I was thinking today about the music teacher in my elementary school. She was in her twenties at that time (although she could have been older - I'm notoriously bad at guessing ages) and wore mini-skirts - the only teacher in our school to do that - and taught us to sing by eschewing normal kid songs in favor of pop songs. I know the lyrics to Quinn The Eskimo
not because I heard it a lot on the radio but because we sang it in music class. She also had three choruses - one each for the fourth, fifth and sixth grades, imaginatively named the Do, Re and Mi choruses - and virtually every kid wanted to participate if for no other reason than it got you out of school for one hour every Monday for chorus practice.
Mrs. A also had high ambitions for her choruses. Nothing ordinary for us - our repertoire included songs from Hair
and if that wasn't enough, you haven't lived until you've heard ten year olds sing I Don't Know How To Love Him
from Jesus Christ Superstar
. As I remember the mother of one boy objected to him singing that song and during any performance it was featured he stood with his mouth closed. We also showed our civil rights awareness by singing songs like Black
which features lyrics such as "Black is our color and we wanna be free!". Slightly ironic considering that our school had maybe ten black kids in total and only one black girl in my age in chorus. I often wonder if she felt empowered or embarrassed to be singing that song while stuck in a sea of whitey-white kids.
But Mrs. A's ambitions didn't stop there. If she could have three choruses then the next step would obviously be to select the cream of the singing crop for the special chorus and name it...Special Chorus! Special chorus was indeed special. Being a part of it meant that not only could you carry a tune better than average but it also meant that you'd get to participate in the yearly spring musical.
The first musical Mrs. A put on was The Mikado
. Not too difficult. Back then Special Chorus was still small and managable. The next production was Oliver!
and became a grander production with more elaborate scenery - or as grand a production as one can get with having a mini-skirt clad music teacher providing all the music with a solitary piano. The cast of Oliver!
consists of a lot of kids anyway so it wasn't a reach for those cast as Fagin's
urchins but our acting and production abilities were stretched to the limit with the musical we put on when I was in the sixth grade and proud member of the Mi and Special Choruses. That's the year we put on Fiddler On The Roof
. We went all out that year. That's the year we had two
instruments in the "orchestra" - Mrs. A on the piano and the assistant music teacher (and Do chorus leader) on the clarinet. Three if you count the few times the assistant music teacher had to play the violin to provide the fiddle music for the Fiddler when it was appropriate. Oh it was a sight to behold. Really, you can't fully appreciate a production of Fiddler On The Roof
- any production of it - until you've seen eleven and twelve year old girls having to play the men in group scenes because eleven and twelve year old girls tend to be taller than eleven and twelve year old boys. They also object strongly to having false beards glued on to their tender pre-pubescent faces. Over thirty years have passed since that production and I imagine there is still lingering resentment from the girls assigned to play "papas" towards the girls still petite enough to be cast as "mamas" or "daughters".
No, I am not going to just get over it. That fucking beard hurt like a bitch when the moms who volunteered for make-up duty would rip it off our faces using Sea Breeze spray and a wooden popsicle stick to break down the glue.
The year after I left elementary school I know they put on a production of 1776
and it seemed like the end of grand designs. It's a step backwards after having had WASPy kids play Russian Jews to have WASPy kids play WASPy old colonial men.
I lost track of what Mrs. A did after that. She left the school not long thereafter, likely burned out from having to bang out all that music on that shitty spinet piano that belonged to the school and trying to teach kids to sing even sort of on pitch. She changed our lives though. Even though we probably weren't very good in terms of performance we did pick up an appreciation for music and theatre and life that went beyond the confines of our little community. And for knowing all the words to Good Morning, Starshine