Ode to a Fine Teacher

How blessed are we who hold fond memories of teachers who due to their excellence, left us with indelible impressions. One such teacher, was Mr. White. He is now gone into the pages of pedagogic history. He passed away without my being able to tell him how grand it was to have been his student. I hope he can see my writing from way up in heaven…

It was the first day of 6th grade, at Cullen Elementary. It was a typically hot early September morning, with all the children adorned in their newly bought school clothes. Mine were from Buffum’s Department Store and my shoes were from Bullock’s Pasadena. Apparently, I had “outgrown” the Hartzler’s Shoe Store experience, and had “moved up” to the more “mature” location to buy my patent leathers. I remember we even topped off that particular excursion with a treat in the Bullock’s Tearoom over puffed pastries which resembled a chef’s hat and were filled with heavenly cream. Fortification for the future ladies of America, I suppose. Indeed, it was another form of learning for observant, young eyes….

That cusp of autumn morn, looking down at my shiny shoes and all decked out to meet my new teacher, I felt it was an exciting, auspicious occasion. I was standing in line amongst my new classmates outside on the blacktop. We were waiting the arrival of the very person who would guide us through our pivotally important last preteen grade. One of my classmates I knew from the year before, whispered over her shoulder to say, “Why doesn’t he just open up our classroom?” I responded, “Beats me! He is the first male teacher I have ever had! I’m a little scared, aren’t you?” That was the moment when a very tall personage strode past me coming up from the rear of our line. He stopped, turned around after hearing my remark, and with an oh so subtle smirk, said, “Oh, you’ll find I’m not so bad, as long as you try your best!” That did it. I was hooked. Starry-eyed the rest of the day, and every single day to the end of the year, I was in awe of Mr. Wonderful,  formally known as Mr. White.

What a classroom we had! Our view of the mountains was caught in the north facing wall of windows. We looked out onto the playground, just past it was the baseball diamond, and that was followed by a sweeping upward carpet of verdant grass stretching the distance to the chainlink fence which hemmed in our campus. Bordering our school, just beyond the fence, were widely spaced apart palm trees whose frond configuration looked as if they were women who had just unraveled their curls from the overnight rollers in their hair. Then you would see across the street, a church on the corner, followed by a few homes. The lots were generous in size so no more than three could be viewed from our classroom, though the entire street continued east and westward with homes aplenty.  If your gaze continued upward, it would be awash in the majestic presence of our foothills. Beautiful and reverent to me.

Inside, running the length of our windows was a counter. On top of it were enticements for the budding mind: a telescope, microscopes, a world globe, an SRA Reading kit and a basket full of multicultural and organic realia…shells, pine cones, various rock specimens, castanets, a rudimentary tambourine, maracas, and Hawaiian palm fans. In the far corner of the counter up near the blackboard, was a standing human torso anatomy model, a record player and an autoharp. All the trappings of a teacher poised to inspire. And that he did! Decades later, I realized so much of what comprised this man and his self-made world defined me as a person and a teacher.

Under the counter along the wall, were scores upon scores of books. Each and every one was labeled by color-tape coding. He had used the SRA Reading system as his guide and supplemented a library’s worth of books. This collection ran along the windows’ counter as well as the south wall, starting where his desk was located. The incentive was to work your way around the room by reading all the colors necessary to you and your level of ability. Everyone wanted to reach purple or maroon, which were the highest levels. I remember reading was an emphasis, but, not the only one. Reading was the anchor for all the other subjects. If we were investigating micro-organisms, writing research papers about other nations of the world, exploring outer-space, delving into the merits of National Parks, we had a veritable treasure trove of books to pull from, including several encyclopedia collections. This was my “candy store “. Being a voracious reader, I loved reading to find out, to learn, to deduce. I still enjoy that type of reading the most. We did read fiction, but, I recall historical fiction, such as Pearl S. Buck’s “The Good Earth” being one novel that stood out that particular year.

Our clearly well- planned instructor instituted a practice of having us present a current event to the class once a week. We had to locate an article from the newspaper, read it aloud to our classmates and offer our own commentary on the piece. That year Walt Disney died. I remember presenting an article all about his life and his passing. Now, being a Southern California kid, I felt this was indeed devastating news. After my reading, we engaged in a whole class discussion about the famed innovator who was a mover and shaker. Mr. White then had everyone write down their feelings they wanted to express about Mr. Disney, since so many children exhibited sorrow and even shed some tears. It was the prevalent “buzz” all that week, and as we purged our feelings onto paper, we all had more than enough knowledge to expound on the subject. I recall this experience as very emotional. I think it also kick-started my love of reading about people contributing greatly to our world- artists, botanists, musicians, scientists, architects, inventors, etc. To this day, biographies are my first choice in reading.

Not only under the excellence of this educator did my reading flourish, from the story of Luther Burbank to the tantalizing short mysteries of Alfred Hitchcock, but so did my writing. Mr. Wonderful seems to be the first teacher who really took notice of my zest to write. I hold a happy memory of Mr. White replacing his afternoon read-aloud to the class, with his surprising request for me to come to the front of the room, take his honorable seat on the stool behind his overhead projector, and read something he thought was worth listening to. Perplexed, I looked up at him with an “Okay….uh…sure!” He handed me my own story I had written called “The Buccaneer”. You see, being somewhat of a tomboy, I had a robust interest in the adventurous escapades of pirates. I must say, Hollywood helped a great deal in that department, too. (I’m certain some of my story development must have been infiltrated by a few details from several pirate themed movies I had seen on television). it was a privilege to write, then read one’s own ideas. He could not have done anything more special if he had handed me a golden pen. His blanket approval of my writing beyond the letter grade, was a magical gift that served me for life.

Amongst the daily activities in our 6th grade oasis, we were engaged in many “hands on learning” enterprises. I recall enjoying all of them, from the perfunctory to the intensely skill summoning. I recall loving our California spelling books, and the fact that the lessons unlocked “key patterns”. The joy was in memorizing how to spell them as well as write them over and over to imprint exactitude. It was empowering to know the rules and be able to utilize them whenever in doubt. I especially loved putting each word into a sentence. (Actually, my third grade teacher lit the fire on that one). That normally boring exercise to some pupils, enabled me to tap into and voice my imagination. But, our teacher allowed us to study our spelling lists together and test each other in any way we seemed fit. The camaraderie was helpful and manifest widespread cheerfulness.

