Friday, June 26, 2015

Milton Pope

My solo musical career has been exceptionally brief. Outside of church choirs, both as a kid in Danvers and an adult in Ottawa, I’ve performed twice officially for an audience.  I don’t think singing “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” a cappella for a bunch of Moroccans on a beach campout in 1975 qualifies.  I’ve done a lot of impromptu stuff, karaoke and all, but that’s not real performing.  So yeah, twice.

Until most recently when I whistled with the Milton Pope Chorus at their Spring Concert.  They did four numbers and I accompanied them on one called “The Walker” which was recorded by Fitz and the Tantrums in 2014.  You hear that tune now and again. The Cubs broadcast from AM 780 uses it as a jingle.  The song was written by six, count ‘em, six people.  I assume one of them is Fitz and the rest are the Tantrums but I can’t confirm that.  The arrangement we performed was by Mac Huff.  I knew nothing of the song until Heather McDowell Francis gave me a CD that had the music audio with words, the music without words, and sheet music which I don’t read.  I had listened to the whistler on the CD in my car and my part was securely in my head.

Yes whistling.  That is my instrument.  It requires only practice and maybe the right teeth. I’m pretty sure everybody can, or could, whistle if they worked at it.  I’ve been working at it most of my life if you choose to call it work.  Whistling comes out of me on sort of an unconscious level.  I fill time with whistling, airing out the music running through my brain, mostly when I’m alone.  I’ve learned, sometimes the hard way, that not everyone appreciates a good strong whistle.   

Until I drove out to Milton Pope’s little cornfield campus and walked inside the portable trailer that serves as the music rooms for a practice, I had pretty much forgotten about elementary music instruction.  I enjoyed music, in a building a lot like theirs, in Danvers, Illinois as a kid in the early sixties.  Our music building in Danvers, though stick built, was also a cheap add on stuck at the edge of the school property as an afterthought.  Why does the music program get the odd space anyway?  Why isn’t it right up there with the library and the science lab?  Hard to figure.

Anyway I walked into this little trailer and was immediately immersed in a sea of kids.  I’m not around kids much these days.  I used to get that same feeling when I went into the day care center, or into a group of kids at YSB, or playing Santa Claus.  As I got older I used to feel that way around staff.  But there I was, an old guy in a group of 5th through 8th graders.  They turned to look at me as I came in the door.  Such faces, young and expectant.  Bright. Every one of them smiling I think.

It was hat day at Milton Pope, which worked out well because I was wearing my Cub hat, and could keep it on as the kids had the privilege of doing that day.  First of May, drive through the country, bright spring day, baseball season underway.  It’s a nice time to be in Illinois.  I was glad to be there.

If you’re not from LaSalle County let me fill you in on Milton Pope.  It was not as some guess the last names of two famous old poets, John and Alexander.  It was named after a rich farmer who left the land and a chunk of money in trust to the school.  It is north of Marseilles, southeast of Norway, southwest of Stavanger, on the edge of a section of farmland planted in beans and corn.  Mr. Pope imagined more than a one room country school serving rural kids and that is exactly what his gift has produced.  A small elementary school in the country which sends well prepared students to several area high schools.

Things are different out there in the country these days.  All the kids attending country schools are not farm kids.  With farms being so big, and farmers tilling more and more acres, relatively few are farmers actually.   Most now are the children of parents who bought a small acreage in the country, are renting farmhouses, or live in little rural subdivisions.  The choir was a big mix of kids, an all school upper grade choir, numbering 27.  Participation is easy at little schools.  It’s one of their advantages.

We got right to work.  I whistled without amplification at the practice.  Heather and a few kids standing close to me could hear it well, but I was by and large drowned out by the voices.  It’s a good song, The Walker, snappy and hip.  The kids enjoyed performing it.  Heather urged them to dance in place, doing their own individual moves, which many were reluctant to do.  You forget how it is to be a kid, self conscious of your changing self, so influenced by how others see you.  They laughed a lot, blushed, and giggled.  But they sang like angels.

We ran through my song a few times and Heather gave me a chance to leave if I wanted.  I declined.  I had nothing else to do and besides, I wanted to hear them sing their other songs.  There is something about being in the middle of all that green on a spring afternoon hearing kids sing that does your heart good.

An adult woman sat in the back smiling and I couldn’t figure out why.  When practice was over a special small buss pulled up and the woman went to the front and helped a young boy who had been sitting make his way with crutches to the door and on to the waiting bus.  Another woman came out of the bus to help the girl in a wheelchair to her ride home.  When you’re learning music and making it with your voice those challenges don’t figure in.  At Milton Pope choir is for everybody.

On the day of the performance, May 13, I went back to Milton Pope in the afternoon to practice with the kids on the auditorium stage.  I say auditorium loosely.  It is the school’s single big room-cafeteria, basketball gym, stage, concert hall, all rolled into one.  We had one at my school even smaller.  Milton Pope had six rows of bleachers on the side of the gym opposite the stage.  In the community hall, blocks from school, where I played basketball we had eight; four on each side, stage at one end.  For the rehearsal the room was empty save for us.

They handed me a microphone and cued up the music.  The kids were standing neatly on risers next to me on the stage.  The recording began.  My part came up.  I whistled into the mic and shrill notes blasted out into the gym.  I was taken aback.  I turned and the kids were all looking at me smiling.  This was much more of a deal than say whistling “When I’m Sixty Four” between my car and the YMCA locker room.  Heather reminded us of the dress code for the show, white shirt, black pants, black shoes.  We did some run throughs and I went home.

