Tomorrow night I will be playing piano for the spring concert of the Lincoln Middle School choirs, under the direction of a former student of mine named Rita (Torcaso) Gentile. I taught her a bit when she was at Carthage, and she was a star student for Polly at Tremper High School – but now we consider her not so much as a “former student” but rather as a good friend and colleague. (She has appeared in my blog from time to time, including an account of her spectacular wedding last summer – complete with 11 bridesmaids and 11 groomsmen – for which I did a lot of the music.)
Anyway, I have popped by her school a couple of times to rehearse with her choirs and have been so impressed with Rita’s work in what many regard as the toughest trenches in the music business. . . middle school. It’s such a turbulent time of life, and middle-schoolers are almost by nature a strange mixture of little kid and young adult – and as they ride the rough waters of that transition, they can be pretty surly. . .or as my friend Marshall likes to call it, “not bubbly.” And singing, being such a personal means of self expression (more so than playing the clarinet, I should think) can slam right into those issues of self-doubt. Throw in matters like the enormous changes which happen to the human body at this time of life (including but by no means limited to a boy’s voice change) and the pervasive erosion of attention-span among youth . . . and you have a recipe for almost insurmountable difficulties and challenges.
And yet, there are teachers like Rita who manage to surmount them and bring about amazingly good things, even after what I understand was a rough start. I suspect her situation was something similar to Polly’s when she began teaching at Bullen Middle School many years ago. Before her arrival, there had been four different teachers over the previous four years, and that revolving door phenomenon left the program in utter disarray. But Polly stepped in there in a nick of time and with a firm yet loving hand steered that program away from the proverbial cliff to which it was heading . . . and steered it to glory. By the time Polly left Bullen, her program was one of the very best in the state- and maybe the region. Which only goes to show that miraculous things can happen in middle school – and I strongly suspect that Rita is at the beginning of what will be a similar story.
As I entered Lincoln this morning and headed towards the auditorium where one of the choirs was rehearsing, I happened to walk past a classroom just as the teacher was firmly escorting a young student out into the hall, saying “okay, Martell*, I want you out here for a few moments so you can calm down.” And he only got out two or three words of his protest before she said even more firmly “so you can calm down!” And he stayed put. And she went into her classroom where some kind of roughhousing was going on and I could hear her trying to regain order in there. And I sort of quickened my pace, even as I said to myself “there but for the grace of God go I.” I am glad that there are teachers in this world who are willing to take on challenges like that- and even more thankful that so many of them are so good at what they do. I know that I can’t imagine being equal to those kind of challenges.
*not his real name
I think back to my junior high experience in Decorah, Iowa- and to our choir director, Mr. Sexter. He was so tough, he made General Patton look like a florist. We were scared to death of him, and I think with good reason – and when I think back to 8th grade choir, all I can really remember about it is being scared. I have no memories whatsoever of ever laughing in that room . . . not like we did in 7th grade music with Mrs. Ash, who had a million ways of making music fun. Mr. Sexter made music an undertaking of utmost importance, and anyone and anything that impeded our progress towards our ultimate goal was dealt with most severely – and essentially you did something wrong only once in that room.
(I’m reminded of the Warner Brothers cartoon where Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck are headlining some kind of entertainment, and everything Bugs does is a huge success and everything Daffy does is a flop. Finally at the end, Daffy goes for broke . . . and walks out onstage wearing a devil’s costume- drinks a gallon of gasoline, a beaker of nitroglycerin, a bottle of Uranium 238, jumps up and down, swallows a lighted match (but not before saying “girls, you’d better hold on to your boyfriends!”) and KERPOWWWWW! He explodes. And as the crowd erupts into wild cheers, Bugs joins in the ovation, exclaiming “Daffy, that was sensational! You were Great!” And we see the ghost of Daffy floating towards the ceiling as he says sadly “I know, I know- but I can only do it once.” Doing something wrong in Mr. Sexter’s choir room was the equivalent of what Daffy Duck did in that cartoon. It might create a momentary stir of excitement, but it couldn’t possibly be worth the cost.)
Part of me looks back on 8th grade choir with some regret – sorry that it had to be that kind of experience in which the air was thick with fear and intimidation rather than the joy of making music. On the other hand, we were capable of singing 8-part harmony. Yup, 8th graders singing 8-part harmony. Of course, it was a different time – different place – different world.
I think the moral of the story is that you do what you need to do, wherever you are and whoever is standing on those risers in front of you. And it is about doing better than you did yesterday – while, one hopes, enjoying the experience. It’s about running a tight ship but a ship where you occasionally let the passengers run around the decks unencumbered. It’s about giving your young singers a place where they can come and know that they will be safe in every way. It’s about allowing your students to taste the sweetness of success, something which some of them will only experience in your room and nowhere else in that school building. And it’s about celebrating one of life’s most precious blessings – music itself – from Haydn to Hannah Montana.
pictured above: Rita with one of her Lincoln Middle School choirs.