Stepping back

A couple of weeks ago, I was headed to the bathroom when I happened to notice that Nick was watching the end of Amadeus in the living room. (The fact that I was heading to the bathroom is largely immaterial, but I do like to be precise.) I hadn’t seen the movie in years, and found myself absolutely fixated, unable to move until the closing credits.

I’ve loved Amadeus since I first saw it in the theater when I was eight (let’s just pause here for a moment, shall we, and ponder that my parents took me and my brother — who was SIX — to a movie about Mozart, where nude women run amok and the focus is about, you know, Classical music… Yes, yes they did… Which, I think, gives me latitude to show Ella and Annie just about any movie I choose and receive absolutely no sideways glances whatsoever, no?). The ending – where Salieri is frantically scribbling out the Confutatis maledictis from the Requiem as Mozart dictates the parts to him from his deathbed – is one of my favorite, most chill-inducing passages of any movie, ever.

I have always loved that scene, but, having not seen it in years – since well before I became a music teacher – I’d never gotten it in a technical music sense. Now, as Tom Hulce hummed and pounded out and sang each line, each section, and F. Murray Abraham put notes to paper… and then as the music came together, piece by piece, until we finally we heard Mozart’s unbelievably beautiful vision for the first time, I was completely enthralled. It wasn’t just gorgeous; it made sense. It clicked.

It’s not that Mozart died and left the Requiem uncompleted that makes it so awe-inspiring (although that certainly adds to the mystique); it’s the work itself, Mozart’s genius being so definitively and wondrously realized. I have yet to hear the entire Requiem live, but it’s absolutely on my bucket list. (Lest you think my bucket list is all classy like that, you should know that it also includes learning how to properly wolf-whistle and smashing truckloads of tomatoes into perfect strangers at the Tomatina in Buñol, Spain.)

Fast forward to last Friday, when I was subbing for a high school music teacher – not my typical gig. Although I’m qualified and certified to teach music K-12, my professional experience (subbing aside) has only been K-8, so I always regard high school music subbing with a bit of curiosity. Friday proved to be a fantastic experience, and one that I was not expecting.

Yes, it was great that one of the classes was AP Music Theory (which might sound either terrifying or horrendously dry, depending on your perspective); I was psyched, because although I hadn’t dabbled much in theory since college, I did genuinely enjoy – and excel at – it way back when. I wasn’t disappointed. Despite it being students-bring-in-a-song-to-share-with-the-class day — a classic, dummy-proof move for when you have a sub, especially if your sub might not be a music teacher — this was no throwaway class. The kids brought in everything from Zeppelin to instrumental celtic songs, and used phrases like “I thought it was interesting how the measure of 3/4 immediately bumps up against the 4/4 measures, giving them a heightened tension” and “I enjoyed how that measure doesn’t end on the tonic, but rather how the dominant sets the stage and leaves you hanging” to describe what they heard (no, I am not making this up). It was pretty rad.

And, yes, there was the 10th grade choir, who were almost entirely student-led and sang a raucous version of Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus. But it was the Polyphonic Choir – arguably the school’s most prestigious group – that really took my breath away.

For one thing, it was like stepping into an episode of Glee, or what Glee might be like if the students actually read music and were concerned with phrasing and diction and warm-ups. Each of these kids wanted – really wanted – to be there, from the obviously gay young men in their smart pants and patterned sweaters to the grungy girls with their heavy eye-liner and spiky earrings, and the moment they came into the rehearsal room, they were focused, poised, excited, ready. You don’t really get that in your average Calculus class.

For another, these kids could sing. They were good. And not just with their voices; they could read music like it was nobody’s business, play piano with prodigious skill, and fine-tune their singing when something wasn’t quite right. They fully directed themselves (I was really only there so they could claim that an adult was in the room), doing warm-ups alone for a full twenty minutes, and sounded stupendous.

But also? They had a concert the following Monday (like, two days ago), and one of the pieces they were performing was Mozart’s Requiem.


