When I was a young parent, my children would go outside to play with the other neighbor children. Although we might be inside, we would always be aware of where our children were, what they were doing, and with whom they were playing. As they grew up, we watched them become more curious, more adventuresome, more outgoing, and even more timid in some cases. They were forming their personalities into the people they would become as adults. As a more mature adult, I find myself continuing to do the same thing, only with new eyes.
I started my venture into music in February 1969. At this point, I’m an old hand in the industries of music, theater, and business. Now, I am beginning to see the up-and-comers starting to develop. Perhaps because I’ve crossed the 40-year mark, I am not so focused on my own success, but rather prepared to lend a hand, if invited, to those who will take my place when I retire, after creating their own place with their work. It’s not just in music, though. It’s also in the arena of personal growth.
The beginning of my new attention began almost imperceptibly. Glimpses of talent, tenacity, intelligence, and creativity caught my peripheral vision. These young upstarts started showing some real gifts. At first, I smiled paternally at the young whippersnappers as they started showing their mettle. Slowly, my focus changed. I’m now taking an interest as a mentor as they become my peers, working with great alacrity in my industry. Their sense of innovation, fearlessness, and indefatigability become a constant source of amazement.
Was I like this as a younger actor, musician, singer, conductor? Perhaps. I certainly did not see myself in the same way as I perceive these vital young people. I do recall, though, those who took the time to guide me through my growth. It appears it’s my turn to offer that support as our youthful invigorati, if you will allow me a new word, start building their curriculum vitae. The lines in my face are like directional arrows pointing toward extended experience to which some of these newer adults gravitate. It’s like that for everyone I suspect.
So, in the same way as I did for the young ones in the neighborhood 35 years ago, I again am keeping an eye out in case I am needed by a budding musician, a neophyte writer, or simply someone who is searching for his or her identity. I still turn to my elders for their wisdom because I’m not done yet. I still need guidance sometimes; only now, I live on both sides of that line. As I contemplate this topic, I believe I care for our developing success stories because once upon a time, someone else helped me achieve mine.
When I was first hired as the vocal music teacher by Natomas Charter School in March 2001, I told the executive director that I would only commit to staying for five years at the most. I had other adventures ahead and believed that classroom teaching was not my passion. Then, I met the children.
In August 2001, I was introduced to the seventh graders who would become “my class,” the Class of 2007. I was assigned the role as their class advisor with the 7th grade English teacher. During our first discussion, they said they had heard rumors that most classes had class advisors come and go throughout their time in school, and how they hoped the two of us would stay until they graduated. Seeing their wide, hopeful eyes, and getting caught up in the emotion of the moment, I promised them that I would stay until they graduated. There went any hope of leaving after five years, because they would stay at Charter for six years. I had already completed my first school year, so this would mean I would be there at least seven years. And stay I did.
Through difficult, major events in my life, I stayed. Through challenges with my first line supervisor, I stayed. Through everything, I stayed until they walked across the stage to receive their diplomas. I couldn’t have been more proud of our young people. The person who began the journey as class advisor with me left to start a family, so there were new faces along the way with whom I shared the responsibilities and joys of these fine young people.
The truth is, I don’t know if my contribution to this class was very dynamic, but if nothing else, I was there at every class meeting, at their senior prom, at every major event in which they participated. As their senior year came to a close, I was more than ready to leave my position, but was asked to stay another year, hoping things would get better. I reluctantly agreed. It was 2007, my children had graduated, and I thought my job was over. I stayed one more year, but by the end of 2008, I could not stay any longer. Things had changed so dramatically that I knew it was time for me to move onto another leg of my journey, so I resigned, and went into private practice as a vocal teacher.
My job with this class wasn’t over, though. Recently, I ran into two of my students who told me that they had gotten to know each other in their senior year and now, almost five years later, they were getting married. I was so happy for them because they are genuinely lovely individuals, and I knew they would make a marvelous couple; animated, but marvelous. Several weeks later, I got a message from them saying the minister they had originally engaged had flaked on them. They reflected to me that they were just as glad, because this person clearly had no appreciation for who they were as individuals. They said they remembered that I was an ordained minister and wondered if I would do the honors of marrying them, especially since I had known them for nearly half their lives. Needless to say, I was thrilled at the offer and jumped at the chance.
