A long time and very good friend of mine, Tracy Leenman, sent me a note with this incredible and true story that was so compelling I realized that my own thoughts for this month were better saved for another day so I could share her inspirational thoughts with you. It is a story that transcends any of our programs, whether they are band, orchestra, general music or in this case, Choir…to give voice to the intangible intrinsic benefits that go beyond the music lessons… and become life lessons each of you share everyday.
What follows is Tracy's story:
In the early 1960’s, a young man named Ron Cohen moved from Boston to Long Island (NY) to teach music at a brand new school, Howard B. Mattlin Junior High School. Three years later, when John F. Kennedy High School opened up right next door to Mattlin, Mr. Cohen became that new school’s first choir director.
Over the next thirty years, The Kennedy Choir became legendary, not only in its home town of Plainview, but across the country. An appearances at New York’s NYSSMA Convention in the 60s’, 70’s and 80’s made the Kennedy Choir the only group ever selected to perform at that convention over four successive decades. There were unprecedented performances at back-to-back MENC Eastern Conferences in 1971 (Atlantic City) and 1973 (Boston); In 1995, Ron Cohen was awarded the NY/ACDA Outstanding Choral Director Award; and in 1997, he was featured in USA Today as A Real Mr. Holland.
But far more important than these accolades was the way that Ron Cohen and The Kennedy Choir impacted young peoples’ lives through music. The late 60’s and early 70’s were tumultuous times for teenagers, but The Choir was a bastion of stability – and discipline – for its members. When schools abandoned dress codes, Mr. Cohen insisted that Choir members still show respect for the school – and for themselves – by dressing neatly; young men, by keeping their hair neatly trimmed. When students went through rough times – socially, emotionally or academically – The Choir was always there to provide stability; to encourage and motivate them to focus, to work hard, to succeed. “Choir was an anchor for students seeking refuge from turbulent times . . . or turbulent homes,” says one 1973 alum. After the Kent State massacre on May 4, 1970, the entire JFK student body staged a three-day walkout in protest (one of the students that was killed in the shootings, Jeffrey Glen Miller, had just graduated from Kennedy the summer before; his mother was the principal’s secretary). But Choir members repeatedly crossed the “picket lines” to attend rehearsals for their upcoming concert. Their emotional, standing-ovation performance of Randall Thompson’s Peaceable Kingdom, only a few days after the shootings, was a major force in healing the community; living proof that music can unite and touch souls – even in the face of such terrible tragedy – as nothing else can.
At Ron Cohen’s final Choir concert in 1994, over 200 alumni from around the country came back to sing together one last time, a declaration of the powerful effect that music had had on each of their lives. But as it turned out, that concert would not be the last time we’d sing together. This March, a very special event brought 23 Choir alumni to Boston to sing together again – Ron’s mother’s 90th birthday party. Fran Cohen had long been an admirer of The Choir, and of her son’s work, and Ron wanted us sing to her as a birthday gift. So, alumni traveled from as far away as California, Idaho, North and South Carolina, Maryland, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Vermont, New Hampshire, Long Island, and New Jersey, to spend a weekend together and sing at Fran’s party.
The weekend was a great opportunity to reconnect with old friends, to socialize, and to sing some great choral music. But even more so, the weekend was a vibrant testimony to the lasting effect music has on peoples’ lives. We are now doctors, actresses, lawyers, engineers, businessmen, pastors, teachers, musicians, Ph.D.’s, M.D.’s – a pretty long list of distinguished alumni. But we all had one thing in common to talk about – The Choir. All of us held as our fondest memory of our youth the very same thing – The Choir. All of us had our lives, our goals, our ideals, shaped by the very same thing – The Choir. And within minutes, we were no longer strangers, but once again, close friends. As John Gould, an alumnus from the class of 1970, said, “with a simple hug and hello we were right back to where we left off.”
As each of us reflected on the contributions that Choir had made to our lives, we began to understand in a deeper way the importance of school music; and the tragedy that occurs when band, choir and orchestra are not made available to young people who might benefit from being in music as much as we did. We decided to try to put into words something that is truly intangible, yet also truly meaningful – how our experiences in high school music helped make each of us the people we are today.
