The full title of this FTV should actually be “They told me to sing loud!” It was the answer I to the question my dad had asked me right after I had made my sixth grade stage debut in the annual Whitman Elementary School Christmas play: “Why were you the only one we could hear singing?” Back in the 1960s, presenting the Christmas story was a public school tradition and I was tapped to be the third Wiseman. Naturally, our song was We Three Kings.
I can’t say for sure what other elementary schools were like around the country, let alone what the other Marquette schools were like as there were five or six at that time. The school was named for a former Marquette superintendent (Willard) and not the more famous Whitman (Walt – which is who I originally thought it was named after), it was what I would call a “performing school”. These days, this means “meeting certain state mandated standards”. Back then it meant that we performed programs for the public several times per school year. Whether we presented athletic demonstrations, ethnic song and dance programs, patriotic music shows, or the annual Christmas play, the whole K-6 population in the school was involved. There was a real spirit of collaboration between Mr. Barber, the principal, and the staff. Mr. Barber was a hands on principal and took on the director’s roll of the Christmas play. There were rotating art and music teachers (like music teacher Bill Saari who actually got his start teaching music in Mass City) and they contributed some of the musical prep time, but the real musical director was my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Aronson. Don Aronson gets a couple of footnotes in my book because he was the first male classroom teacher I ever had and it was he that planted the first seed of an idea that I should be a science teacher. Whatever qualities he had as a teacher, they worked for him as he taught until his retirement in 2010 at age 79. This is a bit of a lie, because he is still helping out with the students at the Lemmer School in his hometown of Escanaba where he spent the better part of his 59 year teaching career.
Mr. Aronson was (and still is) an accomplished piano player and church organist so he took the reins of the older singing groups. If you were in either one of the two sixth grade classes, you were in the sixth grade choir. He had high expectations for the group each year and let it be known that we were the closing act at each program so we had to be good.
As a first grader, I came down with a bad cold prior to the first school wide program of that year. I had successfully passed the audition to play the xylophone part in one of our choral songs (which I did by repeating the short passage that the teacher had played for us – I still don’t read written music all that well but I always have been able to remember a tune and repeat it). Getting sick cost me most of the group practice time so I was replaced for the program. I ended up attending as my sister was in the fifth grade group that year and was a little miffed that it wasn’t me up there playing the xylophone part that night. I also remember hearing the sixth grade group singing and telling my mother, “I can’t wait to sing with the big kid’s choir.”
Each class in the school had parts in the various programs so by the time we were in sixth grade, we were already veterans of 12 to 15 productions. The sixth graders carried the stage roles in the Christmas story while the younger classes contributed various carols. We rehearsed for several weeks while our moms searched for suitable wardrobe items. The props (crowns, bejeweled gift boxes, shepherd’s crooks, the Wiseman’s staffs, the manger, and so on) were stored away behind stage from year to year, but we had to come up with something to wear that said ‘Biblical era robe’.
After one particularly rough run through, Mr. Barber took me aside and asked, “Do you know all of the words to We Three Kings?” I nodded affirmatively, but wondered why he was asking me considering my part was verse three and all the choruses. “The other two kings are having trouble with their verses, so we want you to sing the whole song to help them.” They called us out to re-run our scene and after a verse and chorus, Mr. Barber waved his hands for us to stop and said to nobody in particular, “Okay, okay, that will work, but Kenny, will have to sing a little louder.”
Apparently I had neglected to share this new development with my parents. Singing was never a problem as this was the one part of the gene pool I got from my mother. She always had music on at home and often sang along. She was also a faithful choir member with a strong alto voice. Carrying the tune was not a problem, nor was singing loud as I was never what one could call a ‘quiet child’. My folks must have been a little mortified to hear their boy drowning out the other two kings, prompting my dad’s question as we walked the block home from Whitman after the program. “Why were you the only one we could hear singing?” he asked. Surprised that he even asked, I replied the obvious answer: “They told me to sing loud!”
Putting on musical programs is a lot of work. A school without the creative people to do these kinds of programs deprive their students of the golden opportunities they deserve to tap into the creativity of performing. Reading, writing and arithmetic are fine, but there are reams of studies that show students who engage their brains in performance also excel in the classroom.
The elementary classes and bands in Ontonagon recently put on an outstanding program and we need to tip our hats to everyone involved. There are many pillars that support the roof of our student’s education. Music and art performance opportunities stand side by side with all the rest of the important subjects that students need to receive a balanced education. Thank you Mr Barber, Mr Aronson, and all the rest of the dedicated teachers that made sure I had these opportunities growing up.
Top Piece Video – Here is our old Measured Chaos (and Savage Grace) buddy Al Jacquez with his version of Joy to the World that he sent along to us a couple of years ago! Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!