God bless Mrs. Poynter! She was a perky young teacher that I had in ninth grade, and thank goodness she had some amount of artistic leanings.
One day, as part of our assignment on something, she told us we would be watching Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story. Now, personally, I feel this is one of the great works of the 20th Century. Growing up, I had the album at home and I had listened to it many times with only the LP album art to clue me in on what the characters looked like.
But Mrs. Poynter changed all that.
The janitor wheeled the TV and VCR into our ninth grade room one afternoon, and the lights were turned out. Everyone was glad we weren’t doing some kind of silly work, even if it was a boring musical. For me however, it was a life-changing experience.
From the first moments of the film, the high whistles and the mysterious percussion bring a sense of mystery. To be honest, we all giggled when the tough guys started ballet dancing, but it was the music that hooked me. Still when I watch or listen to the first numbers before and during “When You’re a Jet” I love the flowing sax and string lines intertwining with larger orchestral melodies. It builds and flows, and carries the performers along like they are in a river.
Then later when an old style march transforms quickly into a tumultuous mambo, Bernstein really gets going. One minute the strings and woodwinds are plodding along in a very honky traditional fashion, then Bernstein somehow devolves into horns blaring the stabbing lines of the Latin number. Everyone yells “Mambo” and it’s off to the races.
But still the defining moment is coming. A moment that makes me realize I may be a little different from my fellow students.
The song “Maria” begins with a very 20th Century and now classic melody. Through the song, kind of like Tony knowing “Something’s Coming” earlier, I was hearing this genius melody (and lyric, “say it loud and there’s music playing, say it soft and it’s almost like praying”. Wow, nice Sondheim.) But towards the end, when the entire key changes for the tag (“The most beautiful sound I ever heard…”), then Bernstein writes the notes that forever changed me. “Mari-a.” Ending back on the third of the original key. Gasp.
A chill went up my spine that day. I might have cried, don’t remember. I hope not because that was the year I finally got that bully off my back.
But I DO remember looking around at all the other kids. They were sleeping, or pulling each other’s hair, or staring off into space bored. They were NOT having chills. They were NOT on the verge of tears. Those notes meant nothing to them. Those notes would not stop them in their tracks anytime they heard them the rest of their life.
That’s when I knew I was different. I wasn’t writing songs yet, or even singing (although I was playing trombone in band), but I knew “something was coming”. I was headed for a life that had to do with notes, chords, and orchestration like Bernstein wrote there.
WHY THIS MATTERS:
We all had a teacher, a parent, or someone that inspired us, or helped make a connection to something that drove us more into music. Mrs. Poynter was certainly not the only music influence, or maybe the most important music teacher in my life, but this incident I will always remember.
Do you have an incident like this? If so, share it below.
John Eric Copeland is not a real musicologist, but he does play one on the Internet. For more on his unique twist on Music History and why it matters today, subscribe to this blog or join us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn!