Tuesday, March 3, 2015

I Cried Ten Times

I hardly slept at all on the bus last night, and it had nothing to do with bus seats.  I was – and still am – overwhelmed with feelings of pride in our students from DGN and DGS.  

Our team of instrumental music teachers in District 99 have been planning this tour for well over a year now.  Initial visioning and goal-setting happened even earlier.  The planning process, with hundreds (if not thousands) of musical (and non-musical) details, was so elongated that I believe this caused my emotions to surface in very powerful – and largely unexpected – ways on March 2.

The first time I was unexpectedly overcome with emotion was when the coach buses pulled up to Carnegie Hall and I saw the three-sheet poster displayed right at the front door of the box office. Even two blocks away, when I saw the white Carnegie flag with the red "C" flying off the side of the building, I started to quietly tear up.  I turned to my own mother (who made the trip from Columbia, Missouri to attend the concert) and started to say “there it is.” I could hardly get the words out.  In that moment I was feeling pride for our amazing students who practiced very hard to ready themselves for this historic performance.  Someone asked me earlier in the week if I was nervous about the performance.  Yes, I was a little nervous, but the nerves were about things I couldn't control (weather … and more on that later).  I was never, for a moment, nervous about our students’ level of preparedness.  I had total and complete confidence that they were going to play musically, play passionately, and perform with elegance. My conductor/teacher colleagues will know - we don't always feel this way leading into a performance.  But for this concert, I had complete confidence in our students and their readiness to shine.  

The second time I was unexpectedly overcome with emotion was during the morning Carnegie Hall tour.  My mother joined my group of 18 students on the tour, and when she walked into the hall and looked up at the ceiling she paused just slightly, gasped softly, and like many proud parents, cried what we call “happy tears” in our family.  That triggered misty eyes for me too, despite my best efforts to control it. 

The third time I was unexpectedly overcome with emotion was when Kristin Bowers walked on stage for the Rhapsody In Blue rehearsal at 2 PM.  That may not seem like something to become emotional about, but then you probably don’t know the back-story:  

Kristin (King) Bowers - DGN Class of 2002 – received her musical training at Indiana University and Northwestern University before winning the coveted position of Concertmaster of the United States Air Force Band (Washington, D.C.).  When we first learned we had the opportunity to produce a concert at Carnegie Hall and I began thinking of soloists to perform with our students, Kristin was the very first person I thought of.  What a joy it would be to collaborate in this way with a professional musician who was a graduate of our program. I was thrilled that she agreed to be one of our Carnegie Hall soloists, and very grateful to her Air Force superiors who immediately supported the time off she would need in the middle of their scheduled tour.  

Kristin had a concert in Salt Lake City on Saturday night, and she was scheduled to fly to New York early Sunday morning.  I called her from our hotel on Saturday night when we returned from the New York Philharmonic concert.  We both became a little nervous looking at the weather system moving toward NYC; within 5 minutes of our call ending, American Airlines cancelled her flight.  We started to look for alternatives, and saw very few options to get her from Salt Lake to NYC on Sunday.  She went to the airport at about 5 AM on Sunday to try and get on a Southwest flight to Chicago-Midway, hoping that being in Chicago would give her more connection options.  But once at the airport she determined they did not have any open seats for her to get to Chicago.  So Kristin made the very smart decision to fly to Los Angeles.  Yes, it was going the wrong direction, but there were many more flights to NYC from LAX that were not (yet) cancelled. She boarded a Delta flight to LA, and she was there by lunch time.  

Once in LA she found a Delta flight back to NYC’s JFK airport.  It was scheduled to leave at about 4 PM, and arrive in New York at about 10:15 PM.  Because of the snow bearing down on NYC Sunday afternoon/evening, the flight was delayed (but not cancelled!) for two more hours.  I remember breathing a huge sigh of relief when I learned her plane took off from LA, and I told our students that she was on the way.  Jinx!!  Three hours into the flight her plane was diverted to Detroit because JFK was too backed up to let the plane land.  Sitting in my hotel room late Sunday night, Kristin and I communicated by texts as she waited to see what Delta would do.  While she waited, I looked for flight options online for Monday flights.  At this point I was losing hope that she could get to the 2 PM stage rehearsal; I was looking for ANYTHING that would get her to the stage in time for the concert!

