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The Saga of Virgil W. Bork

The Saga of Virgil W. Bork
The remarkable story of a successful musician who was “brought up under ground” and now directs the large Union County Band and Orchestra School in Roselle, New Jersey
Secured expressly for
The Etude
 
By JAY MEDIA
 
NO MORE ASTONISHING story than this one of life struggles and musical achievements, ever has appeared in THE ETUDE. We have inspected personally the unusual work of the Union County Band and Orchestra School, in the High School Building at Roselle, New Jersey. We could write chapters about the hypnotic absorption of the students from six year old children to men along in years. The reason why it appears in THE ETUDE is that we are convinced that it must be only the forerunner of hundreds of such schools in the Americas. As for Virgil W. Bork himself, he is one of the most amazing figures in our individual and distinctive art life in America. We have heard him conduct such a work as Tschaikowsky’s “Marche Slav,” as played by his excellent leading student band at Roselle, in a way that would put to shame many a professional band. The orchestral work at the school, under the skilled baton of A. H. Brandenburg, head of the Instrumental Department of the Elizabeth (New Jersey) Public Schools, was also very fine. The accomplishments of the school have been highly praised by many foremost educators and musicians, including Dr. Walter Damrosch, Dr. Hollis Dann, Dr. Edwin Franko Goldman, Clifford Demarest, Thomas Wilson, and J. W. Fay.

Although Mr. Bork insists that he is only beginning his career, and modestly gives most credit for the success of the Roselle enterprise to his associates, his fortitude and achievements are distinctly heroic. Let us present them in his own words—Editorial Note.
 
* * * * *
 
The Seeds are Sown
Mv NAME IS Virgil Wladyslaw Bork, which the reader may discern is part German and part Polish. My father, Wilhem Gorgoniusz Bork, was a Pole of German ancestry, and I was born at Zakszow, Poland, June 13, 1892, youngest by six years of the family of ten children, six of whom died very young, and the remaining four of us were all boys—Michael, Jan, Alexander, and myself. Father was the administrator and manager of a large estate in this remote rural section. He was a man of cultural background and spoke, read, and wrote in the German, Russian and Polish languages. Our home, therefore, was not like the peasant’s home, as there were plenty of good books, which were devoured, and some music. Conditions in Russian Poland were terribly oppressive (a fact well known). From sources unknown to me, we learned of the land of gold across the seas, and my oldest brother, Michael, ventured there. After a year or so he came back and told us about the wonders he had experienced in this new world of our dreams. I still can visualize him sitting in front of the fireplace and talking to us in his newly acquired English language, as we sat there with our mouths open in amazement, not understanding a word he was saying.

Shortly after this my father decided to venture to this wonderful land of opportunity. After he had been gone two years, he sent for us. While we were frightened at the thought of getting out of Russian Poland, we were thrilled with the opportunity to leave for the New World. We were soon on our way to the Austrian border which, when passed, insured our safety. Through friends we came in contact with one of the men who made a business of smuggling refugees over the border. We walked for hours with our heavy luggage until nightfall. Our guide led us into an old barnhouse belonging to his friend. The location being near the Austrian border, he told us to rest a little and to keep perfectly quiet while he went out scouting to make sure that the Russian border patrol was far enough away to insure our safe crossing. About midnight we were signaled to follow him very quietly or we might be caught by the guards, deported, and thrown into Ciurma (jail) for attempting an illegal escape from the country. (At this time a family having healthy sons could not leave the country without a permit, which was practically unobtainable; for all of the sons, with the exception of the eldest, were subject to service in the Czar’s army.) We walked, and at times almost crawled, through a forest, with our guide just ahead of us. At one time we heard from a distance, gunshots which made our teeth chatter and caused us to be all the more cautious in moving. Slowly we were nearing a swampy stretch of land which, as we could see by the early dawn, was spotted with sheets of water and numerous winding streams which we had to cross. In making our way over one of these streams, I slipped off a log and fell into the water, losing my beloved cap. My brother reached down and pulled me out. Finally we got over the border, and, though we were exhausted, there was great rejoicing. Then came the long journey to the New World. Our destination was Snake Hollow in West Virginia, a little mining settlement near Glen Falls. The spot was well named, as the country thereabouts was simply alive with snakes of many kinds. The little settlement is now no more, but I have no doubt that the snakes are still there! Nothing frightened me more than a snake, and therefore I was very glad when my father, who had become a worker in the bituminous coal mines, took me at the age of eight down into the mines and started me off on the career of a coal miner.

