Monday, August 24, 2009

The Three Muses

Trillium and I had the opportunity to be in the company of one of the icons of the College of Humanities last Thursday. Richard G. Ellsworth served in the English Department while I was working on my Bachelors and Masters degrees at Brigham Young University. After completing the purpose for the which we spent an hour and a half with him, our conversation turned to another of the faculty members with whom I had had a close working relationship. I was saddened to hear that he had died a year ago, that I had been unaware of his funeral. I would have liked to have attended. For the last few days I have given thought to the great teachers in my life, those who had shaped my own teaching style. Three immediately came to mind.

Dean Bruington taught music in Chino, California, first in the whole city school system and then later only at the High School. I took my first lessons in the clarinet from Mr. Bruington during the fourth grade at Richard Gird Elementary School. I have no idea how long it took me to get passed the rather odious sounds that a neophyte woodwind player makes on his way to limited proficiency. The extraordinary thing of it was that Mr. Bruington tolerated all of it, from all of us, for the next three years. I am certain that we had concerts, perhaps the parents came to them, perhaps the students at the school came. I remember none of it. I suppose that neither the parents nor the students really wanted to either. No doubt hope sprang eternal and they all anticipated that by the time we all went to the Junior High School, more than passing progress would have been made.

I remember that there was a music room for the band and orchestra at the Junior High, which was a tremendous improvement over the cafeteria at the elementary school. Whereas in the cafeteria we sounded like we were playing in a cavern, in the band room we were able to focus every musical error right into our own ears. Junior High was a desperate time for teenagers passing through the early stages of puberty and the music was not helping a lot. At the High School, the music facilities were housed in their own building very far away from the rest of the academic buildings and twice as far from the sports complex. It was a new campus and the Board of Education had anticipated the arrival of all those they had heard in the cafeteria during the previous five years.

Mr. Bruington, however, had confidence in us. We were a small school, with a marching band of about seventy or so, an orchestra of about sixty, and a swing band of about twenty-five. I played either clarinet or tenor saxophone in the three main venues. In the concert band (which was what the marching band was called when it wasn’t moving), I sat in the first chair of the front row just to the left hand of Mr. Bruington while he conducted us. I have to say that while I was a pretty good clarinetist, good tone and control, I was not particularly gifted in the ability to sight read. I would go home with new music and try to figure out what was going on with the notes on the page and usually failed miserably. On those days when we were to practice the piece for the first time, I would sit in my chair, scrunched down a bit, and would fake my part for a while as the rest of the band blithely went their own way. Eventually, I would hear that which I should be doing and then I usually could play it perfectly. I played clarinet by ear. Mr. Bruington tolerated that for about five weeks in my first semester as a Freshman. I remember vividly the day my formula for faking my way through rehearsal came to an end. The band was at full throttle, I was whimpering my way through the fingering of the new piece, when suddenly Dean Bruington stopped everyone with a wave of his baton. He looked down from the podium and said, “Zaphod, I can’t hear you. I can hear every other person in this room, even ones that I really would rather not hear, and yet though you are seated just two feet from my ears, there doesn’t appear to be anything happen with that instrument of yours.”

The eyes of the other sixty-nine members of the band were focused on me. I explained that I had spent hours practicing, trying to figure out what I should be playing, but had not been able to work it out.

“So you thought that by not playing that you would somehow be contributing to the success of the band.”

I said that must be it. Fourteen year olds will agree to just about anything when everyone in the room is looking at them. Then Dean Bruington said something to me that went down into my heart like fire.

“Zaphod, listen to me well. If you play so that I can’t hear you, I can’t help you get any better. Play your mistakes loud, own up to them, and then I can help you get it right.” The next three years were glorious.

When I came home from Mexico and began my schooling at Brigham Young, the first religion class that I took was from a fellow named Ivan J. Barrett. My practice in all of my classes was to sit in the front row of the classroom slightly to the left of the podium, a hangover, I suppose, from my days as a clarinetist. Ivan was the most dynamic teacher I had ever met. He was constantly in motion, stalking the front section of the room like a tiger in a cage. He had a habit of demonstrating aspects of the lesson with his person. If the subject of the day’s lesson involved a prophet standing on the wall of a city and condemning the inhabitants thereof, he would jump up on the top of the table where his notes were and begin shouting at us, pointing his finger at us one by one, as he called us all to repentance. I vaguely remember him throwing something at someone at the back of the room who had fallen asleep, but that may have been in my health class where the teacher was far less dynamic.

