What Music Really Means

SBO Staff • ChoralFrom the TrenchesMay 2008 • May 20, 2008

A long time and very good friend of mine, Tracy Leenman, sent me a note with this incredible and true story. It was so compelling that I realized my own thoughts for this month would be better saved for another day, so that I could share her inspirational anecdote with you. This is a story that transcends any of our programs – whether they are band, orchestra, general music or, as in this case, choir – to give voice to the intangible intrinsic benefits that go beyond the music lessons and become life lessons each of you share everyday:

In the early 1960s, a young man named Ron Cohen moved from Boston to Long Island in order to teach music at a brand new school, Howard B. Mattlin Junior High School. Three years later, when John F. Kennedy High School opened up right next door to Mattlin, Mr. Cohen became that new school’s first choir director.

Over the next thirty years, The Kennedy Choir became legendary, not only in its hometown of Plainview, but across the country. Appearances at New York’s NYSSMA Convention in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s made the Kennedy Choir the only group ever selected to perform at that convention over four successive decades. There were unprecedented performances at back-to-back MENC Eastern Conferences in 1971 (Atlantic City) and 1973 (Boston); In 1995, Ron Cohen was awarded the NY/ACDA Outstanding Choral Director Award; and in 1997, he was featured in USA Today as “A Real Mr. Holland.”

But far more important than these accolades was the way that Ron Cohen and The Kennedy Choir impacted young peoples’ lives through music. The late ’60s and early ’70s were tumultuous times for teenagers, but The Choir was a bastion of stability – and discipline – for its members. When schools abandoned dress codes, Mr. Cohen insisted that Choir members still show respect for the school – and for themselves – by dressing neatly; young men, by keeping their hair neatly trimmed. When students went through rough times – socially, emotionally or academically – The Choir was always there to provide stability; to encourage and motivate young performers to focus, to work hard, and to succeed. “Choir was an anchor for students seeking refuge from turbulent times… or turbulent homes,” says one 1973 alum. After the Kent State massacre on May 4, 1970, the entire JFK student body staged a three-day walkout in protest (one of the students that was killed in the shootings, Jeffrey Glen Miller, had just graduated from Kennedy the summer before; his mother was the principal’s secretary). But Choir members repeatedly crossed the “picket lines” to attend rehearsals for their upcoming concert. Their emotional, standing-ovation performance of Randall Thompson’s Peaceable Kingdom, only a few days after the shootings, was a major force in healing the community; living proof that music can unite and touch souls, even in the face of such terrible tragedy, as nothing else can.

At Ron Cohen’s final Choir concert in 1994, over 200 alumni from around the country came back to sing together one last time, a declaration of the powerful effect that music had had on each of their lives. But as it turned out, that concert would not be the last time we’d sing together. This March, a very special event brought 23 Choir alumni to Boston to sing together again – Ron’s mother’s 90th birthday party. Fran Cohen had long been an admirer of The Choir and of her son’s work, and Ron wanted us sing to her as a birthday gift. So, alumni traveled from as far away as California, Idaho, North and South Carolina, Maryland, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Vermont, New Hampshire, Long Island, and New Jersey, to spend a weekend together and sing at Fran’s party.

The weekend was a great opportunity to reconnect with old friends, to socialize, and to sing some great choral music. But even more so, the weekend was a vibrant testimony to the lasting effect music has on peoples’ lives. We are now doctors, actresses, lawyers, engineers, businessmen, pastors, teachers, musicians, Ph.D.s, M.D.s – a pretty long list of distinguished alumni. But we all had one thing in common to talk about – The Choir. All of us held as our fondest memory of our youth the very same thing – The Choir. All of us had our lives, our goals, and our ideals shaped by the very same thing – The Choir. And within minutes, we were no longer strangers, but once again, close friends. As John Gould, an alumnus from the class of 1970, said, “with a simple hug and hello we were right back to where we left off.”

As each of us reflected on the contributions that Choir had made to our lives, we began to understand in a deeper way the importance of school music; and the tragedy that occurs when band, choir and orchestra are not made available to young people who might benefit from being in music as much as we did. We decided to try to put into words something that is truly intangible, yet also truly meaningful – how our experiences in high school music helped make each of us the people we are today. Please, if you know of a school, an administrator, a parent, or even a colleague, who believes that music is merely “extra-curricular,” is expendable, is something that gets “in the way of” academics, please have them read what follows. There is no doubt about the lifelong impact music has made on each life . . . or about the impact music has the potential to make on a child’s life when given its proper place in a school’s curriculum:

No activity in high school, including time spent in the classroom, affected me as profoundly as did the choir. Music in high school, by its nature, is poised to provide a unique experience. Of course there is the music itself, but beyond the music there is a bond that goes far beyond simple friendship. The love of the music and of each other defies descriptive words, but for me the richness that the choir experience brought to my life molded me in ways that were unlike any other activity.

