My first memories of music centered on the piano — specifically my mother’s Chickering baby grand, which had its own cozy room on the family farm and was lovingly and beautifully played by Mom. Debussy and Schumann were her specialties, and to this day, whenever I hear Traumerei, well, I have to take a moment.
There might be a tear or two, but it’s always a good moment.
For three years in the 1970s, when the school bell rang at 3:30 on Wednesdays, I would not get on bus No. 9 for the ride home to the farm and the coveted final 45 minutes of The Mike Douglas Show. No. On Wednesdays after school, I would begrudgingly climb into the family Oldsmobile to be driven by Mom to East Fifth Street in Stromsburg, Nebraska. There, I would spend half an hour with Margaret Anderson, learning the piano.
Mrs. Anderson was a longtime music educator in my small hometown and also had directed the choir at the Baptist Church, where my father had been a bass-baritone before I was born. Dad was a farmer who loved to sing. He had a great voice but wasn’t all that big on church. Mrs. Anderson, while diminutive in stature, was never afraid to speak her mind. Once a month or so, during my lesson, she would inquire, “So when is your father coming back to sing with the choir?” I am quite certain she expected an answer.
A tough spot for a 10-year-old.
Equally challenging for fourth-grade me was the thought of having to practice. There are just so many things I’d rather be doing. Ever hear that one? Mrs. Anderson patiently led me through those bright red John Thompson’s Modern Course for the Piano books, never afraid to mark (in red ink) where improvement was needed. If that happened, a gold star would appear on that particular page, and it was on to the next piece.
Along the way, there was a Sunday morning church performance of a streamlined version of Bach’s Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring, which went just OK. But I could never manage to catch up to the corresponding grade level of the Thompson books. I was a fourth-grader languishing in Thompson’s second grade. Sadly, however, that was never a concern for me back then.
You know what happens next, right?
The long talk with Mom and Dad came at the end of Year 3 — an attempt to convince them that there was just too much happening in my 11-year-old world to spend not a minute more with the piano. Please, please, please — let me quit! And, no doubt worn out from my incessant whining, they did.
Let me quit, that is. As Schroeder (from Peanuts) might say, “AAAARRRDRGGGHHH!!”
The trumpet nudged the piano to the bench during my middle school years leading into high school. My dad had played cornet, and it is on that instrument where I started — a long-since retired cornet, which needed far more love than I was willing to give. With the encouragement of my band instructor Dave Brinkman, a shiny, new, gold Olds Ambassador trumpet was acquired. Mr. Brinkman taught me to treat the instrument like a living, breathing creation, not just a 2-pound piece of well-crafted brass.
Grease the slides. Oil the valves. Play it. Daily.
I did not play the trumpet daily, but I did take good care of it, and I stayed with the instrument throughout my high school days. By then, the instrumental music instructor at Stromsburg High School was Ron Jewell, a guy who adored jazz and big band music and put up with a lot of attitude from his students, of which I was a major contributor. Despite what must have been endless days of frustration for him, Mr. Jewell was able to mold our tiny concert band into a decent ensemble, worthy of a superior rating at the District Music Contest my senior year.
Earlier that year, on a cold, snowy Thursday night in February, Mr. Jewell loaded up a van of six or seven of us who had signed up, and drove 80 miles southwest to see Buddy Rich and his band play a concert at Hastings College. It was fabulous. We were all utterly into it and toward the end of the show, I remember glancing over at Mr. Jewell, who was watching his students, enamored by what we were seeing and hearing. He had the most subtle, satisfying smile on his face. It took nearly three hours to get home that night in the snow, on a school night. Gasp! But it was totally worth it.
Just ask Mr. Jewell.
During my high school days, however, instrumental music always took a backseat to choral music. That had been the case ever since the arrival of Carol Bisanz a few years earlier.
Ms. Bisanz was fresh out of Wayne State College when she came to Stromsburg to teach vocal music. She was hip and relatable. Students immediately dug her — almost as if she were one of them. By the time I was a freshman, Ms. Bisanz had managed to get 75 percent of the student body to sing in the mixed chorus — no small accomplishment in a small Midwest high school where (predictably) sports received most of the attention.
I was lucky enough to get one year with Ms. Bisanz in high school (she moved on to another school in the fall of 1977), and the mixed chorus experience I had that freshman year had an indelible impact on my life. Ms. Bisanz wasn’t satisfied with everyone simply singing their part. Listen to the person next to you. Don’t oversing. Listen. BLEND.
Not everybody got it, but Ms. Bisanz knew who did, and she had a way of structuring the chorus, placing just the right people in just the right places without making it a big deal.
Ms. Bisanz even convinced me (a mere freshman!) to sing a vocal solo for the District Music Contest that year — Handel’s “Where’er You Walk” from Semele. Two nights before Districts there was a public concert in the school gym where all ensembles and soloists performed their District pieces. The place was packed. I’d never sung a solo in front of so many people. My parents. My much-admired older sister and her friends (all seniors) from the chorus. They were all out there. A lot of people, and I knew every one of them.