In Darksome Mother Earth
THE SHAFT LEADING to a bituminous mine is ordinarily not sunk perpendicularly, as in the case of anthracite mines; and there are not the dangers from fire damp and explosive gases that are found in the lodes of harder coal. The entrance to these mines is through a horizontal shaft in the side of a hill. This shaft, called “a heading,” winds through the various tunnels leading to the rooms where the coal is mined. There in this mine (and several others), far below the surface of the earth, I spent the most of the next decade of my life; and there I started my musical career. Of course, it would be illegal now for an eight year old child to work in the mineVIRGIL_BORK_AS_A_MINE_WORKER.jpgs; but understand, I was with my father, and everything seemed tremendously interesting to me. The mine was my world. I had no regular attendance at school, but somehow I learned to read and write English. There were no modern equipments, no electric lights, no ventilation save bonfires here and there below vertical shafts which led to the surface and carried off the bad air. There were miles and miles of track in the mine, and the cars were pulled by trained mules and horses. We entered the mine at one-thirty, two, or three A.M., and we stayed down there until five or six P.M., that same day, in other words, about fifteen hours underground. My father did not force me into the mine. I followed him. In fact he could not keep me out. Despite the fact that I was an overgrown boy, I worked very hard, in the dark, at a very hazardous occupation, but my health was generally remarkably good. I honestly cannot see that the experience did me any damage physically.
 
Digging Black Diamonds”
THE MINING WORK was thrilling, though dangerous. One went into a chamber and, with a pick, dug into the side wall at its bottom a cavity along the face of the coal, about eighteen or twenty inches high, and excavated to a depth of about four feet. You see, one had to lie down on his side to bore in with a pick in this way. After this hole was made, a miner took an auger and bored a hole into the wall at a height of about five feet from the floor. Then the miner, with a dripping non-safety oil lamp on his head, would take a pick and break in the top of a twenty-five pound keg of powder. He would take a sheet of newspaper, wind it around the handle of his pick, to make a long tube, and then would fill this with powder as a kind of primitive cartridge. He would place two or three of these tubes in the hole he had bored, would attach a fuse, and get at a safe distance, so that the charge could be fired, or “shot.” The coal would commence to tumble down and then it was ready to be loaded into the mule cars to be carted off to the surface.
I worked in the mines, not only at this job but also as mule-driver, motorman, machineman, trackman, pumpman, powerhouse operator, and blacksmith. But all the time there was something which seemed to keep before me making mind pictures of a life in another world, in which beautiful music was an inspiration. Here was the inspiration to practice, practice, practice—all my spare time, to reach out to a new and wonderful goal.

An Imponderable Urge
HERE AND THERE from some player I picked up a hint or so and had gradually acquired a kind of ability to play the fife, the violin, and the accordion. My brothers were musical, and we had played around at dances. Other than this I had no lessons up to that time. Then I met a Polish immigrant, Bronislaw Bielak, who played second cornet in an army band, and I decided to study the cornet. After one month of struggle I was sufficiently encouraged to warrant engaging a real teacher.

VIRGIL_BORK_TO-DAY.jpgI found such a teacher in Alfredo Steffano, an able Italian band leader, who had settled in Clarksburg, West Virginia, where I had been living at the time. I discovered in him, first, a fine musician and second, a traveled gentleman of culture. Unfortunately he spoke no English, but in some way we made out. I realized that from my surroundings I had become very crude and rough. I strove to imitate his poise and his gentle tone of voice as much as I did his playing. A teacher in those days, as well as now, was expected to play all the instruments of the band. His principal instrument was the trombone, but he taught me the cornet. I paid Mr. Steffano three and a half dollars per month for instruction, and he took such an interest in me that I spent most of my spare time above ground with him. He admitted me to his band and taught me enough theory so that I could transpose. I have worked for hours and hours transposing and copying musical works for his band. Music, however, was still my hobby, and I had no intention of becoming a professional. Yet I got into it deeper and deeper.
 