That year we had a plethora of group assignments. I remember working up at the front of the room with a partner or two on coloring in a giant map that the overhead projector had enlarged onto paper taped to the blackboard. We were big kids, so we used colored pencils. It was really fun, and had everything to do with what we were learning in Social Studies. We must have been studying Hawaii at length, and one morning we all sat up erect in our seats because Mr. W had promised us something that would keep us “on our toes”. The night before we had all put our heads to our pillows; racking our brains for what we thought that might be! Turns out, he brought out two very long wooden poles and plunked a grass hat atop his head. He then passed out leis and turned on some Hawaiian music. After that, the actual teaching of how to do the indigenous people’s pole dance is a bit murky in my memory. All I know was, I didn’t want the two poles to slam up against my foot as I hopped and danced across and through them to the island beat. I think the best fun was being one of the pole holders at either end. The two poles were held parallel to one another. You would simply hold the same end of both poles, while kneeling on the floor, and lift slightly to tap the floor twice with both poles spread apart. Then you were to tap the still parallel poles together a little higher up in the air. Your opposite pole holder did this in sync with you on the other end holding the same poles. The dancers would usually be one or two at a time and have to deftly hop in and out of the spaces between the poles, being cognizant of the rhythm and timing. It was a mixed bag of nervousness, anticipation, and explosive laughter. This dance became a fixation for our class the rest of the year and I still fondly think back on the hours of glee we all shared.

Art was definitely encouraged. We made geometric string art based on math and graph paper, encapsulated dead June bugs into hardening resin paperweights, and wove God’s eyes around small sticks with thick, colorful roving. I think we even made decorative stamped copper medallion plates. This was the era when Peter Max and Joseph Stella art was becoming popular to mimic. Mr. White allowed us free time to draw intersecting lines and swirls on blank paper in spontaneous fashion, and then color in the fields. I still have a jolly time doing that on a rainy day. Encouragement of creativity was no stranger in his classroom.

Conversely, lessons were learned, too. I still kind of mourn receiving a minus on what would have been my A+ country report about Argentina. I had slaved over that project for weeks on end, compiling graphs, drawings, photographs, maps, information and refining the writing. We were told the cover creativity would yield great weight to the overall grade. Our cover must ingeniously reflect the subject in some way. I don’t know anymore what my cover looked like, but I was darn proud of it. Trouble was, I either was late arriving to school, or I stayed home the day it was due to be turned in. I pressed on to put the final touches on my “masterpiece”. Well, needless to say, I was docked for it, and it irked me to no end. But, I learned a valuable lesson about punctuality. By the way, I still grapple with it…sometimes I am insanely perfectionist about being prompt, and other times recklessly indolent. But, it’s selective. I did learn and never forgot, the ramifications may not be so sweet. I thank Mr. White for teaching me an important thing about life.

Perhaps the most remarkable gesture our esteemed educator ever did was to show he valued his students’ hearts. He knew a group of friends and I one early morning had discovered much to our dismay and sorrow, a wounded bird on the grass field just beyond the baseball diamond. We ran to tell him, and he cautioned us with how to touch it safely. Where most teachers might have said, “Go inform the school custodian”, he dealt with it personally. Mr. Wonderful gave us a shoebox from within his cupboard, and in it we placed soft leaves, grass and some cotton for buffering. We thought we were going to nurture our fallen bird back to health, but unfortunately it died that day. He allowed us to take the bird back up to the farthest end of the field near the fence on the east, under a row of bordering eucalyptus trees providing shade and a heavenly haven for our pitiful little creature. We were told to go ahead and dig a hole and just bury it. Then, with permission, we gave it a proper funeral punctuated with prayers and poetry. It was just myself and a cluster of friends, but it was quite meaningful to each of us. I always thought that was a very good way to handle the situation. After all, we were either 11 or 12, and had pretty sound heads on our shoulders. I think promoting compassion is a mighty powerful gift to children. I believe affording us the chance to institute reverent custom is equally empowering. He was much more than a 3 Rs teacher. He exhibited omniscience in my twelve year old eyes.

I am so grateful for that 6th grade year. It was a year for me, filled with a couple personally made baseball homerun hits over that chainlink fence, the year I vexed the haughtiest of kids at dodgeball and long ball by being victorious more than once, and the year I suffered bullying in the northwest corner of the schoolyard by a kick to my tailbone for reasons I still do not know. It was the year I learned about parameciums and amoebas, and delved into what the human body was all about via encyclopedias and their fascinating transparent cellophane sheets depicting musculature and the the network of veins. This was the year I fashioned an exploding volcano much to the wide eyes of my fellow classmates. I’m pretty sure Mr. White gave me that task to do for a science project. It was the year I became the Christmas play director and co-writer, the year I learned to count and speak a little in Spanish via the watching of an LA school teacher on the wheeled in television set once a week in our classroom. It was the year I joined the choir and stood under the hot lights above the stage, trying my best to contribute to the beauty of song. It was the year we voted for or against capital punishment and participated in written essays and verbal debates over that subject. It was the year I took Iowa State tests and had the gall to question why we were taking an Iowa test, if we lived in California. It was the year I grew bold enough to participate with peers in tossing wet paper towel balls up onto the ceiling of the girls’ bathroom, and the year I was a “good enough” kid to be hall monitor and take messages to other teachers and to the office. But, perhaps even more defining, this was the year I was entrusted to go down to the kindergarten classrooms and be a teacher’s aide. It soon became my job, and it wasn’t a rarity that I was in charge of the entire group, by myself, whilst the teacher was on break in the office. This is where I learned about preparation and motivation, more than a decade before I became an actual, professional teacher. I thank Mr. White, allowing me that opportunity was by far the most influential decision.

