And you have your eye on the Rabbi’s son.
— Well, why not? We have only one Rabbi and he has only one son. Why shouldn’t I want the best?
Because you’re a girl from a poor family. So whatever Yente brings, you’ll take. Right? Of course right!
My school district had enough rich families for us to expect, demand, and receive the best. A new vocal/choral music teacher was needed, and some Yente or another literally brought us the rabbi’s son. And boy was he young. Fresh out of grad school, though he’d taken time to appear on Broadway in the chorus of Gigi, Joel Pressman had never taught snotty teens but he’d very recently been one at the same school.
As one of his first disrespectful students, I can convey (but not excuse) that we all had a great deal of trouble taking him seriously. And he wanted us to take him seriously so much – come on! – and held out some hope we’d ever call him Mr. Pressman. Like that ever would have happened. But imagine my surprise when, just a few years later, every student called him that.
But the more I think about this, the more I think that his musicianship commanded respect. As more students heard his brilliant choirs, more wanted to be in them, upping the already fierce competition to be one of the elite Madrigal Singers. Kids would do anything to become a Madrigal, including using an honorific.
Again, not excusing anything, there was also a soupçon of immaturity in the young man: snarky remarks, jokes that were groaners, and I saw both Joel and his wife stick their tongues out at teens who’d annoyed them. One imagines he grew out of that sort of behavior, but I kind of like imagining he didn’t.
For that way I can remember a particular snapshot of him in time, when he was inexperienced and could make rookie mistakes here and there. It’s nice to have an unshakable memory of someone as young, particularly when they’re reaching life’s end.
It’s Veterans Day, which, admittedly, I always confuse with Memorial Day, as people do. Instead of thinking of a fallen soldier, I find my mind is on a small-v veteran of student-teacher battles who’s not dead, but is in hospice, having laid down his arms against an unbeatable disease after a long fight. And two years ago, many of us thought he had just weeks to live, but there were new diagnoses and treatments, and all sorts of opportunities for former students to pipe up and express their appreciation and love. As I often say, this isn’t a personal blog, and my aim here is to tell you something about music, not just about one extraordinary high school music teacher.
If you’ve never sung show tunes in a choir, you wouldn’t know that there were medleys made out of all the famous musicals for choruses to perform. I can recall the thrill when A Chorus Line – a score I knew before all my classmates – had its Harry Simeone arrangement come out, and Joel, of course, started rehearsals right away. It began with the cheerful song-and-dance, I Can Do That. And I thought this selection quite strange. What were we supposed to do, standing on risers during the dance break music? Having no respect for the teacher, I spoke out of turn to voice my displeasure. To which Joel shut me up with “Think you can do better, Katz?” And a gauntlet had been thrown. I didn’t know very much about choral writing, but proceeded to arrange The Music and the Mirror, with its then-cutting edge tight triads and flat fifths. Joel liked it and suddenly my arrangement became something we regularly performed. And we performed all over town, and, right after graduation, all over Mexico. It was, in essence, my gateway drug to a lifetime of writing musical theatre, getting appreciated, internationally!, for something I’d put on music paper at such an early age.
Among those early opportunities to get my work heard was Joel’s wedding. I wrote an unaccompanied madrigal as my gift, and got fellow students-singers-wedding guests to perform it at the reception.
Back to the present. You know that I write much of this blog when I’m traveling to a gig on the subway. Well, as they often do, three or four middle aged men just passed through the car singing Stand By Me in amazingly resonant a cappella harmony. The guy passing the hat couldn’t see that the passenger right across from me pulled out a dollar to give, and, as I pointed to her, so did the person to the right of me and the person to the left of me, as if we were Gladys Knight’s Pips. Seems a sign that I’ve something to say about the power of vocal harmony.
When a cappella harmonists succeed in holding their pitches, it’s a demonstration of how humans can lean on each other like a successful house of cards. Each singer tunes to every other, and we’re right, in part, because we know others are leaning upon us. Flat choirs bother our ears because they illustrate people at war with each other. Harmony reassures us that, well, we can live in harmony.
Thinking of the thousands of former Pressman choristers coming out of the woodwork to say thank you and testify as to how Joel changed their lives: the whole enormous demonstration of support is a demonstration of what happens, on a smaller level, within choirs. Those who didn’t sing for Joel – parents, friends of singers, or mere fans – may miss that this outpouring is a communal expression of what choral singing is all about, an illustration of just what he taught us all.
High school was a long time ago for me. But some things stick with you. And it probably helps that our school song was a madrigal with this text:
My heart doth beg you’ll not forget
My heavy heart, with sorrow aching
And spite of jealous eyes e’en yet,
One last farewell we might be taking!
Once, smiles my lips were ever curving
And gracious words were all they knew.
Now alone for cursing they’re serving
Those who banish me, love, from you.
Respect for Mr. Pressman.