High Note

Tonight, Broadneck High seniors end one journey and begin another to the tune of classmate Brian Hoffman's graduation song.


Five hundred-fourteen seniors will graduate tonight from Broadneck High School in Annapolis, and there among them will be Brian Hoffman with his fingers crossed. Every graduate was allowed to invite eight guests, so the Show Place Arena will be packed. Because Brian is a showman who mastered stage fright through years in community theater, only those close to him will know he is anxious.

Many in his Class of 2002 might pray they don't trip crossing the stage to shake hands with the principal and receive their diplomas, but that will not be the thing worrying Brian. He will be awaiting the moment the room turns silent, the seniors in the chorus stand, and his fingers settle onto an arrangement of piano keys not long ago known only to him. Then the world will hear his song.

Brian calls his composition "Journeys," and getting it from his electronic keyboard to a baby grand has been a trip, to be sure. When he took the leap last summer, like any high school senior, he had no idea how much more he could learn - or how far he could fall.

What 17-year-old Brian was thinking the moment the graduation song came to him doesn't matter as much as what he was feeling. And what he was feeling that night last June was good.

His mother, Lori, a kindergarten teacher in Severna Park, and his father, Howard, who operates a wine-and-spirits store in Laurel, were asleep in the Annapolis house where Brian has lived his entire life. His 14-year-old brother, Marc, a budding poet, was still awake.

In the basement, with his curly black hair and the sharp angles of his thin face hanging over the keyboard, sat Brian. It was 2 a.m., the time his creative juices start flowing from his heart to his hands.

Brian looked forward to his final year of high school. He imagined going to the University of Maryland at College Park, and he dreamed, beyond that, of a career in opera. Thinking about leaving old friends and meeting new ones made him feel happy and sad.

He started to play. The melody his fingers made on the keys pleased him so much that he said to his brother, "Dude, you gotta hear what I wrote."

Marc liked what he heard - it sounded like something a music box would play - and he encouraged his brother to continue. Throughout the summer, Brian did. He carried the seeds of his song with him everywhere and planted the notion with his piano teacher, who offered to help. By August, when school started again, Brian had 75 percent of the song composed.

It was around then that the senior in charge of Broadneck's commencement asked Brian to sing.

Anyone who knows Brian could have seen this question coming. He had sung and danced his way through small productions to big, from non-speaking roles to leads. Everyone knew he could sing and dance, but few people, including Brian, knew how well he could write.

The biggest audience to ever hear his songs, the "little ditties" he never bothered to commit to paper, was 20 or so relatives at his Uncle Mitchell and Aunt Patty's Hanukkah parties in Silver Spring. Brian had shared original works with girlfriends, but the relationships fizzled and the songs that had bubbled up from them drifted away.

So when Brian volunteered to sing - and write - the graduation song, it came as something of a surprise.

Only once in the 22-year history of Broadneck High has a student composed and performed the song the seniors of the chorus sing. That was two years ago, when Brian's friend Jeremy Ragsdale wrote "Doorway to the World" for the Class of 2000. Brian had watched his pal wrestle with lyrics and a frantic senior-year schedule, yet all the difficulties he had witnessed vanished when his opportunity arose.

It was not until months later, with graduation just days away, that the reality of his offer knocked the breath out of Brian. He was on the school bus, sitting beside his brother, and the coloring must have drained from his face because Marc looked at him and said, "Hey, Brian, are you OK?"

Whereas Jeremy Ragsdale's graduation song was traditional, easily arranged for a high school chorus and easily taught, Brian's composition would be a more challenging creature to bring to life. Music teacher Jane Daugherty knew that the first time she heard his song.

But Daugherty has taught Broadneck students for 20 years and learned that young people rise to the occasion. She had directed Brian in community theater and knew him to be smart, intense, and madly devoted to music. "If you want to do it," she said. "Give it your best shot. What's the worst thing that can happen? You don't do it, but you learn something along the way."

Jeremy's father, retired from the Navy Band, had arranged his son's song so the school orchestra could perform it. Brian would have to accompany his piece on the piano. Jeremy had abandoned three- or four-part harmonies and a bridge. Not Brian.

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