Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Teaching the Teacher

 Ben and his buddy McKay

Last night I skimmed the program for Ben's choir concert without really digesting the song titles--a few in Latin, a few patriotic, one in Serbian.  His choir was last, so I knew I had some time to wait.  I listened with half my mind to the junior high choirs, then I tuned in a little better to the first senior choir.  The next number would be both senior choirs combined, and the conductor announced the title, Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Interest piqued, I waited intently as the students settled themselves on the risers and the conductor and pianist locked eyes, ready to begin.  From the opening B-flat major chord, I recognized the arrangement, and it took me back instantly to a choir room in Twin Falls, Idaho, one wintry day . . .
my junior-year portrait--that hair took almost an hour every morning

. . . I was sixteen years old, and a mediocre singer at best.  I was one of those voices that sang 2nd soprano--you know the ones, the voices that can't sing very high but can't really follow harmony at any cost.  I liked to sing and I liked being part of the choir, but my heart was always behind the keyboard.

My choir director, Mr. Richard Smack (who did indeed go by Dick--and yes, he was the punchline of many a joke in those teenage days), directed all the choirs at the junior-high and high-school levels in my tiny town.  A man with a great musical talent, he demanded much from his choirs, and we were consistently ranked the top choir in the entire state.  When I sing to this day, I always remember to sing "what-you" not "whatchoo" and to pronounce my t's and d's carefully.  One thing about Mr. Smack--he played favorites and quite obviously did so, in my mind.  I, however, was not one of the chosen few.  I was a hyper, loud, smart, sassy and slightly obnoxious child who sang loudly and didn't blend well and who often disrupted the rehearsals with comments and wiggles.  At the time I didn't see it, but looking back, . . . well, you know what they say about hindsight.

I joined Mr. Smack's choir when I was in seventh grade, and by the time I was in eighth grade, my greatest desire was to accompany it.  I was a pretty accomplished pianist by this time, and it became my job to convince Mr. Smack that I was good enough for the seat of honor--the piano bench.  Even though I knew he didn't like me much, I wasn't afraid to approach him and ask for a song of my own.  Looking at me dubiously, he searched through the Christmas songs, found the easiest one, and handed it to me, with instructions to learn it at home and then come ready to play it in class.  I don't remember the song, but I do remember the bright yellow cover and the first three repeated chords--a grace note C sharp followed by a D and G in the left hand.  It was a dissonant song about the wise men, and I couldn't have been more excited.  This was my chance to prove to him that I was worthy of favorite status.

What happened from there, I don't really recall.  I played it for the concert, and then . . .  nothing.  I would ask him every quarter when the new songs were assigned for another chance to accompany--every quarter for the next ten quarters (yes, that's right, two-and-a-half YEARS), and he never capitulated.  I was crushed--I wasn't a favorite.  I didn't understand. I was hurt, and I was mad.

Fast-forward to that winter day of 1986--twelve quarters (that's right--three years) later.  I was still stuck in 2nd soprano.  I had auditioned every year for an advanced choir and never made it.  Both of Mr. Smack's accompanists were good piano players; however, neither was as good as I was. By the fall of that year, I had given up asking him if I could accompany the choir, but that never stopped me from taking the music home and learning the piano accompaniment to every single song.

It was January, and I remember we were rehearsing on the risers in the classroom, so we must have been close to a performance.  Both of our regular accompanists were absent that day, and I could tell Mr. Smack was annoyed that we would be unable to practice the hardest song on our list, Battle Hymn of the Republic.  He offhandedly made the comment, "Since both Maureen and Laura are gone today, we won't be able to practice Battle Hymn," and then he closed the music to move on.

I couldn't stand it any longer.  I'm sure I practically shouted out, "Mr. Smack, I can play that song if you want me to."  Battle Hymn isn't just an accompaniment--it has three key changes (one of which is seven flats), complicated arpeggios, and the biggest test of all--four measures of octave runs before the grand finale.  In all honesty, Battle Hymn is a piano solo with full choir accompaniment.  I knew it, and Mr. Smack knew it. The question was:  would he trust me to try it?  With a touch of resignation in his voice, he motioned me down to the bench.  I'm sure he was thinking, "Even if she butchers it, we couldn't have practiced it for real today anyway."

I was ready.  I took my seat at the bench with a friend to turn the pages, placed my hands on the keys, locked eyes with the conductor, and waited for my glory moment to begin.

And begin it did.  I did it.  I changed signatures with ease.  I timed the arpeggios just right.  And most of all, I NAILED the four measures of octaves in a way that neither of his regular accompanists had been able to.

When the song was over, a moment of silence hung over the choir.  My heart was racing with the thrill of achievement.  I looked up at Mr. Smack, my conductor and repressor for the last four-and-a-half years, and he . . . was speechless.  The bell rang, and he dismissed the choir, then added, "Jenny, will you stay after for a minute."

"Jenny, I had no idea you could play the piano like that."  Really?  I've only been begging you for the opportunity to show you for the last . . . forever.  For once in my life, I didn't say much, just, "Yeah, I've been practicing it at home."

"Wow.  Wow.  Well, next quarter I'm going to have to look through my music and find a song that can showcase your talent."