Using the KAYAK website, I saw three options.  Two of the flights showed “1 seat left,” but by the time I could click on the link, they were – poof! – gone.  The final flight was cutting it really close to the concert; landing at LaGuardia at 6:30 PM.  Probably wouldn’t work, but I bought the ticket for her anyway before the options completely evaporated. (Fortunately – it was a refundable ticket if we ended up not needing it.)  So we now had an additional wild-card to play in case of absolute emergency.  

At midnight they told Kristin that her plane was grounded in Detroit for the night, and sent her to a hotel, where she got two hours sleep before having to head back to the airport and many long lines of stranded passengers.  Delta added a new flight to accommodate the passengers who had been diverted, and by 9:40 AM she was boarding a plane for JFK!  Too good to be true?  Yes.  At 7:52 AM I got a text that read, “I'm sitting on the plane with a computer/mechanical problem.”  I wrote back, “You are just trying to make this more interesting aren't’ you?” I was a nervous wreck, but was trying not to telegraph it to her.

So now you know why, when I saw Kristin walk onto the stage, my eyes misted over again.  It was mostly about relief and joy, for I so wanted her parents (who had flown to NYC to hear the concert) to hear her perform Scott McAllister's Black Dog.  I also – of course – wanted our current students to have the chance to perform that work.  It was very challenging to learn, and they did a masterful job with the accompaniment.  Here’s the photo we took within 30 seconds of seeing one another on stage. 

The fourth time I was unexpectedly overcome with emotion was during private/personal walks through several backstage hallways and the museum. As I looked at all the posters, photographs, signed music manuscripts, Gene Krupa's sticks, Benny Goodman's clarinet, Leonard Bernstein's baton, etc. the importance of the venue really started to sink in.  Each artifact representing a singular iconic musician, or a specific moment in music history.  My good friend and colleague, Glenn Williams, rounded the corner from one of the back stage holding rooms, and thanked me for my work in organizing the trip.  At that moment words started to fail him … and me ... and we just gave one another a hug.  The realization that our students (and we as teachers/musicians) were going to be performing in this historic space – arguably the most famous space for musicians in the world – washed over me in waves. 

The fifth time I was unexpectedly overcome with emotion was at about 7:10 PM.  The Symphonic Band had come on stage at 7 PM, before the house opened, to take our formal large-group photo.  As we were about to dismiss them, I addressed the band to tell them how proud we were of their hard work, and to remind them that – no matter what they do in life – they should hold firmly to their memory of playing Carnegie Hall as a reminder that when you set goals that make you “reach higher,” you inevitably improve – and often exceed your own expectations.  At that moment, when I looked at those 135 students on that stage … all dressed in formal concert-black … unified in purpose and as one team … my eyes watered yet again.

The sixth time I was unexpectedly overcome with emotion was during the last 10 seconds of Symphonic Band's performance of The Machine Awakes.  Our combined Concert Band and Symphonic Band began studying this piece last September, and each member of the Symphonic Band will remember that at our November concert (the only other time we performed the work publicly), we had significant timing issues between the band and the electronic soundtrack that is cued from a computer. I had selected this composition for Carnegie Hall for several reasons: 1) the composer shared with me that the piece had never – to his knowledge – been performed at Carnegie, thus it fit our “New York Nouveau” theme.  2) I thought the contemporary writing further highlighted the “Nouveau” aspect of our program and added very strong contrast to the rest of the program, and 3) I simply imagined in my mind that a 135 piece ensemble playing this composition had the potential to sound unbelievable in the resonant space of the Carnegie acoustic.  Through the rehearsal process back home, I was never quite sure the musicians in the band were totally buying into the work as a good fit for this concert. After the notes were learned, and the novelty of the computer track had run its course, I sensed at times that everyone was just going through the motions in rehearsals.  Well, last night was different in two significant ways.  First, we had no technical issues.  Thanks to Bill Miller’s expert planning, we had all the equipment we needed to flawlessly plug into the Carnegie house sound system.  Furthermore the monitor speaker Bill packed for me to assure I could hear the computer track in the loudest moments (allowing us to stay in sync) was set at the perfect level.  Thus, we stayed perfectly together!  But the real thrill was the look of concentration, determination, and accomplishment in everyone’s eyes in those last few seconds of the piece.  And when we hit the last note, and we all froze and listened to the resonance of the final acoustic gesture, it was sonically breathtaking.  And I was so happy for our combined Concert Band & Symphonic Band. 

