Senior letters

This week I wrote letters to seniors. I work as an accompanist in a public school, which means I play the piano for kids in choir, band, and theater at different times of the year. To be good at this job, you are aiming for a weird combination of Van Cliburn and Julia Roberts as the Mom in the movie “Wonder”; you want to be good enough to sound good while the choir/band/theater kid sings or plays their way through any one of thousands of pages of music, but at the same time you want to be kind and supportive and play in a way where you don’t stand out, and you cover up any random mistake they might make. Or, OK, let’s just admit it, play in a way that makes the hardworking kid shine and the inept kid look not bad.

I needed music really badly in high school. I’m not a full-time teacher so I don’t know the kids well enough to know which ones might need music, like I did. My goal is to treat each person with the knowledge that they are important and their music is important.

And in pursuit of that somewhat lofty goal, I get to encounter a lot of quirky, funny, independent, loopy, brilliant, average, extraordinary people. Who are between 14 and 19 years old. This is my fourth year at this job and I have accompanied a few of them for concerts, solos, competition, audition, or musical theater four years in a row.

So when the message showed up in my inbox about the deadline for senior letters, I made a list of the students I wanted to be able to say goodbye to.

I wrote to a trumpet kid who volunteered reluctantly for every musical thing his buddies did. All those buddies had a standing joke about a vein that stood out in his forehead when he played, and none of them wanted to have to play without him joking between pieces.

I wrote to a trombone player who was in every event he could be for four solid years, with enough enthusiasm to fuel a train for every single one. I knew it was going to be a great evening/performance/event if that dude was bobbing in his seat to the music right in front of the piano.

I wrote to a troublemaker who was always skipping choir class and surprised me every time I heard him alone with the sweetness of his voice; I wrote to a conscientious and dedicated singer who I think felt underappreciated; I wrote to a kid whose family has come here from Africa and he totally shreds on the electric bass mostly playing by ear; I wrote to a kid whose family is from India, took family vacations to China and had the best swag in the whole choir; I wrote to another trumpet player who was phenomenal and serious and constantly doubting himself.

And when I got to the end of the list (which was longer than I thought it was going to be) the last kid was CL.

CL was a Theater emphasis student. I accompanied him 3 times for a yearly required musical theater audition. I struggle to find a way to say this; he sang like I play sports. Which is to say, not at all. Nobody asks me to play a game of soccer or basketball once a year, (since the outcome would be purely painful for all involved!), and I would probably crawl under the bleachers to get away from the venue. This kid is braver than I am. I’d play the music. He’d speak-sing through the notes, both of us working as hard as we could find a range in which our two noises could co-exist.

I could tell you a lot of other things about him. He has beautiful curly hair he teases upward. He has a savage sense of style. He is a good friend, masterfully sarcastic, compassionate where you can’t see it, politically savvy, calm amid drama, and likes candy. (Well, who doesn’t, really?) I know these things because he was stage manager for a show I accompanied, and both of us spent hours and hours preparing and putting on that performance (along with 40 of our closest friends, relatives, and fellow students). 

This is what I’m trying to tell you: he’d come to those auditions dreading them every step of the way. He’d stand by the piano and force himself to breath, just like they all do, praying he didn’t miss the entrance. And through sheer force of will he would, without being able to match pitch, get through a 32-bar cut of a Broadway number.

That’s just brave. Hands down.

But here’s the magic. There would be a catch of breath, or occasionally more than one , where something inside him would suddenly own the stage. A gesture, a movement of his head, the raise of an eyebrow. An acknowledgement that he was not meeting ANY of the requirements for doing this the ‘right’ way, and a defiant insistence that his ability to act could STILL carry what was happening. To hell with you; not only will I refuse to be shamed, I will transgress with purpose. To redefine the situation, to break the expectation and offer an alternate beauty; this kind of courage inspires me beyond words. He believes (rightly) that his own self is important enough to command attention even when the music is not excellent.

I suspect there are larger stages for his courage than public school choir rooms and high school musical theater auditions. If you can learn to take something as your own in the middle of forced or unpleasant duty, and more than that seize love and purpose out of  dull rule-driven requirements, you have power beyond imagining. You have the ability to make your own life belong to you.

His courage matters.

I tell him this. I try to tell each of them this. Even if it only affects one person at a time (and, in this case, me!), it is still a powerful force in the world for good.

Thank you, CL. Blessings and good luck to you wherever you go.

Love, Mrs. Jarrett

-Katie