Sunday, November 26, 2006

Mr. Holland's Opus

Mr. Holland's Opus does me in every time -- I end up bawling. I haven't seen it since it first came out, but my parents have On Demand cable.

What does me in isn't the movie itself, though, but that it's so expressive of MY music teachers in elementary, junior high, and high school. By some miracle I became "musical" -- neither of my parents are -- so I can absolutely understand how horrific it is to listen to beginning students attempt to learn to play musical instruments. It doesn't just hurt your ears -- it hurts your SOUL. The kind of gift it requires to listen to a young musician mangle note after note after note is rare and precious. They ought to be paid more than Jack Welch. He just has to run a company. Elementary music teachers have to listen to children butcher -- and butcher -- and butcher the very words of the soul.

I started on piano, when I was six or so, in private lessons with the organist at the Presbyterian church. In second grade, I started on violin. My district had an excellent band and orchestra program, and in second grade, I started torturing professional musicians with my incompetence. I never got very good at violin. In eighth grade, I switched to bass. Bass knew my hands. Bass wanted me to play it. I knew the bass before I ever met it. The bassist before me had graduated, and they needed a bassist. They told me I was too short to play bass, which was an absolute guarantee that I was going to play bass -- I refuse to be told I can't do something. It was in 8th grade, when I started on bass, that they told me I was going to play jazz. OY! An entire new universe!

In high school I played string ensemble, symphony orchestra, jazz band, jazz ensemble, show choir, pit orchestra -- in my senior year, I played in nine performing groups. The thing is, I'm not particularly musical. I wasn't one of the musicians going to Oberlin. I wasn't majoring in music. I played Tchaikovsky. I played Stravinsky. I played Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, and John Coltrane. Gifted, long-suffering musicians taught me. They listened to me. They rebuked me, retrained me, educated me.

At 28, what do I have? I'm not playing with the Chicago Symphony. I'm not playing with the Peoria Symphony. I'm just a lawyer, a lawyer with shelves and shelves of classical and jazz albums, with an iPod stuffed full of the greats.

Most public schools are cutting music. You don't have to play music to learn to read, or add, or find Belgium. It's not "useful." But I have to think that these bureaucrats in Springfield cutting music budgets never marched in high school marching band, or never played in high school symphony. Do they go to the yearly IMEA meetings and concerts? I can't imagine they do. Did they meet Gershwin when they were 13 years old? Did they know that the janitor's favorite piece was "Rhapsody in Blue"? Did they learn to play it to please him? Do they even know there are janitors who love Gershwin?

Cutting music is a mistake. I don't know if I can even list the things it did for me. Perhaps the most important thing it taught me was to work my ASS off, in a variety of styles -- marching band, symphony, jazz band. It taught me to appreciate the past, and be interested in the present, including the Northwestern graduate student's symphonic piece that involved us basses saying, "broccoli broccoli broccoli." (Not so much for me, but he was trying.) I learned leadership. I learned teamwork. I learned -- and this is totally not to be underestimated -- how to put one foot in front of the other in tempo. This is not a skill that comes naturally to me!

Music blew open my brain to a universe of beauty I otherwise wouldn't have access to, and the doormen were brave men and women who loved music so much they were willing to listen to me butcher their great love just so they could open that door to me. Most of us aren't born Mozarts, and it takes the long-suffering music teachers of the world to coax us into the world of notes and rests and fortissimos so we can appreciate the gift they're offering us.

Did music get me into college? I think it's likely. My academic grades kicked ass, but it was music that made me dimensional. But beyond that, music opened my soul to an entire world of beauty and art that, long after my GPA has faded from my memory, continues to feed the very center of my being. Live music, 20 year later, makes me cry -- not because it's so beautiful, although it is, but merely because it's so soul-filling. Once you learn the hunger for music, you're never satisfied without it.

So to me, Mr. Holland's Opus is a love note to the many music teachers who gave me the gift of jazz. Of classical. Of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Who shuddered in their inner souls as they listened to us butcher the basic tunes that form the stepping stones that will one day lead us to Stravinsky, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev.

Those teachers dug a starving hole in my soul, and I'll be filling it for the rest of my life with the transcendence of music --

And I can never, ever thank them enough for that hunger.

1 comment:

O'Brien's Briar Patch said...

The flick that gets me is the Andy Garcia-Meg Ryan flick "When a Man Loves a Woman" and the scene where he is talking to his step-daughter in the playground.

Have you seen it? Don't want to spoil it if you haven't.

(Sort of off topic I know, but you talked about weeping movies.)