When I came back the school had been transformed.  Cars lined the blacktop roads.  I managed to get a parking place not too far away and entered the building into a crowded hallway.  There was evidently some issue about when the auditorium opened and who got seats where so they were not seating folks in the auditorium until a certain time.  Parents, grandparents, and friends waited patiently in the halls.  Kids ready to perform, band kids carrying instruments and chorus kids with none, made their way through the crowd.  There was a buzz of excitement. 

I was a little excited myself.  Heather had saved my wife and I seats in one of the front rows of folding chairs on the block linoleum floor near the stage.

My number was the third of their four song set.  While the place was empty Heather checked the mic, ran through the song quickly, and calmed the kids down.  They were nervous.  As they opened the auditorium to the audience I took my seat next to Colleen.  Though it’s a small school and a small school community, there was nevertheless a rush for seats.  It was after all the Milton Pope spring music concert.  If you are part of the Milton Pope community, and your child, grandchild, or neighbor kid is performing, the spring concert is a pretty big deal.  It is a chance for a kid you know to show you and the world what they’ve discovered and developed within themselves.  Finding their talent is what life is about for kids, right?

The choir opened with “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?” an old negro spiritual with a new arrangement  by Greg Gilpin.  It’s a good song for a small group.  The boys with the relatively low voices got a nice refrain part while the girls carried the main melody.  Heather both played the piano and directed from behind it, not easy but often done in small schools I’ve found out.  No money for an accompanist.  Not only did they have the notes and the lyrics down cold, the kids threw in dynamics, going loud and soft at appropriate places.  They sang it better than they did when they practiced in the little portable classroom.  How does that happen?  How do performances bring out the best in choirs?  Good choir directors I think.  I love the hopeful lyrics:

              He delivered Daniel from the lion’s den

              And Jonah from the belly of a whale

              And the Hebrew children from the fiery furnace

              Why not every man?

The crowd applauded in a big way. The kids smiled even bigger.  They had broken the ice.  They were a hit and they knew it.  It made the next song even better.  But this one they sang less exuberantly.  It was a blessing, an old Gaelic verse.  It went straight to this old heart.  I felt they were blessing me, and all of us listening.  Was it because they were kids?  Could they possibly know how much we need their encouragement? 

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.

When they finished, as Heather asked them to do, they stood very still and silent.  The last note of the electric keyboard faded out.  Our choir director always asks us to do that and I never knew why.  Now I know, seeing them standing there motionless.  With the silence and stillness came a moment of recognition before the applause.  Such voices.  Such a thing they had just done together.

I left my seat and hurried backstage.  The kids looked over their shoulders a me as I took my place at the microphone.  This was the fun number.  This was the one they were looking forward to sing.  Heather was able to direct this one, as we were singing to CD accompaniment.  I was glad because I needed her to point to me when I was on.  Starting in the right place was the only big challenge.  The rest was pretty easy; notes all in my range, easy to remember, and fun to do.  Once I got started it was in my wheelhouse so to speak. 

I worried only about two things.  First, it is impossible to whistle while smiling.  It pulls your lips away your teeth and takes your pucker right out of the ball game.  Whistlers live in fear of being suddenly amused at inopportune moments.  Second, I sometimes get crowd shock.  You’re all ready, you know what you want to say or do, you look up and see the crowd for the first time and some switch inside you flips to the off position. 

My whistling part introduced the song more or less.  There was maybe a bar of instrumental music and then my whistling carried the melody.  The music started, I looked up and brought the mic to my lips, Heather pointed at me, and I was on.

Nothing made me smile.  The crowd looked unintimidating, even friendly, and I knew the kids were behind me.  It came out fine.  My first whistle was over and the kids were singing.  Here’s the song.

Both whistler and singers made it to the bridge where we were to loosen up and dance in place.  Not everyone could.  The shy kids stayed shy.  I saw lots of blushing.  The extroverted kids hammed it up.  It’s not easy for middle school kids to risk looking silly on stage, or for old guys either.  But as they expressed themselves I bopped a little in time to the music, alternating bent knees, shoulder shrugs, moved my butt a little.  I didn’t want take attention from the kids or look silly in the process.  They went back to lyrics, I had one more whistle, and then it was over.  Too soon.  It really was fun.  I think the crowd liked it.

I went back to my seat for the last number Gone, Gone, Gone arranged by Mark Brymer.  There was a day when kids in grade school memorized poems, and soliloquies from plays.  I was charged in 5th grade to learn Portia’s mercy speech from Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice; “the quality of mercy is not strained…”  That’s over.  What kids, and big kids like us too, commit to memory now are song lyrics, which can be both good and bad.  I don’t mind that.  Who cares if it’s a song from a Spiderman movie, I’m glad the kids in Milton Pope learned these lyrics.  See for yourself.

When life leaves you high and dry
I'll be at your door tonight
If you need help, if you need help

Your hope dangling by a string
I'll share in your suffering
To make you well, to make you well

You're my back bone, you're my cornerstone
You're my crutch when my legs stop moving
You're my head start, you're my rugged heart
You're the pulse that I've always needed

And if your well is empty
Not a thing will prevent me
Tell me what you need,
What do you need?

I surrender honestly
You've always done the same for me

So I would do it for you, for you

And long after you’ve gone, gone, gone

Put those words to catchy music and it will stay in your head forever.  That’s how they ended their concert, my new middle school friends, on an up beat, smiling, proud of what they’d learned, brimming with possibility.

We forget about small happenings like that. But there at Milton Pope in May, in the middle of America, in the middle of the corn and bean fields, kids and their families, teachers and friends, participated in the pure joy of music.  I was glad to be part of it.  It made me remember what it was like to have my whole life ahead of me with so much to learn.  Like we adults now, still.  It is so easy to forget.

No comments:

Post a Comment