Saturday, August 20, 2011

Three and half decades teaching strings in Roanoke

It’s a warm August afternoon and there has been a new surge of Face Book friends in the last few days. It all started with Lisa Garland Manley, a former student, discussing our class in the context of old Roanoke, Virginia days. I responded and quickly there was a covey of students, friends, and their friends who replied or commented. Some asked to be friends on Face Book and I was happy to include them. If this serves to add to the happy recalling of those halcyon days then so be it!

Shortly after I earned my Master’s degree from JMU around 1963, I came to Roanoke to be the new strings instructor at Patrick Henry High and its affiliate feeder schools. Preceding me were David Burgess, the band director, and Gene Ferguson, the choral instructor. The three of us managed a cordial and friendly relationship and worked in and shared the same music room. Our groups maintained high levels of competent musicianship. The Art and Drama were across campus and they, too, had a statewide reputation for excellence. We were able to do a creditable performance of the Christmas portion of Handel’s “Messiah” for several years. About half way into the first decade David Lipps and then Joan Steele were added to our string faculty and developed strong programs around their centers.

In the second decade it became more difficult to maintain the string program. Andrew Hull and the Roanoke Symphony gave me backing when I began to feel the pinch from new computer and
language requirements. Our good Festival ratings also provided credibility to enhance the continuation of the program. Other societal changes were calling into question how strong the
arts ought to be and where in the educational milieu they should be allowed to exist.

A new superintendent and “the Middle School” concept which he inaugurated made it increasingly difficult to schedule in school time for music instruction. Classes at the high schools were scheduled at “0" period before the normal day. In the winter that meant beginning class just as day was breaking. Instruction at the elementary level ceased. I truly believe that administration grudgingly wanted us in the curriculum as a strings program indicated some sort of excellence; all the big systems continued theirs and Roanoke needed to keep up. They just didn’t offer us much help. So we had to improvise on our own. At least I had a full time job.

The last decade was sort of a mixed bag. Instead of one high school I was at two which split loyalties. For some concerts and Festival contests I merged the two for a strong ensemble.
There were several rough years at inner city schools trying to establish string classes which
were not the instrument of choice. We accepted whoever applied, and some just couldn’t sit
still long enough, or pay attention in a way that was beneficial to them or the class. No one
seemed in charge so we did our own thing as best we could.

After my full time stint was over I taught the morning class at William Fleming for several
years. That was a happy experience with the students. We met at “Zero” period, put on
creditable concerts twice a year and represented our school at District Festival. Physical problems due to age and arthritis finally led me to full retirement.

This is an off the cuff recitation and is an approximation of things as I remembered them. If
you are a student or an administrator who lived through one of those decades you may have a
more accurate recollection. I would love to hear from you.

No comments: