Anyone remember the television show, Extreme Makeover - Home Edition? I confess, I loved that show. I know…the show had detractors. There was controversy surrounding how people were selected for the makeover. Some people couldn't keep up with the mortgage payments. For me, it wasn't about the families that received the makeover. It was all about the volunteers that came together to make the magic happen…in a week.
While the producers wanted us to make an emotional connection with the family, most of us missed the fact that each episode required nearly 3000 volunteers. Those volunteers didn't just give of their time. They contributed financially and shared their individual talents. No matter how large or small the family, the real impact of Extreme Makeover was and still resides with the volunteers. It is a life-changing experience when you give yourself to something that can change the life of someone you may, or may not know. Your only benefit is the rush that occurs when you have given your all. What makes moments like these unforgettable? You didn't just write a check…you physically participated and got to witness the results. You see firsthand how your efforts can make a difference.
Creating art is a lot like Extreme Makeover - Home Edition. At least it should be. Every Artistic Director I know, wants their concert performers to feel the same rush those makeover volunteers felt when they yelled, "move that bus." Performers want an audience to experience/see what they have spent their time building.
As I write this, I am putting the finishing touches on a performance titled: I Dream a World. It is a concert experience designed to let music open our hearts and minds to the world, and people around us. To let music put us in the place of a child being bullied or living in a war-torn environment and witness how compassion, and empathy can change how we see the world, those around us, and call us to action - to make a difference. To share music that speaks to where we are, and gives us hope in light of injustice, violence or persecution. To experience our deepest need to know love and feel peace.
If you're reading this, I would love to have you share this journey with the BeckRidge Chorale. But, I need to be honest. There is an audition. I test your vocal range, play some intervals (you will need to sing back), and ask you to do a very simple "sight-reading" exercise. (If auditioning frightens you, it shouldn't, we have a non-auditioned choir that meets on Monday evenings. Check our website for information.) The chorale is going to require your time, two hours per week on Tuesday evenings for about sixteen weeks - a total of 32 hours. Less than one week of full-time work spread out over four months. Most of us spend more than two hours a week on social media. Make this the year you spend less time liking or commenting, and more time living in the moment - making a difference. Now, I realize "stuff" happens and you might not be make all sixteen sessions, but I hope you will make every effort to be at rehearsal. Those around you are counting on you.
So am I.
I don't want you to do this alone…you can, but let me encourage you to get on your social media outlets and tell your friends what you are planning to do. Invite them to join you. It can be frightening to walk in to an environment where you don't know anyone. Don't let it be your excuse, bring a friend for moral support.
The BeckRidge Chorale and Cherry Hill Singers are a mix of volunteers from all walks of life. We come from different ethnic, political, and religious backgrounds. Like the volunteers in Extreme Makeover - Home Edition, we have different skill sets. Yet, we find great pleasure in creating beauty we can share. We want to create art that connects to our lives - that calls us to share our best selves. When we become willing to share our deepest thoughts, emotions and ideals with one another, we become a catalyst to inspire, motivate, connect, heal, and love.
If you are interested in making a difference in 2017, sign-up and let's talk. Along with some wonderfully talented people, I will try to help you perform at a level where you are not just yelling, "move that bus!," you are pushing it down the street so everyone can see the difference you can make.
One of the parts of my job I hate is saying goodbye to a singer. Over the last few years, the frequency of those farewells has increased in direct proportion to the average age of the membership. Today, I had to do it again.
Most of you didn't know Gene Tauriainen. If you did, you were truly blessed. He joined the BeckRidge Chorale about five years ago. He sang in our Tenor section. Michael, one of our bass singers encouraged him to join.
