Volume 12, Issue 36 ~ September 2 - 8, 2004
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Bay Reflections

Whispers in My Ear
by Vivian I. Zumstein

Music swells the air around me at Jesus the Good Shepherd Church in Owings. I notice an approaching high C in the hymnal, always a stretch for my low alto voice. “Support the note! Don’t let it go flat,” J.T. reminds. When I reach it, I tighten my diaphragm and punch air up through my vocal chords. The note rings clear and true. “Good,” compliments J.T as the joy of music surges through me.

In 1969, I arrived in Mr. Taylor’s general music class a failure. Six years of inadequate elementary music, two years of dismal piano lessons (when I demonstrated that my father’s piano talent had skipped a generation) and six months of producing nothing but shrill squeaks on the saxophone had left me bitter. Furious that music was mandatory, I shuffled into Mr. Taylor’s class and collapsed into a chair with a “just try and teach me” attitude.

It was a turning point in my life.

Jim Taylor, called J.T. by all, was God’s gift to junior high teaching. Young and dynamic, he was an equal match for adolescent attitude. He’d arrived at the school five years earlier. Already he’d built the chorus up from 30 students to over 100, almost a third of whom were boys. By 1975 more than 400 children (two-thirds of the student body, including several football stars) sang in three separate chorus classes.

J.T.’s class wasn’t just an education; it was an experience. We learned to read music, clap intricate beats and dance to African rhythms. We labored at writing out the notes to part of Handel’s Water Music, listening to measure after measure again and again until it stamped itself forever on our young brains. No graduate from J.T.’s class can ever hear Water Music without being transported back to the chorus room, intent heads bent over blank sheet music, pencils poised, ears straining to distinguish notes as J.T. dropped the needle on a scratchy record.

Through it all, J.T. infused us with his enthusiasm and strict discipline. His motto was, “If you can talk, you can sing.” J.T. demanded extraordinary things from ordinary kids. I can still see him fixing me with a threatening glare while jabbing a stern forefinger, commanding, “Vivian! You will hold this note six whole beats!” Yet he made time for fun too. As much as he demanded of us, he demanded and gave even more of himself. We adored him.

The chorus’ reputation was still blossoming when my father reluctantly attended my first performance. After all, he’d already suffered elementary school music. The chorus shattered his preconception when, at the end of the Star Spangled Banner, the sopranos popped up an entire octave to belt out a high note. My father took notice. So did music judges. J.T.’s choruses won one award after another to become regular performers at the local opera house.

J.T. made a huge difference in many lives. Some gifted students went on to have professional singing careers, but most, like me, benefited simply by understanding music better and loving it. J.T. stamped his mark on all of us. Many students stayed in touch with him. He told me I was his longest running student friend.

Five years ago when J.T. died suddenly of a heart attack, hundreds of former students from around the country flocked to his memorial service, a musical tribute J.T. would have loved. His professionals sang beautifully, but the roof really came down when a lawyer from Pittsburgh sang Mozart’s Alleluia.

So J.T. isn’t really dead. He lives on in every one of his students. Surely I cannot be the only one he still directs. Whenever his former students sing, J.T. stands beside them, whispering directions — and praise — in their ears.

Here it is, another Sunday and J.T. is with me still. That’s how good teachers ascend to immortality.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.