Please, if you know of a school, an administrator, a parent, or even a colleague, who believes that music is merely “extra-curricular,” is expendable, is something that gets “in the way of” academics, please have them read what follows. There is no doubt about the lifelong impact music has made on each life . . . or about the impact music has the potential to make on a child’s life when given its proper place in a school’s curriculum:
I was actively involved in high school choir, although I participated in many other extracurricular activities as well, including student government, sports, clubs, and church groups. But no activity in high school, including time spent in the classroom, affected me as profoundly as did the choir. Music in high school, by its nature, is poised to provide a unique experience. Of course there is the music itself, but beyond the music there is a bond that goes far beyond simple friendship. The love of the music and of each other defies descriptive words, but for me the richness that the choir experience brought to my life molded me in ways that were unlike any other activity.
High school choir taught me about music, but most of all it taught me about human bonds. It taught me to strive to be at my best, and to allow others to help me with that goal as I helped them. When it was over, there was something wonderful and precious left inside. I have carried this with me every day since then, and my life is richer for it.
John Gould, M.D., Ph.D. (JFK Choir Class of 1970)
Surgeon, Assistant Professor of Urology; Davis, CA
Choir was much more than just making beautiful music. It helped me establish and confirm a set of values to live by: 1) Set the bar high when establishing your goals; 2) Focus and determination will generally make those goals attainable; 3) The group is more important that any one individual; and 4) Love and respect for each other is critical to success.
Some of my strongest emotions are elicited thru the listening and singing of music that was nurtured through the Choir. Choir served as my family away from home; Mr. Cohen was my surrogate father, teaching me lessons about how to live my life in a positive way. Finally, the friendships and love of fellow members of the Choir are still priceless.
Jack Yao (JFK Choir Class of 1975)
Vice President of Information Technology; Yorkville, IL
When I think back to my high school choir experience, the first thoughts that come to mind are of our choir’s most noteworthy accomplishments, such as our performances in some of the more prestigious schools and institutions around the country. But more important is that I am reminded of what it took for us to reach those heights – the seemingly countless hours spent in sectionals practicing and perfecting the balance, blend, intonation, diction, phrasings, nuances, shadings etc.
In my current profession as a software engineer, one of my key roles is developing various computer programs. On the surface, a program is a series of instructions intended to enable a computer to solve a problem or perform some task. Beneath the surface, there are a near-infinite number of possible approaches for solving a particular problem. Analyzing the advantages and disadvantages of each approach and determining the best solution entails much creativity and is an often rewarding (but sometimes frustrating) experience. Thus it is something of an art form, as is music. Developing a computer program demands a great deal of motivation, discipline, patience, perseverance, and attention to detail – these were the very skills I had acquired through the time I had spent in my choir sectionals years earlier.
Alan Neitlich (JFK Choir Class of 1980)
Software Engineer; Smithtown, NY
What choir did for me was provide a community of excellence. As we worked on the great pieces of choral literature, it inspired and motivated me to excellence in skill as well as in attitude. Choir also fostered a strong sense of teamwork that I had experienced in the sports teams I had been on; but on a much deeper level since we were working with things that go beyond physical skills and delve into the aesthetic. Participating in re-creating work of beauty is a powerful experience that lasts a lifetime. Being in the Choir definitely influenced my decision to train as a choral music teacher, and also helped me later on for working in the church as a pastor. I still pastor a church and teach in the schools today, and see the same principles of motivation and attitude work with people in the classroom, stage, or worship facility again and again.
John Heiss (JFK Choir Class of 1974)
Pastor, Middle School Choral Music Teacher; Martinsville, VA
I’m a journalist; I host the nationally syndicated public radio program “Here and Now” from Boston’s NPR News Station, WBUR. I’m also a George Foster Peabody Award-winning documentary film maker, and past jobs included sub-hosting the TODAY show and CBS THIS MORNING. I can say without hesitation that my skills were honed in my high school choir. There I learned a sense of dedication to something far greater than myself, both spiritually, and in the practical sense of blending one voice with many.
In this particular Choir, under the direction of Ron Cohen, I discovered my own fierce desire to be the very best I can be, and I met a choir director who demanded that I do just that! Perfect fit! I learned quality comes from hard, hard work; building an infrastructure upon which you can then “dance.” I also learned to listen, and to discern the difference between a chord that “rings,” and three separate notes.
Today, I can be bone-weary in an edit room, barely able to keep my eyes open, but some where deep in my cell memory is a reminder that all that hard work will pay off, spending the extra hour will make the difference between just getting it done and making it “ring,” and that ahead there will be joy in the job well done. It rarely approaches a (Mendelssohn’s) Heilig or a Vivaldi Gloria, but then, what else does?