In September, prior to our first rehearsal of the new season, Gene called me to give me an update on his health. I assured him, we would find a way to work around any problems. When I walked into the first rehearsal, there was Gene sitting in his usual spot, in the back row. I walked up and greeted him. I encouraged him to move down to the front row to help ease some of the concerns he had shared. Gene was worried that if he had to use his portable oxygen, it would be disturbing to other singers. I tried to alleviate his fears but to no avail. He didn't want to distract anyone. I dropped the subject knowing Sharon, his back row partner, would be there to provide any help he would need.
The fall season didn't go as planned. Gene had talked with me a couple of times about how things were progressing - always positive but mindful that things were not getting better. Unfortunately, Gene wasn't able to sing our Christmas concert. He was hoping to make one of the performances but time wasn't on his side. On Christmas Eve, Gene left this world to join the Eternal Choir.
As the director of a volunteer choir, you often question if what you do is worthwhile. Are we creating beauty? Are we serving the vision of the composer, arranger and lyricist? Are we allowing ourselves to become emotionally vulnerable? Enough to truly touch hearts and minds? If we were gone, would we be missed? Am I meeting the needs of the performers and the audience?
Today, John and I shared in the celebration of Gene's life. Three of his grandchildren spoke of their love and admiration of this truly gentle man. I cried with them and sang with them. His family imparted how much he loved singing and the BeckRidge Chorale. Most importantly, they shared how he loved - unconditionally.
In his final days, Gene devoted some of his remaining strength to his funeral service. He determined what scriptures should be shared and the hymns we would sing. When I viewed the casket, Gene was wearing his BeckRidge tuxedo along with our pin showing two clasped hands and the words: Touching hearts, one song at a time.
Seventy-seven minutes after I had received word that Gene has passed away, another email arrived in my inbox, it read:
"It was been my absolute pleasure to sing with this group for the last 5 years. It has given me great, great, joy. Thank you for putting up with my Tenor voice; but you surrounded me with 11 others-who did better than I sang. A special thanks to-Sharon-whom has carried me all of these years. Thank you all, for all of your friendships. Until we sing again... Good luck at your next concert! Break a leg!"
Gene left this world with nothing left unsaid. His funeral service spoke to the importance of family, faith and love. His final email will forever remain a precious reminder of a man I greatly admired and affirmation that creating beauty through music is a worthwhile calling.
I will miss you, Gene.
On Tuesday night, after a rehearsal I wish had gone a little better, Rich said, "Do you know how thankful I am for having music in my life?"
Stephanie was getting ready to leave. I approached her and said, "This entire week, I have thought about what you said at our last rehearsal - taking ownership for not being prepared as well as you wanted to be. I want you to know the commitment you have, to bring your best to a rehearsal is just one of the things I love about you." She then told me, "we need to hug that out!"
Last night, Liam arrived for his 7:00 PM lesson. In addition to his mom, he had his friend Ahbi with him. Seems he didn't want to sing. He and Ahbi wanted help arranging a song for their upcoming holiday concert.
After eating the pizza Cara requested I pick-up on my way home, she handed me the score for The Marriage of Figaro…"want to look at it?" This will be her first leading role in an opera.
Just a few minutes ago, the bride and I finished a phone conversation about dinner plans for today. We really have an amazing partnership - instinctively knowing when the other needs help.
I am so very thankful for the opportunity to work with singers who search to find the joy in making music. I am thankful for those moments when I witness a young person, understand and keep commitments. I am thankful for every student and singer with whom I get to work. But my spirit soars when they bring me something outside the lesson or rehearsal that seeks to understand the process of creativity. I am beyond thankful when artists see that creating life changing moments is a collaborative and committed process.
I am thankful for those who share my passion for the performing arts. Those whose impact I feel outside of a rehearsal, concert or performance. The incredible angels that not only sing, pay membership dues and buy tickets, they keep the lights and heat on, the pianos tuned, serve on committees, help with fundraising events, and make sure we can pay the rent and staff. You know who you are. We would cease to exist, if not for you. I owe you more than I could ever adequately say or re-pay.