The decisions of a teacher are tantamount to the development of our youth. Mr. White made his with much consideration and scope of wisdom. We never suffered pat disapproval. He always seemed to ruminate on the merits of both sides of the coin, over the outcome of the yeas and nays. But, teachers today have practically been stripped to the bone of their ability to make autonomous decisions. This is truly tragic. Becoming a pedagogue in public school still is no easy feat and must be even harder than decades before. I know there is a whole new host of hurdles to hurl oneself over in order to attain that appointment and certification. Having children taught by those who have not been trained to teach is an ignorant, risky mistake in my opinion. I am sad for the children who may never get to feel the kind and firm care of their teacher, as my generation and I were able to. However, as pointed out on the onset of this essay, Mr. White was a wonderful teacher. He went beyond expectation. Most obvious, is his planning for the whole child: heart, mind, soul and physical. How long will distance learning deprive children from a real relationship between pupil and pedagogue? It seems to me, the time for an instructor to build specified and individualized communication is becoming harder and harder to make possible. I know our teachers will do their utmost to interject lessons geared to individual students, because most teachers really do care. They are committed to making learning quality. I just hope it won’t be too long before kids can return back to the brick and mortar classrooms and to the comfort of knowing their fearless leader is there to listen, suggest, contest, and inspire…like my Mr. White did. My Wonderful Mr. White.  

Music Teachers for the Ages

Not too long ago, a very fine friend and fellow, recounted his childhood experiences with one music teacher he still so fondly remembers. I, also, have a music teacher or two, who have claim to a very sweet spot in my heart. Each teacher I consider part of the fabric that has woven my experience in the exceptional world of music.

Perhaps the most storied of teachers, was Mrs. Munn. Ah, Mrs. Munn, a beautiful soul who made a seemingly very abrupt exit from my life. In truth, it was me. I graduated high school, went on to college and kind of forgot about this very important influencial person. But youth tends to do this. We often realize the good after it is too late. Well, I started my lessons with Mrs. Munn after I had a year or two of violin under my belt. I began learning the instrument in public school in fifth grade. Eventually, on urging of my grandmother, my parents sought after a good music teacher who lived in our town. Mrs. Munn was recommended.

Getting to her house was an event. Because I had so many siblings, it was sometimes up to me to get myself there. Thus, my violin case bore a nifty shoulder strap, and my music was easy to transport in my bookcase. (Back in those days, the sixties and seventies, a bookcase could mean a satchel for books and music, not just a a tall shelf.) Mine had green and gold plaid material and what appeared to be green leather. It probably wasn’t. That’s alright, it felt scholarly to me. Now, the idea was to be able to walk three miles from my family home to her house. Thus, I happily did, which was about an hour’s walk.

Mrs. Munn was extremely practical. If you stepped into her front door, you were met with a thick heavy plastic floor runner to walk upon to avoid soiling the carpet. In the six years I took lessons from her, I never stepped onto the plush carpeting in her home. Next, you would hear piano notes emanating from the room around the corner. That would be Madame Munn at the keys. Also in the hearing was the sound of either a cello, viola or violin and sometimes, in accompaniment, would be noticed the lulling, contributing snore of her royal German Shepherd, “Baron”. (More about Baron will come later in this article.)

Upon entering Mrs. Munn’s home, if you did not hear these sounds, then you knew you could walk right into “the music room” and get started. If you did hear the lilt of musical notes, you politely sat down on the gray couch, under the end table lamp, next to the proverbial candy jar. Mrs. Munn always knew how to keep children well behaved. She’d ply them with candy. Being a good girl, I never took any until I heard this familiar sentence, “Oh hello, come right in, make yourself comfortable and help yourself to some candy.” That was it. The delightful, hoped for sentence. Magazines were also by the candy jar, and I read a lot of National Geographics and Redbook while waiting for the lesson ahead of me to finish. If I had walked in the summer heat, Mrs. Munn would usually have a glass of lemonade ready to be poured for me, which was a welcomed sight. Some of my other siblings took lessons from her, and I recall once or twice being invited to her home to just sit down to a teacher/student luncheon. I will never forget eating a delicious sandwich on pumpernickel bread. I hadn’t had that kind of bread before, but, I loved it! Mrs. Munn was excellent with children. She knew what we liked and she kept her business thriving due to that inside knowledge.

Lesson after lesson, year after year, phase after phase, Lucille Munn was my constancy. God bless her patience. I think she loved me like a daughter and her patience with my perennially repeating issues which never seemed to phase her. She never once scolded me, and I never once felt pressured. Try as she may, she never could quite get me past that hurdle of learning to vibrato. It all came down to the first teachings of handling the violin, and she was not there for those first two years. Well, unfortunately, I learned to comfortably hold the violin neck, rather than create an arc of space by balancing my thumb on the neck only, and holding up the violin by my chin bearing down on the chinrest. Mrs. Munn could tell I loved music and that I knew when technique sounded “right”. So, she started to see a growing disillusionment in me because, here, I could play concertos, but I simply could not make my violin sing via the use of vibrato. It made me angry at myself. We tried spools of thread placed between the neck and my thumb. She encouraged me so much, but I just had a physical block and the damage was done.

However, Lucille Munn inspired me to tackle wonderful pieces, and to play for her what we were learning in orchestra. She successfully taught me to bow correctly, which any violinist will tell you is paramount to good playing. My music teacher confidant that she was, somehow survived all the other machinations going on in my life…sibling rivalry, puberty, and other interests such as girl scouts, and drillteam. I know she was an amazing teacher and I rather think I took her for granted. I am so sorry for this. But, her teachings about phrasing, intonation, and bowing remain as vibrant reminders that are useful to me even today.