I also want to make sure I take a moment to recognize the virtuosity of Peter Wilson, the principal violinist at the White House and the Concertmaster for the President’s Own United States Marine Corps Band.  Pete and I go way back, having been fraternity brothers in college (I was his ‘pledge father’) and I will forever be in his debt for giving so much of himself musically to be a part of our New York Nouveau (both with Symphonic Band, and through his contributions to our “Rhapsody In Blue.”

The seventh time I was unexpectedly overcome with emotion was during the Wind Ensemble’s performance of Angels in the Architecture.  I read one of our student Blogger’s account of that performance, and the student wrote something along the lines of, “Angels in the Architecture seems like it was made for Carnegie Hall.”  I was really thrilled to read that comment because when we first announced the Carnegie performance, I immediately programmed that composition, by Frank Ticheli, as the corner-stone of the Wind Ensemble’s set.  Before we knew any of the other lit, we knew we would include Angels in the Architecture.  But it is a challenging piece.  College bands have to work hard to make it sound acceptable, much less good.  I knew it was going to take a lot of hard work and dedication on the part of our students, and so I did something I had never done before in 25 years of teaching: I gave a very specific “summer learning” assignment.  I emailed every member of the Wind Ensemble their music in early June, and told them they needed to come back to school in August with all notes and rhythms learned. I gave them reference recordings and listening guides. I didn't want to start the year teaching those things they could work out on their own.  I wanted to start diving into the music – at a deeper level – on day one.  I think this approach paid huge dividends for us at Carnegie Hall; our student’s performance rivaled nearly any other I've ever heard of this piece.  I rarely become so moved by music – while conducting – that I begin to cry. It happened last night during this piece. I wondered if my students would notice, but when I got on the bus to head home, and went down the aisle to thank each student individually, many told me that they had the same reaction, at the exact same moment, and some admitted their emotions were triggered and/or released when they saw my visceral reaction to the music. Even before I got to the bus I had a sense that students had enjoyed that moment in the concert.  One student messaged me that he had not stopped crying since Angels had ended.  I think he was exaggerating a bit, but I understood what he meant. 

And I want to make note that we had a very special 'Angel' singing the soprano solo from the 2nd Tier Box.  Allison Kirkegaard was beautiful in the performance.  I imagine the moment was especially poignant for her father, Dana Kirkegaard, who was sitting in the audience listening.  Mr. Kirkegaard was the Acoustical Engineer who orchestrated the renovation of Carnegie hall in the late 1980s.  I can only imagine what that must have felt like to him, to hear his daughter singing so beautifully in that space.

The eighth time I was unexpectedly overcome with emotion was when I acknowledged Dimis Wyman and Alan Roselieb, both who had traveled to New York for the concert.  Ms. Wyman graduated from Downers Grove High School in 1955, and played clarinet in Mr. Shoemaker’s bands.  (Mr. Shoemaker, Director of Bands at Downers Grove High School 1928-1963).  Ms. Wyman has been to dozens upon dozens of our DGN Band Concerts over the years, and I regard her as one of our most important links to the history and heritage of our school music programs in Downers Grove.  The other very significant link to that history is Mr. Alan Roselieb, father of current DGS Fine Arts faculty member Craig Roselieb.  Al was on the committee that hired me in 1993, and was my cross-town teaching colleague for several years preceding his retirement.  As I introduced these individuals last night, I found myself fighting back tears of pride as I considered how fortunate I am to be associated with a school system, and a community, that places a high value on the arts, and has for many, many decades. 