Today is their rehearsal for tomorrow’s wedding. I will be in the presence of not just two, but six of my students who will stand on the altar as bride, groom, maid of honor, best man, and two honor attendants from the NCS Class of 2007. Clearly, my job is not over. The history we built together has moved beyond the classroom to their adulthood. It seems as though I will continue to watch my young people grow up, get married, have children, perhaps even grandchildren if I live that long, remembering that first day in seventh grade when they sat looking at me with those big, hopeful eyes. Once again, I get to see two of them with big, hopeful eyes, only this time gazing at one another seeing their future together in one another.
My students have gone to prestigious universities, begun marvelous careers in their chosen fields, and started families. They are fully adults now at the age of 23 beginning their own adventures in life. I am so proud of them all and hope to watch as they have their precious moments grow in quality and quantity.
This morning, I was giving vocal music lessons to my students at the Woodland Opera House. The young ladies range in age from 8 to 16 years old. They are well-disciplined, kind, talented, and very sweet to be around. I feel very fortunate to be invited to watch and participate as these young people grow in their art.
Last week, one of my former high school students and current singing student, Adrian, just went out on a national tour with his friend, Miss Ricky Berger. He’ll be back in a few months. He had taken it upon himself to begin lessons again to improve his performance. He is now ready for this tour.
It got me to thinking about a time when I was in eighth grade. I used to walk past this girl who, every so often, would doodle in her notebook. I’m sure she didn’t think a thing about her flowers, scribbles, and faces, but I loved what she drew. It was in 1972 that I became Shirley’s fan. Over the years, I stood on the sidelines watching my friend finish high school, go to college, get married, and have children. I’ve also seen time pass when her art took a back seat in her life.
Yesterday, I had an opportunity to go to Pacifica, California, to attend Shirley’s art show, “Arts on Fire,” at the Sanchez Art Center. Since her art has returned as a major focus in her life, after her family, of course, she has been amazingly prolific. Her incredible oil painting hung in the show, “Napoleon House,” was based on a particular moment in a restaurant in New Orleans, Louisiana, when she and her husband were there on vacation.
The actual building, Napoleon House, was constructed as a place for Napoleon Bonaparte to live in the United States after he would have fled France; however, he died before he could ever see his American domicile.
In addition to the tantalizing history, Shirley Manfredi’s painting is stunning.
Although I was never too effusive directly to Shirley about her art when we were young, because she would just laugh and look confused at my appreciation for her creativity, I did, on occasion make a comment or two. It was the best feeling to congratulate her yesterday when she realized she was awarded a Juror’s Special Mention in the show.
Shirley’s sister, Sharon, who is the godmother to all my children and a beloved aunt, and my husband, David, were in attendance, as well. Shirley’s husband, Louis, and their children could not be there, unfortunately.
It’s starting all over, I suppose. It’s 2010 and I’m beginning to watch a third generation begin their artistic process. It’s an awesome place to be, to be quite frank.
To be in Woodland to see my students successfully audition for “Les Miserables – Student Edition” a couple of weeks ago, at Adrian’s last concert in Sacramento for a while last Saturday, and Pacifica for Shirley’s show on Friday, really put my participation in art in perspective. I think, in many ways, I’m a cheerleader, of sorts. I smile, offer my thoughts when invited to do so, and cheer when the accolades arrive for these students of various art forms. Some may believe I have more to do with my students success than I do.
As I tell them so often, “I can talk until I’m blue in the face, but if you don’t do the work, then I’m just spouting hot air. My job is just to share some thoughts and, then, watch art grow.”
I presented a lecture at the University of California, Davis in the Mondavi Performing Arts Center. It was my first time.
It was a preview before the production of “All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914” by the phenomenal men’s vocal ensemble, Cantus.
When we began our vocal lessons, my student had a challenging history with singing. During the first show he had ever done, he was asked not to sing out loud, but to simply lip synch the words, because he didn’t appear to be able to carry a tune.
He came into my current show late, and unfortunately, his mind still replayed those old tapes he had learned in his previous experience. He arrived at my home to catch up on all the music in the show and his mother warned me about this fifteen year old’s challenge with pitch.
After about twenty minutes, he not only sang in excellent pitch, but could remember everything I’d taught him after only one or two times listening to what I was modeling.
I’ve never thought of myself as a great teacher. I honestly don’t think I am. I’m good, I suspect, but not great. What I can do, however, is give people reminders of what they already know how to do. I’m a great piece of reference material.
“When you speak, does your voice go all over the place like an out of control rollercoaster? No. That’s because you can hear pitch well enough to modulate your voice appropriately.”
