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The Season To Bless Music Teachers

It is the time of year when pretty well everyone is embroiled in Christmas shopping and holiday baking. Things seem to be gearing up and winding down at the same time - as you feel the snowballing pace of pending holiday with the slowing down of the regular structure of work, school, and family life.
I can tell the season in another way: if it is ten days before Christmas,
chances are, I am attending, every other day, another annual Christmas
concert at one of my boys' schools.

I have three sons, spanning over elementary school, high school, and junior college. The latter son also attends McGill Jazz Conservatory - so, ah, make that three sons times four schools times about six Christmas concerts. The breakdown is like this: Ben is in his grade five choir and if memory serves, (gee, was it only a few days ago?) this year he treated me to Silver Bells and My Favorite Things. Gideon played a solo at his concert and buoyant strains of Christmas Cha-cha for Trumpets is still with me (or maybe it is simply another ringing in my ears). Jonathan, who is an actual musician by now, and a stellar tenor sax man, offered Gustav Holst's The Planets, a Gershwin overture and an evening of slick jazz at his end of year concert at McGill. So, do the math: figure, three sons, four schools, voice, piano, trumpet and tenor sax - and you rest assured merry everyone, this proud mama attends more than her share of Christmas concerts. Can anyone be more blessed? Doubtful. It is made all the more poignant when I think back a ways.

Cue a B-Flat clarinet, circa mid seventies. Envision a dark haired, serious girl in a high school band. This image is me. I too, was a musician and as my sons have in their daily life encountered, I had my own high school music teacher. His name was Harrison Jones but we simply called him Doc or Doc Jones. With anyone else, save a Disney movie music teacher, this name would have been pure affect, but with Doc, it fit. For one, he did indeed, hold a doctorate of music and for two, he was, without the least effort, one of a kind, broke-the-mold-when-they-made-him, music teacher. Dapper and handsome, and looking like he should have starred (in manners, style, and deportment) opposite David Niven or Gregory Peck in some classic film, Doc was a tall, slim gentlemen, who dressed in natty, tailored suits, and sported a neatly trimmed, pencil thin moustache and a resident twinkle in his eyes. Doc, who was consummately innate class and style, brooked no nonsense. He had a casualness about him coupled with a certain briskness. He grew more annoyed and incredulous - like cocktail party irate, when we were obnoxious, than teacher angry. He led by example. As crisp and orderly as were his band practices, he scoffed at high school rules. He only took attendance the first day and after that, it was: "Well, everyone seems here. Let's go make music". He put his energies into the music; not the periphery things he felt not worth bothering with. Besides, no one would ever cut music; you were there because you wanted to be.

Other kids, not even in music, hung around Doc. His music room was a refuge - the other teachers groaned in frustration as his lack of teacher collegiality and conformity. If you cut a class, you could hide out in the music room. It was the neutral zone. In turn, Doc was dedicated to his music students at Mount Royal High School in Montreal in a subtle but indelible way.

I lucked out and was in Doc's homeroom class in the one year they pressed him into service as a homeroom teacher (ordinarily, he was a specialist and did not have to suffer the daily rigors of homeroom) as well as had him as my music teacher cum band leader.

The very first day of high school, he took one look at his 30 new musicians, most of whom had never played an instrument! He arbitrarily chose instruments for those of us who had no preference (I knew the clarinet was going to be my new friend). "Here, he said, throwing a pair of sticks at a young fellow near me with a mop top, "You look peppy - let's put you on drums'. Or, here, "Big fella, you were made for the tuba" or "Let's say we try you on flute' . He did not know our names yet but briskly and efficiently assigned his fledgling band, tossing out instruments as he strolled through the class aisles. Minutes later, he assembled us on the stage in the auditorium, which was, bar my days at chef school, the best classroom I have experienced, and led us in our first tune. To say that first cacophonic note was not exactly music would be a gross understatement. Think of Professor Hill in The Music Man and the first note he elicits from his students and you have it about right. Horrible! But Doc did not flinch for a second.

"Ok, hmm, let's give it another try. On a one, two, three and four.."

How he made us make music from that stumbling beginning is what magic and heart is all about. He did this not only with us, but year in, year out, with class after class of inexperienced musicians, and created emissaries of music in each graduating class.

Doc was particularly nice to me or rather, expected good things out of me, as I was the sister of one of his favorite tenor sax students, my brother Mark. I did my best to measure up and indeed, by graduation year, with miles of music behind me, private lessons, summers at Vermont Music Camp, I like to think I did Doc proud.