Now, Mrs. Munn may have had a gray couch, a subtle, silver carpet, and plain walls, but she herself, was a colorful character! She was rather short…maybe teetering on the mark of 5’7″. She wore simple, nondescript clothing and did not seem to have a sense of humor as far as I could tell. But there are two great stories attached to my memory of her. The first one has to do with the fact that she was a fully-blown practicing Christian Scientist. One occasion she was being plagued by inundating ants. Most of us resort to using the “chemical blast” to eradicate the highly unwelcomed intruders. She, however, used the power of prayer. “After all, ants belong in their anthill home, not MY home,” she said. Well, her story she told me, (and I have every reason to believe it is the truth), is an eye opener. 😳. Mrs. Munn claims due to much concentrated thought as to where the ants truly belong, she discovered them no longer trailing amuck in her house. Instead, they had formed an organized, almost infantry parade-like line of exiting ants. She said they marched right past her one day and literally, out her front door to the front yard, never to return again! I was shocked at the details of this recounting, but, I believe!🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜

Now, the other story is one every dog owner should hear. Baron, was a mighty presence. He often lay, with regal aplomb underneath her piano as Mrs. Munn taught. (He knew how to get the best sound). One rainy day, when most likely he did not get his morning walk, he sat up and seemed to be toying with some train of thought leading to a decision he’d have to make. Well, Mrs. Munn, engaged a certain ritual for all students. As the eager pupils approached her music room, a folding table was demonstrably situated in front and near the window at the entrance to the area where pupils could get fully set up with their music and instrument. Before the lesson began, you were to place your mother’s check or cash on the folding tray. This one particular music day, Baron decided he was much too hungry. He wolfed down every last personal check and dollar bill from that little table. Already by late morning, the contents amounted to what in those days was a lot of money–$80! She never scolded him. She just changed her method of receiving payment. Thusly, Baron, was never put on the “back burner” when it came to activity time and lunch. This was my teacher. And such was life.

 

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Another grand personage in the world of music for me, was Mr. Charles Ross. He is still highly revered by our town. He arrived as a young music teacher, endeavoring to do what nobody had ever done in our town. He started a music program in our school district. He brought classical music to our little “city”, and this eventually branched out into other genres, including marching band, choir and jazz band. Band was not really his “thing” but, he knew whom to hire to make it happen. I knew him because of violin. I was introduced to violin in my 5th grade year. We were all assembled at my elementary school’s auditorium. I remember seeing this man onstage with four wooden instruments that seemed to look alike except for size. Knowing, by this age I was a “schpunt”, as my mom would say,  I ignored the bass viol and cello. They were too large and unwieldy for me. The viola had a nice mellow sound, but the violin was small and I decided I was little and should play something little. 🎻 It was a good match. My parents had to drive me in to a city half an hour away to find a quarter size violin, since, my arms were just not long enough to meet a half-size. My clever parents located a quarter-size violin hanging in a music shop window and convinced the proprietor to sell it to us. Probably, the size of my violin is why I did not learn to vibrato. (not much room on the fingerboard).

Bless Mr. Ross’ soul, he would travel to every school and teach around thirty kids at a time. This meant he would have to be extremely patient and a good enough leader to tune all those instruments while the awaiting students grew potentially antsy. He got us all past “Hot Cross Buns”, and we learned “Barcarolle”, “Volga Boatman”, “Merry Widow’s Waltz”, etc. Our parents liked the results, too. Once in junior high, I moved on to learning student concertos such as the Seitz Violin Concerto. I remember playing “Pavanne”, “Flight of the Bumble Bee”, and “Beethoven’s 5th Symphony , 4th movement.” It was all about the ending on the downbow. He pitted Lois, another violinist against me, vying for 1st chair. If, we didn’t keep up to snuff, the other would take the lead position. I kept it for a few weeks!  I loved that competition very much. Charles Ross believed in me, too. He drove me to Saturday violin competitions, and I came home with “Superior Minus” ratings….that minus always pushed me a bit further. I recall discussing Liberace with him and asking if he was not the greatest pianist ever. He diplomatically answered that he was the best entertainer of all…Mr. Ross also made a home visit to my house to encourage my parents to not let my brother quit playing the cello. It is an understatement to say Mr. Ross was dedicated to furthering music via children.

I could swear he was Beethoven himself sometimes, gesturing and jumping up and down with his “Einsteinian” hair wildly dancing to and fro. He would have to swipe it from his eyes as he’d make a sweeping turn of the music page, not skipping a beat, while conducting. He insisted “eyes on him” and “no toe tapping”. But, that gentleman could command junior high orchestras to do amazing things. He made music sizzle🔥 for me. I often got chills up and down my spine. I soon learned to covet the sound of being immersed in a full orchestra, hearing “surround sound” from the violins to the cellos to the trumpets to the timpani. He was my sturm and drang, my waves of chromaticism and my lilting cloud-puffs of serenity. He held me “captive” by the tip of his baton and the arch of his eyebrow. Mr.Ross taught me something most would say cannot be taught. He taught me to LOVE music. Really love it, from within. Regrettably, I never got to thank him in a way he deserved. After I graduated high school and went on to college, I heard that he passed away. He never knew I took up learning the harp, but still can play violin when I have one to play. I hope he reads internet blogs up in heaven.

Mrs.Munn also moved away before I could give her a proper thank you. Even both of my harp teachers have moved on to new chapters and horizons. Each one built a lifetime memory for me. They were all harbingers of the good in life. Next time, I will recall memories of my harp teachers; both quite different, yet very special, too. Plus, the story of me and my harp is worth telling. Thus, one and all, stay tuned… no pun intended!

 

 

Our Music Man

Probably, the stars lined up well in advance of the following chain of events. All I know is, when I was five years old, I had the privileged opportunity to ride the Santa Fe Super Chief all the way to Washington D.C. It was part of a month long escape from the San Gabriel Valley oppressive summer heat and to attend the CAN: Convention of American Nurserymen.  My father was in the fine business end of horticulture. He sold truckloads of live plants that would be shipped anywhere across the wide USA. He worked for the wholesale nursery company known as Monrovia Nursery. It eventually became “The Giant” in the Industry. How fortunate that I was just barely old enough to come along for the adventure with my two brothers and big sister, mom and dad. Many events took place on that trip, but this is not about those. No, this introduction is the springboard for making a connection from one magical night on a magical stage to a decade later: a bevy-full of magic on numerous stages. It is a connection between the famous role of an actor and a real live, true man.

Back in 1960, my family dressed-up for the theatre one of those nights we spent in Washington D.C, on that summer vacation. I remember buckling my patent leather shoes, twirling my cascading long curls, adjusting my velvety bow, and spinning 360s into a fanning circumference of my satin dress. I was primed for pleasure of unknown heights. My sister was dressed in a matching frock, looking very elegant, dreamy-fancy and wide-eyed. My brothers were in suits, ties, belts and polished good leathers.  My parents were the epitome of fashion perfection. Not a piece of lint to be found, looking lovely and daper and not at all like parents of a growing family.

