An Old Man's Thoughts Of School
Some people ask why I am involved with NEMPAC and where my passions stem from. Let me give you a story.
There was this man I never met named Howard Hanson, a composer who spent a good chunk of his life on the snowy shores of Lake Ontario during the mid 20th Century making symphonies with for the Eastman School of Music and the University of Rochester.
Mostly he was able to thrive because he was feeding on the largesse of the Eastman Kodak Company through music lover/millionaire George Eastman.
One particular arrangement backed by Eastman was Hanson’s “Song of Democracy” which, cribbing a couple lines from a Walt Whitman poem, was performed at the inaugural concert for incoming U.S. President Richard Nixon. I had this arrangement foisted upon me when I went to All-State Chorus in 1983. For the uninitiated All-State is a two-day music cram session that ends with a concert. It’s 16 hours of practice in a room that invariably turns into a sauna. Generally, rehearsals were not pleasant and many of us were there out of a sense of obligation – like community service but with a concert finale.
Anyway, when the director handed out the sheet music to us, I know I wasn’t the only one who groaned. What was this crap and what was the deal with the these lyrics. While the director and an octogenarian piano player dissected everyone’s parts and worked on the nuances, I was bored out of my mind. Since I had only the sheet music in front of me, I basically had nothing to do but read the lyrics which read like a civics course in awkward prose pressing light nationalism and a sense of duty. It didn’t actually light a fire under me.
But then we sang all the parts together with an orchestra that had, unbeknown to us, been going through the same type of torture on the other side of the school. This was a surprise to most of us.
It was awesome – like all of us aged about 10 years – like our adult selves had come back to sing through us. The words on the page turned into this massive single organism that was massively bigger than all of us.
It was an epiphany, as if I knew about something bigger, at least for that night and many days after, until the songs were for whatever reason taken out of my head and replaced with some god awful pop song.
For a brooding kid with horrible grades who was — at best — a genial smart-ass in school, this experience broadened my world and my mind. For those moments in practice I was part of something bigger and I was capable of much more than I gave myself credit for. Teamed with strange kids from odd towns all over New York’s Finger Lakes, I understood what humanity was capable of. Take poor farmers kids and country club spawn from the well to do luxury enclaves and throw them all into a room. The only thing they have in common is that they can carry a tune and someone believed in them enough to put their name on a list. Alone? Nothing. Together? Ah, more. Infinitely more.
I know there are people who can’t get that – or at least understand the sheer beauty of what happened in those two days. For that, I feel sorry for them and I would like to share. Maybe they played football and had a few good catches that people remember and it was the highlight of their lives. I honestly don’t think that anything I did playing sports compares. In sports you participate in a few great moments if you’re lucky. In the arts music you create something that doesn’t go away. And it stays with you.
To Howard Hanson and George Eastman. To all the instructors and NYSSMA who put that together without pay — Thank you for the torture. Hopefully, my neighbors and everyone affiliated with NEMPAC will thank you in their own way. Ask any member of the NEMPAC organization why they’re a part of it and I’m sure there’s a story much like this — or nothing like this — to tell. But we all share a love of music and the arts and we all want to share it with you.
Matthew Black, President
Here are some other similarly “tortured” people from Glassboro State College:
The lyrics, about reflection, global responsibilty, empire, hopes, being an example.
An old man’s thoughts of school,
An old man’s gathering youthful memories and
blooms that youth itself cannot.
Now only do I know You,
O fair auroral skies – O morning dew upon the grass!
And these I see, these sparkling eyes,
These stores of mystic meaning, these young lives,
Building, equipping like a fleet of ships, immortal ships,
Soon to sail out over the measureless seas,
On the soul’s voyage.
Only a lot of boys and girls?
Only the tiresome spelling, writing, ciphering classes?
Only a public school?
Ah more, infinitely more.
And you America,
Cast you the real reckoning for your present?
The lights and shadows of your future, good or evil?
To girlhood, boyhood look, the teacher and the school.
Sail, Sail thy best, ship of Democracy,
Of value is thy freight, ’tis not the present only,
The Past is also stored in thee.
Thou holdest not the venture of thyself alone,
not of thy Western continent alone.
Earth’s resume entire floats on thy keel, O ship,
is steadied by thy spars,
With thee Time voyages in trust, the antecedent
nations sink or swim with thee.
With all their ancient struggles, martyrs, heroes,
epics, wars, thou bear’st the other continents,
Theirs, theirs as much as thine, the destination –
Steer then with good strong hand and wary eye
O helmsman, thou carriest great companions,
Venerable priestly Asia sails this day with thee,
And royal feudal Europe sails with thee.
And royal feudal Europe sails with thee.