Not long ago while thumbing through a copy of my old hometown paper, a glance at the obituaries told me that the music teacher who oversaw my junior high school 'Glee Club' had passed on.
As I reflected on the months I spent in those classes, I was deeply surprised by how much of my formative musicianship came out of that experience.
Not your picture perfect music teacher and class
You may well wonder why this realization was so unexpected, no doubt imagining a patient, nurturing soul sharing her love of music with her young, eager charges. In fact, our 'Glee Club' teacher Christina Morrello* was often a fizzing tempest of rage.
She came by it honestly.
The Glee Club was something one 'joined' in a manner similar to which sailors found themselves on British ships in the Napoleonic war. You were forced... no one wanted to be there.
The school I attended in the 1960s was the same one my parents and grandparents had been to. The buckled, oiled wooden floor of the classroom supported an old green upright piano that looked as if it had been painted with a whisk broom. I don’t think it had been tuned since Eisenhower was president. It was upon this beast that Mrs. Morrello would hammer out chords and drill melodies by rote into our rather thick junior high heads.
But those melodies!
Mrs. Morrello clearly had a thing for musicals, and we were going to sing 2-part harmonized versions of whatever she wanted us to do. And so, we would learn, by ear, tunes from Carousel, Brigadoon, Band Wagon... songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, Jerome Kern.
Complex, gorgeous melodies with sophisticated lyrics punctuated by banging keys, endless repetition, screaming, insults, and stomping feet. She once stomped her foot in anger so hard that she came in limping for weeks afterward. But little by little, we actually started to sound pretty good.
And, as I looked back on all this, I realized that:
1. much of whatever improvisational abilities I have come largely out of a sense of melodic structure partly acquired in this class. Being forced to participate in this kind of music made me better at everything else I ever wanted to play.
2. I discovered that learning complex music by listening and repeating is possible and (in my opinion) desirable.
It's an entirely different world these days, and that's a good thing
I also thought about the life possibilities open to Christina Morrello as a young, music-loving student contemplating her future.
She came up in a time when women in music were rare and she was socially expected to be primarily a wife and a mother. Being a music teacher in public schools was perhaps as close as she felt she could get to something else.
When I see the incredible women musicians I’m surrounded by now running their own bands, booking themselves into clubs and festivals, and releasing their own recordings, it’s hard to remember that within my own lifetime, such things would have been almost unimaginable for them.
I’d probably stomp my feet as well.
And so, I thank you, Mrs. Morrello. I didn’t turn out to be quite so musically dense as you imagined. And I will always picture you at that hideous green piano whenever I hear “Almost Like Being In Love.”
*The actual name of the music teacher in this article has been changed.
Have you ever had a teacher who was 'tough as nails,' but you eventually looked back to appreciate them? Share your thoughts below.
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