At the time I studied with Steffano we lived some three or four miles away from the bandroom in which the rehearsals were held, usually in the evenings. I shall never forget the thrill I received when I first played my little part in Steffano’s wonderful band. He had given me as my first assignment, half of one certain “American Eagle March,” which I was to have ready by the next rehearsal. Since walking was the only means of getting to the bandroom, I walked the distance, this half of a composition carefully prepared, to experience the thrill of playing it with a real band.

Inasmuch as in those days not many youngsters played musical instruments, anyone carrying an instrument case with him to and from rehearsals often placed himself in an embarrassing position. Boys who had nothing else to do often “razzed” a youngster who was carrying an instrument case. Because my little cornet case seemed too obviously to contain an instrument, I often left the case at home and carried my cornet under my coat or in some other wrapper to avoid such unwanted publicity. To-day, however, a young person takes great pride in carrying even someone else’s musical instrument. In 1912 I secured employment in the Phillips Sheet and Tin Plate company, which was later called the Weirton Steel Company, recently widely discussed in the press. My father had, meanwhile, gone back to Poland, where he died during the war. Since I was making wartime wages in the mill, I was well able to care for my mother and had time and money for music and musical instruments. I directed bands, played in theaters, and at dances.

A Life’s Ship is Launched
I ORGANIZED my first band in 1913. At that time I could play cornet; violin, clarinet, and flute. The band was composed of twenty-four friends, all workers in the zinc factory, the glass factory, the steel mill, and the coal mines. All found it a glorious escape from their daily work. Music unquestionably makes happier and better workers, and, if industrialists knew what I know, they would set aside a certain amount in their budgets to provide regularly for music, if only because it helps people to keep their balance.
Many amusing experiences attended the organization of my first band, which was called Bork’s Band. I had agreed to teach its members, providing each member would loan me his instrument overnight, one at a time, giving me at least one evening to find the scale in the instrument and to prepare a lesson for its owner, who would receive his lesson the following evening. Not being aware that it was possible to secure lesson manuals for the various instruments to be taught, I painstakingly figured out the tone relations of the various instruments and laboriously wrote out scales and exercises for each pupil.

When it became rumored about that a band was forming in town, we suddenly received an unsolicited engagement. A prominent evangelist had arrived in the town, and he engaged us for parade at the opening of his campaign. All sizes and shapes, we gathered for the event, quite aware that we had never practiced playing and marching together before and that it would require all the ability we had to keep together musically, let alone maintain marching formation in a street parade. Well, at the signal up struck the band and forward stepped each member, his eyes glued to his music sheet. Hardly had we gone a block when I became aware that the long legged tuba player, his forward view obstructed by his music sheet, . was doing a solitary goose step about twenty- five feet ahead of the band. The short legged fellows, between puffing and blowing, were having a hard time to keep up. To top it all, I, the solo cornet player, had permitted a musician friend to inspect my instrument shortly before the parade commenced with the result that I discovered, when about to blow my first note, that he had placed one of the valves in the wrong position. My first few blocks on parade were given over to getting out of this predicament. We finally straggled up to the evangelist’s tabernacle. We were so ashamed that we refused to accept the money offered to us for the job.

See the Conquering Heroes”
But WE RESOLVED, then and there, to develop ourselves into a real marching band. On the following Sunday afternoons we went out into the open country and practiced playing while marching. Up hill and down dale, over hummock and into hollow, we marched, spraying notes to the four winds. In fact, so enthusiastic had we become that one Sunday afternoon we unconsciously marched into a pasture con- taming several bulls. Although the bulls were somewhat taken aback, they rallied and charged toward us. Needless to say, we broke ranks and fled for the fence. In one case, at least, we proved that music hath no charms for the savage beast.