That was what I had been waiting to hear since the first quarter of seventh grade.  It should have caused me to fall at his feet and express gratitude at the opportunity, but it didn't.  Four years of never being good enough, never getting the chance to even show what I could do. Four years of asking and always being rejected.  Those four years had beaten out of me the desire to please him.  I had had that moment at the keyboard to prove him wrong, and I had done just that. I responded with the only thing I had left in me.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Smack.  After four years in choir, I talked to the counselor last week, and I've already arranged to change my schedule.  I'm dropping choir next semester so I can take drama."

And with that, I grabbed my backpack and walked out of the choir room.

Almost 27 years later, it still holds a hallowed spot in my memory.

When Ben got home from the concert, he pulled out his choir folder and said, "Mom, have you ever seen piano accompaniment like this?"

Oh yes, my boy, I sure have.  I sat down at my own piano, opened Ben's music, placed my left hand on that familiar B-flat chord, and I let my memory take over.  Battle Hymn is still in there--in my mind, in my hands.  Ben sang along as Lily listened, and as the last chord died away, I looked up at Ben's face. I led him into the kitchen where I regaled my children with the memory of when I taught my teacher.

What a great night.

Epilogue:  Micah and Hyrum were already in bed when I sat down at the piano last night.  After telling my story to the big kids, I went up to tuck my little boys into bed.  Still glowing with memories, I asked Micah if he thought he could ever play that song. His expression was hilarious--"Maybe in five or six years!"

I bet he will, too.

Linking my T post to Jenny Matlock's Alphabe-Thursday.
Jenny Matlock


  1. A wonderful wonderful story. So sad that all your talent was wasted over the years.

  2. Loved this one! It was a great moment to be able to share with your children - no doubt it will stick with them!

  3. Wow! I accompanied a song or two in our junior high choir, but I seriously wasn't all that good. I think we must not have had great piano players in there, or our conductor must have just wanted to give people a chance.

    Isn't it great that you still have muscle memory and can play that song?

  4. I remember that time, I must confess with a tear or two. I remember the frustration on your part and the inability on my part to understand why Mr. Smack refused to give you a chance. I guess we all learn lessons in life from our experiences and if this didn't teach you anything else it certainly taught you persistence. I was hoping you would tell this story one day. LOVE

  5. Now that was a SMACK DOWN! Wah ha!

    I didn't even hear you play and I am still majorly impressed.

  6. Great story Jen. I always have admired your piano talent...among others.

  7. To this day I love your SPUNK! I joined the choir in 10th grade...only to be asked to leave after the first week, sigh...

    Maybe I will be able to sing in Heaven.

  8. What a wonderful story! I hope your children will have teachers that listen. I hope my son will too.

  9. Hah! I love that story... I could almost see the look on old Mr. Smack's face!

  10. Awesome! So Lily gets her persistence & determination from you? :)

  11. AWE-SOME! Best end of the story EVER! So glad you got to tell him what was what. Also, love the way you wrote the story. Oh, and one more thing, cool shot of the boys at the concdert.

  12. I stumbled upon your blog a couple of months ago after you commented on one of my friends blogs. And I said, wait, I know her. I too had Mr. Smack for junior high choir (my family moved before I made it to high school). But I was seriously just thinking about his choir class the other day. I too fancied myself a fairly good singer and could alto the heck out of a song. I sooo wanted to be in the one elite junior high choir (what was it called?) I remember how he would gather us in a circle with a few other people and have us sing for the audition. The girl I always sat next to, Tiffany was her name (doesn't that just sound popular?) made the choir. I was seriously floored. I sat next to her every day for a year and I don't think she did anything but lip sync. I looked at the people who made the choir that year and it was every single cheerleader and popular person. I knew then that Mr. Smack played favorites.

  13. You're so good at telling stories Jen, I was hanging on every word! Such a sad story...but I love that you were finally able to shine like you did and then have the last say. Awesome ending. You could have quit playing...but you never gave up. Such a great lesson to share with your kids.
    PS. I had to share your teachers name with my husband...we had a good laugh!

  14. i envy you with your memory .....

    and as for the piano..i took 4 yrs and i'm not sure my fingers could take over today! but that is one thing we will be doing when we maybe my fingers will remember

    thanks for the story....

  15. I love your picture as much as your story.

  16. What a suspense-filled story. You grabbed me from the get-go because what parent hasn't sat through sports games/plays/musicals, etc., just to see their own kid perform? But then you managed to bring the event full circle to your own experience with the song. And what an experience it was!

    This was a fun, fun read...thanks for sharing!

  17. What a suspense-filled story. You grabbed me from the get-go because what parent hasn't sat through sports games/plays/musicals, etc., just to see their own kid perform? But then you managed to bring the event full circle to your own experience with the song. And what an experience it was!

    This was a fun, fun read...thanks for sharing!

  18. That was awesome. Loved loved loved this post!

  19. Great story--very vivid writing. I could picture the whole incident perfectly.

    I'm sorry your choir teacher didn't give you a chance more often. He really fit his name!

  20. Love the way he got his comeuppance. But only after you had your moment! Perfect.

  21. Oh my. You look the same as that picture.

    Unless you're totally photo-shopping all the pictures I've seen of you on this blog.

    Not many!

    What a terrific time sharing with your children.

    We learn all of our lessons for a reason, don't we?

    Thanks for linking.


  22. What a great story! That must have been a super sweet moment! Empowering!