In 1971, Rebekah Covell was hired by SUNY Potsdam to direct the College’s “Green Band.” While the band’s name didn’t sound like a title of high distinction for the Virginian who had been teaching in Texas, Covell knew she would be blazing a new trail.
“I was a pioneer,” she said from her Florida home. “Not only was I the first woman band conductor at Potsdam, I was the first female band conductor at a college anywhere in the nation.”
Covell would eventually lead what became known as the Crane Symphonic Band before retiring in 1996 to spend time with her ailing husband. She performed the first concert in the new Hosmer Concert Hall when it opened in 1973, even though curtains had not yet been installed. “I think you can still hear that concert reverberating off those walls,” she said.
One of her proudest moments of teaching came in 1980, when she lead the Crane Symphonic Band during the nightly awards ceremonies at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Covell sat on the College’s Olympic Organization Committee and had to come up with solutions to a bandleader’s problems of performing in sub-freezing temperatures.
“We had a difficult time trying to overcome the problems of the cold,” she said. “Woodwinds would crack, percussion heads would break, and valves on brass instruments would freeze. Eventually, we put heaters on the band shell and borrowed lower-quality instruments from the manufacturers.”
Covell led the band through 14 performances over 14 days, often having less than an hour to rehearse an anthem before a performance. “My biggest fear,” she said, “was that I’d mix up the national anthems for East and West Germany.”
Her most memorable moment was when she led the Crane band after Team USA had won the gold medal in hockey by first beating the top-rated Soviet Union in the semi-finals before defeating Finland in the final game.
“We played during the presentation of the gold medal for the U.S. Hockey Team,” she said. “I was right there. One of the clarinet players took a picture of (goalie) Jim Craig standing on the podium with me, and he had his hands in the air like he was conducting. It was one of the most thrilling moments for me.”
Recalling her 25 years of teaching at Potsdam, Covell can’t help but be proud of becoming part of the Crane tradition. Notables such as Lisa Vroman ’79 played in her band as well as Margaret Lattimore ’91, who went on to sing with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and is now a professor in Colorado.
Covell said she tries to get to New York City at least once a year so she can get what she calls her “cultural fix.” In November, she returned to Potsdam to support and watch Metropolitan Opera star Stephanie Blythe ’92, a former conducting student of hers, perform in SUNY Potsdam’s original opera, The Sailor-Boy and the Falcon.
As a faculty emerita, Covell stays in contact with other Potsdam faculty emeriti living in Central Florida and attends faculty reunions and alumni events whenever possible. Knowing the financial needs of the campus, she gives back to the College in support of upgrades to the Crane facility and to help students purchase new sheet music.
Covell said she continues to have a fondness for The Crane School of Music. And even though she’s not, she considers herself a Potsdam alumna.
“The quality of the students kept getting better and better. And I feel fortunate to have worked with the quality of students and the musicianship that came out of that school,” Covell said. “I’ll forever miss the students I had at Potsdam.”