David Bruce: Education Anecdotes

Mo Willems, author and illustrator of the Knuffle Bunny children’s picture books, grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana. Growing up was not always fun. When he was in the first and second grades, he was tormented by a bully, but he discovered that if he gave the bully a drawing a day, the bully would not beat him up. When he was in the eighth grade, he was cast as the male lead in L’il Abner, but the girl who played the role of Daisy Mae let everybody know that she would not touch him during the play, or before the play, or after the play. The play has a love song sung as a duet with Daisy Mae and L’il Abner; they sang it facing away from each other — not even their backs were touching. L’il Abner, of course, has big biceps. Mo did not, so the costumer sewed fake muscles into his shirt. Mo remembers, “Unfortunately, every time I lifted my arms, the muscles plopped down under my arms, so I looked like somebody’s grandmother.” He went to a prep school and drew cartoons for the school newspaper; however, one of his cartoons used the word “fart” and he had to write a letter of apology — he wrote that he “hoped the whole stink would blow over soon.” Mo liked and likes the Charlie Brown cartoons by Charles Schulz. Mo has said, “One thing I loved about Charlie Brown was that he was the only pop-culture star who wasn’t always smiling. I hated Mickey Mouse and his pals always merrily dancing around like they were on lithium. When Mo was five years old, he wrote Mr. Schulz to request that he be allowed to take over his job when Mr. Schulz died.

Actor Matthew McConaughey’s father would not allow him to say, “I can’t.” It was OK to say that he was having trouble doing something; it was not OK to say that he could not do something. As a boy, Matthew wanted to mow the lawn in the morning so he would have the afternoon to do other, fun things, but he had trouble getting the lawn mower started, and he told his father, “I can’t get this thing started.” His father corrected him: “No, son, you’re having trouble getting that lawn mower started.” Matthew asked his father to explain the difference between “I can’t” and “I’m having trouble,” and his father said, “Don’t ever say you can’t do something. That means there’s absolutely no way to do it. If you can’t do something, how are you ever gonna fix something? How are you gonna figure the problem out? How are you gonna ask for help? You’re gonna have trouble doing a lot of things in life, but they can be done. If you say, ‘I can’t,’ that means there’s no solution, you’ve given up, you’ve quit. But if you’re ‘having trouble,’ that means that even though you may not know at the time how to solve the problem, you know there’s a way — you’re just having trouble. Let’s figure it out.” His father then examined the mower and found a loose gas line. He tightened it, and the lawn mower quickly started. Matthew said, “Thanks,” and his father said, “Sure, little man. You were just having trouble.”

Often, older musicians help educate younger musicians. Al Hall was seventeen years old, and he enjoyed showboating with the bass. Often, he would spin the bass and slap it and straddle it. Mr. Hayes, who played bass with Charlie Gaines’ band, respected music much more than showboating, and he told young Al, “Son, when you’re spinning it, you’re not playing it.” Mr. Hall said later, “From that point on, I stopped.” Chick Webb also respected music much more than showboating. A young Art Blakely did a lot of showboating while playing drums: waving his arms in the air and twirling the drumsticks. Mr. Webb said, “Son, the music is on the drum, not in the air.” Mr. Blakely recalled a lesson he got from Sid Catlett about drinking. Young Art had a bottle of whiskey in his coat during a show, and he drank the whiskey through a straw and thought that he was hip. After the show, Mr. Catlett gave him a hug, but when he felt the whiskey bottle, he knocked the young Art to the ground and told him, “Learn how to master your instrument before you learn how to drink. Next time I catch you, I’ll break your neck.” Mr. Blakely said later, “So this stopped me from drinking. It helped me, and I never got angry with him.”

One of opera singer Clara Doria’s teachers when she was young was Ignaz Moscheles, who had some definite ideas about playing the piano. Whenever a student had a finger improperly placed, he would catch the finger as if he were catching a fly. He also disliked the wearing of rings while playing the piano. Whenever a student wore a ring during a lesson, he would remove the ring and deliver a lecture on why piano players ought not to wear rings. The result, of course, was that his young students would borrow as many rings as they could so that they could wear them during lessons. Another very human trait he had was that he liked his own compositions. He once told his students, “Why do you spend your time in studying this meretricious modern stuff? You should confine yourselves to Bach, Haendel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Me.”

Maria Elena Salinas is a TV news anchor and a columnist. Her father is an intellectual who has influenced her. He knows six languages and has a doctorate degree in philosophy; in addition, he always carries a book with him. She once asked him what he was doing, and he replied, “Studying.” She asked, “Studying at your age?” He replied, “Of course. You never stop learning.”

Jazz musician Joe Lopes filled out a form incorrectly at a New York City bank, and the woman who pointed out the error to him made him feel put down, so Mr. Lopes said to her, “If you’re so smart, what’s a C-seventh?” The woman replied, “C, E, G, B-flat.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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