"Jason, you are supposed to go to choir rehearsal."
These words were uttered from the mouth of my third grade teacher Ms. Kratz way back in 1981. A few weeks prior, my music teacher, Mr. Snouffer, pulled me into the tiny, dingy backstage area of our little cafeteria stage at Whitehall Elementary School in Williamstown, New Jersey. He asked if I knew the words to Barry Manilow's, "I Made it Through the Rain." I said yes, and he asked me to sing it. I have no idea how in 3rd grade I knew the words to that song. Let's just say that from a very young age I knew I was not like the other kids. Apparently, Mr. Snouffer saw a spark in me when I sang in music class, and he was checking to see if I could make it in the chorus. He decided I could and let Ms. Kratz deliver the message. He did not know the impact that this simple gesture would have on my life.
Right around this time my dad took off and my mom had to find the humility and courage to accept government assistance in order to keep our home. In addition, I had begun to painfully hear my name called early in the morning every Monday to pick up my "free lunch" ticket for the week. This was humiliating at first, and eventually just became reality. To top it all off, while my brothers were excelling in academics and athletics, I was falling behind in Math. This led to me having a tutor outside of school. Actually, though, I would still be falling behind in Math if you asked me to compute anything beyond basic Algebra.
Mr. Snouffer was the first male figure in my life who took an active interest in my talents and abilities. His invitation to me to participate in the school choir was my first taste of accomplishment in my own rite. I went on to place competitively in All State and Region Choirs in New Jersey, win regional teen arts festivals, star in my schools plays and musicals, and I have done some acting as an adult. Above all, I still reap the rewards that involvement in the performing arts provides. Those are willingness to risk and face fears, discipline, self-confidence, collaboration, team work, and great appreciation for all arts and the value that they have in our culture.
In addition, I learned a great lesson about failure from my early days in choir. I was one of the only Jewish people in my small elementary school; therefore, Mr. Snouffer invited me to introduce the Chanukah song during our Christmas concert one year. During all of our school performances I did my introduction flawlessly. Our parent/evening performances had actually become so popular that the cafeteria was full of kids sitting in the aisles and people standing along the sides. This was my first time presenting in front of a large group of people alone. One of my classmates thought it was really cool to see me up there and he yelled my name from the audience. It turned out that I was quite unprepared for this. When I heard my name I froze, and completely broke down. I had to be ushered off the stage and miss the entire song that I was supposed to introduce. I was devastated. The lesson came when Mr. Snouffer told me that it was ok. He even went as far as to take accountability for my breakdown. He let me know that since I had done so well during our school performances that he didn't think to tell me to look at the back wall during the evening performance. Looking back, I can honestly say that it this experience in choir was the first time I learned that it is ok to take risks, even fail, get back up, and keep going and learning.
A few months ago, after 29 years, I reached out to Mr. Snouffer with a letter of appreciation. He was grateful to hear from me and appreciative of my willingness to let him know about the impact this simple gesture had on my life. He also expressed that as a teacher (now directing an expansive Choir Department at Westlake High School in Austin, TX), you can't ever really know which moments or gestures will have an impact on your students. I suggested that perhaps the only real objective is to be fully present and real in each moment and from there we can have significant impact.
I tell this story today because the month of March celebrates both Write a Letter of Appreciation Week and Music in Our Schools month. Writing my letter of appreciation to Mr. Snouffer allowed me to reconnect with a formative moment in my personal history and inspire a great teacher. Also, while our current economy is eliciting budget cuts in very painful areas like education and arts education, I am reminded how critically important it is for children to have the opportunity to broaden their minds and experience through participating in the arts and art education. I reiterate, there are many qualities that are honed through music education, including discipline, team work, communication, perseverance, self-mastery, and courage. Also, it has been illustrated that children who study music are more likely to graduate high school and go on to college.
I want to encourage you to take a few moments to contemplate the people who have had great impact in your life. Maybe you can even reach out to them and let them know. Who were they? How did they impact you? Also, if you have stories of how music education had lasting impact on your life please share them!
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