On a day when aromas from the kitchen re-kindle memories: I am thankful looking at lines and dots on a page puts voices in my head. I am grateful that a song title can bring back a flood of memories and sound. While I shall be eternally thankful for the two ladies who hold my heart: I am equally as thankful that God, in infinite wisdom, knew I would never truly know beauty and love without the arts.
In 1996, Hillary Clinton penned a book: It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us. While some may think a book written 20 years ago has little relevance today, I would like to offer a 2016 perspective from a Dad who had a child born in 1996.
First, my viewpoint is influenced by the fact that my wife and I had some real challenges conceiving Cara. After 7 years, various procedures and injections we had all but given up hope. She was and is a TRUE gift.
Sunday afternoon, I sat in a theater on the campus of Western Michigan University and reflected on the love and dedication of a village to bring the best out in a child. I had contacted one of her High School teachers to join me for the show. Sadly, at the last minute, due to illness she just couldn't make the trip. To my delight, prior to the curtain going up, Greg Jasperse, one of her college professors came into the theater. I invited him to take the empty seat next to me. We had a few minutes to catch up on politics and his work with Gold Company.
I don't want to bore you with accolades from the performance of Show Boat. You would be justified to view my observations as biased. (After all, my child is in the show.) But something happened at intermission. A former voice student at Western heard I was on campus. When I heard "Mr. Gross," I knew instantly who it was. I went to shake his hand but a handshake wasn't enough. Ryan gave me a huge hug followed by, "I'm learning some strange little things here that I know you would love." I quickly introduced Ryan to Greg by referencing one of Greg's compositions, one I thought Ryan would know. Ryan shared his admiration for the song. Ryan had no idea that the composer of a song he knows and likes happens to be a Professor of Jazz Studies at his university.
On the drive home, something came over me as I began to reflect on the events of the day. Had everything gone to plan, sitting to my left was one of Cara's current instructors, to my right would have been Cara and Ryan's high school drama teacher and all of us would have been experiencing the work of the Village. This is when it became emotional. I began to think of all those villagers with whom Cindy and I have entrusted our greatest love. I realized I should have told Greg how much I value the knowledge, skill, musicianship and dedication he works to instill in our child. I want Shannon to know the lessons she taught Cara and Ryan go beyond the hours she spent on her own time, outside the classroom. I want Dr. Kness to know her instruction and encouragement continues to shape a voice longing to be heard. I want Dr. Gauthier to know the gentle spirit and the beauty she shares extends beyond a rehearsal or performance, it gets instilled in the performer. I want Cara's dance teachers to know she still moves gracefully and with beauty. I want Madame Bellanger to know every time Cara sings French, it honors her devotion to teaching.
I want Grandma to know Cara will always remember you made every recital, every concert, every show, even when you didn't feel up to it. I want Sherrie, Keri and Tim to know she stands in the spotlight because you bought that special dress or costume, loaned and gave money when it was needed and cheered louder than appropriate. I want my BeckRidge family to know, when you let her stand on our stage and sing her first solo, you opened a door that allowed her to see the future.
Every time a child succeeds, we see a village at work. Every time a child struggles, a village rises to help. Every time a child can see their future, a village holds lanterns lighting the way.
If raising a child ever feels like a solo or duet, take a look around. Standing beside you is a village wanting nothing more than to help your child find their passion and purpose. Sometimes living in a village is tough. However, there is no greater reward than watching your gift to the village mold and shape the next generation.
Go hug an educator today. Call and thank a relative who is always there for you. If nothing else, go light a torch and illuminate the path for someone in your village.
I was standing on the 9th tee at a golf course. With driver in hand, it was my turn to match the efforts of my three co-workers. The cart path was lined with other employees and customers waiting their turn. When I hit the ball, it went about ten yards right, hit the biggest oak tree you have ever seen and soared into the cattails directly behind us. I remember the owner of the company, shaking his head as he got back in his cart and drove off to the next tee. If only I had continued to play golf after my uncle had given me his used set of golf clubs in my senior year of high school. I should have spent seven days at the range prior to the outing. Obviously, six days just wasn't enough.
