The Lifetime Gift of Music Education

Score 5th SymphonyOf all the things I accomplished in secondary school, the one that still brings joy to my heart and tears to my eyes is the music I performed in the Symphonic Wind Ensemble at Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie Village, Kansas. Under the steady guidance of Mr. Kenneth Geoffroy, our marching band, orchestra and Wind Ensemble director, we tackled music that was complex and passionate. Fifty years later, I still remember every note of the Fourth movement, Allegro non troppo, of the Fifth Symphony by the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

That is not to say that I can tell you which instrument was playing which note at any given instant. I do not have a photographic memory, and never saw the full score for Wind Ensemble. But since a wind ensemble by definition did not have string instruments, clarinets carried the major parts that violins played in the full orchestral score. I played the clarinet as first chair, and thus played the majority of the “melody”.

The decision to post this today came unexpectedly when I set up a Shostakovich channel on Pandora, and played it through our stereo system. While attending to other matters in the house I heard music that was very familiar. In fact it was so familiar that I found myself singing in my not so beautiful voice the da da da of the 1st B flat clarinet line for the entire Fourth movement. I knew exactly which notes were coming next. I had memorized it many decades ago, and my brain had recorded it for playback after a half century of neglect.

Mr. Geoffroy often called for us to emote in our playing, and some music was especially emotional, such as the Prelude and Love Death in Richard Wagner’s Opera Tristan und Isolde. If you did not sway in your chair, moving your instrument from side to side, you plainly weren’t feeling the passion of the music.

And today, as I rediscovered the Allegro non troppo of Shostakovich, I found myself consumed by joy, the same joy I felt when sitting in the middle of the ensemble, emoting my heart out just as Shostakovich, and Mr. Geoffroy, intended.

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High school prepared me well for the science and writing that defined my career. And for that I thank the sometimes stern, oftentimes nurturing teachers who looked for potential in every student coming under their care. But sometimes it’s the extracurricular activities that enrich our being, which bring joy at unexpected moments even a life-time later.

I would pray that when school boards are tasked with cutting programs, they think long and hard about the intangibles of performance arts. It is true that not every student enrolled in music or performance classes will make a career of it. In fact, I would guess that the number of high school students moving into a music or acting career must be very small indeed. But life is not just about work. It is also about “smelling the roses”. And music from the Masters, as long as it can stir the heart, is a very sweet smelling rose indeed.

Due to the passage of time, it is too late for me to personally thank Mr. Geoffroy; but I would like his family to know that he helped students, not yet adults, accomplish something beyond their wildest expectations. In my mind, that is the mark of a dedicated and impassioned teacher.

In the following video, Leonard Bernstein conducts the New York Philharmonic in the final movement of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. It is in the quiet passages mid-way through that my memories are the strongest. It was there that the clarinets and flutes carried the music with full authority.

 

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kenneth-geoffrey-fixedFrom the South Bend Alumni Association Hall of Fame Archives

Kenneth Geoffroy was instrumental in creating the South Bend Youth Symphony and the Fischoff Chamber Music Competition. As a skilled trombonist, Mr. Geoffroy played with the South Bend Symphony and the Midwest Pops. He also was a member of the music faculty at Indiana University South Bend, president of the Indiana Music Educator’s Association, conductor of the Southhold Symphonic Wind Band, and coordinator of fine arts for the South Bend Community School Corporation from 1967 to 1982. Mr. Geoffroy first proposed the idea of a summer musical festival to be held at St. Patrick’s Park, the foundation for the renowned Firefly Festival. (1981)

 

Only Classical on Sunday

Music Appreciation classes notwithstanding, I sense that the best way to become absorbed in music is to sit in the middle of it, in an orchestra or choir, and to be part of the organic music-making machine. Although I am not from a strongly musical family, my mother was a dancer and dance instructor, and we owned one of those cool Hammond Drawbar organs, on which I learned basic chord structure. Mom and Dad bought me a clarinet in 4th grade, letting me graduate to a beautiful LeBlanc clarinet by the time I was in high school. It is still, many years later, one of my greatest treasures.

In college I usually traded the clarinet for a guitar, which was a more sociable instrument for the college crowd.

Sadly, I let my musical skills atrophy somewhat with age, but that instrumental passion has been replaced by a broader love of good music, and an imperative to pass that love on to my children and grandchildren.

My wife is a keyboardist, and we have owned two pianos and two organs, with our living room currently filled by a Yamaha Grand piano. Our family room is, I shouldn’t say filled, exactly, but accented by a “Baby” Grand, to wit a pink Barbie Grand just the right size for a 2-3 year old toddler/preschooler.

Although I am not a music professional, I started training my children with a simple rule. You guessed it, “Only classical music on Sunday.” We could rock our hearts out six days of the week, but Sunday was for God, and classical music.

I guess that simple rule paid off: my son sings and plays the guitar, and was the leader of a darned good band in high school and college. He married a violinist and pianist, and they own a piano that his 10-year-old daughter plays superbly. She is far more accomplished than I was at her age.

Our daughter recently retired her electronic key board “with piano-like action”, and bought a real piano, with far-better feel to it. She plays our  Grand with a skill and beauty that is mesmerizing.

Now, this is where the fun begins: the musical education of a 3-year old, my daughter’s daughter.

So, where to start?

I began with an animated version of Peter and the Wolf, starring Kirstie Allie and my Sea Hunt diving hero, Lloyd Bridges. While the animation captures the attention of our preschooler, she cannot help but be affected by the Sergei Prokofiev score. Of course, I point out to her which instruments are portraying which characters, with my favorite being, no surprise, the clarinet – aka the cat!

It helps that the little one sits in my lap so I’m free to cuddle her, and ooh and awe over the beauty of the music, and when suitably inspired, conduct the orchestra, as if it needed my conducting. At any rate, she gets reinforcement that the music is special – not just the animation.

Now for diversity. The next music I started playing was found in Fantasia, both the original version that I loved as a child, and the 2000 version which I’ve only recently seen. They are both spectacular on a hi-res computer monitor – and I don’t even have Blu Ray.

What prompted me to write this blog is the stunning compatibility between the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, one of my favorite composers, and the Disney animators who put Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the “Steadfast Tin Soldier” to music. This combination must send this 3-year old into sensory overload. At least it has that effect on me.

Just as I was immersed in music during my formative years, Little Preschooler is close to the screen, surrounded by the music, and getting positive reinforcement from Granddaddy. Isn’t that how you teach music to children?

Let me share with you Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and The Steadfast Tin Soldier. Remember, the actual DVD is far better quality.

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– John