Robin Young (JFK Choir Class of 1968)
Host, Here and Now, WBUR/Boston and PRI (Public Radio International); Boston, MA
I have been struggling to put into words the profound effect that being a part of Choir has had on my life. During my years in Choir, I felt secure and happy while singing like no other place in my life at that time. Certainly part of that was the profound sense of peace and joy I felt, literally, when surrounded by the music that we made.
I had much academic success in high school, and that gave me a sense of accomplishment and pride, but not the happiness that Choir and music gave me. For adolescents especially, a sense of belonging is paramount. Being smart doesn’t make one popular with one’s teenage peers; nor, in truth, even admired, perhaps even ridiculed. But sharing singing day after day, and working hard together to create beautiful music, built bonds (for me) that would not have occurred outside the choir room.
Could I have had the strength to endure and stay focused to accomplish my subsequent goals (of becoming a neonatolgist, for one), had I not had the choir experience? Reaching for Mr. Cohen’s exceedingly high standards, I certainly learned the power of hard work to achieve a seemingly unattainable goal. The book “Motherless Daughters” by Hope Edelman describes many women who have lost their mothers early in life (as I did), as unable to form deep attachments. In Choir, not only did I belong, but I could do anything. If I could sing Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “Mass in G Minor, create a magnificent chord in madrigals, or overcome the pure terror of singing “Heilig” in a circle surrounding the audience, I could do anything! I am certain that this was not a unique personal experience in the Kennedy Choir. It is not even completely unique to choir. Every adolescent needs to feel that they “belong” and certainly bonds are forged by any team members who work together to perform and compete successfully.
The difference between music and sports, however, is that the experience of music allows, that as years progress, one can easily take the ability to perform with you, and forge new bonds. I personally helped form a madrigal group at medical school which gave wonderful relief to the intense pressures of those years (especially when we wrote parodies of songs like “The Little White Hen” using medical terminology for lyrics!). I took jazz singing lessons in my 30s which lead to a wonderful friendship with my teacher, and led my own daughter to begin singing jazz at the age of five!
Having choir as the foundation of my teenage years has lead me to a life in which music is the touchstone in many of the happiest parts of my life. My husband (also a physician) is a fabulous pianist (and a great live-in accompanist); part of our common history was our strong background in making and appreciating music. It is also my great joy that this attitude is being perpetuated to the next generation: my younger daughter, now 16, also is passionate about singing and is a member of her high school chamber singers and of a student-run a cappella group.
To sum this all up: in my core, I am sure that I would not be the person I am today if I had not been part of the Kennedy Choir; the experience was that powerful and significant.
Laurie F. Konowitz, M.D. (JFK Choir Class of 1975)
Neonatologist, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics; Canton, MA
What did choir mean then? Lots of hard work, and at the end of it all, we created something beautiful, that seemed effortless, that has stayed with us all our lives.
What did it mean soon after? In college I studied in what was then the Soviet Union. With another singer and a musician (guitarist), we performed for our Soviet counterparts in a number of cities and republics. Although we were all fluent in Russian, we made more friends and connected with more people through the music.After college, I started out my career as a criminal trial attorney, and it may well be that the ability to perform helped me get up in front of juries [I now am a government attorney and serve as an associate director at the United States Securities and Exchange Commission in the Division of Enforcement].
What does it mean now? Seeing my children reap the benefits of having music in their lives. Remembering one evening when my teenage son said he felt "cranky," and that he just needed to play his violin to relax.
What has it meant throughout? That my life is richer for the music. But it also is richer because I shared it with unforgettable people like the members of the Kennedy Choir. And, as our recent reunion shows, those bonds will continue throughout our lives. . .
Antonia Chion (JFK Choir Class of 1972)
Attorney, Associate Director US Securities & Exchange Commission; Kingston, MD
Choir taught me about excellence. Taught me nothing is ever perfect, but one can always make it better. The most important lesson I learned was the power of a group as opposed to the power of the individual. A group, a team, can take you farther than you can go as an individual. This belief was reinforced by my experience at Harvard Business School. We were encouraged to form groups to do casework together. They explained that the collective wisdom of a group can solve a problem, understand the challenges faster and better than going it alone. I had no trouble sharing responsibility with members of my group because I learned in Choir that one voice "sticking out" was not as beautiful or rewarding as the balance of melding four parts to create something more. In the business world, I believe much of my success can be traced back to my training that the sum of the group’s parts is greater than the whole. I always believed that the wisdom of any group I was leading was better, smarter and faster at resolving issues than I as an individual could ever be.
