Tuesday, May 5, 2015
When You're in the Arts ...
I grew up in a house filled with classical music. My father--a wonderful tenor--had at one time entertained notions of a singing career. (A Depression, a family, and World War II had other plans for him.) My older brother, Richard, adored such music and throughout boyhood (his and mine) listened to classical recordings and to the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera while I was looking for someone to play catch with--or throw rocks at. (He would go on to become the classical music critic for the Boston Globe; I would stop throwing rocks.)
I can't say that I was a fan of that music--not at first. Nervous Norvus and Bill Haley and the Comets were more up my alley (the alley where I found the rocks). And sports. I had no doubts that I'd one day be a professional baseball player.
Didn't work out. Daffy dreams rarely do.
My parents also took us to plays and other sorts of shows. And on early TV we watched those old productions of Shakespeare's plays. (Again, I was not a fan.) Our house was full of books. But reading didn't really interest me all that much--unless it was raining or I could find no rocks.
In high school, I sang in the choir, played in the band, performed in the play productions. I had lots of fun, and I would have had even more fun, I realize, if I'd practiced a bit. But I was busy with basketball and baseball--my future professions. (Hah!)
But all of this--the music, the drama, the literature--became a part of my cultural DNA, and, eventually, I more or less came around. For some years Joyce and I were subscribers at the Cleveland Orchestra. We have had season tickets for the Great Lakes Theater Festival for many years. We spend the first week in August in Stratford, Ontario, at the Stratford Festival (used to be the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, but they dropped the Bard's name when they began mounting many productions in the summers, only a handful of which were Shakespeare's). As many of you know, I read a little.
Immediately after college, I became a public middle school teacher, and I got involved right away (my very first year, 1966-67) in theater with the kids. I would go on to direct more than thirty productions; I often took my classes to see shows in Cleveland. I would sometimes reward top students each marking period with a trip to a show. I eventually introduced my 8th graders to Shakespeare--and to other notable writers and works.
After I retired from public school and began teaching again at Western Reserve Academy, I did not get involved in the theater program. The school had some wonderful professionals already doing a great job, so I sat in the audiences, jaw dropped in admiration for what my colleagues were able to coax from the kids.
This past weekend, Joyce and I went up to WRA for the Fourth Annual William T. Appling Memorial Concert. Bill--who headed the music program at WRA for decades--was a good friend and a tremendous influence on our son, Steve, when he was a student there (1986-90). Bill left the school (that's another story), went to Vassar. Then cancer caught and killed him on August 29, 2008.
This year's concert featured a couple of important Mozart pieces, and as we sat in the balcony, watching and listening and being incredibly moved, I thought once again of an idea I'd had years and years ago. It's not all that profound a thought, but still ... here it is.
When you're a high school athlete, you compete, really, against only other high school athletes. No one goes to a basketball game, say, and comments afterwards that the Cleveland Cavaliers are a better team than the two they just saw on the floor.
It's different in the arts. Kids contend not with one another but with Mozart, Arthur Miller, Shakespeare, Thornton Wilder, Marc Chagall, and on and on.
At the Mozart concert I was stunned by the kids' performances. They were singing and playing Mozart. Sure, a Cleveland Orchestra performance would have been "better," but, at least for me, it could not have been as affecting. I sat there thinking of Bill Appling and Steve Dyer and Joyce Dyer and all the other kids and adults I'd seen performing--in public school, in that Chapel.
And I felt an enormous gratitude--for my own family, for the families of those kids I watched so fiercely focused on their scores, for all my many colleagues who have helped youngsters discover and encounter the greatest that human beings have ever created.
It was enough to bring tears to an Old Man's eyes.