The legacy of a town in song: ‘Small Town, Big Dreams’ showcases Hollidaysburg’s rich history

Mirror photo By Gary M. Baranec Rich Hirsch works with Hollidaysburg Area High School students preparing for an upcoming Jazz Band Concert.

Hollidaysburg is rich in history. The borough is filled with buildings from times gone by, many with visible placards that showcase the years the structures were erected. From Canal Basin, to Chimney Rocks, to the railroad tracks, the town has a story to tell.

History books and photos typically convey the accounts of the town, but music will be the medium to make Hollidays-burg’s story come alive in the upcoming premier of “Small Town, Big Dreams.”

The concert has been three years in the making and was envisioned by Scott Sheehan, director of bands and the music department chair at Hollidaysburg Area Senior High School. He had the idea after hearing a concert in Bellefonte that was composed about Talleyrand Park.

“Fifteen years ago I heard songs composed on a smaller scale (for Talleyrand Park). It was such a great story to tell through music and jazz. Years went by, and with our area and the rich history and culture of the railroad and with the Horseshoe Curve being a monumental achievement, I thought this would be a cool way to tell the story of our heritage,” he said.

Sheehan enlisted composer Rick Hirsch from State College to write original music to tell the stories of Hollidaysburg and the Horseshoe Curve. For the past three years, he has visited the senior high school to work with the students, which included teaching his process and giving hands-on lessons. The project also incorporated the art and history departments at the high school.

“It is a truly integrated educational experience. It was not just about hitting the right notes, but about history and its artistic expression. I also showed the students how music is made; it’s not just waving a wand and notes come. There are a lot of things I think about before I ever write a note and then turn it into a song,” Hirsch said.

Hirsch began this process by working with Sheehan to determine the historical spots of significance for the songs. Chimney Rocks, Canal Basin, the U.S. Hotel and the Horseshoe Curve were all inspirations. So were stories of the history of the area, such as borough buildings that were a stop for the Underground Railroad. The jazz songs tell the stories of the many others who came before us to build the beloved area.

Hirsch visited the landmarks and researched them, then created songs to tell their stories. “I loved the Horseshoe Curve. The finale ‘Big Dream’ is about the vision of the engineer who figured that out as a solution and the workers with their hand tools who built it. It was a monumental vision to do that,” he said.

It was also a vision for Sheehan to create this unique learning experience for students who were able to collaborate with and learn from a composer.

Sixty-five senior high school students will perform. They are involved in the Jazz Band, the vocal ensemble — Fantazia — and the string ensemble and the jazz quartet.

“Scott’s vision and being open-minded has made giving his kids an experience that is rich and interesting,” Hirsch said.

Sheehan appreciated all of the openness and willingness of the school district and the community to make the concert possible.

“One of things I am thankful for is that in Hollidaysburg these type of things are appreciated and supported in the community, by the school district and the music parents. It’s a big collaboration and we were all in it together. The whole educational community sees value in projects like this and I’m very lucky to be part of this and to have folks who can make it happen,” he said.

Sheehan’s hope is that the community will attend the concert to celebrate the achievements of the group and the history and the heritage of the area.

He said, “I’m excited for the concert. I look at teaching as collaborative; I’m learning and they’re learning. It’s just been a great experience and I really couldn’t be happier with the outcome.”

If you go

What: Small Town, Big Dreams

When: Thursday, March 8 at 7 p.m.

Where: Hollidaysburg Area Senior High auditorium

Admission: Free and open to the public