In about 1917 I was engaged to direct the Greater Clarksburg Band, of which I had been a member during my earlier days. This band had been organized back in the 1880’s and is still giving musical treats through its public concerts, to the people of Clarksburg, West Virginia, under the capable leadership of Mr. A. J. (“Gus”) Smith. I directed this band until 1927. It is to this band I owe much for the training I have received. The old-timers, who boasted of thirty years’ experience as members and ex-conductors of this band, at times made me conduct, without score or lead sheet, compositions which I never had seen nor heard. This, along with later training under the late Frederick Neill Innes, enabled me to conduct at times complete concerts without score.

My best band came about in a very curious way. In 1907 there was a serious explosion in two of the Consolidated Coal Company’s mines at Monongah, West Virginia, and, to my knowledge, all but one of the miners who were inside of the mines at the time of the explosion were killed, leaving a large number of orphans. Many of those killed were very close friends of ours; and, since we lived in the vicinity, we reached the scene the very morning on which the awful catastrophe happened. The scene, which I shall not attempt to describe, was a very pathetic one, a very sad picture, indeed.
 
The Band Militant
SOME YEARS LATER I undertook to organize a band of youths, many of whose fathers had lost their lives in this underground disaster. Shortly after the organization of this band, serious labor troubles developed. The coal companies broke their agreements with the miners, and this brought about strikes, walkouts, mass meetings, and evictions. At this time, the “sit down” strikes were not in style. Our young band, since it was supported by the local union, was called upon to furnish music at one of the first of the miners’ mass meetings. The band made a tremendous hit. Moreover, through the efforts of Van A. Bittner, chief organizer of labor in that district, the band became the official United Mine Workers’ Band.
John L. Lewis was beginning to be a power in his original field of mining, and he was holding meetings right and left, and the band was continually called upon to play at these meetings. That band traveled five days a week and was one of the busiest bands in the country. I am sure that it prevented a vast amount of sabotage and unnecessary labor disturbances. John L. Lewis was greatly interested in the band, as one might expect from a man of Welsh back- ground. He was one of our strongest supporters. No one ever called him Mr. Lewis—it was always John—and he seemed never to forget the first names of his miner friends. That was before the days of C. I. O.

In a public speech in Indianapolis, at the convention of the United Mine Workers of America, Mr. Lewis said of the band: “Not the least among the ardent workers for our cause (in 1924) was the band of Monongah, West Virginia.” The succeeding speaker said of the band: “The work of this band is a demonstration of the artistic ability of the members of the United Mine Workers of America. Many of the members of this musical organization were evicted from their homes by the armed guards in the employ of the contract abrogating coal operators of northern West Virginia. Many of the members of this band have been thrown into jail for alleged violation of injunctions while playing on the picket lines at the mines in northern West Virginia. This band has played for us night and day. They have appeared on the picket lines at three o’clock in the morning; they have been there in the evening; they have worked with us for the betterment and strengthening of our organization.”
 
UNION_COUNTY_BAND_AND_ORCHESTRA_SCHOOL.jpg
THE UNION COUNTY BAND AND ORCHESTRA SCHOOL as it appeared at the 1937 Summer Session at Rosette, New Jersey
 