The ninth time I was unexpectedly overcome with emotion was when I sat down as a performer, behind the DGN drum kit, watched the stage door open and observed Ian Williams and Don Owens take the stage for Rhapsody In Blue.  While I never had Ian Williams as a student directly, I feel like I know Ian almost as well as many of our most involved student musicians at DGN.  I have followed his musical development for many years as an outside observer, and when I pitched the idea to Mr. Roselieb that we could program the Rhapsody as a concert finale, I was excited to hear Mr. Roselieb suggest Ian as a potential soloist.  We invited Ian to sit in the soloist chair last summer, and he has been diligently studying and preparing the work for the past nine months.  He was magnificent last night, adding his own very inspired interpretation of the traditional Gershwin cadenzas, and engraving his own artistic signature on the work.  Finally, to sit behind my primary instrument (percussion) on the Carnegie Hall stage, perform with current students, alumni, colleagues, and be conducted by one of my mentors … well, you might be able to appreciate why my eyes watered a bit.  Fortunately not so much that I couldn’t see the music.

The tenth time I was unexpectedly overcome with emotion was when it was all over, and the buses were pulling away.  I had just seen several DGN Band Alumni that had come from near and far to be at the concert (and were oh so patient to wait at the buses for me).  In that moment I was feeling pride for our amazing team of music teachers who worked to put the tour together for our students.  Teachers who had energy, vision, and a shared passion and drive for excellence.  A ‘can do’ attitude that gave 350 District 99 students the chance to play their very own concert on the world’s greatest concert stage … along side world-class guest artists (some of who are D99 alumni!). And to top it all off a multi-generational jazz orchestra of current students / alumni / pros to recreate the original 1924 Rhapsody in Blue.  I think the relief of realizing that we had pulled it all off was the trigger for a couple more damp eyes. 

I have been the blessed recipient of many notes, emails, and Facebook messages today.  This particular Facebook message - from a New Yorker who had no direct family affiliation with any of our student performers – was extremely meaningful to me as someone who endeavors to expand the walls of the traditional classroom through educational travel:

Thank you so much for last night's wonderful and inspiring concert.  I was marveling at all the talented kids, and they are truly talented.  But it was more than that.  I think all kids have the potential to do those kind of great things.  What all kids don't have is the right combination of educators, parents and community to help them to realize their full potential.  It's clear that you have that in abundance in Downers Grove, and it paid off in full with last night's wonderful concert, which will be a life highlight for all who participated and attended, myself included.  Really tremendous.  A big congratulations to you all.

The author of that note is right.  It takes a LOT of people coming together to provide these kinds of experiences for students and to help them develop to their full potential.  I am grateful to work in a school district that values the arts, and that includes the hundreds of dedicated parents that support our Fine Arts programs in such meaningful ways.  And I must say this: I am deeply indebted to all of my colleagues who collaborated with me to make this dream a reality: Greg Hensel, Bill Miller, Jennifer Mullen, Don Owens, Craig Roselieb, and Glenn Williams.  What a team effort!

When the DGN Marching Band performed in the 2012 London New Year’s Day Parade, our Wind Ensemble performed at Cadogan Hall during that tour.  Cadogan is a beautiful concert hall, with very good acoustics, and home of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.  It was truly a joy, honor and privilege to perform in that space.  Right before the concert I addressed the band, and told them how proud I was of them.  Everyone was rightfully proud and excited about the concert that was about to happen.  I remember saying to the band at the time, “Folks, I don’t know what we’re going to be able to do to top this one …”  At that moment Isaac Stevenson, one of our percussionists, quickly shot back in a very dramatic voice, “I predict the DGN Band will one day play on the Moon!”  Everyone cheered. 

Carnegie Hall wasn’t the Moon.  But I thought a lot about Isaac’s words this past weekend because I’m over-the-Moon proud of our students.  I know I’ll never forget this performance; I suspect my students will also remember it for the rest of their lives.