O P I N I O N
Stand up. Speak up. It’s your turn.
In one of my recent music classes at Central High School, I shared a video in which famed conductor Marin Alsop breaks down musical scenes from movies or tv, pointing out the inaccuracies or absurdities commonly found on the screen. Watching these works as a musician, – even critically acclaimed shows such as the Netflix miniseries “Unorthodox” or the movie “Whiplash” – often leaves me with a sense of unease, an annoying return to the real world when all I really want is a distraction. I suspect most people feel the same way when their field is depicted on screen, or when a movie character recites a phone number starting with the digits “555.”
The viewer is brought back to the real world.
This was not the case upon my recent viewing of the Disney/Pixar film, “Soul.” I was sold in the first 10 minutes. The attention to detail was astounding. I suppose this attention to detail could be considered only possible due to the movie being animated, but I chalk it up more to the producers truly caring about music’s realism. They respected their audience enough to show the true aspects of music-making. Here are just a few examples of the movie’s commitment to detail:
The music notation depicted on the chalkboard of Mercer Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” is 100-percent accurate; the middle school band classroom was depicted perfectly, with instrument cases on the floor, complete with spray-painted decals; the middle school jazz band sat in the correct order (saxophones in front, trumpets in back, trombones in the middle, drum set and piano to the side); the scenes of Connie playing the trombone, Dorothea playing the saxophone, or protagonist Joe playing the piano were spot on. Outside of music, “Soul” captured stunning visual scenes that depicted the bustle of New York City. Simply put, this movie was a fantastic piece of visual artistry that left no stone unturned.
However, after the initial musical scenes, the movie took a turn. It asked questions of the viewer, entering a spiritual realm about life’s mission and finding one’s spark. Without divulging too much into the plot, Joe Gardner works as a music teacher, but is determined to live another day to finally play piano on his dream gig with the famed saxophonist Dorothea Williams. All Joe Gardner ever wanted was to perform, not be stuck as a music teacher for the rest of his life. This is where other proud music teachers I know are feeling that “Soul” failed to accurately portray our day to day. I disagree. In many ways, I can relate to Joe Gardner. I worked hard as a musician, spending many lonely hours with my trombone in a practice room only to now find myself being dismissed without care by reformers strapped for cash, blank screens hiding virtual strangers on Google Classroom, pontification from armchair experts on Manchester School Chat, and adolescent obstinacy from, well, obstinate adolescents. Those annoyances are the exception much more than the rule, but I can’t deny that they exist.
My music education in Manchester changed my life. I had no innate musical skills, I started relatively late with instrumental instruction, and I didn’t come from a musical family. But music education gave me a chance, a place for expression, a true community, and a connection to the rest of the world. Unlike Joe Gardner, I knew I wanted to be a music teacher at a young age. That was my dream, and I’m living it now. I was hoping for a George Bailey-type ending to “Soul,” in which Joe Gardner realizes he had been fulfilling his life’s purpose all along as a music teacher. While that wasn’t the case in “Soul,” I found the film’s ending even more poignant, and more realistic.
After I graduated from Memorial High School I attended UMass Amherst, a high-powered performance school and teaching school. I was honored to take part in fantastic music-making where I could grow as a musician and meet some of the greatest people in my life. Knowing as I entered college that I wanted to be a music teacher, I was extremely bothered by classmates who told me – much like Joe Gardner – that all they really wanted was to perform, but would teach as something to fall back on. I have since changed my tune on teacher preparation. There’s a talented teacher inside so many of us, especially intelligent kind-hearted musicians. If one’s priorities towards performing change, why shouldn’t they eventually make the switch and become a good teacher? Sharing a passion, especially something worked towards for most of one’s life, is one of life’s greatest treasures. Some of the greatest joys in life are when after a long struggle you finally hit that groove, or enter the zone, with someone, especially strangers and adolescents.
It has been a gift to keep my passion for music, and a blessing to find some sort of professional success as a result. Music is a tremendous joy that made the rest of my life’s joys possible, but it is not my only joy. I love nature. I love to travel. I love my family. I love dogs. I consider having done what I love as a career to be an overrated aspect of my life. Yet remembering that I allowed myself to fall in love with my talents, and share them with the world, is an underrated aspect I don’t appreciate enough. That shared experience is why the music teachers I have met over the course of my career are without a doubt the most thoughtful, responsible, engaged, and entertaining people I know. After a year of constantly waiting for better moments to occur, ”Soul” reminded me to appreciate all moments and relationships more regularly.
The moment when I knew “Soul” was a true masterpiece, beyond its visual effects, was the scene in which Joe experienced an epiphany after his gig does not turn out to be as fulfilling as he expected. What followed as he sits alone at his apartment’s piano was a truly beautiful montage in which he recounts all of life’s joys. Music is one of those great joys, along with others. Included in the montage were a couple clips of Joe teaching music. The gut-punch was when Joe hands a pair of drumsticks to one of his students for the first time, a joyful moment I have experienced too many times to count. That moment is when the opportunity of a lifetime begins. Everyone should be so lucky.
Ed Doyle is a music teacher and band director at Central High School.