PRATIE PLACE

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Les Choristes

Yesterday afternoon I was happy to get a call from a friend looking to play a bit after work. She came by and admired my well-populated birdbath and my just-completed gigantic weed-whacking job - the whole outdoors reeks with that nice new-mown-hay smell.

We went out to dinner and then saw "Les Choristes" (The Chorus), a French movie about a quiet middle-aged guy hired as prefect (a sort of overseer?) in 1949 at a postwar boarding school full of delinquent and orphan boys, many of whom had lost family in the war and were sad and angry and damaged.

The movie kept calling the prefect a "failed" musician but I found him to be brave, intelligent, and intensely classy. The boys insult him and test him but he does not quail. He responds with humor and steely equanimity. He decides to build a chorus and turns them into sweet constructive citizens.

Les Choristes was often compared to Mr. Holland's Opus. Although the two films are built to the same formula, I liked this one better.
  • It's not a Hollywood flick so the people look like human beings instead of replicants.

  • The cinematography is beautiful and the colors and lights and shadows are rich and subtle. The school - Fond de L'Etang, which I understand means "bottom of the pond" - is splendidly ancient and awful and its doors close with a weighty clank.

  • Gerard Jugnot makes Clement Mathieu - a plump, lost, introverted bachelor - way more adorable and sexy than the supremely irritating and obvious Richard Dreyfus could ever be.

This movie has of course been made and made again through the decades, to the theme from William Congreve: "Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak."

Yes, it does. And it does have the power to redeem kids who don't seem to be good at anything else, or don't have the heart for anything else. There's a kid who, when she gets a chance to play the oboe, will catch fire and practice for hours until her mother makes her stop. She will play with incandescence and make audiences weep and be a happy woman some day. But in a school without a music program, how will tomorrow's star oboist fulfill her destiny? She may end up discouraged and second-rate at something else.

It's just too bad the people that cut arts funding and ax music programs in the schools don't care ...

This year I've been chorus teacher at the local Waldorf High School. Some of the kids were as wild, angry, sullen, unresponsive, irresponsible, and destructive as the kids at Fond de L'Etang. They themselves told me they had "burned through" quite a few music teachers already, and I was warned they didn't care much for music and had embarrassed the whole Waldorf community at assemblies in the past. I too stood perplexed as (in essence) spitballs whizzed through the air. I did not have the poise of Mathieu.

My theory on taking the job was that the kids were rejecting the angelic model they were being held up to. They couldn't stomach any more uplifting, doggedly ingenuous and methodically optimistic music.

I was determined to find music that would engage their suspicious minds. We started with Tennessee Ernie Ford's "16 Tons." After months of ups and downs, they finally "get" what we're doing together. By and large, they sing lustily and sound fantastic.

Now I, like Mathieu, have been fired. My replacement has the Waldorf training I lack. I've never studied anthroposophy, for instance. (Anthroposophy - I dare you to understand it.) My being outside the system has been a sticking point all along, even though everybody is delighted with the way the kids are singing ...

Back to the movie. Mathieu did some things with his group that bugged me. For instance:
  • He selected one boy to be his soloist and that kid got all the solos and Mathieu conducted right AT him while the other boys sang "oo." I'm too much of a populist for this kind of favoritism. Spread it out! Let others have a chance to rise to the honor!

  • When he asked each kid to sing something for him, one of the littlest kids said "I don't know any songs," and Mathieu instantly put him up on a table and said "you'll be my assistant." And the kid never got to sing all through the movie. Wrong! Wrong!

  • When another kid brayed somewhat tunelessly, instead of trying to help him Mathieu said "you'll hold the music" and for the rest of the movie the kid stood in front of Mathieu being a human music stand. Wrong! Wrong!
Both of these kids could and should have been helped to be part of the group. They should at the very least have gotten a second chance. Or Mathieu could have spared some of the time he lavished on his beloved soloist to help the ones that needed help more.

I taught a class called "Songs for Non-Singers" - for adults who "can't carry a tune" or are afraid to sing - for more than twenty years and I'll tell you, my students remembered moments of being told to "mouth the words" or "you can be one of the angels, honey, just don't sing" with undiminished humiliation and bitterness whether they'd heard them fifteen or thirty or sixty years before. But that's for another post.

Update:I'm raising this comment by Phoenix up into my post because it's so lovely:
All children should be given the chance to be the stars whether they are or not is not of consequence. It is the fact that they had their moment to shine and stand out that matters. I remember when I was in high school one of my most memorable moments was when I got to do the only solo in a concert for the school. I played bari sax and it really is not a solo type instrument. But there I was in front of the school and all the parents with a mike in my sax and I actually pulled it off with no mistakes. My moment in the sun will never be forgotten.

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5 Comments:

At 6:38 AM, Blogger phoenix said...

All children should be given the chance to be the stars whether they are or not is not of consequence. It is the fact that they had their moment to shine and stand out that matters. I remember when I was in high school one of my most memorable moments was when I got to do the only solo in a concert for the school. I played bari sax and it really is not a solo type instrument. But there I was in front of the school and all the parents with a mike in my sax and I actually pulled it off with no mistakes. My moment in the sun will never be forgotten.

 
At 6:41 AM, Blogger phoenix said...

Oh and Hello! Michele sent me :)

 
At 8:00 AM, Blogger Waterfall said...

Wow, I wrote about this subject just the other day. It's here.

 
At 12:42 PM, Blogger Miguel said...

guess why i don't dance...

i want to take your "songs for non-singers" class... i really do. unfortunately, i've never even heard of it here.

great post (as usual).

 
At 4:30 PM, Blogger Lora said...

One thing that my mother did that I will be eternally grateful for and hope to do with my own children is she never thought I was bad at anything. If she didn't have something good to say she did say anything, but if she thought I did well then I was simply the best. She never let my performance get tied up with her ego or with the end product. I don't think she did this conciously. It's just who she is.

 

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