Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Debts, connections and crabgrass

Guest blog by Peter Terry, associate professor of IT and music
Originally presented as a Faculty Meeting opening meditation

Peter Terry and mentor Robert Longfield
I've been thinking a lot about debts. I lost a great mentor this summer: my guitar teacher of 16 years.

Charlie Tomlin was an incredible musician and teacher, and became a great friend. Like many things of importance in my life, we met through chance. His unexpected death left me well aware of how easy it is to leave important things unsaid.

This summer I also read a biography of the great German composer, Joseph Haydn, who was the father of both the string quartet and the symphony. Both of these events have led me to meditate on the nature of debts, the interconnectedness of all of us, and of the holy calling of teaching.

Haydn's father was a poor wheelwright in a village on the Hungarian border in the early 1700s. At the age of 6 a distant cousin, Matthias Franck, heard Joseph singing and persuaded his parents to allow Joseph to be apprenticed to him as a singer and to train as a musician. Two years later Joseph was heard singing by Georg von Reutter, the music director at St. Stephen's Cathedral who took him to Vienna to become a choirboy. When Haydn died at the age of 77, he was the most famous composer in the world. On his wall was a portrait of Franck and Haydn told a biographer, "I shall owe a debt to this man even in my grave."

As teachers we rarely see debts acknowledged, indeed we rarely see whether we have made any impression on students at all. When I was a custodian at the University of Michigan I knew what I had accomplished  at the end of the day, but after almost 30 years as a college teacher it is rare to see the results of what I do daily, and even rarer to have those efforts acknowledged. So I have become a bit obsessed about acknowledging my debts to my own teachers.

In my case I have been indebted to many teachers, but none more so than my high school band director, Robert Longfield. My freshman year in high school I asked him a simple question about notation and within a few days I was working with him on a piece for the jazz band, which lead to three years working through a series of books on music theory and composition, festival performances, arrangements for the marching band, and my first paid arranging job, at the age of 16. Of course, it never occurred to me that this was unusual, because it didn't seem unusual to him.

My senior year Mr. Longfield  took a leave of absence to pursue a degree in music theory at the University of Michigan. I lost track of him when he resigned his position and moved out of state a few years later.

Fast forward 25 years. 2009. I was attending a band concert at the Bluffton middle school, looked down at the program and saw two pieces for string orchestra by Robert Longfield. It turns out that over the 30 years that we had been out of touch Robert Longfield had become one of the most sought after composers of educational string music in the country.

Every December for the past five years I have gone to the Midwest clinic in Chicago which is a conference for music educators. 16,000 band and orchestra directors, and about 5 composers congregate for professional development seminars, concerts of new publications and to network.

This year I was working at the Carl Fischer booth and my editor, Larry Clark and I were recounting our early influences. I mentioned Bob Longfield and that he and I had lost touch. Larry looked at me and said, "Well, he's still in Miami isn't he?" I was taken aback, mumbled something about trying to contact him again. Larry said, "Well, why don't you just go talk to him? I saw him at the Hal Leonard booth this morning (about 20 feet away). So I did. If you've never told a teacher of yours how they changed your life I recommend it quite highly.

In the arts we work closely with teachers for long periods of time, one-on-one, as apprentices more than as students in the classroom. These relationships become very intense. Composers can trace their lineage from one composer to the next, student to teacher, back two or three hundred years. It's a fun game to play, and one I've done with most of my composition teachers.

I sat down the other day and traced my lineage as a composer through Robert Longfield: Terry studied with Longfield, who studied with Bilik, etc…at the fifth generation I hit Bela Bartok one of the most famous composers of the 20th century…very cool. But going on, this trail, instead of disappearing as usually happens, started cascading through famous names…the great pianist and composer Franz Liszt, Carl Czerny, Ludwig van Beethoven, and finally to Beethoven's most famous teacher…Joseph Haydn, who was plucked from obscurity and poverty by a chance meeting with a minor teacher in a small village on the Hungarian border.

Flattering isn't it? Of course, this isn't the whole truth. We are not our teachers—their accomplishments are not ours to claim. We are also not the only students of these teachers, a teacher teaches hundreds and the influence doesn't just go forward linearly, but sideways, and not only in the subjects we teach, but in the processes and in the approaches we use to discipline our minds. Our influence spreads like crabgrass and forms networks, pops up in a hundred places, so ideas ascend through the generations and those influences create a web of thought, and writings, works, legends.

This is culture…this is education… Teaching connects us all, either directly or indirectly and in ways that we cannot see or predict.

I had a picture taken of Mr. Longfield and myself and posted it in Facebook thinking that some of my friends who had him in class would be interested. To my surprise one of the first posts was by Lori Scheer Planchon, a Bluffton alumnus who worked in the Bluffton University admissions office after graduation for a few years. She wrote, "Robert Longfield was the band director at MY high school in Miami.....I marched in the color guard for him!!!!! SMALL WORLD!!" Small world indeed.

Let us pray.  Creator God, remind us that although the light we pass on may sometimes feel very dim, it is often enough to illuminate a path that lasts a lifetime. By the side of this path we only scatter seed; some on fertile ground and some on sand. Nothing is lost, for rain will come, and a harvest will be reaped, and other seed will land, all in its time. Remind us that not only are students influenced by teachers, but that it is students who make us as well.  Amen.

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