The brass fanfare introduction to Pomp and Circumstance raises the hair on my arms and brings an unexpected tear to my eye, every single time. There’s just something about the anticipation of music that’s so familiar it verges on the trite, yet so evocative that it reaches down and pulls on your heartstrings no matter how many times it’s played.
At some point during my teaching career, my colleague and I decided it would be a cool idea to invite the eighth-grade string players to sit in with the high school orchestra when they played for graduation. It became a rite of passage—the seniors dressed in their caps and gowns got up after the last orchestra piece in the prelude to join their classmates in the procession. The eighth-graders, nervous in their black slacks and crisp white shirts, not yet wearing the formal gowns and tuxes of the high school orchestra, would walk onto the football field and sit in the chairs vacated by the seniors. I would wait with them along the sidelines and then get in my car to go home, leaving the windows open so I could hear the opening measures of Pomp, knowing another class of string players was being welcomed into the orchestra, just as the seniors were being welcomed into the world beyond Dallastown. I always left the campus with tears in my eyes, especially the last time, which was six years ago.
The high school orchestra director can only be described as a formidable presence. He is passionate, brilliant, volatile, and was born to wear white tie and tails and stand in front of an orchestra. There is rarely a filter when he speaks. He loves to be in the spotlight and is in his element directing that magnificent graduation orchestra before the biggest audience of the year. He walks out onto the podium on those beautiful early June evenings and you know you are going to hear something incredible. These are high school students playing at a world-class level, thanks to the leadership of this man.
This week would have been the last time he directed the high school orchestra at graduation because he is retiring and moving on to a long-anticipated life of travel and leisure. This was to be his last round of playing Pomp and Circumstance over and over again until all the seniors were on the field. I kept thinking about him, wondering if there would a be a lump in his throat when the final notes of the recessional died away, knowing he would never have to yell about those up-bow triplets again or keep a bag of clothespins nearby to keep music from blowing off the stands. I wondered if all those people in the stadium seats would realize what a legacy he has left in this community. Not only did he inspire students to become music educators, performers and lovers of great music, but he showed all of us, students and colleagues alike, what it means to have high expectations, and that we can play it better than we think we can—that, despite our doubts, those expectations are attainable.
Sadly, my long-time colleague is not going be on the podium for graduation this year due to a sudden and serious health challenge. But I know he will go after it with a vengeance. He’ll make this disease cower in fear of him just like he did that poor kid in the second violins who wasn’t watching and missed the entrance. He will fight and bitch and swear and make the medical people laugh and occasionally want to bang their heads against the wall, just like he did with those of us who worked with him for so many years. He’ll yell until he gets what he wants and ask any administrator–he always gets what he wants.
I assume the eighth graders still join the high school orchestra at graduation and that it remains a meaningful rite of passage for those young string players. I’m sure the band director will step in and do a spectacular job conducting in difficult circumstances. But graduation in this little community will never be quite the same again without The Maestro on the podium, baton poised and ready, eyes laser-focused on the trumpet section as the first notes of Pomp resonate across the field and the seniors begin their march.