Friday, February 6, 2009

The Viola Incident

First, a brief aside: I spoke to a doctor whom I work with, and he was not concerned by any of my bothersome symptoms. Also, cough syrup works - why didn't I get some sooner? So, generally, I'm not feeling as fretful as I was. And now, a story.

Have you seen Mr. Holland's Opus? Mr. Holland was my high school music teacher. The premise: a super-committed music teacher pours his heart and energy into a group of awkward, rebellious high-school kids, bringing them together to make glorious music, and changing lives in the process.

My Mr. Holland was called Mr. Ford. He worked long hours, starting rehearsals early, teaching classes all day, and then running more rehearsals well into the evening. He looked after the junior strings, the senior strings, chamber groups for the advanced students, and the school orchestra.

Mr. Ford and his band leader counterpart had spent 20 years building up a reputation for the best high school music program in Toronto. Good old NTCI swept the Kiwanis competition without fail every year. Parents from all over the Greater Toronto Area shipped their kids in to participate. The orchestra was over 100 bodies strong; and in preparation for the spring concert, Maytime Melodies, Mr. Ford also conducted a chorus of 300 voices.

He was a formidable man. He had to be. Can you imagine being in charge of an auditorium containing over 400 teenagers? Holding their attention and respect? Trying to fine tune the timing of the oboes or the tuning of the second violins, (third desk back), while keeping the other 397 students quiet and attentive?

He knew he had to rule with an iron fist or we wouldn't respect him, so he cultivated an ogre's reputation.

Mr. Ford wasn't a tough guy physically. He didn't have abs of steel. He let it be widely known among the students that he would accept bribes during exam time, and what he wanted was buttertarts. Not that he would pass you if you didn't deserve it, but he wouldn't say no to a buttertart to remedy the pain of screechy, out-of-tune exam solos.

Maytime Melodies rehearsals ran from 6 pm to 9 pm once weekly. When calling us to order at the beginning of the evening, Mr. Ford would stand at the end of a catwalk that ran from the edge of the stage through the middle of the chorus pit. His golf shirt would be tucked in and his hair smoothed back. He would bark a few threatening words at us, sometimes in a good-natured way, sometimes not, depending on what the day had dealt him. Then we'd get down to business.

As we worked, his appearance gradually changed. Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead and temples. His hair began to curl and stand out from his head. Then, when his conducting got wild enough, his golf shirt would start to untuck itself. By the time we were halfway through a rehearsal he wore visible perspiration stains. Without a restraining shealth of fabric, his belly wobbled up and down with his arms as he conducted.

Anything less than perfect wasn't good enough for him. Clunking along out of tune and out of sync like any old high school music group was unacceptable. He'd stop the rehearsal and work his way through potential suspects until he found the source of a wrong note, thoroughly embarassing the guilty party in the process. If we had to work for two hours on one 8-bar segment to get it perfect, that's what we'd do. And it was worth it. We were, in the end, almost perfect.

Everyone who came to see Maytime Melodies said the music brought tears to their eyes, it was so beautiful.

Sometimes Mr. Ford got frustrated, as you can imagine. The greatest sin in his book was apathy - not caring, not trying. He wore himself out giving 200% to us. If we gave less than 100% in return, we could expect serious trouble, and rightly so. We all lived in fear of his rare but terrifying rage.

One night we were in the middle of a long rehearsal. Mr. Ford was in full swing. We couldn't seem to please him. As the evening wore on, he found more and more wrong notes, rushed tempos, and inattentive students. We could see his fuse burning shorter and shorter. But you know teenagers. They just have to be mouthy and stupid sometimes.

The two lead viola players were chatting with each other while Mr. Ford was trying to instruct us. He gave them a warning, but for their own reasons, they disregarded him. He gave them another warning, but I guess they didn't like living much, because a few minutes later they were back at it again.

Mr. Ford spotted them at it a third time, and turned crimson with rage. He strode down the catwalk to the stage, yelling at them the whole way. I don't remember what he said. What I remember is the silence in the rest of the auditorium. We were all paralyzed, glued to our seats, terrified of attracting any of that rage to ourselves.