In Which We Arrive in Port
BEFORE I KNEW IT, the thing I wanted most in life had happened. I organized the Bork School of Music in Clarksburg, West Virginia. I also organized a band at Salem College, a Seventh-Day Baptist institution. In addition I started several church orchestras. I organized and developed an orchestra in St. Mary’s High School, a parochial school. There the kind priest, Brother Fideles, principal of the school, pointed out to me the obvious fact that I was without an education. I had literally never been to school up to that time. He explained that, if I was planning to continue teaching music in the public schools, I would have to have a certain number of credits. He offered to help me get the high school education necessary for these credits. I was willing to work all night long, for years, if necessary, to accomplish this. I was then thirty-two years old. I had my wife, my mother and six children to support; but I matriculated and became a high school student. At thirty-five I completed the course and graduated. I then continued my quest for credits at Salem College, and I now am still working to complete my A.B. degree at Rutgers College, New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Meanwhile I had taken time off to study with noted band teachers, including Vander Cook and Innes in Chicago. Seven years ago I was sent to New Jersey as a representative of the Holton Instrument Company, to promote the establishment of bands. Dr. John R. Patterson, Supervising Principal at Roselle, New Jersey, engaged me as director of instrumental music in the Roselle Public Schools. In 1933 we started the Union County Band and Orchestra School, which is a six weeks intensive course in study and practice. The first year we had one hundred and fifty pupils, six teachers and three assistants; the second year two hundred and seventy pupils, fourteen teachers, two assistants; the third year, four hundred and fifty-four students and sixteen teachers; the fourth year, six hundred pupils, with twenty-four teachers; and the fifth year (1937) six hundred and twenty-eight pupils, twenty-seven teachers and a staff of nine. The school has the use of the magnificent new High School building at Roselle, as it is conducted in the public interest. There are one hundred and sixty-three study periods of class work each day. The ages of the students are from six to thirty years. The instruments are owned by the players, except certain unusual instruments provided by the school. There are courses in theory and the Survey of Music, and very elementary courses in History, Harmony and Conducting. The cost of this course is almost nominal—ten dollars for six weeks.
 
Toots Mischief Out The Window
I AM OFTEN ASKED what effect the course has upon the morale of the students, and can only say that in five years there has never at any time been any occasion for discipline in any form. From the tiniest tot to the mature players, some of whom have been at famous music schools, there is so much enthusiasm that there is never any time or opportunity for mischief, or even “cutting up,” at the school. Everyone comes hungry for work, and they have such splendid fun in their music that they never think of anything that might give us trouble.
 
I am also asked what economic effect I this is likely to have upon the private teacher. All I can say is that we cannot do more than a fraction of the work that the student who wishes to advance to greater heights, must have. Some teachers were at first opposed to this work; but, when they found that it was destined to become a “feeder” for their private classes, their opinions changed.

I have no exaggerated misconceptions about our accomplishments. In the first place they would have been impossible without the enthusiastic and interested cooperation of our fine staff. In addition to this we have had the support of Dr. A. L. Johnson, Superintendent of the Union County Public Schools, and of Dr. John R. Patterson, formerly Superintendent of the Roselle Public Schools, as well as the present Supervising Principal of the Public Schools of Roselle, Joseph L. Bustard, and the Roselle Board of Education, through whom we have our excellent facilities for promoting this work in the interests of musical education in Union County. In the second place we can do only so much in six weeks. In addition to this the students must acquire, when possible, deeper musicianship. They should also study on an instrument like the piano, so that they will have a knowledge of the whole range of music, not merely the instrument they play, which represents one tonal line in the orchestral fabric.
 
And So to Victory
IT GOES WITHOUTsaying that our work is a pioneer effort and will awaken thousands of musical talents which otherwise might have remained dormant. All of the faculty of the school are music supervisors, and all of established experience.

The summer session of 1937 covered a period of six weeks from June 30th to August 11th. The daily session was three and one-half hours, divided into six thirty-five minute periods. The school operates on six levels of advancement, or six grades. Each of the six levels has its own band and orchestra. The student is assigned to the level in which he can do his best work and make the most progress. The schedule of band and orchestra rehearsals in each grade is arranged in a coördinating manner with the work in other grades.
In our school the teacher may specialize on any instrument or group of instruments. He may start as a beginner and progress as rapidly as his ability permits. At the end of the session he should have not only a working knowledge of the instruments studied but also a knowledge of practical procedure and methods of teaching in various levels of advancement.

For those teachers desirous of improving their conducting, every type of procedure could be practically absorbed from organization and procedure with beginning groups to actual experience in conducting superior organizations under expert and experienced guidance.
 
Students in our school receive secondary school credits for the summer’s work, approved by the State Department of Secondary Education.

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You are reading The Saga of Virgil W. Bork from the January, 1938 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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