Music Lessons

Eleven years ago, I sat in a cold, hard folding chair, ready to meet my high school chorus director and fellow singers for the first time. Arranged in three concentric semicircles, the chairs faced a creaky metal music stand, a sturdy conducting platform, and a white board, designed to resemble a giant sheet of staff paper. Though I could not distinguish the neat black lines on the board, I knew they were there. My mobility instructor had described them when she oriented me to the room.

With two resounding thuds, a petite, compact person stepped onto the conducting platform. I could distinguish a dark blouse, and black pants. White cuffs and collar helped me find her hands and face. Her mouth resided somewhere beneath a head of bobbed gray-blond hair, but her voice could not be confined to that petite frame. It was huge, powerful, with a touch of gravel.

In a friendly, no-nonsense manner, she introduced herself as Mrs. B. She was prepared to teach us how to sing and read music. She was adamant to correct the school myth that her chorus class was an “easy A.”

“This may be an elective,” she declared, her voice intense and serious. “But you will work hard.”

Then she asked us about our previous musical experience. We were instructed to raise our hands if we’d had piano or voice lessons or played in a middle school band. At the mention of piano, my hand shot up. I was excited to prove myself, to show her that I was one step ahead of my peers.

“Well, forget all of that,” she insisted, waving a dismissive hand at our collective experience. “We’re all equals in this room. You may have had previous training, but your present dedication will earn my respect.”

In the next weeks, Mrs. B. introduced us to the basics of singing – posture, breathing, resonance, placement – all new concepts for me. Though I had years of experience singing in church and school choirs and performing in school musicals, I had never received formal training. Mrs. B. taught us to identify our vocal registers: head voice, mid-voice, and chest voice. She guided us through the dizzying stage of using our head voice for the first time. Because the head voice is a region of the voice where the air you breathe meets no resistance, your first tentative notes will make you lightheaded. It’s a new frontier for the novice singer.

Alongside vocal training, Mrs. B. led us through the rudiments of musical literacy. With my nose pressed against the pages of my thick chorus textbook, I learned to identify lines, spaces, measure lines, time signatures, and the other elements of musical notation. Mrs. B promised that we would become excellent sight-readers – able to glance at a piece of music and sing it with surprising accuracy.

I had my doubts about sight-reading. When I was learning piano, I was unable to visually track the musical line. If the music rested on the piano, I couldn’t read it. If I held the music close enough to read, I could only play piano one-handed. Luckily for me, using the voice left both hands free to hold the music – an inch from my face. I squinted at the bright white paper, where dark squat ovals of melody curved along the staff like tendrils of jasmine.

After months of sight-reading drills in class and furtive annotations at home, I began to parse the visual elements of written music with ease. I no longer had to count lines and spaces with a tentative finger or guess whether I was staring at a half rest or whole rest. I could not only read music – I could understand its theory, its rules of composition.

The musical instruction that Mrs. B. provided grew more valuable with time. I moved on to other choruses: an a cappella group (where I was required to read the bass line) and a fast-paced university chorale (where several soprano lines and foreign languages complicated the musical landscape). Her rigorous preparations ensured my success in these groups.

However, the most meaningful lessons I took from Mrs. B. were not related to music, though they occurred in a musician’s environment. They stand as bookends to my high school experience.

The first occurred within the early months of my freshman year. Our school was holding auditions for the musical Godspell, and, like any eager, hopeful freshman, I wanted to try out. With a few other friends from chorus, I practiced excerpts from the musical. I filled out the small audition form with my contact information and selected what kind of part I’d prefer. I stepped onstage in the cafeteria (this was well before my high school received a fully functioning theatre) and sang my excerpt.

After all the participants had done a little singing, the judging committee taught us a brief choreography routine. We were placed onstage in lines while a female teacher demonstrated the routine before us. I fumbled terribly, listening hard for my friends’ instructions. I felt ashamed and inadequate. Without individual instruction, I would never master a routine like this.

We took a short break before small groups of potential stars went onstage to perform the dance routine. During the break, I sat at a round cafeteria table with friends, feeling low. The judges – Mrs. B. and two other faculty – sat nearby, a few tables away, just within earshot. Hearing my name, I tuned in to their conversation.

“Are you sure Emily can do this?” asked one of the judges – her voice was unfamiliar to me.

Mrs. B. replied, “I’m sure she can, if we teach her the routine one-on-one. She just needs someone to show it to her.”

The third judge disagreed, “I don’t know. That seems like a lot of work. And she might not get it.”

Here, Mrs. B. said a line that I have often replayed in my head: “I have total confidence in her.”

When I think back on this scenario, I ask myself, How did she know I was worth it? Mrs. B. had only known me for a month or so, only seen me for a few hours each week. What made her believe in me?

I’ve never quizzed her about it. At the time, the line was too good to be true, but it was also exactly what I needed. I learned the routine. I did my best. I didn’t get a part in Godspell, but I felt empowered.

Mrs. B’s other lesson came three years later, when I was a senior. On my way to chorus, I had to walk down a crowded hallway in Building 3. With high ceilings and metal lockers along the walls, Building 3 was a loud, echoing space – amplifying all hallway conversations, especially the ones about me.

As the only blind girl at a school whose visibly disabled students could be counted on the fingers of one hand, I was often the target of unfriendly gossip. Since I had gone to elementary and middle school with the same group of classmates – a group who felt that mocking my poor vision was taboo – I wasn’t prepared for this negative reaction to my blindness. I walked into our chorus room, blinking back tears.

Mrs. B called her usual friendly greeting as I found my seat. I was the only student in the room, and she came to stand by me. I told her how hard it was to be the subject of constant gossip, to be around people who always underestimated and judged me. I said that I wished I couldn’t hear what others were saying as I walked to class.

She responded with practical wisdom: You don’t judge yourself by their opinion of you. You are so much more than they can understand. They don’t get to decide who you are. You decide that.

And she walked away, presumably to prepare for class. Maybe to give me a few moments to collect myself and process her words.

When I measure my experience of Mrs. B against other conductors, I find that the others always fall short. I think it’s because Mrs. B believed in something more than a power struggle between one person holding a baton and a group of musicians. Mrs. B wanted us to be empowered individuals and hardworking musicians. She stepped off the platform to check on us, and her reassurances were filled with strength and passionate belief.

Mrs. B was tough and honest. She didn’t sugarcoat the truth – she freely expressed her disappointment as readily as her joy. When she believed in us, we could believe in ourselves.

With her actions, Mrs. B. defined the teaching role for me.

A teacher believes in the subject and the students.

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