I truly enjoy playing golf. Unfortunately, I am not as good as I would like to be. I play once or twice a year and ultimately embarrass myself. I understand why people don't enjoy playing golf with me - my scores are multiples of my age.
Usually once a year, one of my BeckRidge family members will arrange an outing. They know my skill level yet are kind enough to subject me to at least four hours of humiliation.
I can drive the ball pretty well. But, like the blind squirrel who occasionally finds an acorn, I rely on luck for the remaining shots.
I need to be fair to my golfing friends. While they do make a number of comments at my expense and to their shared amusement, they are consistent in offering suggestions and encouragement. John reminds me to keep my head down and remaining yards to the pin. Mike reminds me; John should be presented the Camel card. His last ball landed in the sand trap. While the three competitive golfers might be concerned about their scores and who gets bragging rights for the next year, I feel their real focus is on helping me. When I hit a terrific drive or make a great putt, these guys are my cheering section. I sincerely believe they would like nothing more than to help me shoot a lower score. In fact, they would like to see the day when I could beat them, making it more competitive for them.
I don't like my golf scores but I love those guys. They remind me why I love the performing arts.
I have yet to meet the perfect performer. Fortunately, I don't know a true artist who won't admit they are still working to improve their performance. I am constantly reading the latest book or article about the voice. Often times an author gives me new insight on a situation or problem one of my singers is experiencing. I have been blessed to work with some amazing choral directors. Thank goodness there are still others who have forgotten more than I know and are willing to share their successes and failures.
If you love performing, you will always be your own worst critic. However, the arts don't require us to be perfect. In fact, it is our own unique imperfections that make our "art" stand out from everyone else. Every singing and speaking voice is unique. We work to strengthen our weaknesses and perform to our strengths. We seldom hear ourselves objectively. Just as John recognizes I have a tendency to lift my head when I hit a golf ball. If not for John, I would not know I have that habit.
On the other hand, the arts do require life-long learning. I remind singers there is no magic key. There is no one person who has all the answers. There is no substitute for technique, commitment, hard-work, tenacity and a passion for communicating truth.
It seemed no one remembered me sharing a kiss with Patricia Penta on the playground in 4th grade. At the time, I thought everyone in the world had witnessed that PDA. Boy, was I wrong.
I remember the name calling starting in Junior High School. I sang in the school choir and performed in all the school musicals. I didn't understand why other guys didn't like me. They felt compelled to try and embarrass me in the halls or gym class - even waiting for me after to school to "beat me up." Seems that playing piano, singing and acting was membership criteria for the Queer club.
As a community, we had not yet named this behavior. In hindsight, I think it was encouraged to help societal conformity. Unfortunately for me, the only place I felt at home was in the arts.
As the old adage goes, "hindsight is 20/20." First, I was two years younger than most of the other kids in my class. I had started school in England. When we came back to the United States, my parents were told I was ahead of other kids my age. The district decided to "double promote" me. Second, by nature, I would consider myself somewhat introverted. School was relatively easy. Making friends was a bit more of a challenge – I was younger than everyone else. The arts had a natural bonding mechanism based on the need for "creative teamwork." The arts were my respite. Music gave me a voice I would never have found on my own. When I was happy the music continued to lift me. When I was in pain, I could find solace in lyricists and composers who understood my situation. If something mattered to me, I wasn't comfortable sharing it as a single student in a classroom. Put me in a choir and suddenly I knew a strong and eloquent voice, able to express feelings, experience empathy or look at my life and purpose in a new light. The arts reminded me I wasn't alone. Even when things weren't great at home, I had friends who were counting on me. I was important to them and they were important to me. I was connected to the world - not lost in my own thoughts.