Ivan J. Barrett was a short fellow with the body structure of Lou Costello, but with none of Lou’s self-depreciating shyness. Frequently, as he was marching up and down next to the front row, he would propound a stimulating question or make a stunning declaration of some kind about the passage of scripture that we were reviewing and then point to one of the students in the third or fourth row and say, “What do you think about that, Brother Jones? Hmmm?” For the first few weeks there was generally a marked silence in the room, everyone holding their breath to see if Steven Jones could come up with an answer that would satisfy Brother Barrett. Someone trapped beneath that penetrating glance of Ivan’s eye generally reacted as if they were an insect that had just been mounted in a collection. The front row seemed to be exempt… for a while. I remember that on many an occasion after the first month, Ivan Barrett would pause directly in front of my chair and skewer someone a few rows back, point his finger, ask his question, wait for the response, and then when everyone was preparing to relax he would drop his eyes to mine and bellow, “Oh? Interesting! What do you think of Brother Shepherd’s answer, Brother Beeblebrox?” And then he would grill me for three or four minutes about my opinion, with a bit of whimsy playing on his lips and a sparkle in his eyes. I never fell asleep in his class even though it was just after lunch and there was no air conditioning in the room.

In my own teaching, I picked up not a few of Ivan’s mannerisms, the misdirected glance being one of my favorites. I brought into my pedagogical style a lot of his flamboyance and I think that my students rather enjoyed it, for the most part. I remember once, though, that someone in one of the groups I had been teaching came up to me afterwards and said with a bit of a huff in her voice, “You sounded just like a Baptist preacher!” I had not been trying to be just like a Baptist preacher; I had known a lot of Baptist preachers growing up and none of them had ever inspired me to teach like they did. I guess that I was the next best thing; I was a Barrettist preacher. I think that Ivan would have just laughed out loud at the suggestion that he taught like a Baptist minister.

When I began my Masters program in the English Department at Brigham Young University, I was given John Edward McKendrick as my Chairman. I think that I took every subject that he ever taught at the University. I met with him frequently in his office as I was approaching my defense and the completion of the rest of the requirements for the degree. There were three things that were particularly unnerving about Jack McKendrick’s office. First, there was hardly any room to negotiate pedestrian travel in his office. Almost all of the floor, the entire desk and all furniture, save for two chairs, were always filled with piles of papers, books, and other detritus so that the visit was always accompanied by an impending doom, a potential flood of printed works, an ineluctable wave of wood pulp. Richard Ellsworth said that he himself was afraid to go in there without some sort of flotation device. The second point of intimidation was that on the back of the office door there was mounted a full-sized color photograph of Bela Lugosi dressed as Dracula with a caption that said, “I vant to bite yourrr neck!!!!” I seldom looked at that door while visiting with Jack, but the terror was almost as bad facing in the opposite direction.

Professor McKendrick did have one piece of furniture that was entirely unencumbered with student papers or books. He had a low stand, within arm’s reach, upon which was a Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (Unabridged). As we would talk about my various projects, from time to time he would hold up his hand and say, “Just a moment, Mr. Beeblebrox, I want to check something.” He would then mutter something in relation to a word that I had just used in the conversation and open “The Dictionary”, run his finger down a couple of columns until he had found what he was looking for. “Hmmmm!” he would say with his back to me, “It seems that you have escaped this time!” Then he would turn back to me with exactly that same expression that I knew was on the picture behind me. The first couple of times this happened to me, I was almost beside myself with fear. After a couple of weeks of this, however, I was so depleted in adrenaline that when he did it to me again, I just started to giggle, and then to laugh right out loud. He laughed right along with me and for the first time I knew that Jack McKendrick was on my side and that he did not want me to fear the system that I had become a part of. He frequently caught me on my use of words, but, as it had been with Dean Bruington, I never made the same mistake twice.

All three of my great mentors have passed away: first, Dean Bruington many years ago, then Ivan Barrett on the 16th of August 1999, and finally Jack McKendrick a year ago, almost to the day. I miss them and grieve a little because I did not know when they passed out of this life. I think that I would have liked to have said goodbye before they were put underground. Some of what they were, however, lives on in me when I have occasion to teach. I hope that there are some of my students who may remember some of my borrowed mannerisms, and be inclined to implement and perpetuate the same, not for my sake, but for the sake of students everywhere.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Titipu and the Devil

Last Friday Trillium and I left Orem for parts northern, specifically the lovely little valley of Logan, Utah. We have visited a couple of times before, usually in connection with some sort of activity that happened to be scheduled there. Several generations back, however, portions of my family used to spend vast amounts of time there, primarily because that is where they had their homes. Portions of the valley are named after the portions of my family who themselves were blessed with the nominative gift. These are beautiful little communities; clean, well-kept, and apparently filled with cheerful, well-adjusted, human beings. One wonders why other portions of my family moved elsewhere.

