Monday, which was the first day of Carthage’s Thanksgiving break, I headed down to Lombard, Illinois to work with the top choir of a former student of mine at Carthage, Paul Marchese. Paul was my voice student for his first two and a half years (we then decided to switch him over to Dr. Sjoerdsma to take advantage of Dr Sj’s tenorial expertise) and also sang under my direction for four years in the Chamber Singers. After Carthage, Paul went off to the same graduate school that I attended back in the olden days- the University of Nebraska in Lincoln – before coming back to Illinois to teach and eventually landing his current position at Montini Catholic High School. His wife Nicole is also a teacher, and the two of them have two children.
Paul was one of those really fun – and really rare – students who was genuinely interested in learning not just what was required- but rather he wanted to learn as much as he possibly could, to the extent that he went out of his way to listen to recordings outside of classes and lessons, would pepper me with all kinds of questions while hovering in my office doorway, and put in more hours practicing than anyone- and I mean ANYONE – that I have ever taught at Carthage. Back in Paul’s day, we had a special grand piano in the choir room called a Disk Klavier, with a built in computer disk unit which would easily allow one to record piano accompaniment that would play back. In fact, it played them back like a player piano, with the keys actually going up and down as though an invisible pianist was playing the instrument. Paul and that Disk Klavier became very close friends during his time at Carthage, and that’s one of the biggest reasons why Paul’s singing improved so dramatically in his time there. Paul is also one of a fairly small handful of students of mine from my early days at Carthage who profoundly appreciated all that the faculty did for him- and deeply appreciates it to this very day. I feel fortunate to have had Paul and other exceptionally gifted and committed students in my time there- they are really what makes it all so tremendously worth it.
Anyway, Paul’s only fault as a choir director is his questionable taste in music. That is to say, he is a big fan of my compositions and asked if his top choir could do some of my stuff. That is the very very best way to get on my good side, and I was only too happy to oblige. Earlier this fall, they did my arrangement of “Amazing Grace” – not only for their first concert of the year but also for the funeral service of one of the priests at the school, Brother Chris, some weeks later. And for their Christmas concert in mid December, they’ll do two more of my pieces- my arrangement of “Shepherds shake off your drowsy sleep” and an original piece, “Do not awaken the sleeping little baby.” To help them prepare, Paul asked me to come down to work with them and that’s what I did on Monday.
The reason I refer to “grandkids” in the headline is because I had a little bit of that sensation during my trip to Lombard. As I walked into the choir room towards the end of Paul’s rehearsal with his sophomore girls choir, I was amazed and also honored that he rehearsed so much like yours truly- – – moving very quickly, getting lots done, with plenty of quick quips along the way. It was a little like watching myself in the mirror – which is why in a weird sort of way his choir kids seemed almost like musical grandchildren to me. Of course, Paul is his own guy with his own style- and I especially appreciate the way in which he really manages to command attention by sheer force of personality. Also at one point, he stopped rehearsal to speak to his sophomore girls about the importance of working together and of being sensitive to each others needs and he really articulated that so well. He also said that all singing needs to be done with a sense of Joy, even when singing a sad piece of music. I’ve never really stopped to think about that or to say that in so many words, but I think that is a really fine attitude for all singers to keep in mind.
Anyway, it was so cool to see this former student of mine doing such great work – that was almost more fun than what came after that, when it was my turn to work with his top choir on my three pieces. Actually, that was great fun too- and the kids were amazingly receptive to everything I asked of them. (If I’d asked them to jump off a cliff, they would have asked How Far?) We worked first on Amazing Grace, and it was really gratifying to see how much they seem to like singing it. The two Christmas pieces were not as thoroughly learned yet, but we managed to accomplish a lot on those as well.
All in all, it was a great experience to be there- not only for the lovely affirmation of having this group of basically strangers be so enthusiastic about my music- – – but also to see Paul in action and to know that I had at least a little bit to do with his transformation from a gifted but green young man from Sycamore, IL who was one of three guys in his high school choir and who had never seen an opera in his life. . . to an assured and skilled music educator himself who is having a deep impact on the lives of these young musicians. I’m not sure if it’s a baton or a torch that’s been passed, but it feels mighty good to be one of the teachers on that great track.
pictured: Paul Marchese speaking to his top choir at Montini Catholic High School. The rehearsal, by the way, began with prayer. And I like the fact that emblazoned on the wall of the cafeteria are these words: Remember that we are in the holy presence of God.