I couldn’t believe I was hearing it – live – and that these seventeen year-olds were not only singing it, but conducting themselves, and singing it well. Their voices rang and echoed, filling the space with wonder and satisfaction (I realize the phrasing is weird there, but really, there was wonder and satisfaction just floating around the room. For real). It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced as a  teacher; I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be there to witness it.

As soon as the period was over, I texted the following to Nick:

The choir I was subbing for is performing Mozart’s Requiem; they led themselves in rehearsal. Felt like Salieri. SO COOL.

Before Nick and I went to sleep that night, I just had to talk about it more; I couldn’t quite let it go. I relived the rehearsal, dissecting each warm-up and playing for him the audio recordings I’d surreptitiously made of the choir with my iPhone. We both agreed that this was a damn good choir.

And I couldn’t help but wonder: does their teacher feel this way every day? Does he go home every night, rushing to share the delicious details of every rehearsal with his wife (who happens to be a friend of mine; first time I’d ever subbed for someone I “knew”)? Does he sit back and let the music wash over him, soaking up the choir’s soul-stirring abilities, reveling in his AP students’ knowledge and interest and abilities?

Does he come home every single day thinking, Holy crap, I get to do THIS for my JOB?? I must be the luckiest person on the face of the planet!

Well, let’s be honest: no. He probably doesn’t. Not if he’s human, anyway. In part, because not every day is like the day I witnessed. These kids had been rehearsing for months for a concert that was one day away; no wonder they were so good. Surely rehearsals back in September bore little resemblance to what I witnessed on Friday.

Also, let’s not forget that these kids didn’t learn how to conduct a choir rehearsal or identify when the melody ends on the tonic or dominant all by themselves. They learned it from someone – I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess maybe they learned it from the teacher for whom I was subbing – and that someone likely had to work damn hard to get these kids to come so far. While I’m sure it’s been gratifying to have such motivated and talented kiddos in your classes, I’m also sure that there are days when – as with all professions (or, let’s say, being a parent) – you want to pull your hair out.

But I hope, for this teacher’s sake, that he has some of the moments I experienced. I hope that, between the pressures of putting on a concert and helping kids understand voice-leading and working to make sure the tenors aren’t sharp and having the warehouse fall behind on the sheet music shipment and figuring out how Common Core affects the curriculum and budget cuts and colleagues who raise eyebrows and question whether or not you’re a “real teacher” because you “just” teach music, there are genuine moments of joy and gratitude and awe, moments of, I truly must be the luckiest person on the planet, if only for this one song.

Truth be told, I could stand a few more of those moments myself these days. Like everyone else, I’m running around like a chicken with my head cut off. This fall/early winter have been so freakin’ busy, and now with Christmas and two birthdays on the horizon (I will have a seven year-old in two minutes, omg!), it’s just become absolutely insane. There are days when my “free time” begins after midnight, when I awaken in the morning to have my FitBit tell me I’ve already walked 800 steps that day. Only once in the past ten days have I gone to bed before 1:30 a.m.

It’s unsustainable. I realize this. I’ll wind up making myself sick, and then my holiday spirit will really go to hell in a hand basket.

I need to stop and breathe. I keep thinking, if I just get this done, just accomplish this one more thing, then I can relax… But I keep a to-do book, not a to-do list, and it’s absolutely never-ending, so I have yet to reach the relaxation point.

And yet, surely there are bits of the Requiem going on around me. Maybe it’s in my girls’ faces as they find Hermey our elf in his new location each morning. (Shit. Note to self: Hermey must be moved to Annie’s room tonight. Birthday girls always get a visit from Hermey.) Maybe it’s in the fresh falling snow we’re getting each day. Maybe it’s in the irresistible toffee my aunt sends us each year (we received it two days ago and it’s nearly gone; send more!).

I’m not entirely sure where it is, but I’m going to make it my mission to find it. Every year, I lament that this season has gone by too fast. I can’t make it slow down, but I can at least try to find some joy and gratitude and awe, if only for one song.

Come to think of it, maybe the Requiem is hidden in the chocolate chip cookies I made for the cookie exchange and the Girl Scouts caroling. They did taste pretty damn good.

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