Celebrating 100 Years of Instrumental Music at Heights


It takes a single conversation with a graduate of the Cleveland Heights High School Instrumental Music Department to realize that the program is truly beloved. Aside from producing generations of distinguished professional musicians, whether they played strings like solo cellist Alisa Weilerstein ‘99, woodwinds like bassoonist Loren Glickman ‘41, or even percussion, as did jazz vibraphonist Ceclia Smith ‘78, the department has provided mentorship and fond memories to alumni who pursued careers outside of music. The 2021-2022 academic year marks the 100th anniversary of the Instrumental Music Department. To celebrate, we’re diving into the history of the department over a series of articles. This post highlights the early years of instrumental music at Heights.

Prior to the founding of the band and orchestra, Heights was not without instrumental music. As early as 1911, a small group of four young musicians (violin, baritone horn, clarinet, and piano) referred to as the “Heights Orchestra” appears in the annual. The group’s concertmistress, Pearl Kitchin, Class of 1913, is described in her senior yearbook as having been “an ardent suffragette [who] makes a noble attempt to keep the rest of the class in their places.” From this, we can only conclude that the ensemble must have been in capable hands. It is difficult to determine the fate of the orchestra after Pearl’s graduation from Heights, as between the years of 1913 and 1922, no annuals were published.

The resurgence of instrumental music at Heights, however, is fully documented in the 1922 Caldron. The annual records that in October of 1920, three students petitioned Principal Russel Burtt to form an orchestra. Mr Burtt acquiesced, stating “Starting an orchestra in the school is an admirable venture. Prove yourselves to be in earnest and credits will be given for orchestra work.” And prove themselves they did. The orchestra made its debut performance in the fall of 1921 under the baton of Mr. E.B. Downey, a science teacher at Heights. The group existed as an extracurricular activity until February of 1926, at which point the first full time music director, Mr. Percy, was hired and the orchestra became an accredited course. The orchestra even performed at the 1926 opening of the school’s current home on Lee Road.

The next decade heralded a flourishing of Heights’ instrumental music program. While at it’s 1921 founding, the orchestra had numbered only 15 members- a motley array of instruments lacking the requisite sections for standard repertoire (for instance, the group possessed neither violas nor celli), by 1929 it had grown large enough to be divided into a separate band and string orchestra. This year also marked the entrance of a new director, Mr. Mark Hindsley, under whose tenure the instrumental department continued to blossom. What had once been a small, student-led endeavor to reintroduce music to Heights had flourished into a distinguished ensemble, performing the repertoire of Brahms, Dvorak, and Sibelius.

This was only the beginning for the Heights Instrumental Music Department. The next chapters in the history of the band and orchestra will be featured in the upcoming Spring/Summer 2022 Heights Magazine.