Once you are a member of a high-level performing team, you try your best to duplicate the energy, the selflessness and the success in all other pursuits of which you are a part, even in other venues than music. I often referred back to my choir experience when teaching and sharing what makes a team happen: expect the best and demand the best each team member can produce . . . and they will.
Howard McNally (JFK Choir Class of 1971)
Retired; former Chief Operating Officer, ATT Consumer Division; Manchester Center, VT
Choir was where I first learned about having a family outside of my biological family, to laugh, to love, to feel safe enough to push yourself to do your best. It's where I learned to work together for a common goal, that hard work paid off in the end, to keep our eyes on the prize – the creation of beautiful music.
Dorrie Massaria (JFK Choir Class of 1971)
Real Estate Leasing and Management; New York, NY
In high school, I was hesitant about Choir at first, but clearly there was a camaraderie among the members of the group that was infectious and welcoming. Quickly I began to feel like one of the group instead of one of the new kids. I have been singing ever since – in each community I have lived in since college I found a group to join – from Master Chorales to small chamber choirs. The relationships you form by singing with someone are deep and indefinable. Having recently returned from a mini reunion of high school choir members (graduates from 1968- 1980) it's clear that those bonds do not dissolve with time.
Paula Rais (JFK Choir Class of 1971)
Outreach Director for The Children's Museum of New Hampshire; Portsmouth, NH
Choral music in schools is economical (built-in instrument), and requires little initiation to create a basic sound (if you can talk you can sing, they say). Long term, music education provides exposure to a universal form of communication that has been practiced by hundreds of cultures over hundreds of years in hundreds of languages. The benefits to individual students include the opportunity to function as a part of a team, in a team; and to participate in a form of popular culture that is well-received and understood by audiences of many different backgrounds and levels of understanding. Music as an existing component of education is a tradition that has enjoyed a strong following over a long period of time. Without it, a terrible void would be created.
William Forman, M.D. (JFK Choir Class of 1972)
Interventional Radiologist; Long Island, NY
Choir saved me from an abusive childhood. It gave me a “safe place” to be. Later, in the years when I sang professionally, I really knew how to focus and work hard because of how we worked as kids. But what it means to me now is a strong reinforcement of how important music is as part of the standard school curriculum.
When you see how it can draw us back together as many as 40 years later, to re-create these sounds together, like vibrating souls, perhaps; then we are the proof of that importance.
Christine Owen (Class of 1969)
Musician, Musical Theatre Instructor; New York, NY
For me, choir was the heart and soul of my high school years. It provided me with joyous sounds, tremendous accomplishment, lasting friendships and a sense of belonging. The love that we felt for each other, despite the long hours of practice, was the glue that keeps us connected and coming back even after all these years. Even with people I’d never met, as soon as we started singing, we were friends.
Deena Rand Stevens (JFK Choir Class of 1971)
Special Education Teacher, John F. Kennedy High School; Plainview, NY
From the first moment when I entered the Kennedy Choir rehearsal room I felt like I had found my “home.” I can describe in minute detail that room, even today. Music had become a big part of my life to that point and acceptance into the Kennedy Choir affirmed my burgeoning love affair with music. I was so moved by the Peaceable Kingdom that I hopped in my car, drove to Boston, called Randall Thompson from a payphone (I still can't believe he was listed in the phone book) and spent a magical afternoon with him discussing his career, my dreams and music. I left with all sorts of signed copies of music written and music not yet finished. Such is the power of music. I was drawn to it. I wanted to create it, sing it, perform it, live it. I once told Mr. Cohen that I have been searching for “The Kennedy Choir” (that mythical place) ever since leaving high school in 1970; I guess you could say that I found it in my own way. The seed that was planted in that rehearsal room, and at our performances, is today an ancient tree with musical notes hanging from its branches . . . as I have made music my life's work.
Eric Borenstein (JFK Choir Class of 1970)
Performer, Recording Artist, Arranger
Executive Director, Erie Philharmonic Orchestra; Williamsville, NY