We took a car to the famed National Theatre.  Because we were somehow blessed by the gods, we actually sat in “The President’s Box” and afterwards were invited to go backstage and meet Robert Preston, the lead actor.  The show was the stage performance of “Music Man”.  Being able to see from up on high, I could take in the full spectacle; watching the trilling fingers on trumpets, marching musicians, and seeing it all happen at the talented hand of the master himself, “Professor Harold Hill”. My young eyes took in that charisma and hung onto every word that was said or sung. I watched the dramatics, the dancing, the convincing, the swooning…I watched love unfold and story outcome evolve. I rejoiced along with the audience with the boisterously jubilant final act. It was sheer, captivating entertainment all wrapped in one big musical bow. I think I fell in love with music itself that wonderful night…

Years later, by the time I reached high school, I had already been immersed in a world of music under the instruction of a myriad of tutors. My uncle taught me basic fingering on our household piano, and my mother would often play piano or organ. I had a public school teacher introduce me to the violin and eventually I had a private teacher to refine what things I learned. In junior high, I had Mr. Ross, whom I could swear was really Beethoven when he would jump up and down on our orchestra conductor’s podium. Mr. Wilshire came later, and I learned to play to please. Both men were taskmasters in their own way. Both etched deep streams of chromatic chords into my soul.

Then, one autumn day in 1970, I came to be under the directorship of Mr. Gordon Norman. He was so many things all wrapped in a Stewart Tartan Plaid suit jacket. To me, he was Professor Hill revisited. He was official. He was sharp, exacting and our sergeant of arms. With either an outward swing of his arms to say, “Instruments up, let us begin” to a more intent tapping on the music stand, conveying “Let’s get it right THIS time, folks”, his leadership would instigate and inspire.

I played first violin for him. I determined to keep my spot in First Violins, and sometimes, had to accept “Second Fiddle”. He discreetly would tell me he needed strength in every section. But, I knew it was because most of my extra-curricular focus had nothing to do with striving for brilliant bowing. You see, I was also in the Plaid Piper Drillteam which marched behind The Tartan Marching Band. Spreading my free time quite thinly, Mr. Norman knew first and foremost I was a student. Therefore, in orchestra class, there would be occasions when he would tell all of us to stop and put our instruments down. He would allow us to study for an English vocabulary test or go over notes before an important exam. I appreciated his being “in tune” with the kids. Mr. Norman seemed to know what we needed. It was easy to have a good rapport with our “fearless” leader.

Granted, Gordon Norman was the director of the marching band. But, he knew what sort of effect he wanted both the band and drill team to create. Being of extremely short stature, my presence in the parade block formation on the street had only one possible location: front row and the far end position on either the left or right. One’s eyes could see a row of drill team girls lined up and guided up, standing sharp as a tack. Following it across visually, was an interruption at the end of the row where a sudden drop would happen. This was where my not quite 5 foot height would boldly attempt to proclaim its existence. Mr. Norman would once in awhile saunter over to me, peer downward, and with a smirk combo of stern, yet kind, ask: “Are you standing in a hole?”. He knew it didn’t take much to make me laugh and just lose it. Thus, his jokes were a good test of what restraint I might possess. After all, when standing at attention before stepping off the competition line, you cannot flinch one bit….not even if a giant blue bumble bee decides it likes your colorful tartan pinned close to your neck and ear lobe. (This actually did happen to me in a competition parade when we were all frozen at attention.) Did I move? Absolutely not! That’s trained fortitude!

Being a Plaid Piper Drillteamer, meant long hours of practice. Daily we were called to the football field to go through the field show routines. Each week we had a new show, so a lot of practicing had to ensue. I vividly remember one 1971 morning, we were called to practice to be there by 6 am. All of us girls had rollers in our hair-the band girls as well. That particular morning, the ground shifted and rolled and it was my first outdoor earthquake I had ever experienced. But, Mr. Norman waited for it to calm down, and we continued on without recoiling from further practice. Even when the regular school day ended, the last period of classes was 7th period. The entire band and drill team practiced until the sun went down. That was the time. We ended after sunset. Every school day. Every week. He was determined to have us reach our best.

It paid off well because, Mr. Norman and his compadre in arms, Mrs. Jean Thompson who specifically oversaw the drillteam, created the finest marching charts and field shows a high school band could have. We won countless awards and were invited to venues not usually associated with high school marching bands. We performed in the Rose Parade, at the Rams Game at the Coliseum, at the 49ers game up in San Francisco. Along the way we slept over in Porterville and Fairfield. Gordon Norman had to be in charge of the whole shebang– each of us staying in homes of families in those towns who had children in their high school’s marching band. That was a truckload of trust back in the day!

In 1972 he took all of us to Switzerland where we spent weeks roaming the Swiss Alps and picturesque hamlets. We rode cogwheel trains to the top of snow-capped peaks, we cleared Mt. Pilatus and looked down on Lucerne through the clouds below. We took a lake cruise, and drove in buses through winding mountain roads. We visited and performed in the towns of Bern, and Interlaken. We stayed one weekend in a university dorm. We marched in the “Fetes de Geneve” and met the Soviet Union Army Band. We exchanged pins with them and other international bands from all over the globe at that grand celebration. How could a mere music teacher instigate and carry-out such an enriching experience for 300+ students?

For the Switzerland trip, we learned new ways to perform. I learned the “Black Bottom” and the “Charleston Dance”. I was invited to help devise and perform a flag twirling routine. We presented these at an amazing band concert hall in Geneva. I’ll never forget the Russians playing the “1812 Overture”. We even heard the hauntingly beautiful alpine horns perform. These were memories for life. Rich, storied, philosophical, and educating. What Mr. Norman and Mrs.Thompson gave us goes beyond anything any other teachers could have given.

When competing in our own hometown area in Southern California against other high school bands, we strove to and often won, top prizes…First Place and Sweepstakes! Mr. Norman expected so much from us. But in that message of expectation was the mantra of “I know you can achieve it”. Thus, we did do very well. We loved being winners, travelers and entertainers. We loved being enthralled with the world of music, march and dance. We loved it because he loved us. We believed no task was too hard because he believed.