Over the years, our high school put on extravagant musicals and Doc worked over time, making sure his band students became pit band accompanists. He hired a professional drummer, pianist, and a few violins and assembled a pit band of his gawky-but-best music students (yes, I was one) with seasoned pros. One year, our production of Hello Dolly sold out for two weeks. By then, our pit band had indeed melded and the lines between the union musicians playing for scale and those who played for free, grew fuzzy. Doc expected us to do well and carry ourselves. There was only one moment, I recall, where he grew impatient with us, and slightly twitchy, as he fused his own two worlds - that of high school music teacher and that of a big band musician himself - I saw it in the way he led his pit band made up of veteran and callow musicians both - and made us, after a few days's of rehearsal, a cohesive group.

Ah, but our annual Christmas concert: that was Doc's shining moment. During the year, he got flak from administrators and other teachers for being, well, Doc. But at Christmas, Doc and his stellar music department stole the glow of the season. His concerts were renown and illustrious. More remarkable was the fact that some four decades before it became fashionable, Doc made sure we staged a Christmas Chanukah Concert. He frantically phoned and searched (remember, no internet in those days) to find Chanukah concert band music in order that the minority of Jewish students (and musicians) would feel represented. One day, in late November, he arrived late to class, his overcoat and felt hat all covered in snow. "Ladies and gentlemen," he announced, shaking off the snowflakes, "I have just been to the American border where I picked up all this sheet music at Canadian Customs. Here are three Chanukah songs for band. Let's roll".

He handed out the music, dusted off the snow from his shoulder, drew a breath, and we were off, playing a symphonic version of I Had A Little Dreidel and Rock of Ages. Most kids had never even heard of a Chanukah song and he made the annual Christmas Chanukah Concert the new standard in a time where there wasn't even that term, 'politically correct". It is only now, that I realize how remarkable this was - and the incredible effort Doc put into everything and in moments like this, changed the fabric of the world.

Because of Doc, I went to music camp and studied music at McGill University. True, I had music at home, but Doc made me feel included in high school, a time and a place where you feel chronically out of it and like you do not belong and you are not good at anything. I knew, because of Doc and music, I was someone and I had something and that was something he gave all of us. Music gave us stature and an identity and Doc Jones was the gatekeeper.

I learned through Doc, how one commands, not demands, respect, simply by carriage. To Doc Jones, we were not the enemy and neither was he - in that classic high school showdown between the generations. We were people who
liked hanging together for the same reason: a couple of notes played in unison.

It is a long time since I sat in the first chair, first seat, clarinet section anywhere. My elder two sons have had Mr. Doxas - the millennium's version of my Doc Jones. A high school music teacher that could be the star of a screenplay based on his life, George Doxas is funny, irrelevant and passionate about music and as beloved as Doc Jones. He, like Doc, inspires his students with music, humor, and compassionate living. No one, experiencing Mr. Doxas, will emerge from high school the same.

There is also the young music teacher, Craig Hodgson who is all heart and energy and another memorable music teacher in the making. In between these fine people, are still other teachers who have passed our way and more to come. And lest I forget, there was also the violin teacher of my sons' high school, Mr. Gutmanis, who left us unfortunately, in a tragic and untimely way. His gentleness, European refinement mixed with warmth and a certain mischief, will never be forgotten. The loss is still fresh. Not a violin cadence goes by where I do not know his spirit to be alive and well somewhere.

As for Doc, he is still with us, in his early nineties I believe, and by all accounts, he is as dapper as ever. Last I heard, he plays organ in his local church. One of his own kids, (can you be a kid in your mid 50's?) plays trombone alongside my brother Mark (on keyboard and tenor sax, alternately), in a Big Swing Band they have going with about 20 other musicians. They practice in a town center not far from my house. Sometimes, when they do, my son Jonathan sits in attendance with his uncle Mark. He did that when he was 12 and just starting tenor. These days, he is almost 18 and plays with the guys - alongside his uncle.

My Benjamin putters on the piano but is hoping for alto sax when he soon encounters Mr. Doxas and high school. And Gideon, as is fitting (if you know our Old Testament), plays trumpet in a way so mellow and earnest, that makes Miles sing.

At Christmas, I hope you also have the blessing of knowing at least one student musician and have a Christmas concert to attend.

I hope you remember your camera and forgive an too-sharp note here and there or a clarinet squeak in Winter Wonderland. I hope you remember, as you are squished in with other parents in too many seats in a too crowded auditorium, and sweating in your boots and winter coat, and silently snarling at the parent who forgot to turn off their cell phone, that you are listening to magic at a magic time of year. The songs are inevitable and sometimes performed in a ponderous way but only a Scrooge would notice.

And as for the music teachers in our midst, they are angels among us. G-d bless music teachers. Each and every one.

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