Over the last twenty years, I have worked with my colleague at Iolani School, choral conductor John Alexander. Up to last year, I accompanied only the Lower School Choir which sings for chapel every Friday, but last year I became the organ accompanist for the entire 150-voice school-wide chorus for their Christmas and Spring concerts. (I still play for the Lower School choir every Friday.)
Last night, the Windward Choral Society (under the direction of founder Susan McCreary Duprey) honored John with the McCreary Na Ke Akua Aloha Mele Award, given “to those in our community who embody the spirit of aloha and who have inspired, contributed, and provided enduring leadership in promoting the joy of music.” John was recognized for his work as a choral director, composer, performer, teacher, and leader in the choral community. I might add that he was also the leader of the 8:00 ensemble at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu for a few years during my husband Carl Crosier’s tenure.
There were many highlights of the sold-out gala evening at the Koolau Ballroom, including international music and dance of all kinds and especially memorable (and ear-splitting!) was the Korean dance ensemble from the Halla Huhm Dance Studio. I loved their colorful costumes!
I asked John if he could share his “acceptance” speech with me, so here it is for those of you who were unable to attend last night.
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen!! I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am to Susie [McCreary Duprey], Betsy [McCreary], the Board and the singers of the Windward Choral Society, and to my friends and family who have come here this evening, especially my belovèd baby sister, Barbara, and her husband Ernie, who flew here all the way from New Jersey. I would like to give a special mahalo and aloha to Wayne DeMello, Director of the Performing Arts Department at ‘Iolani School and the World’s Best Boss Ever; to Dr. Karen Neitzel, ‘Iolani School’s Dean of Curriculum who honors me with her presence this evening; and to the finest, kindest, humblest, most thoughtful and loving man I have ever known, my partner Alan Ramos, who, I promise you, deserves some kind of an award for having put up with me for the past 31 years! Am I right, Little Sister Barbara? Can I get an Amen?
We all have our own unique and interesting stories of how we arrived at these particular coordinates in the space-time continuum. I thought you might like to hear a little bit about mine. I’ll bet certain details will surprise you, such as the fact that I do not hold a degree in music, nor was it my major in college. As a matter of fact, when I graduated from high school, ironically, music was the one thing in which I knew I wasn’t going to major! But evidently God had other plans for me, which is the usually the way that goes.
When I sat down to write this speech, I planned to tell you the story of how I became interested in music. I was really having a ball digging into the old memory vault! However, at one point I realized I’d only gotten up to the 8th grade and we were already looking at 30 minutes’ worth of material… so… I’ll talk fast! I’m from the East Coast; I can handle that.
In 4th grade, I was able to take both trumpet and Chorus. I also joined our church’s choir. When I was 12, a colleague of my mother’s gave us her old piano, and my mom started Barb and me on piano lessons. Barb gave it up after a year, and instead focused on alto sax, and later, bassoon. I stuck with it. In 9th grade, we were forced to choose between Chorus and Band. It was a tough decision, but I picked Chorus!
In 8th grade, a message came to me from the organist at our church, St. Margaret’s; she had become ill but knew I played piano, and somehow decided that I was qualified to fill in for her for at a Lenten Stations of the Cross service. She didn’t give me any music, but assumed I could play the simple, repetitious song by ear. She was SO WRONG! I totally bombed. Crashed and burned! You might have thought I’d get it right eventually by the last station, but NO! It was a complete disaster, and I was devastated. This is just one of a long list of professional debacles that continues to this day: they could fill a large chapter in my memoirs. Fortunately for me, I don’t live in mortal terror of my next gigantic flop. Anyway, my mother decided right then and there I would start organ lessons, so I did: I studied from 9th grade through 12th grade, and became the organist for the 11:00 service, which alternated between a regular service with organ and a Folk Mass, for which I played guitar: No lessons, self-taught. Barb sang with me. Rockin’ out for Jesus!! I was an altar boy for 9 years. Some Sundays, I served at the 8:00 Mass. Every Sunday I sang in the 9:15 choir under the direction of Lovell Miller, my organ teacher, and then either played organ or guitar for the 11:00 Mass. Praising God through music has always been a huge part of my life, and it all started back in tiny little Homer, New York. As John McCreary would say, “God bless its little peppermint-striped heart!”
From Junior High through High School, under the direction of Donald Berg, I accompanied all of the choirs and sang in them as well, including an a cappella honor group. I was in every single play and musical throughout high school under the direction of William S. Whiting. After two years at Georgetown University as a Linguistics major (and the accompanist for the mixed chorus and a member of the men’s glee club), I switched to The George Washington University as a Drama major, with an emphasis in Musical Theater. I moved to Hawai‘i after college in 1978 to get to know my father better. My parents divorced when I was in 1st grade and my dad ended up here.