And this is where my reference to Professor Harold Hill comes in. Gordon Norman was our “Professor”. I don’t know if he stepped off a train from Iowa or not, but, when he came to Glendora, he turned up the volume on our quaint, little town. He used his salesmanship to convince our parents to buy authenticity. We wore Stewart Plaid from Scotland, and donned real accoutrements for the pipers and drill team right down to the hackles, amber silver brooches, ostrich feather bonnets, ghillies and kilt pins. ***I’m not sure, but he and Mrs. Thompson may have been instrumental in securing permission from Scotland and England to allow us to wear the Royal Stewart Plaid.*** I know there already were tartan and British regalia uniforms already in use…but he demanded more exacting finesse; more items from the true sources. Why not wear Stewart Plaid? That was our Music Man’s motto- “If you can dream it, then go for it!” Of course, this became embedded in all of his musicians and drillteamers’ hearts. I know I think that way. I am as my son once put it: an “infernal” optimist! I got that from Gordon Norman.

He insisted the band have white shoes for marching and before parades each shoe was on the marcher’s foot in a plastic baggie. Parents scurried about as the bags came off just before step off…and with white shoe polish in hand, checked for any stray marks. Gloves were examined for lipstick spots and replaced if need be. Our drill team hair had to be one style, a pageboy, and it could not touch the shoulders when straight. Tons of hairspray was in use. Every girl had to wear mascara and the exact same color lipstick. It was all about polish. It was all about the smile, too.

Gordon Norman also instigated the booster parents to sew woolen capes for the Drillteam. Our skirts were very short and we often were very cold out on football fields standing in attention. My mother was one of the boosters who sewed those woolen knee length capes lined in satin. He must have been listening to us, because it seemed we always had our needs fulfilled. How fondly I think of that cape. I can almost feel it, smell it and be warmed by the sentimental thought of it.

“Gordy” had chutzpah. Still does. Often, on our way home from an event, he would lead three buses full of growling stomachs and voraciously hungry students. Woe to the fast food chains who would see huge buses of our 300+ children arriving. He would ask if they could take on the challenge. He had a way of making the earth move at his behest. Even as his musicians and young charges, he was not easy on any of us. He would say, “Nobody else picks up your instrument. You bring it, you take it. Nobody will do it for you.”

If he wanted something he asked. He had a knack for knowing whose bread to butter to get permission for us to practice marching down Foothill Boulevard and on the 210 freeway before the Glendora stretch officially opened. You knew if he asked (you), to do a favor for him, he had full faith you could do it. I recall one day in the band room, he looked at me and said, “Would you mind cleaning up my office? It’s an awful mess.”  I laugh in memory because that was the day he first taught me a term I eventually taught my own students. I asked him that day where to put a pile of papers that looked impossible for me to sort out, not likely knowing what they were…his answer? “Oh, they go in the circular file, Julie.” He saw my quizzical look and then smirked back and shifted his eyes to the metallic, dark green trash can. Even at home nowadays, I’ll say to put something away in the “circular file”. It was a responsibility to help out my teacher. I was more than proud to help him out.

He made us all revere him, but, not by “Harold Hill” pretend tactics. That is where the distinction lies. We just knew he had scores of ideas and he did not like backing down from them. We knew those ideas always became something great. His power of positivism was his shining mace. He led us in spirit cheers in the gym using lighted letter banners to spell out our High School name. We had spirit sing alongs on each bus and observed a “silent zone” returning to home, driving past our campus southern border, where we inwardly thought of our Alma Mater song “Praise to Thee Glendora”. As we turned the corner, then in modulated reverence, sang the words– once out of “the zone”. Mr. Norman galvanized parental efforts to hold raffles, to fundraise, initiate barbecues, host band parties for the kids, hold pancake breakfasts and set up assembly lines in cafeterias for making pizzas to sell throughout the city as a means to get us all on trips long distanced and even across “The Pond” to Switzerland.

If, I think back to winter, 1973, I can imagine myself polishing my black marching drill team shoes. I check to see the small piece of plaid in each square buckle was tightly fastened. Next, I inspect my black knee socks for any miscreant speck. I adjust my short stewart plaid kilt, and pull down my black vest with silver diamond-shaped buttons. I fluff the ruffles around my neck from my white blouse, and have a fellow drillteamer make sure my cap is at the right angle with black ostrich feather hackle pointed upward. She’ll have smoothed out straight my tartan plaid draping off the back of my shoulder. I know not to put my gloves on until the very last. I was a Plaid Piper Drillteamer. I marched behind the legendary Tartan Marching Band. My snappy movements are filed in muscle memory, and I only have to concentrate on letting the music lead me, as I accentuate with crisp movements. I’m ready to perform for Band-o-Rama.

Band-o-rama just celebrated its 50th year performance. Gordon Norman started the tradition and was invited this year to guest conduct. The traditions remain from what we did long ago. The band played as the drill team now known as Pageantry, performed “Scotland the Brave,” “The Highland Fling”, and “The Sword Dance.” It ended with our Alma Mater, “Scotch On the Rocks” and “Amazing Grace”. Our Drum Major kneeled on one knee in full Scottish regalia and a lone piper played the tune. The moment was spell-binding. Tears glistened.

Back in 1973, I sat on a drum case of a friend, waiting for it all to begin. I thought of Mr. Norman and what he must have had to go through to start this whole operation. He had to convince the students, the parents, the school administration, the college whose auditorium we utilized, the city businesses to help pay for the building for the entire week of practices before the show.  But, our “Professor Hill” has that smile. He has a way of winning us all over. I think his smile says, “If not for me, then do it for Music”. Well, we did. We have. I hope we always will.

I get up from that drum case. I don my pristine, white gloves. I’m ready. The curtains rise. The Glendora Tartan Marching Band is sitting erect with instruments poised. The Band Leader, Maestro, Director, our “Music Man”, walks out under the flood of stage lights. Thunderous applause. He steps onto the podium box. He raises his conductor’s baton….the drum cadence commences. I emerge from the side curtains and march out with other Plaid Piper drill team girls performing our “Scotland the Brave” routine. The Pipe Band slowly rises up from the dropped floor and the magic begins….