There was a heated exchanged as the lead violist tried to defend himself. And then, the unthinkable. Mr. Ford grabbed the instrument from the lead violist's hand, and, still yelling, shook it in his face. As we all looked on in disbelief, he turned to face the auditorium. He cranked his arm back. And then he HURLED that viola with all his might.

Slow motion. 400-plus faces tipped in unison to follow the arc of the viola as it flipped end-over-end, its varnish flashing in the lights. Then SMASH! A horrible splintering as the instrument crashed into the empty seats at the back.


Mr. Ford wiped his brow, and returned to his place at the end of the catwalk. You could have heard a pin drop. "From the 16th bar," he said. The chorus sat up straight. Flutes were lifted to lips. Violins were clamped under chins. He raised his hands. He brought his hands down. We played perfectly. We sang perfectly. No one so much as cleared their throat.

Ten minutes into this, Mr. Ford started to smirk visibly. Then snicker. He caught the eye of the lead violist, who'd been left sitting empty-handed, and the violist cracked a smile. Then the violist's stand partner started giggling. And finally they all collapsed in gales of laughter.

Yup, he got us. It was a practical joke executed with a crappy old viola that wouldn't stay in tune anymore and was destined for the garbage anyway. Nice one, Mr. Ford.


Aurora said...

That. is a great story!!!! and a great piece of drama! yaaaay! cheering from all sides.
..and I hope your teacher didn't suffer high blood pressure !

When I was teaching.. cellphones were really annoying in class. A colleague privately set up a scenario with a kid where he angrily took the phone off him, threw a fit, and stamped it to pieces in front of the class.
The class was totally shocked. It was all around school in about 4 minutes. But eventually they figured out that the joke was on them :) And Mr. X is even more popular today :)

savia said...

Priceless story, and brilliantly told. I'm going to have to nominate this one for next week's Five Star Friday!

I loved the way you described his transformation from the beginning of rehearsal to the end.

Warped Mind of Ron said...

Great story and sounds like a great teacher. It is sad when teacher treat their job like a "Job", you know what I mean? It just seems that the ones that make the best impact (LOL) are the ones that love what they are doing.

LL Cool Joe said...

Great story! I think I could do with doing something like this with the kids when they misbehave. :D

Claire said...

Briliant story!

And I may well borrow that tactic one day!


Sparkling Red said...

Aurora: Aha, a Cellphone Incident! I wonder how many other teachers have staged tantrums. Teacher Terrorism - the educator's tool for our times.

Savia: That is high praise! Thank you. I've always wanted to make it to Five Star Friday. I'm honoured.

Ron: I was very, very lucky to go to a high school that had a lot of teachers who taught for the love of it. I'd guess that 75% of the teachers there were inspiring and committed. And it wasn't a special private school or anything. Just a naturally wonderful school.

LL Cool Joe: I want to hear the story when you do.

Claire: Somehow I can't picture you pitching a tantrum. But if you did, those poor kids! They'd be shocked speechless! I'm sure they wouldn't expect it from you in a million years.

Karen said...

How funny. Love it.

Scarlet said...

In the end he got you all! He had a sense of humor to go with his passion.

Great story! I think I'll try smashing my old keyboards against the wall one day when my daughter refuses to practice...just for giggles. ;)

SoMi's Nilsa said...

That story is all sorts of awesome. If only all our teachers could have been as captivating as Mr. Ford!

Kate said...

Okay, knowing my penchant for wilting at any sign of conflict, I'm pretty sure I would have been sobbing.

Sparkling Red said...

Karen: :-)

Scarlet: A keyboard? Now that is a large instrument! That would make a resounding crash. ;-)

Nilsa: I don't think I could have handled more than one Mr. Ford. He was a high-intensity guy! But I know what you mean, and I agree.

Kate: I think you might have been traumatized for life. ;-)

Dianne said...

Oh I enjoyed this story!!

I love the movie - no matter how many times I see it I still laugh and cry and love it

Mr Ford was a wonder!!

WeaselMomma said...

That's cool! What a great story.
Congrats on being featured on 5 Star Friday!

Anonymous said...

Greeeeeat story! I loved "seeing" heads tipped in unison to watch the arc of the viola and light flashing on the wood.