Earlier that day in school, I did a run-through with Ms. Bisanz at the piano. I knew the music — that wasn’t the problem. Nerves were the problem. She knew it, and I’ll never forget what she told me that afternoon: “Try not to worry. You know why? Because YOU can SING — and they’re all going to know that the second you open your mouth.”
Well, cool gales did, in fact, fan the glade that night in Stromsburg, and I was hooked. Singing, and specifically choral singing, would remain an invaluable part of my life to this day.
In my adult life, three individuals enhanced my love for choral singing — all immensely talented and all distinctly different in style and approach.
As a college student at the University of Nebraska, I joined the choir at First Plymouth Congregational Church in Lincoln. Perhaps I was making it up to Mrs. Anderson for never answering her question about when my dad was going to start singing in the church choir again, all those years ago. But, in reality, my sister had sung at Plymouth for a couple of years, the music there was exceptional — it drew me in — and I wanted to be part of it.
For the next 23 years, I sang with the church choir and the Abendmusik chorus, a fine-arts series that originated at Plymouth. We sang Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Bernstein (to name several) in an elegant church setting. Eventually, we toured, to places like St. Petersburg, Moscow, Vienna, Rome, Warsaw, Prague and throughout England. On several occasions, we sang with David Willcocks and John Rutter. It was the experience of a lifetime, all made possible thanks to founder and artistic director Jack Levick.
Jack was the quintessential Anglican-tradition choral director. Flipped Rs. Sopranos must sound like English boys. Shaped vowels. Diction. The King’s College, Cambridge, sound was what he desperately sought. Jack also had a love for brass ensembles and could play First Plymouth’s massive Schoenstein pipe organ as if he had built it from scratch. His musicianship was off the charts — as was his love for puns. The cornier the better: Group singing is an A-CHOIRED taste. I know, right?
Oh, I also met an alto in that choir and, eventually — we got married!
A move to Minnesota came in 2006, for a job with Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media’s Classical 24 radio service. Challenging work hours (i.e. overnights) prevented me from seeking out any singing opportunities. Then came a serious health crisis, the loss of a job, a long recovery and, eventually, an opportunity to sing again — with other human beings.
My wife encouraged me to audition for VocalEssence. I did, thinking at my now advanced age that there was a decent chance I’d be rejected. I was not. (Thank you, Ms. Bisanz.) With VocalEssence, I was introduced to the marvelous Philip Brunelle, whose choral resume might be unmatched in today’s world. I’ve always been a bit lukewarm about the expression he or she has forgotten more than I’ll ever know about [fill in the blank], but with Brunelle and music, it is more than apt. Just throw out that whole left-right side of the brain thing — Brunelle’s noggin is 80 percent music and 20 percent everything else, on whatever side you want to put them. Not only that, he is a near-octogenarian with the energy and drive of a 25-year-old. Living legend? Again, another expression that usually makes me squirm. But I’ll slap it on Brunelle with no reservations.
The same year I joined VocalEssence, G. Phillip Shoultz III (GPS) came on board as associate artistic director. While the other Philip (one L) spent most of his time with the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers, my rehearsal time with the larger volunteer chorus was with the new guy from Georgia. Just when I thought I knew everything there was to know about singing with a large ensemble, GPS reached in and turned me inside out, like you do with a coat you’ve taken off too quickly.
Here was a man of color fervently guiding predominantly white, staid, Lutheresque, largely Scandinavian singers. And while Georgia and Minnesota are miles apart geographically and culturally, that meant nothing to GPS — especially when it came to making good choral music. Over the course of a few short months, he had us singing from within, with feeling, with love, with emotion. With soul. In a GPS rehearsal, you’d better come ready to work, because he demanded more sweat, more heavy lifting. I can’t tell you the number of times we’d drill and drill and drill a piece — never feeling totally comfortable with it all the way up to the last rehearsal before a performance. But when the audience was present, we nailed it. G. Phillip Shoultz III had used every last available second to prepare — and we were always ready.
I’m lucky. I grew up in a house where music was almost always present — and every conceivable kind of music — Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Henry Mancini, Burt Bacharach, Eddie Arnold, Andy Williams, Sinatra, Stan Kenton, Count Basie, the Beatles, Carpenters and much more. They were all heard regularly. My mom was not only a terrific pianist but had a lovely alto voice, too (always behind the scenes). Dad was the cornetist and bass-baritone, while sister Annie played flute and sang soprano. I was the family tenor, at least for a while. SATB, with some instrumentation for good measure. All covered.
But along the way, much-needed knowledge and guidance was provided by the likes of Anderson, Bisanz, Brinkman, Jewell, Levick, Brunelle and Shoultz. That’s my list, and I think it’s a pretty good one.
What about you? Give it some thought, and the next time you break into song or pick up your instrument of choice — remember the people who helped shape you musically.
Who knows? You might just get a gold star.
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