Tuesday, April 29, 2014

What I learned about being a good teacher from Dr. Browne

Dr. Douglas Browne is retiring this year after 33 years as choir director at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.  This last weekend, I flew back for the tribute concert in honor of his retirement, along with Peter, who was taking a look at the college.  And we visited with Daniel, a current sophomore.  It was a joyous, draining weekend, capped by a concert at which 220 alumni joined current choir members and maxed out the capacity of the stage.  Facebook has been buzzing with activity ever since.

When I first arrived at GCC in the fall of 1985, I was a painfully shy and insecure Literature major (Communications and French were in there too).  I actually got to know Mrs. Browne before Dr. Browne, since she was the faculty advisor for the campus pro-life group.  She modeled hospitality, generosity and genuine friendliness to all students who came her way; I took this for granted, because I was used to it from my own mother, but in retrospect, this is a rare and beautiful group of qualities and I wish I had expressed my appreciation for it earlier.

Although there was never a time in my life that I did not love music and singing, I found it terrifying to audition for anything.  I mustered up the courage for "Carnival" freshman year, and the children's theater production of "H.M.S. Pinafore" my sophomore year.  It was after this that I knew it.  I would become a choir groupie, whatever the cost to my anxiety levels.  You could sign up for Baccalaureate Choir and stay for graduation, without an audition.  I took this path, and then signed up to audit choir in my junior year.  It wasn't until my senior year that I joined Touring Choir, the elite group.  It was perhaps the biggest boost to my self-confidence I've ever received, and Touring Choir rehearsals became a highly-disciplined, hard-working foretaste of heaven.  It was truly a highlight of my college career; and in 2005, Steve and I were fortunate enough to sing together with an alumni choir group in  a tour of the British Isles.  Once again, a taste of what heaven will be like.

Dr. Browne is the kind of director who expects singers to read music and make progress in sensitivity of expression, whether they are music majors who have taken more than a decade of lessons or kids who gave up on piano in middle school and only sing along with the radio.  The instant you sing through the first song in your first rehearsal, you have to sit up straighter and step up your game several notches.  If you want to stay, you learn the subtle signals: the raised satirical eyebrow that says something about the pitch isn't right; the hand motions that shape the line of music; the downbeat, the cutoff, the "back it off" light fingers.  And you want to stay, because not to stay is nearly unthinkable.  It would mean giving up the music, the high standards for music that open a whole new and beautiful language to you, but at the same time ruin you for anything less than perfection (or at least, near perfection).

So, fast-forward 25 years.  Although I am a language teacher rather than a music teacher, I have to pay tribute to Dr. Browne for being one of the teachers who most influenced me when I found myself, unexpectedly, teaching middle school Latin.  Here is a partial list of what I have to thank him for:

  • High standards and high expectations.  No apologies for being a demanding teacher, seasoned with a huge amount of humor and a sense of being in it together.
  • Relentless egalitarianism and a lack of judgementalism.  Music majors and everybody else were on the same footing.  I have the kind of voice that blends pretty well in a choir, not a prima donna voice.  It's the musical equivalent of being a B student who works hard.  And I have to love my own B students who work hard.  Dr. Browne is the kind of teacher who, at Robert E. Lee high school in Texas at the start of his career, once gave the role of Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music to a gangly black kid when that kind of thing just wasn't done.  Why?  Because he had the best voice for it.  I had never heard this story before last weekend, and I was very moved by it, but not surprised.  It was in character.  Physical disability or other special needs?  Make the adjustments you have to do and move on.
  • The task-focused nature of teaching.  When you teach something as complex as music, or an ancient language, the sheer content required to achieve proficiency is daunting.  The only way through it is to be fairly businesslike, and break down monumental obstacles into smaller skills.  You work on a variety of little things in each class period so no one gets bored, and at least once you have to let people see the big picture so they'll know how cool it is.
  • There is always a deeper layer of meaning in a song, or a piece of text.  Each time that you revisit it, you will find something more, and richer.  Students appreciate being let in on the meaning even if they can't fully master it at that point; they will remember the richness and revisit it themselves later on.
  • Some things, you have to let go.  No performance (or class) can be perfect in this life, and you can only do your best and be gracious about the occasional misstep.  With maybe a subtly raised philosophical eyebrow, you go on.

Thank you, Dr. Browne.  May you enjoy "lots more time with Susan" and at least another third of a century of eschewing mediocrity.


Unknown said...

Thanks for capturing so much of Doug's spirit (and Susan's) in your words. My story is very similar to yours, and it resonated with me.

Kim said...

I love this! I know I missed a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I find it very comforting to read others' reflections. The biggest thing that resonated with me about DB is his extremely high standard. I can remember so many times hearing him say, "That was the best you've ever sung that." followed by "Next time I expect it to be even better" or "Will that level ever be good enough again? No, now I know you can be even better."
He was certainly a taskmaster, but he made us WANT to meet and surpass his expectations. Not everyone is capable of that kind of inspiration. :)
Thank you for sharing this on Facebook!
Kim (Hansen) Safritt, TC Alum, Class of '06