– John Gould, M.D., Ph.D. (JFK Choir Class of 1970)
Surgeon, Assistant Professor of Urology; Davis, Calif.

Choir was much more than just making beautiful music. It helped me establish and confirm a set of values to live by: 1) Set the bar high when establishing your goals; 2) Focus and determination will generally make those goals attainable; 3) The group is more important that any one individual; and 4) Love and respect for each other is critical to success. Mr. Cohen was my surrogate father, teaching me lessons about how to live my life in a positive way.

– Jack Yao (JFK Choir Class of 1975)
Vice President of Information Technology; Yorkville, Ill.

I can say without hesitation that my skills were honed in my high school choir. There I learned a sense of dedication to something far greater than myself, both spiritually, and in the practical sense of blending one voice with many.

In this particular Choir, under the direction of Ron Cohen, I discovered my own fierce desire to be the very best I can be, and I met a choir director who demanded that I do just that! Perfect fit! I learned quality comes from hard, hard work; building an infrastructure upon which you can then “dance.” Some where deep in my cell memory is a reminder that all that hard work will pay off, spending the extra hour will make the difference between just getting it done and making it “ring,” and that ahead there will be joy in the job well done.

– Robin Young (JFK Choir Class of 1968)
Host, Here and Now, WBUR/Boston and PRI (Public Radio International); Boston, Mass.

What did choir mean then? Lots of hard work, and at the end of it all, we created something beautiful, that seemed effortless, that has stayed with us all our lives.

What did it mean soon after? In college I studied in what was then the Soviet Union. With another singer and a musician (guitarist), we performed for our Soviet counterparts in a number of cities and republics. Although we were all fluent in Russian, we made more friends and connected with more people through the music. After college, I started out my career as a criminal trial attorney, and it may well be that the ability to perform helped me get up in front of juries [I now am a government attorney and serve as an associate director at the United States Securities and Exchange Commission in the Division of Enforcement].

What does it mean now? Seeing my children reap the benefits of having music in their lives. Remembering one evening when my teenage son said he felt “cranky,” and that he just needed to play his violin to relax.

What has it meant throughout? That my life is richer for the music. But it also is richer because I shared it with unforgettable people like the members of the Kennedy Choir. And, as our recent reunion shows, those bonds will continue throughout our lives…

– Antonia Chion (JFK Choir Class of 1972)
Attorney, Associate Director US Securities Exchange Commission; Kingston, Md.

Choir taught me about excellence. Taught me nothing is ever perfect, but one can always make it better. The most important lesson I learned was the power of a group as opposed to the power of the individual. A group, a team, can take you farther than you can go as an individual. This belief was reinforced by my experience at Harvard Business School. We were encouraged to form groups to do casework together. They explained that the collective wisdom of a group can solve a problem, understand the challenges faster and better than going it alone I often referred back to my choir experience when teaching and sharing what makes a team happen: expect the best and demand the best each team member can produce . . . and they will.

– Howard McNally (JFK Choir Class of 1971)
Retired; former Chief Operating Officer, ATT Consumer Division; Manchester Center, Vt.

In my current profession as a software engineer, one of my key roles is developing various computer programs. On the surface, a program is a series of instructions intended to enable a computer to solve a problem or perform some task. Beneath the surface, there are a near-infinite number of possible approaches for solving a particular problem. Analyzing the advantages and disadvantages of each approach and determining the best solution entails much creativity and is an often rewarding (but sometimes frustrating) experience. Thus it is something of an art form, as is music. Developing a computer program demands a great deal of motivation, discipline, patience, perseverance, and attention to detail – these were the very skills I had acquired through the time I had spent in my choir sectionals years earlier.

– Alan Neitlich (JFK Choir Class of 1980)
Software Engineer; Smithtown, N.Y.

To read all of the powerful testimonials provided by the members of the JFK Choir please visit my blog at www.music-for-all.org/blog/.

And be sure to let Tracy know your thoughts as well! You can reach her at: [email protected].

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