Our jaunt to Logan was part of the weekend celebration of Trillium's birthday, a chance to get away from the "everyday" into the "once-in-a-while". We stayed in Providence, which was not named after my family, in a bed and breakfast called the "Providence Inn". Everything happened just as the proprietors said it would during the two days we were there, so I am somewhat encouraged about future forays. There is no reason for me to reveal the number of birthdays Trillium has experienced; she would rather not be reminded. In fact, after today's celebration she said to me, "We need not do this again". She meant, I assume, the lighting of the candle and the singing of the hymn, and not the trip to Logan.

Trillium has always loved opera. Early in our marriage, I discovered that buying LPs of works by Belleni and Verdi for her brought about extraordinary expressions of gratitude. "La Traviatta" is one of her favorites. With all of this in mind, in an attempt to do something wonderful, I made arrangements for us to attend the Utah Festival of Opera that has been held in Logan for these past 17 years. Several operas are performed during the months of July and August. During this season, the Company put on "Camelot", "Carmen", "Cavalleria Rusticana", "Pagliacci", and "The Mikado". I chose to take my wife to this last, to the penultimate performance.

"The Mikado" was the ninth collaboration of Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert of a total of fourteen. It opened on the 14th of March 1885 at the Savoy Theatre in London. It ran for 672 performances, the second longest run for a musical production up until that time. By the end of 1885 there were over 150 companies performing "The Mikado" all over Europe and America. The opera has enjoyed immense continuing popularity during the past 125 years. Of all of the songs performed in the production, three have reached iconic status: "Willow, tit-willow" sung by the tailor Koko; "Behold, the Lord High Executioner", sung by Koko and the men in the chorus; and "Three little maids from school are we", sung by Yum-yum, Peep-bo, Pitti-sing, and the girls in the company. The latter is certainly familiar to any who have seen the film "Chariots of Fire". The story line is delightful, hardly a moment passes in the work that does not advance the whole theme.

UFO's production was magnificent, from the orchestra to the company of players. The role of Koko was played by Michael Ballam; Yum-yum by his daughter Vanessa. Much could be said of each of the other performers, but suffice it to say that none of the ensemble, from the leads to the chorus, was unequally yoked. There was a perfection to what they did Friday night which is seldom found in more accessible productions. What was clear was that all of players were enjoying themselves immensely, rejoicing in their performance and relishing every moment of the two and a half hours we were all together. I do not know for certain, but were I to guess, the unity of the cast and the joie d'vivre which they exuded, derived primarily from the presence of Ballam himself.

Michael was the founder of the Utah Festival of Opera and remains the Director. His vision helped produce the Ellen Eccles Theater where most of the UFO performances are staged. There is no finer venue anywhere; not the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, not the Pantages Theater, not the Shubert Theater, magnificent arenas all, where Trillium and I saw the likes of the "Phantom of the Opera", "Les Miserables", and "The Secret Garden". I estimated that there were about 1500 in the audience Friday night, all with a wonderful view of the stage and without any hindrance of the music or dialog.

The theater was built in 1923 and served the community for decades as the Capitol Theater. It was completely remodeled in 1993 and opened as the Ellen Eccles Theater. The stage is 70 feet wide, 36 feet deep, and 65 feet high, allowing for magnificent and imaginative staging. The sound system in conjunction with the natural acoustics of the building is without parallel. It is also called the Cache Valley Center for the Arts. All of these things combined with the energy of the company to make our evening at the opera a memorable one.

Another word about Michael Ballam. For those of us who belong to The Tribe, his face is as familiar to us as any in the world. In conjunction with his familiarity in general, I would like to relate a little anecdote. Years ago, I attended a conference of religious educators held at Brigham Young University. The topic that year was the New Testament. During the opening session, all of the attendees were seated in the Marriott Center anticipating a stimulating introduction to the week's activities. For some reason, I was seated on the floor of the MAC about ten feet from the grand piano. At a certain point in the program, bearded fellow sat down at the piano and was introduced as Michael Ballam. At that time I had no idea who Michael Ballam was, and inasmuch as he was bearded I could not readily see his facial features, even though I could easily see him. But when he spoke........!!!!! a thrill went through my whole system because I knew exactly who he was and why I knew the voice so well. He then sang "O Divine Redeemer". I do not know how many people were in the building, but it was nearly full. There was no noise of any kind while Michael sang. It was as if the entire world, every aspect of it, physical and spiritual, had stopped to witness the premiere symbolic testimony as to the mercy and compassion of the Lord Jesus Christ. When Michael finished, the silence continued for what seemed to me to be a very long time. It was as if we had all been given a few moments to digest what we had just witnessed. Michael withdrew and the conference continued. I remember nothing else of that six-day conference.

So now I sit here at my computer at least 25 years later, making connections with a man whose hand I have never shaken, but who has affected my life profoundly. I hope to have the opportunity to meet him some day. Maybe Trillium and I will go back to the 2010 season. Maybe we will go to the Cafe des Artistes after the show and wade through the hundreds of people there just to look him in the eye, to see up close that wonderful twinkle that is certain to be there.