That’s all he needed. When he realized that he’d been using his listening skills to hear pitch for his entire life, the rest was cake.
I just got a call from the director of a show at the theatre where I work most often. My student was recognized for having one of the best voices of the young men who auditioned. They were stunned with his progress.
I reminded the director that it was my student’s work that got him to that point in only a few months. He’d chosen to utilize the skills he already had in a new way. The benefit for him… and the theatre… is that his work paid off.
I am very grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to work with wonderful young people who are at various levels of security. Certainly, there is a talent differential to be considered, but what I’m learning is that if they have permission to succeed, they most often will.
So, here I am basking in the joy of seeing yet another of my students feel his sense of accomplishment. What a great day!
This evening, I went to see some of my former students graduate from the school where I used to teach vocal music. There were some definite surprises for me there.
When I began teaching in 2001, it was a fluke. A friend of mine called me on the phone in the middle of my retirement and said, “James, we really need a singing teacher here.”
I had sworn many years ago never to teach in a classroom setting. Of course, I never thought I could since I hadn’t completed my degree, much less acquire a teaching credential. This was, however, a charter school that specialized in the arts, so I didn’t need a credential. I did have plenty of experience, having had my first student in 1977. I had directed vocal music regularly since the early 1990’s. I was as prepared as someone could be without the credential, I thought.
The day I began, the co-founders asked me why I wanted to teach there since I was so over-qualified? Ah, how things were to change.
As the years progressed, I realized I had a lot to learn, but as I had often been told, teaching came naturally to me. As my supervisor at the time told me, I was an intuitive teacher. While that was a plus at that point, this same person eventually decided that pedagogy was much more important.
I resigned my position in 2008 when I realized that the school had changed so dramatically that these adjustments were sucking the life out of what was once a dynamic and formidible educational institution. The spirit of our organization was barely flickering any more. I had to get out. I had lost my voice with the administration and for someone like me who spent his life helping others find their voices, this was untenable to me.
As I was having my final meeting with the Executive Director, he offered me two beginning vocal classes. He wanted some “new blood” for the other vocal music classes. His words, not mine. It was of no interest to me at all. This school was breaking my heart. Teachers expressed they felt the same way, but were afraid to leave in this economy. Parents said they wanted to change schools, but knew that most other schools were more dangerous for their students. The children themselves said there was something missing that was there in the past. Everyone got the same message except the administration.
Other than a couple of brief visits to the campus, I really haven’t been back since I left. I attended several performances. I couldn’t help but think, “This is why they wanted me gone, so they could have this level of quality at their school?” Again, I was not alone in this assessment.
As I arrived at the school this evening, teachers, students, and parents greeted me with the most genuine happiness I remember in a long, long time. If I had to call it anything, it was almost relief that I felt as they hugged me.
“Nothing is the same since you left, Mr. Hernandez.”
“There’s been a spark missing since you left, James.”
These are actual quotes I heard tonight. Even the Executive Director did not seem as joyful as he had been in years past as he sat on the dais.
Everything from the singing of the National Anthem to the keynote address was vanilla pudding. It was Wonder Bread. It was white rice. It was beige.
This was no longer a performing and fine arts academy. It was a traditional, plain school.
Yet, the one thing that amazed me was that with all the changes notwithstanding, the children have grown up to be creative, motivated people. I attribute that to the tenacity of the amazing teachers on campus.
They have fought valiantly against the brutal criticism and desperate neglect offered by the Program Coordinator and Co-Founder of the school. Both of these administrators have their priorities firmly established although they have not considered the needs of the people involved. It is all about the awards and recognition and scores. The people, with spirits and minds and hearts, seem to have become functionaries to the administrators involved.
The Program Coordinator, in all her ingenuous behaviors, is not above being obviously phony in public when everyone knows how she really feels. I was embarrassed for her.
Yet, the children advance. What is it in them that allows them to grow in this way? They are like roses growing in the desert. They are like albino shrimp living in the deepest sulphuric recesses of the ocean. They are strong and resilient and protected by really great parents and phenomenal teachers.
I have held my tongue for a year, and now, at long last, I am speaking my mind in an open forum. It feels great!
God bless the children for their success. May their journey be full of joy and wisdom enough to learn from their challenges and celebrate their accomplishments.
I won’t be back for another graduation without a specific invitation. My time there is over. They do grow up. What’s surprising is so do I.