained strong. In 1960 a new jazz appreciation club appeared. When the Tri-C Jazz Festival began in 1980 Heights High students became regular participants in performance and education session for high school students. In 1999 Reaching Heights awarded the first James Bane music lesson scholarship to a dedicated jazz band member, honoring the 25-year career of the jazz band director.

The high school program grew in the 21st century when Lab Band was added, along with multiple jazz combos.  It’s still here in full force. 

In 1950 a new instrumental music director took the reins at Heights High, and the focus on quality continued. The yearbook notes, “The equally prominent Heights Band and Orchestra are reaching new heights of perfection under the baton of their new music director, Mr Farinacci. “  The program, standards, and excitement had already been well established. 

By 1960 the city population peaked at more than 61,000 and the high school was huge. This was another important turning point for music. The district hired two people to teach instrumental music, the staffing level that is in place today.  

Over the last 100 years, 27 different music educators have led the IMD. I’m happy to introduce the most recent addition, Dr. Nicholas Marzuola, director of bands who first joined the staff in 2019.

Another critical feature of the music program is touring.  In the 1930s and 1940s the band and orchestra traveled to national competitions, or were invited to perform at special events. But starting in the 40s planned trips during spring break became an essential part of the band, orchestra and jazz curriculum. Chicago, Toronto, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, DC and New York have been popular destinations. But our musicians have also gone to Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia and Iowa. During a pre-pandemic tour to Philadelphia, Jason Kelse, our famous football alum, played with our jazz band.

Next month our kids will get back on the road after this fun part of being a Heights musician was suspended because of covid. 

History Lesson, Part Two

Neither time nor music stand still at Heights High. We continue to build on the tradition of excellence built in the first 50 years, by keeping up with student interests, and adapting to their needs, opportunities and challenges. 

The centerpiece of the program remains our large performing groups, but in recent history our teachers have added new possibilities. In the 1960s there was a Folk Music Club and a Modern Jazz Club. When Dr. Fred Mayer became orchestra director in 1992, he led the charge to replace the harp that had been purchased by “the Mothers of the Band” in 1939, and used Reaching Heights grants to fund two innovations. The first was to hire coaches for an expanded chamber music program which is not a district-funded IMD staple, and for a class to build African drums and start a drum circle. A course on African American Music and AP Music Theory were also added. Brett Baker touched the program by adding guitar as a course – something Dan Heim has continued. 

In 2003 Reaching Heights produced a Reaching Notable Heights, a concert at Severance Hall featuring student musicians from across the district, with the high school ensembles showing off their advanced skills and bringing down the house. The concert has been repeated every four years since then. 

When covid shut down in-person learning in March of 2020, students studied music remotely.  Mr. Heim improvised. Using computer technology, he was able to create a virtual concert that combined as one sound, the individual performances of his student – each playing from home. It was an amazing achievement at a moment when the power of music was desperately needed to lift all of our souls.

Tonight, thankfully, Mr. Heim and the orchestra are here in person and we can all experience together the joy of music performed by motivated high school musicians who play with feeling. Mr. Heim and the orchestra. 

In 1995, thanks to the hard work of Ellen Worthington, my colleague at Reaching Heights, we organized a concert at Cain Park featuring 80 graduates of the Heights High music program whose careers involved music. And in 1998 we organized a second reunion concert, this time for 50 jazz musicians. Those events were my introduction to the IMD’s profound influence on students, and the amazing loyalty it engendered in its graduates. 

Music educators, composers, and performers who got their start in our schools and graduated between 1938 and 1995 came home from across the country to participate in a concert to celebrate the Heights Tradition of Musical Excellence. The concerts launched the 

Reaching Participants over the years have been clear – music matters. It enriches lives, it unites our community and our musicians in common purpose, it creates beauty and confidence and skill. Some alums have credited the music program with keeping them in school.

One outcome of that experience is the Heights Summer Music Camp, an initiative Reaching Heights launched in 2005 to promote equity in access to the wonderful power of instrumental music. We are fortunate that the Height High Orchestra directors have always been willing to be the music directors for the camp. It is a community-based support for this program that will be held, once again at Heights High in June. Dan Heim has been an enthusiastic partner since he joined the IMD in 2009. I appreciate his commitment to our students, and to the continued success of our music program. 

As we celebrate the importance of music to our humanity, and the value of music education to our students and community, I’d like to recognize some of the lasting impact a musical start in our school district, and our community’s remarkable commitment to music education, there are good reasons to feel pride and gratitude. Our story is a great story about the district’s long-held commitment to music as fundamental to the full development of our students; it’s a glorious tradition built on skilled educators, hard-working students, multiple opportunities, and a supportive community. 

Students wrote in the 1945 Caldron,” We are grateful for the fact that our school encourages music and has such organizations as the Heights Symphony Orchestra.”

LaTjuana Chambers wrote in the 1998 Caldron, “Music is the substance that makes the world go around.” 

A 1951 student observed, “music wakes the soul and lifts it high.”

For many students we know music kept them coming to school. 

Our tradition has produced generations of musicians who make their livelihood performing as church musicians, in symphony orchestras, or as touring artists. 

Many become music educators, and I’m proud to say, several of our district’s music educators have been homegrown: Pam Adamson and her sister Janet Schoon, Sharon Beale, and most recently, Kymeron Carter.

Our graduates have had a big influence on our local arts scene. Diana Cohen and her father Franklin Cohen are founders of ChamberFest; Kevin Richards founded Roots of American Music and the Fairmount school of Music; Joe Hunter is the longstanding piano player in the Musical Theater Project; and the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra is populated with alums Joe Miller and Nathan Paul Davis, and former music teacher Paul Hungerford.

So it is fitting that tonight’s celebration includes alumni. Many may be in the audience enjoying the music and memories. We are grateful for the people who live close enough and are ready to perform on what my son describes as hallowed ground – the Height High stage. 

While Mr. Bergantino had planned to be the guest conductor for this great ensemble, alas, covid strikes again. Our IMD conductors shared the duties. 

About Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a public education advocate and cheerleader for Cleveland Heights, her home since 1979. She volunteers at Boulevard Elementary School, and for 17 years directed Reaching Heights. She and music teachers Tamar Gray and Betsy Neylon started the Heights Summer Music Camp in 2005. The inspiring team of music educators and the excited Heights campers make music camp her favorite week of the year. 

With help from Ellen Worthington, Martin Kessler ’67, Joe Hunter ’78, and Greg Slawson ’88, she produced two concerts at Cain Park featuring Heights High alumni. She also worked with district music staff to produce two concerts at Severance Hall featuring CH-UH students. She is married to Jerry Blake, and their two adult children are graduates of the Heights schools and participated in the IMD. She writes a monthly column in the Heights Observer and is the author of Resisting Segregation, How Cleveland Heights Activists Shaped Their Community. She is a city planner by training, and does not play a musical instrument.

Kaeser is a product of the public schools of Madison, Wisconsin, and earned her undergraduate degree from Grinnell College. She did her graduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee earning a Master of Arts in anthropology and Master of Urban Planning.