I wish I could say the "bullying" went away as I got older. It didn't. But it did shape how I look at my students, singers and actors. Certainly not every student is an introvert or gay. It is individuality that gives each singer or student their own unique voice - literally.
As a director, I get to choose music or theater pieces important to me. Something I feel needs to be, or I want to say - to find common ground in our human existence. If the message touches me, I can be fairly certain someone else shares the same emotional space. Music helps me feel connected to the world of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Students and even adults can feel disconnected when they sense they may be different. I believe the arts offer a place where being different is accepted - recognizing our greatest need is to be loved and accepted – somewhere.
We were stopped at the traffic light at the corner of Wildwood and Cherry Hill Road. My Dad turned to me and said, "Don't worry about your mother. I will handle her. You just focus on your music."
Dad worked the midnight shift at the Ford Livonia Transmission Plant. Nearly every morning, he would hurry home after work to get me to school on time. We had moved the summer prior to my senior year of high school. Before we moved, Dad made arrangements for me to complete my senior year at Wayne Memorial High School so I wouldn't be forced to attend our rival high school across town. This morning's trip seemed like nearly every other - except the subject.
I had just received a letter announcing my acceptance to one of the finest music conservatories in the Midwest. I was beyond elated until my mother announced there was "no way in hell," I was going to study music let alone...out of state. I was devastated. Dad knew what I was feeling but he was never willing to argue with my mother in front of me. He waited until we were alone to let me know he would take up my battle and all would be well. You can imagine my relief.
On Saturday night, my parents attended his brother's wedding. Shortly after midnight, my mother came home and woke me up. Two of my uncles had taken Dad to the hospital. I hurried and got dressed so I could go with her. We left my younger brother asleep at home. We drove to Annapolis Hospital. When we arrived, the two uncles were gone. It left me and my mother in the Emergency Waiting Room. A short time after we had arrived, a Doctor came out, took my mother down the hall. He told her what was going on. When they came back, Mother went into the treatment area. When she returned to the waiting room, she told me Dad had suffered a heart attack. They were working on stabilizing him so he could be moved to Intensive Care. Mom told me to go the payphone and call my grandmothers and tell them what was going on.
In what seemed like an eternity, the Doctor and some nurses came from behind the curtains. Dad was on a gurney. They were rolling him toward the elevator. The Doctor said they were taking Dad up to Intensive Care and to meet him upstairs. Mom told me to call to my grandmothers and my uncle, her brother, and see if he would come to the hospital and sit with us. I waited for my uncle and then joined my mother on the Intensive Care floor.
Uncle Bill arrived pretty quickly. When we reached the Intensive Care floor, we saw my mother standing outside of a room. We joined her. Just then, the Doctor came out and told my mother, "the move to Intensive Care was more difficult than we anticipated. I'm sorry to tell you that your husband has died. Would you like to see him?" Thank goodness my Uncle was there. He was much better at consoling my mother. I was in shock. I don't remember what I was thinking other than I remember telling my mother, "I can't go in there." As she and my uncle entered the room, my Mother turned and told me to go call my grandmothers. Tell them Dad has died.
Stuart Gross had just celebrated his 35th birthday eleven days ago.
Needless to say, my life changed dramatically when my father died. A music conservatory was completely out of the question. Moving out of state was never going to happen. Saddest of all, I had lost my biggest fan. The one person who believed in me and the power of hope and hard work.
As I reflect back on that early morning, many years have passed. I have come to realize how Dad's death has ultimately and positively impacted my life. I see students and those with whom I create art through the eyes of my father – wanting to help foster and develop talent. Perhaps most important; help others see their potential, express themselves and fulfill their dreams.
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We share our love of the arts through study, practice and performance.
We strive to be educational, entertaining and inspirational.
We pursue excellence and professionalism in all aspects of our organization.
We seek to build fellowship on a foundation of dignity and respect.
We believe in community service through the sharing of talents and resources.