Inspired by this terrific diary on the importance of Arts Education in our schools, I was reminded of a particularly wonderful moment from my high school years that I've had rolling in my head for a long, long time.
It seems no matter how old you are, things were always better in The Old Days. Everyone seems to always exist in some sad post-peak denouement of better times when life was fuller, more profound, and people were smarter, sweeter and never had to sue anybody. Our folks grew up in a time that was worse than their parents, and so on and so on, until our only conclusion is that the really best time to be alive must have been the Dark Ages.
So without judgement of the times that have come since or went before, my story is about an experience I had when I was a high school student in the Cleveland City School District in the late '70s.
Most of my stage experience has been in the theater, but this story is about when I was in our high school choir. Annually all the choirs from the 13 Cleveland high schools would converge on the massive, acoustically-viable auditorium of South High School and perform a short program of songs for each other. We would also be assessed, rated and given constructive feedback by some music experts - who they were, I was never certain, but I'm fairly certain they were qualified to do so.
Cleveland was heavily segregated racially then, and still is. My high school, John Marshall, was comprised of about 90% White students, and all of the schools were either predominately one race or the other. So the choirs were all either mostly Black or mostly White. Most of the mostly Black schools were on the East Side, and the mostly White schools were on the West Side, so the choirs reflected most of the social and geographic divides one finds in the city at large.
And then there is the usual inter-school rivalry. We had the usual "us-against-them" attitude towards the schools. Everybody wants their school to be the best, and sometimes that has the regrettable side effect of slagging on the competition.
Presumably each school was allocated equivalent resources, but the choirs from the White schools were almost always larger than the Black schools. But one thing the choirs had in common is that the girls heavily outnumbered the boys. And most of the choirs from the Black schools were smaller anyway. Some of those schools had no more than five or six boys in them, trying to maintain tenor and bass volume against 30 or 40 girls. This severely compromised the quality of their blend. Without recalling any details, I remember that a number of them had pretty severe pitch problems, and their music didn't always sound so great.
We had rules about religious content in public school curriculum back then, just as we do now. But there isn't a whole lot of secular choir music traditionally, and to ignore religious music would be omitting the vast majority of the choral canon, so some kind of liturgical music was inevitable.
The Black schools usually brought with them a strong Gospel music tradition, and even if they didn't always sound that good technically, they always brought the enthusiastic energy of Gospel music. I always thought, "Man, THAT'S raising a joyful noise!" They always brought this amazing energy, and we just stood there like robots. I always wished we could have been more like them with the energy.
We were the last to go up. So everyone has already listened to 12 other schools, 24 songs, and perhaps attention spans had been pushed to their limit, everyone was tired and ready to go, and they had to listen to us before they could go home. Or I don't know, maybe they were looking forward to us, but I had no real reason to think so. Whatever their mood was, we were closing the show.
I do not recall our first song, but it went passably well.
Our second song was Natalie Sleeth's "Jazz Gloria". Lyrically, it was pretty standard - "Gloria in excelsis, gloria hallelujah, Christ the Savior is born..." Musically, it was written in jazz structures, with complex keys, dramatic shifts in dynamics and tricky rhythms and counterpoints that I'm not really sufficiently well-read in music to discuss intelligently. But it was a fairly sophisticated piece and we sang it reasonably well.
It started soft, swelled to a crescendo and ended on a soft unison note that we cut off together.
At the precise moment we cut off, we got, not the polite applause I expected, but huge, spontaneous, enthusiastic applause from the entire auditorium. They were whooping and cheering us all the way off the stage. The song touched them musically, religiously and emotionally. It moved them beyond "not bad for white kids" - they poured out their emotions, and they wanted to give that emotion back to us.
This moment has always been to me more than a big hand. This was the moment we cut through all the bullshit. All the Black vs. White, West Side vs. East Side, Our School vs. Their School - it all went away. We gave and they gave back, and it sent a tingle through me, one brief moment where we eradicated everything that stood between us.
I've been on and off stages for more than 30 years since. I've never had a purer moment than that one.
PLEASE support Arts Education in your schools.
NOTE: My original version of this diary said the composition was from Leonard Bernstein's "Mass". It isn't. Thirty years muddies up the memories. But the moment DID happen.