Leaving a legacy of music

Teacher: Beverly Bruening is marking her retirement from teaching for 39 years with a production of `Oklahoma!,' which she starred in as a teen.

March 24, 2003|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

It has been some time since Beverly A. Bruening graced her high school's stage to star in Oklahoma!, the musical.

She was a bright-eyed teen-ager then, not the music teacher in the back of the dark auditorium, mouthing the words to the showstopper she once belted to great applause.

Now, Bruening, 60, proudly eyes Oklahoma! characters Will Parker and Ali Hakim and, the character she played, Ado Annie. She pays attention to poor diction, singing that is under pitch and other imperfections. She mouths the words, recalling her youth and her career, and knows this is it. Her last show.

Bruening is retiring after 39 years of teaching Dundalk teen-agers - mostly as the music teacher at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts - to sing, dance and star in musicals.

There have been numerous awards for the school's choir and many trips to Broadway, not to mention the hundreds of times she has told students, "You have so much great potential, and I want to help you fulfill it."

"I'm certainly not going to be remembered for being rich, for having money, but I hope I've brought a richness to the kids," Bruening said during a final rehearsal last week in the Patapsco auditorium.

"I hope they have a song in their heart, that they'll have music all of their lives, or fond memories. I know I will."

It is hard for Bruening to tear herself away - "I'm having withdrawal, with the potential of some of these kids," she said. But she wants to see the world "without seven busloads of kids following. I just want to do some things for me."

But the imminence of her departure clangs like an off-key note around Patapsco, which is one of Baltimore County's arts magnet schools. Bruening has taught vocal music there for the past 20 years, led the award-winning show choir, coached barbershop quartets and directed the annual musical.

"There's not many people in your life who you have total respect for," said Jordan Hadfield, a senior at the school, who plays Ali Hakim in the musical.

When Hadfield was a slacker sophomore and hanging out with the wrong folks, Bruening took him aside for a talk before class and later talked with him for two hours after school.

She told him he had a lot of potential, and she wanted to help him reach it. "But you have to help me," he recalled Bruening telling him.

Now, Hadfield is waiting to hear whether he has been accepted to Harvard University.

Patapsco's principal, Fred M. Prumo, laments Bruening's impending retirement. "What a void," he said.

No replacement

The school is looking for a replacement, while training faculty to take up some of her roles. "There are some people who leave their fingerprints, and you shouldn't ever remove them, and we shouldn't remove hers," Prumo said.

At the high school, Bruening has the influence of a successful football coach.

She is the one teachers turn to when students aren't doing homework or speaking out in class; she is the one who tells the teen-agers to stay away from rehearsals until their grades improve.

Her perennial champion show choir, which is called Great Expectations, has sung "America the Beautiful" at the past two inaugurations of Maryland governors and once sang back up for Barry Manilow on his hit song "Mandy."

It regularly wins international competitions, and Frank Ambrosino and his wife couldn't wait for their son, Brandon, to reach the age for a tryout.

"Since my son was born, he's been singing and dancing, and his entire life we've looked forward to him hitting Patapsco, knowing that Great Expectations would be a part of his life," says Frank Ambrosino, who is president of the Vocal Music Boosters Club at Patapsco.

Ambrosino, 47, was one of Bruening's students at Holabird Junior High School in Dundalk, where Bruening first taught.

Except for her college years in Pennsylvania, Bruening has spent her life in the Dundalk area, being taught music or teaching it.

Her parents were farmers with a musical bent, singing "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" to young Bev and enrolling her, at age 6, in accordion classes.

She often played in front of Yeager's Music Store in Highlandtown, and she danced on The Buddy Deane Show, the American Bandstand-like television show produced in Baltimore.

Shaping of career

Bruening said her music teachers at Golden Ring Junior High and at Kenwood High steered her to a career like their own.

They encouraged her to go to teacher's college and pushed her to become all-state in choir. Her high school teacher gave her the role in Oklahoma!

It is the memory of playing Ado Annie that fills Bruening's head as she watches her final rehearsal. Bruening specifically staged Oklahoma! as her last show because, as she said, "It's kind of sentimental."

The memories

While noting the mistakes in the show that would need to be fixed before the official performances, which ended yesterday, Bruening recalled the times she had when she was the young star.

She remembers how jealous she was every time the male lead, Curly, kissed Laurey, the female lead, because Curly was played by her boyfriend at the time.

She remembers her best friend, who played Will Parker, Ado Annie's suitor.

And she remembers the cast party at her music teacher's house, the laughing and talking and reminiscing about the performance.

Recently, during the dress rehearsal in Patapsco's auditorium, the rising chorus of "Oklahoma!" stretched to the far corner, where Bruening was sitting.

She mouthed the words as her students sang, "Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain."

The song was about to end, the curtain about to drop, and Bruening whispered the final verses along with her charges:

"And when we say/Yeeow! A-yip-i-o-ee-ay!/We're only sayin'/You're doin' fine, Oklahoma! Oklahoma - O.K!"

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