 

Thank you Mr. Gordon Norman. Thank you for everything.

 

 

Tidbits of Affirmation

Written: September 10, 2013

I am so happy. I received my first intrinsic “gift” from my class today. I learned, even after ALLLL these years of pedagogy, something wonderful about little students. When they fall in love with something you have done, and leave a few subtle “breadcrumbs” along the way…one had better pay attention and appreciate their communicative hints. So, it goes like this. The first day of school, I presented my obligatory (my own set goal) a capella singing of “America”. I have a book that portrays the lyrics through superb photos…waving amber grain, spacious skies and shining seas—excellent for ELLs. (English Language Learners). Well, I was fortunate enough this year to actually sing on as close to “spot on key” as possible (for me): believe me, I am no singer. But, I did okay, no cracks and I somehow picked the right starting note that would allow me to reach the upper register notes and the low ones, too. The kiddos really liked it. They said “again, again!”. I did, and thus began their love affair with learning it. 

Over the next few weeks they requested I read the book and sing it each time I tried to instigate a read-aloud on the floor. No relenting. No changing of the guard, either. They’re just barely coming to accept the beginnings of the “Johnny Appleseed” song. Today, we were especially too busy for a read-aloud, and despite the fact that we got to work in our first art project tied to literacy and writing, my little scallawaggers took the proverbial “bull by the horns”, themselves. 

As is the rule. when finished with their project, all cleaned-up and fancy free, their next task was to choose a book to read independently or with a buddy. So, as I am helping mend circles that were supposed to have been made from a square, engineer a few glue bottles, and subtely advise a few logical choices, I realize most of my 23 charges are completed with their “Goodnight Owl” projects. I know this because I start to hear a wafting gentle melody…it continues on with a few more voices chiming in, oh so naturally. I don’t think my pupils even knew they were embarking on a genuine enterprise, not for show or even affirmation, but for the simple joy of singing that song. 

My one boy who has been the most enthusiastic champion for the reading of that book daily, was on the floor turning the pages as the song leader, if you will. A cluster of about four or five children had heads bent low hovering over every word, singing with complete childlike essence. Then, I noticed others still at their desks, in a non-chalant spontaneous way, were one by one joining-in by humming or singing along. I tell you, it was a magical moment. A present all wrapped in unadulterated love. Thank you class. I love America, too.

Music Teachers for the Ages

Not too long ago, a very fine friend and fellow, recounted his childhood experiences with one music teacher he still so fondly remembers. I, also, have a music teacher or two, who have claim to a very sweet spot in my heart. Each teacher I consider part of the fabric that has woven my experience in the exceptional world of music.

Perhaps the most storied of teachers, was Mrs. Munn. Ah, Mrs. Munn, a beautiful soul who made a seemingly very abrupt exit from my life. In truth, it was me. I graduated high school, went on to college and kind of forgot about this very important influencial person. But youth tends to do this. We often realize the good after it is too late. Well, I started my lessons with Mrs. Munn after I had a year or two of violin under my belt. I began learning the instrument in public school in fifth grade. Eventually, on urging of my grandmother, my parents sought after a good music teacher who lived in our town. Mrs. Munn was recommended.

Getting to her house was an event. Because I had so many siblings, it was sometimes up to me to get myself there. Thus, my violin case bore a nifty shoulder strap, and my music was easy to transport in my bookcase. (Back in those days, the sixties and seventies, a bookcase could mean a satchel for books and music, not just a a tall shelf.) Mine had green and gold plaid material and what appeared to be green leather. It probably wasn’t. That’s alright, it felt scholarly to me. Now, the idea was to be able to walk three miles from my family home to her house. Thus, I happily did, which was about an hour’s walk.

Mrs. Munn was extremely practical. If you stepped into her front door, you were met with a thick heavy plastic floor runner to walk upon to avoid soiling the carpet. In the six years I took lessons from her, I never stepped onto the plush carpeting in her home. Next, you would hear piano notes emanating from the room around the corner. That would be Madame Munn at the keys. Also in the hearing was the sound of either a cello, viola or violin and sometimes, in accompaniment, would be noticed the lulling, contributing snore of her royal German Shepherd, “Baron”. (More about Baron will come later in this article.)

Upon entering Mrs. Munn’s home, if you did not hear these sounds, then you knew you could walk right into “the music room” and get started. If you did hear the lilt of musical notes, you politely sat down on the gray couch, under the end table lamp, next to the proverbial candy jar. Mrs. Munn always knew how to keep children well behaved. She’d ply them with candy. Being a good girl, I never took any until I heard this familiar sentence, “Oh hello, come right in, make yourself comfortable and help yourself to some candy.” That was it. The delightful, hoped for sentence. Magazines were also by the candy jar, and I read a lot of National Geographics and Redbook while waiting for the lesson ahead of me to finish. If I had walked in the summer heat, Mrs. Munn would usually have a glass of lemonade ready to be poured for me, which was a welcomed sight. Some of my other siblings took lessons from her, and I recall once or twice being invited to her home to just sit down to a teacher/student luncheon. I will never forget eating a delicious sandwich on pumpernickel bread. I hadn’t had that kind of bread before, but, I loved it! Mrs. Munn was excellent with children. She knew what we liked and she kept her business thriving due to that inside knowledge.

Lesson after lesson, year after year, phase after phase, Lucille Munn was my constancy. God bless her patience. I think she loved me like a daughter and her patience with my perennially repeating issues which never seemed to phase her. She never once scolded me, and I never once felt pressured. Try as she may, she never could quite get me past that hurdle of learning to vibrato. It all came down to the first teachings of handling the violin, and she was not there for those first two years. Well, unfortunately, I learned to comfortably hold the violin neck, rather than create an arc of space by balancing my thumb on the neck only, and holding up the violin by my chin bearing down on the chinrest. Mrs. Munn could tell I loved music and that I knew when technique sounded “right”. So, she started to see a growing disillusionment in me because, here, I could play concertos, but I simply could not make my violin sing via the use of vibrato. It made me angry at myself. We tried spools of thread placed between the neck and my thumb. She encouraged me so much, but I just had a physical block and the damage was done.

