On this 23rd of March, I sit in the living room of my corner-unit residence in Chicago. With over-sized windows that feature Gotham City views, I watch the rain come down, as well as witness the fog engulf the downtown skyline in which my own building is nestled. I think about my other home in NYC where a Metropolitan Opera colleague is currently staying, eager to go back next season to participate in the new Ring Cycle. But these are fleeting thoughts of the current, and the future; when in actuality I am being constantly drawn back to the events of the last 22 days, which include the now mad dash to sign my tax forms, pay next month’s bills, and get packed to head to Dallas for my next work assignment.
The beginning of the month was marked by the biggest, busiest, and most successful Vann Vocal Institute (Montgomery, Alabama) that we have ever had. As the program director, I am charged with a myriad of duties and responsibilities (see previous post), but nothing could have prepared us for the line of tornadoes that caused us to evacuate to a storm/bomb shelter where guest speaker/instructor Teresa Eickel continued her lecture to the eager student body one evening!! Having to turn away participants this year, you can only imagine our surprise when a student from the ‘alternate list’ took to the stage and won two of our top prizes!! The excitement created by our outstanding faculty (Mo. Steven Crawford, Patricia Risley, Dr. Caren Levine, and the aforementioned Ms. Eickel) set off a fundraising frenzy at our opening night kick-off party that put most of us into a catatonic state (thank you Mr. Mayor!). ‘Yours truly’ even sat at the piano to play and sing a few tunes that night (something I have not done in 25 years)!! Exhausted, I decided to fly to Shanghai, China with my lovely girlfriend (those of you who know me, understand that I love long airplane rides) to experience the energy and forward trajectory that ‘Big-City China’ seems to offer at every turn these days…I was NOT disappointed.
Re-energized, I returned to the States to go where…??? To Parma, Ohio; of course!!
The Parma City School district in the 1970’s/1980’s was virtually second-to-none in the state of Ohio–if not the nation–when it came to providing a quality education on a par with private/classical institutions. Academics, Theatrical and Musical Arts, Vocational Training, Sports, and a whole host of other avenues provided students with something that met their particular talent/skill set. But neighborhoods and their residents grow old, matriculation occurs, stagnation sets in, and the once thriving campuses of school districts grow slim…in other words, the natural affects of attrition take hold. The net result is usually less money for school systems, as an aging population in any given area does not wish to vote for higher taxes once their children have been educated. This is not unusual in “Anytown, USA”, and not the only reason that school systems suffer; but suffer mightily many of them do.
The first things to go…???…the arts, sports, and extracurricular faire. Unless, of course, students and parent “booster committees” raise the money separately. It’s all a part of that terrible descriptive, “The New Normal”. So what does one do when their Alma Mater suffers from these ailments?? The one thing we all should do when we realize that we had been given so much from those educators we made fun of, and may have even despised at the time, is…go back home and give something back to your school, school district, and community. You give the gift of experience: Good or bad, timely or antiquated; experience is always relevant!!
I took to the stage of the large auditorium of Normandy High School, where I was infected with the ‘virus of enthusiasm’ over 30 years ago, to work with 9 students, from a thinned-out music program, in a masterclass format. Vocalists from all three high schools in the district participated, while a few hundred(?) other interested students watched respectfully, attentively, and with the utmost support for their on-stage colleagues (especially when they came from their specific high school). The result was nothing short of magical for the entire 3-4 hours of admittedly hard and intense work.
Tears and cheers prevailed, as football-player sized young men stood to sing songs entitled Loveliest of Trees, The Roadside Fire, and The Prayer. Eager and talented young ladies sang Broadway and Opera classics such as Stranger to the Rain, and O mio babbino caro. Others stood to sing Italian art songs such as Nina (fantastic, mature rendition), O del mio dolce ardor, and Caro mio ben; and new American Classics such as Into the Night. The song choice was broad, and the desire to learn was even more profound. You see; kids (actually, young ladies and gentlemen) really do want to learn. They sop up the offerings, renderings, and remains, like a piece of soft Italian bread into my mother’s pasta sauce…then (just like my mother’s pasta sauce) they always want seconds and thirds if the supply holds out. The only way to give it to them, is for more of us to take the time to go back and offer it; especially if we have done well and have been given many gifts along the way. Not trying to moralize here, but I do think there is a moral imperative that should be implied. I ask for no money, and would take none…this is one time when it really is “just about the kids”!
The real reward was having my parents in attendance, as well as many a former teacher (including Michael Seredick, my Elementary AND High School music instructor)…many of whom I have finally been able to thank personally for all they had given me so long ago. I try to tell the students that the learning never ends; and that “As there is dignity to be found in all forms of employment, there is a profound dignity to be discovered in all forms of learning…”
So I guess you CAN go home again…; in fact, I think they are waiting for you!!!!!
P.s. I wish to thank Jared Plasterer for all of his hard work with setting up this event, and Fox 8 News of Cleveland for coming out to cover this story so completely. You can see the news report via the following link:
The other good news here is that the Parma City Schools are enjoying a resurgence these days! Much to look forward to, thanks to a dedicated Administrative Staff in the schools themselves, as well as at the District head offices.