My sister Renie sends our family links every once in a while from the newspaper that covered the Putnam County area where we used to live. One of the ongoing stories has been that of my high school music teacher, who’s currently on trial for sexual molestation charges. The story is a sad one, and something that makes me feel conflicted for several reasons. Now, I should point out here that he never tried to touch my willy (girls were his target) and that he had a reputation when I met him for being inappropriate with students, but there was nothing that was proven—all was strictly hearsay.
I should back up and provide a little history here. When I was in sixth grade at a school in Conneticut, the music teacher asked any of us kids if we wanted to learn to play an instrument. This was during one of those excruciating sing-alongs where she would bang on the piano and we were all supposed to sing with her. I hated that class, and somewhere in my logical brain (which admittedly was’t firing all that well until I was in my late twenties) I made the leap: If I take instrument lessons, I’ll get out of this damned singing class. Besides, I was bored, and the idea of being different appealed to me. (This was before the regrettable incident where I wore camouflage pants into school one day and was forever tagged “G.I. Bill” by the Young Nazi Republicans In Training. But I digress.) Honestly, though, I think this was one of those rare moments where a higher power made me raise my hand, because I can’t really explain why I volunteered. This decision would change much of my life after that point for the better, however.
We were given a choice of instrument: the French horn, viola, or the bass violin. Anybody who’s played any of the three will tell you that they are love-hate relationships, for different reasons: the French horn is a big round honking thing, sort of like squeezing a duck to make it sing soprano, and only those with superior control, chops and practice can coax out a beautiful, melodious tone. The viola is (to me) kind of feminine and whiny. The bass violin, on the other hand, is relatively easy to play, but it’s the size of your Uncle Ralph and about as difficult to move. And it sounded cool. For obvious reasons, I decided on the bass, and was quickly issued a half-size model to take take lessons with. (Later I found out the choices were determined by desperation: they had nobody to play those instruments in the band.) I was taught by a piano teacher at school and a guitar teacher in town, both of which involved shoehorning the bass violin into the front seat of my mother’s green Gremlin (with me in the back seat, how embarassing) and carting it all over creation.
My first concert was at the elementary school with a group of about thirty kids, playing something I can’t remember, and was relatively uneventful. But my music teacher knew the conductor of the local youth orchestra, and quickly put him in touch with my parents, and we all learned a valuable lesson: kids who play the bass violin are rare, as are the parents who support them. Soon I was second fiddle (literally) to a tall, beautiful dark-haired sophomore girl who I instantly crushed on, and who was a skilled musician. We played a mixture of medolies (theme from Cats, theme from Fame, theme from Chariots of Fire) and a few orchestral arrangements, one of which I still remember—Procession of the Nobles, from the opera Mlada, by Rimsky-Korsakoff. (That’s a killer piece.)
Anyway, we moved out of Conneticut that spring, before I could tour Europe with the youth orchestra, (still bitter about that one) and into New York, where the school district placed as high a value on musical education as they did on football, because the teachers were all first-rate and so was the equipment. When I met the orchestra teacher at the high school, he was thrilled to find that I played bass, because he was classically trained on the instrument. He was a big guy with a Magnum P.I. moustache and bad cologne, and he took great pride in his students, typically sending five or six kids to the allstate orchestra every year. I was mistrustful at first, for reasons I can’t explain, other than that his personality was full of things I didn’t like—he was pushy, arrogant, and overbearing.
However, he was an excellent string teacher. He quickly sized up my playing technique (which at that time was mostly familiarity with the instrument and a vague ability to read music) and sadly informed me that I needed to be re-trained in posture. I had been taught by non-bassists, and so my stance resembled clinging to a lamppost in a flood instead of dancing the tango with a partner. The bow I had been using was French, and he switched me to German, which was better for my hand and lent a more intuitive feel for the instrument. (This process was not unlike Tiger Woods learning to swing a golf club a completely different way, and took a whole summer of retraining.) My music-reading abilities improved dramatically with the addition of complicated Bach, Beethtoven and Mozart orchestral suites he assigned for homework, and by the time school started, I was at least somewhat prepared for the fall season’s concert practice.
My companions in the bass section were two supremely talented juniors who both resembled David Lee Roth in both wardrobe and hairstyle. After playing alongside them, being tortured for a full year as the “new guy” and learning technique from them both, we slowly became friends. As I continued through high school, I took private lessons from this teacher as I moved up the line until I was first chair my senior year. Along the way, I was encouraged to try out for the Allstate orchestra (an alternate my sophomore year, second to last chair my junior year), and performed onstage at Carnegie Hall—in checkerboard Vans—with the rest of the orchestra. It was during this time that I met some of my best friends (who I’ve been abominable about keeping in touch with) and found a way to make it through High School alive and in good mental health.
My senior year with him was strained, as my focus had moved away from music and into art; I was the lead set builder for the drama club, in the marching band (the girls in the drama/band universe were far more interesting than orchestra girls anyway) and involved in other time-consuming activities as well as holding down a job, so my practice time suffered. The situation came to a head when I was abruptly informed that I had two weeks to practice for Allstate tryouts, which was scheduled for the same weekend as the opening night of the school play. As I was way in over my head on that project, sleeping six hours a night, failing math, and not willing to ditch my existing commitments, I told him I couldn’t do Allstate. He was furious, insisting I could do both, and couldn’t understand my position. I remember at one point he mentioned that he always sent bass players to Allstate and that this would be the first year he hadn’t, and then it really became clear to me what the story was.
We both said some things we shouldn’t have, I was threatened with losing first chair, and things got frosty. (Well, things got frosty that time I helped fill his office to the ceiling with packing peanuts, but that’s a different story.) Over time, we both backed off a bit, made some half-hearted apologies, and I played first chair for my final concert. I don’t remember ever having said goodbye to the man, or thanking him for teaching me what he did, but I respect that part of him and what he did for me.
Hearing about his current condition, the charges against him, and some of the details of the case has been hard for those reasons, and because I don’t remember him as an old man in a wheelchair with MS—he was a big swarthy Polish dude who water-skiied and drove a black Supra with personalized plates, kind of a middle-aged high school guido who got a decent job. I can’t say that I didn’t have my suspicions about his proclivities, but I didn’t think it made its way down to four and five year olds. I do wonder who testified against him, and marvel at how difficult that must have been. For all his faults, he had a cadre of devoted families centered around his music program who put all their kids through the orchestra, knowing that he was a good teacher. My only hope is that he didn’t betray their trust as well.
So I don’t know how to feel about that situation, really. I’m sorry for the children he (allegedly) molested; I’m sorry for anybody he may have diddled with as a teacher, and I’m sorry for him. I also remember him as a caring and talented man who had the best interests of his students at heart, for all that matters.