However, Lucille Munn inspired me to tackle wonderful pieces, and to play for her what we were learning in orchestra. She successfully taught me to bow correctly, which any violinist will tell you is paramount to good playing. My music teacher confidant that she was, somehow survived all the other machinations going on in my life…sibling rivalry, puberty, and other interests such as girl scouts, and drillteam. I know she was an amazing teacher and I rather think I took her for granted. I am so sorry for this. But, her teachings about phrasing, intonation, and bowing remain as vibrant reminders that are useful to me even today.

Now, Mrs. Munn may have had a gray couch, a subtle, silver carpet, and plain walls, but she herself, was a colorful character! She was rather short…maybe teetering on the mark of 5’7″. She wore simple, nondescript clothing and did not seem to have a sense of humor as far as I could tell. But there are two great stories attached to my memory of her. The first one has to do with the fact that she was a fully-blown practicing Christian Scientist. One occasion she was being plagued by inundating ants. Most of us resort to using the “chemical blast” to eradicate the highly unwelcomed intruders. She, however, used the power of prayer. “After all, ants belong in their anthill home, not MY home,” she said. Well, her story she told me, (and I have every reason to believe it is the truth), is an eye opener. 😳. Mrs. Munn claims due to much concentrated thought as to where the ants truly belong, she discovered them no longer trailing amuck in her house. Instead, they had formed an organized, almost infantry parade-like line of exiting ants. She said they marched right past her one day and literally, out her front door to the front yard, never to return again! I was shocked at the details of this recounting, but, I believe!🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜

Now, the other story is one every dog owner should hear. Baron, was a mighty presence. He often lay, with regal aplomb underneath her piano as Mrs. Munn taught. (He knew how to get the best sound). One rainy day, when most likely he did not get his morning walk, he sat up and seemed to be toying with some train of thought leading to a decision he’d have to make. Well, Mrs. Munn, engaged a certain ritual for all students. As the eager pupils approached her music room, a folding table was demonstrably situated in front and near the window at the entrance to the area where pupils could get fully set up with their music and instrument. Before the lesson began, you were to place your mother’s check or cash on the folding tray. This one particular music day, Baron decided he was much too hungry. He wolfed down every last personal check and dollar bill from that little table. Already by late morning, the contents amounted to what in those days was a lot of money–$80! She never scolded him. She just changed her method of receiving payment. Thusly, Baron, was never put on the “back burner” when it came to activity time and lunch. This was my teacher. And such was life.

Another grand personage in the world of music for me, was Mr. Charles Ross. He is still highly revered by our town. He arrived as a young music teacher, endeavoring to do what nobody had ever done in our town. He started a music program in our school district. He brought classical music to our little “city”, and this eventually branched out into other genres, including marching band, choir and jazz band. Band was not really his “thing” but, he knew whom to hire to make it happen. I knew him because of violin. I was introduced to violin in my 5th grade year. We were all assembled at my elementary school’s auditorium. I remember seeing this man onstage with four wooden instruments that seemed to look alike except for size. Knowing, by this age I was a “schpunt”, as my mom would say,  I ignored the bass viol and cello. They were too large and unwieldy for me. The viola had a nice mellow sound, but the violin was small and I decided I was little and should play something little. 🎻 It was a good match. My parents had to drive me in to a city half an hour away to find a quarter size violin, since, my arms were just not long enough to meet a half-size. My clever parents located a quarter-size violin hanging in a music shop window and convinced the proprietor to sell it to us. Probably, the size of my violin is why I did not learn to vibrato. (not much room on the fingerboard).

Bless Mr. Ross’ soul, he would travel to every school and teach around thirty kids at a time. This meant he would have to be extremely patient and a good enough leader to tune all those instruments while the awaiting students grew potentially antsy. He got us all past “Hot Cross Buns”, and we learned “Barcarolle”, “Volga Boatman”, “Merry Widow’s Waltz”, etc. Our parents liked the results, too. Once in junior high, I moved on to learning student concertos such as the Seitz Violin Concerto. I remember playing “Pavanne”, “Flight of the Bumble Bee”, and “Beethoven’s 5th Symphony , 4th movement.” It was all about the ending on the downbow. He pitted Lois, another violinist against me, vying for 1st chair. If, we didn’t keep up to snuff, the other would take the lead position. I kept it for a few weeks!  I loved that competition very much. Charles Ross believed in me, too. He drove me to Saturday violin competitions, and I came home with “Superior Minus” ratings….that minus always pushed me a bit further. I recall discussing Liberace with him and asking if he was not the greatest pianist ever. He diplomatically answered that he was the best entertainer of all…Mr. Ross also made a home visit to my house to encourage my parents to not let my brother quit playing the cello. It is an understatement to say Mr. Ross was dedicated to furthering music via children.

I could swear he was Beethoven himself sometimes, gesturing and jumping up and down with his “Einsteinian” hair wildly dancing to and fro. He would have to swipe it from his eyes as he’d make a sweeping turn of the music page, not skipping a beat, while conducting. He insisted “eyes on him” and “no toe tapping”. But, that gentleman could command junior high orchestras to do amazing things. He made music sizzle🔥 for me. I often got chills up and down my spine. I soon learned to covet the sound of being immersed in a full orchestra, hearing “surround sound” from the violins to the cellos to the trumpets to the timpani. He was my sturm and drang, my waves of chromaticism and my lilting cloud-puffs of serenity. He held me “captive” by the tip of his baton and the arch of his eyebrow. Mr.Ross taught me something most would say cannot be taught. He taught me to LOVE music. Really love it, from within. Regrettably, I never got to thank him in a way he deserved. After I graduated high school and went on to college, I heard that he passed away. He never knew I took up learning the harp, but still can play violin when I have one to play. I hope he reads internet blogs up in heaven.

Mrs.Munn also moved away before I could give her a proper thank you. Even both of my harp teachers have moved on to new chapters and horizons. Each one built a lifetime memory for me. They were all harbingers of the good in life. Next time, I will recall memories of my harp teachers; both quite different, yet very special, too. Plus, the story of me and my harp is worth telling. Thus, one and all, stay tuned… no pun intended!