When I was a high school student, I got involved in the music program at George Washington High School in Philadelphia. My choir teacher was the ebullient, sarcastic, funny, sometimes brash, amazingly talented Jay Braman. He had a tenor voice that made my heart soar every time he sang a melody, he had a sharp wit that could cut like a knife, and a biting sense of humor that he used to teach as well as entertain.
Jay had the kind of charisma that made you want to be better – not just to please him and to elicit a bit of praise, but also because you got a huge sense of accomplishment and pride when you got it. The music pieces he chose were intelligent – rarely the usual choir pieces you hear, highlighted by Handel’s “Messiah” and portions of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis.” We performed Verdi’s “Stabat Mater” with the kind of steely precision and variations in volume required of that tough piece. We did Mendelsohn’s “Elijah.” We did arrangements of modern songs by groups such as Chicago, and simple arrangements of folk music such as “Simple Gifts.”
And we learned. We didn’t just learn music. There was definitely a lot of that, and Jay was always available during lunch to help with a particular piece. As a matter of fact, I spent all of my lunch periods in the music department, either practicing piano, singing, or otherwise hanging out with my teacher. But we also learned work ethic, history, a bit of politics, morality, and how to deal with life.
It is absolutely correct to say that Jay Braman was a significant part of shaping me into the adult I am today.
Jay is now retired, but to this day – more than 25 years later – we still keep in touch. I went to visit him and his family last year. His wife was the Vice Principal of our school when I was a student. He teared up openly when I walked in the door – I felt like a kid coming home to the proudest of parents. Both his daughters are now educators. I keep in contact with Valerie, who, despite having opposite political views, is a beautiful, sweet, dedicated person and teacher, whom I would have been thrilled to have teach me in school!
Some people are just an indelible part of your soul and your make-up. They become almost genetically ingrained in you, ya know?
Maybe that’s why the 1995 movie “Mr. Holland’s Opus” hits me right in the feelz every time I watch it – and believe me, I watch it a lot, and I never get tired of it.
It’s not just the beautiful performances by Richard Dreyfuss, Glenne Headley, Olympia Dukakis, and the great William H. Macy. It’s not just the joy of seeing actors who have made names for themselves in Hollywood and on the stage as younger kids, including Terrence Howard, Alicia Witt, Forest Whitaker, and Joanna Gleason.
It’s not just the kickass, uplifting soundtrack, which includes rock classics by the Kingsmen and classical music greats such as Beethoven and Bach.
It’s the joy of seeing the delicate portrayal of a high school teacher – who got dragged into the teaching gig quite unwillingly – and who changed so many lives of so many people, including his own, by teaching them to love music, despite not being able to complete his own composition (or opus – did you know that the plural of opus is opera? I learned that from Jay Braman too!), and despite challenges he faced in his own life, such as a deaf son, who he thought would never be able to appreciate the beauty of music.
It’s the joy of seeing on the silver screen how music and art education, when done right – with love and dedication – can contribute to the creating of complete, consummate, imaginative, moral human beings. That’s what music education did for me, and that’s what some bureaucrats and some clueless, passionless adults want to eliminate today.
Yes, it’s important to teach reading, writing, mathematics, science, and history. But it’s also critical to instill an appreciation for beauty, imagination, and creativity in students, so that we don’t raise the next generation of soulless bureaucrats, who don’t care about providing a well-rounded education, but rather focus on sucking up more government funding and kissing politicians’ asses on all levels in order to promote an agenda.
This movie touches me in various ways, but most of all, it reminds me that despite all the problems we have in our educational system, there are teachers out there who will touch your heart, who will shape you, form you, and give you an appreciation for beautiful music and for the power of the written word. They don’t just teach you to write it or to listen to it. They teach you how to love it, and how to appreciate every bit of beauty in what seems to be a soulless world. They don’t do it because it’s their job. They do it, because they love this world and want to leave it a better place.
“Play the sunset,” Richard Dreyfuss’ character Mr. Holland told a student. Do we really want a world in which we no longer understand what that means?
Jay Braman made sure we understood it. He showed us the meaning of beauty in this world, and instilled in us a dedication to that beauty. We – who had the honor of having him as a teacher – are the symphony of his life, much like the students in the movie were the symphony of Glenn Holland’s.
Adult Gertrude Lang: Mr. Holland had a profound influence on my life and on a lot of lives I know. But I have a feeling that he considers a great part of his own life misspent. Rumor had it he was always working on this symphony of his. And this was going to make him famous, rich, probably both. But Mr. Holland isn’t rich and he isn’t famous, at least not outside of our little town. So it might be easy for him to think himself a failure. But he would be wrong, because I think that he’s achieved a success far beyond riches and fame. Look around you. There is not a life in this room that you have not touched, and each of us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus. We are the music of your life.
We are. And thank you.