For my first three years here, I did word processing for a variety of law firms Downtown, which is how I had put myself through college. One day I was quite surprised to find myself fired. I realized right away that it was a sign from God – a real wake-up call – and that I should be involved with music and theater! The very next day, I read about an acting troupe who had moved here to start a professional theater, and went to offer my services. I ended up doing volunteer work for them. Sadly, their venture folded after only a few weeks. Their musical director/pianist offered me his job as accompanist of the Punahou Academy choirs, and I jumped at the chance. I worked there for one glorious year under Bob Peters, but it was his last year there, so I was let go. Shortly after that, however, the phone rang: It was John McCreary offering me a job at ‘Iolani School! Thirty-three years later, here I am!
Although I had had some informal experience directing choirs prior to ‘Iolani, it was really my apprenticeship with John McCreary that paved the way for my career and true calling. I had directed adults, high school- and college-aged students, but had never worked at the elementary level. (I teach grades 4 to 12.) John was a master of working wit’ Da Kine Kiddies, as he called them, and I sat there like a sponge watching him in action. He never could remember any of their names, though, so he gave them all hilarious nicknames, which, ironically, he could remember: Alfonso, Esmerelda, Bernadette, Bob, Bill, Barney, Blaine, and so forth. The only reason he could remember MY name was that it was the same as his. When he needed a bathroom break, he would always say, “I need to go to the room that bears our name!”
John made learning so much fun that the time would just fly by; I try to emulate that. Interestingly, today’s research into the process of learning has proven that in a jovial, relaxed environment, much more thorough learning occurs, and long-term retention is far better than when learning occurs in a stressful environment. Note to crabby teachers across America: LIGHTEN UP!
I started writing and arranging music back in 8th grade. However, it wasn’t until I met John McCreary that I suddenly became much more interested in it, because he was always writing and arranging. Most of you probably don’t know what a prolific composer he was. During grade level meetings, he was always composing things, scribbling furiously away. He would sit there for hours sometimes, focused like a laser on his manuscript, but every once in awhile, out of the clear blue he would chime in loudly, contributing his two cents to the discussion of a particularly difficult child. “HANG HIM!!” he would shout, much to the amusement of his colleagues.
Following John’s example, I started composing choral music, but got stuck quite often, which was very frustrating. Noticing my dismay, one day he gave me some advice which was completely liberating and has resulted in a steady, well, trickle, of published works. He said simply, “Just write something. You can always erase it later – that’s why we use a pencil!” Well, technically, he didn’t ever use the word “pencil.” He made up his own term. Perhaps you know it? Lignographite manual display generator. Everyone who ever sang for John knew that term. Let’s say it together: “Lignographite manual display generator…” Oh, how I miss him!!
After 10 years of team-teaching with me, John retired, but stayed on as ‘Iolani School’s organist. Even after he retired from that 5 years later, he continued as the organist-accompanist for the Chorus and Hōkūloa Singers, right up until his death.
I learned SO many things from John that could easily take up half a dozen chapters in my memoirs, and which have shaped my professional life: how to devise a concert program from start to finish, how to transpose hymns at the piano, how to arrange choral and orchestral music, how to keep a 4th grader’s attention and make him or her want to learn, and how to use “sesquipedalian circumlocution” – the use of big words to talk your way around a topic – for one’s own amusement. However, I think the most important thing John taught me was that an essential goal in life should be the pursuit of joy. I realize that sounds hedonistic and self-centered, but when you think about it, aren’t the most wonderful people you know filled with joy most of the time? A joyous person has much more to contribute to the world. So… what brings you joy in life? For John it was being with and taking care of his family, building his home theater organ and playing it, sharing his vast knowledge of many things with those who craved it, creating and maintaining his fabulous garden, cooking for his family, inflicting his wickedly funny sense of humor on an adoring—and often unsuspecting—public, writing and arranging music, and so much more… He was the greatest example of a Renaissance man I’ve ever known.
I’m still pursuing my joy. I’ve found a treasure trove of it sharing my life with friends and family; exploring Hawai‘i’s sublime natural beauty which often inspires me to compose; being around young people with all of their cheerful exuberance, dramas and aspirations; and to a large extent, creating and performing music, for which I give thanks to our Heavenly Father. This evening I have a brand-new source of joy: receiving this amazing award, just for doing what I love to do. God willing, I hope to keep doing that for quite some time, and I wish you folks all the best in your pursuit of joy! Mahalo nui!!!
John Alexander and Susan McCreary Duprey are the living legacy of John McCreary, about whom I’ve written many times. I just played John’s “Agnus Dei” from the Missa Puer Natus Est with the University of Hawaii Chorus in their concert last Friday night. Check out my post about John’s beautiful memorial service, Celebration John McCreary. And in a couple of weeks I’ll be joining Susie in Kona on the Big Island where she will conduct a performance of the Schubert Mass in G and Handel Messiah with the Kona Music Society.
Here is a video clip about the Windward Choral Society with Bernadette Baraquio’s “Living Local” program.