Applauding man who led tuxedo'ed sons in song

April 27, 2002|By ROB KASPER

DURING MY career as a dad, I have spent a fair amount of time on the sidelines of sporting events, rooting for my sons to score a goal, make a tackle, or catch a ball. The sports spectator role gives me great pleasure. But, as I was reminded the other night while attending the spring concert at my kid's high school, I am a sucker for songsters.

Slap tuxedos on them, put them under the bright lights, and let me hear their full-throated voices sing "Ave Maria" or "Shenandoah" and shivers run down my spine. After singing in a concert, either of my kids could hit me up for almost any amount of spending money. I was putty in his hands.

This week's concert was particularly poignant because it marked the end of the career of George Johnson, who, over the past 43 years, has directed choral groups in public and private schools throughout the state. Starting at Pittsville and Mardela junior-senior high schools in Wicomico County in 1959, he moved on to Brooklyn Park Junior-Senior High School in Anne Arundel County. He spent 21 years as choral director at Towson High School before moving to St. Paul's School in Brooklandville in 1987.

There, starting with a handful of promising freshmen, he formed the Upper School Singers in 1988 - a group that, at Johnson's final concert this week, totaled 71 boys drawn from all four high school classes. This June, at the age of 65, Johnson is retiring, handing over the St. Paul's program to Stephen Barton.

As one in a long line of parents who have witnessed the transformation of their kid under Johnson's tutelage, from a meek to a confident performer, I was curious how he has gotten kids, especially teen-age boys, to believe that singing in a choral group was manly and cool.

"Boys don't sing as easily as girls," Johnson told me this week, shortly after the concert. "Their voices mature more slowly. You really see it in the tenors, tenors blossom over four years."

You school them in the basics, he said. Then, he said, you coax them into believing in themselves, into taking the risk of performing in public.

When I brought up the question of "coolness," Johnson, a native of Oxford, N.C., chuckled in a soft, Southern laugh. "It has never been much of an issue. At Towson our slogan was `freaks, jocks, and preps all sing in the Towson choir,'" he said.

At Johnson's St. Paul's finale, Whit Bernard, a senior, spoke of Johnson's uncanny ability "to get jocks to sing" and presented him with a school jacket, adorned with a varsity letter, as a going-away gift from the group.

"Kids learn that when you sing well," Johnson said, "you can be as proud of what you are doing as if you play lacrosse well, or throw a baseball well."

The big battle, he said, is for the kids' time. To succeed, a choral program has to be a scheduled class, as it often is in the public schools, he said. He credited headmaster Robert Hallett with initiating such a program at St. Paul's. "If you value the arts, you have to make them part of the curriculum, not just after-school activities. Once school lets out, kids are pulled in so many different directions, you are never going to get them."

Johnson is also a big believer in road trips. While he was at Towson, choral groups traveled to New York and Raleigh, N.C., to perform. At St. Paul's he led upperclassmen on tours of England a few years ago and last month to performances in Prague and Vienna.

"Trips bring any group of performers closer together," Johnson said. "And that means you become tighter musically." The repeated practice sessions before the trip and the prospect of having to perform for an audience other than adoring parents hone the singers' skills, he said, resulting in a higher level of performance. "They know the notes so well, they can make music on the stage," he said.

Another benefit of taking teen-agers on the road is that it shows them a world beyond the vistas of Baltimore and the routine of high school. My teen-age songster, for instance, returned from his recent jaunt with the news that Europe was "old" but "cool" and that he was going back. When he told me that, I felt both proud and deprived. While he and his buddies were hearing their voices echo through the legendary Melk Abbey in Austria I had been in Baltimore, whiling away the afternoon in my basement.

"The acoustics of many of the halls we sang in in Europe were lively," Johnson told me. "But when they heard themselves in Melk, their jaws dropped. "

No jaws dropped Wednesday night in Brooklandville as Johnson wrapped up his career as high school choral director. Instead there were handshakes and hugs from beaming young men who were obviously comfortable in his presence, and pleased to work with him.

Then, because it was spring and a school night, the pace quickened. As stars twinkled in a dark April night, book bags and athletic gear were tossed into trunks, and cars headed home.

"It is crunch time now," said Johnson, remarking on the end-of-the-school-year pace. "It is one thing right after another."

Reflecting on his career, Johnson said, "Time passes so quickly."

It was a sentiment that struck home. One day it seems your kids are squeaky around the house in sneakers, the next they are traveling the world in tuxedos. I am just grateful that thanks to teachers like George Johnson, they have been lucky enough to learn that music can make that journey much richer.

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