Musical expression can weave together influences from the narratives of a person’s life.
For Ned Corman, 76, the stories and scenes from his upbringing on a farm near Bellefonte helped to shape his path as a former musician and music educator and as a festival organizer and arts advocate.
“We were a farming community and farming families, and there was an ethic about that environment that I think encouraged humility,” Corman said. “There were no grandstanders in the family. The whole family was fairly religious, so there was a great deal of giving back. One of my favorite expressions is from my dad. I never heard Dad talk about a good deal or a bad deal, but he would talk about a fair deal. It’s something that I carry with me throughout my life ─ that and hard work. You don’t live on a successful farm without working hard.”
In his newly released memoir, “Now’s the Time: A Story of Music, Education, and Advocacy,” Corman describes the arc of his story: from his birth in his family’s farmhouse and his first saxophone — a Conn alto from Pifer Music Center in Bellefonte — to his studies at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and his return to the area in the 1960s to become one of the first to earn a musicology graduate degree from Penn State. The book, available at nowsthetimebook.com, also details Corman’s achievements as a musician alongside music greats, such as Tyrone native Fred Waring, his work as a trailblazer at Penfield School District in New York, and his adventures in promoting jazz through festivals and organizations.
Corman went on to found the Penfield Music Commission Project and The Commission Project, both of which are composer-service organizations that have fostered creativity among thousands of students and professional musicians across the country. As an experienced festival planner, he has worked on Swing ‘n Jazz — the commission’s annual fundraiser — the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, the Rochester Independent Music Festival and Greentopia.
As for the timing of the book, Corman said his longtime friend Rob Enslin was one who encouraged him to share his life story, a sort of Horatio Alger Jr. tale of humble beginnings. Enslin, who helped author the book, is a writer, musician and artist who works in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University.
“Over the time (Enslin and I) knew each other, he would listen to my stories and said, ‘Maybe there’s a bigger story to be told,’ ” Corman said.
Three themes unfolded.
“For the first years of my life, we didn’t have running water. I was born in Mother and Dad’s bedroom. I’m far from being wealthy but had a reasonable career as a musician and educator. I was the first in the family to go to college; hopefully it gives an encouraging perspective.
“When I came to Penfield School District, it led to altercations with the district administration and school board, which led to the first grievance filed in the school district, which led to the first arbitration. We took the issue to New York state’s highest court. I’ve always felt that was a particular badge of honor. The people on the other side were clearly in a difference in opinion about who this dealt with. The point is, if you’re in a situation and stand up for yourself, you can prevail.
“The third direction was that people perceive themselves in particular ways. I had no idea when I was teaching that entrepreneurship was part of the genetic.”
Corman also gives credit to his parents, Ray E. and Grace M. Corman, who allowed an only child to veer from the family business to achieve his dreams.
“I can’t imagine any parents who do any more for their child than Mother and Dad did for me, to let me pursue something I really pined for,” he said. “Having said that, I passionately wanted to play football. That didn’t work with the farming schedule. It was a similar story with Little League baseball.”
Corman did play independent league baseball and, at one point, considered trying to play professionally, but he stuck to his musical aspirations.
“At the time, I knew Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman — they were famous,” he said. “In my mind, I hoped if I pursued music as a vocation that that kind of thing might follow. It didn’t, but I certainly had some wonderful adventures along the way.”
Building music history
Corman left home in 1955 to attend the University of Rochester, where he received a bachelor of music in music education with performer’s certificate from the Eastman School of Music.
Arriving at what he calls an unusual time for Penn State in 1963, Corman integrated himself into the local music scene while he studied under with pre-eminent British scholar Denis Stevens and earned a master’s degree in musicology. Corman was a member of the inaugural class of both the College of Arts and Architecture and the School of Music’s new graduate program.
“Prior to the entering class of ’63, music there had always been music education, with no advanced degree at that time,” he said. “Part of the reason for ending up at Penn State was to avoid the draft, so my motivation was self-preservation. Coincidentally, part of what the dean had set out to do was establish credibility in the music department. His effort to do that was to bring in Stevens, which is another part of what helped me decide to come home: to work with Dennis and be his graduate assistant.
“He was the star wherever we were going. I was carrying his bags. Dennis was a wonderful person, a great scholar and a fine musician. I qualify it because I’m not a musicologist. Somewhere in the book, it says there have to be few, if any degrees, less well-earned than mine. I’m not in the world that Dennis lived in at all. My accomplishments at Penn State were pretty much out of my curriculum. I led Phi Mu Alpha Big Band at Penn State for the term I was there. I played principal clarinet for Jim Dunlop, who led the Blue Band those days. I played principal oboe in the symphony orchestra. There were some wonderful musicians both in the music department as well as outside.”
He also played with Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians as principal saxophone, clarinet, and flute player for two seasons in 1964 to 66 and mixed with others playing and promoting music in State College.
Touring with Waring is among Corman’s cherished memories, as well as playing for decades with Chuck Mangione, an award-winning composer, arranger, flugelhorn player and band leader, known for his mega-hit single and album “Feels So Good.”
The value of education
Looking back at his life, and through the process of compiling his story, Corman said he hopes rural Pennsylvania continues to value the gift of music.
“Music is incredibly powerful,” he said. “For anybody who puts their finger into it, there are very few people who aren’t deeply touched in one way or another. If there’s a message to Centre County, it’s this: Support the music program in all of the area schools.”
Enslin said the book speaks not only to those with an interest in music performance, education and advocacy, but also to anyone who wants a look at regional history.
“I think it provides an interesting snapshot of central Pennsylvania during the post-war boom,” he said. “The urbanization of State College, combined with the rise of Penn State football, transformed what was once a small, sleepy hamlet into a national powerhouse. My hope is that this book provides a realistic glimpse into not only Ned’s life, but also the lives of many other people who came of age during this exciting time.”