My plan for tonight was to write about all of the usual stuff that I’ve been writing about, cancer, kids, politics, the meltdown and then I received news of the death of Brock McElheran.
It was my incredible good fortune to perform under the baton of Maestro McElheran for several years during college. Others will write about his accomplishments in music composition, writing and choral conducting. They will write of his experiences as a fighter pilot. They will write about the honor of performing under his baton as part of the Olympics at Lake Placid in 1980 or at the re-dedication of the Statue of Liberty in 1986. They’ll talk about premiering new works and Brock rehearsing groups to perform under the baton of others.
I want to tell you two stories. I started my college career at the Crane School of Music in 1985 at age 17. I was 8 hours from my family and l iving on my own for the first time as most college students are. Shortly after arriving I auditioned for Collegiates one of the choral groups at the school and much to my surprise I was accepted. This was a small group of singers and I and Brian Jackson (Hi Brian) were the only freshmen in the group.
We had our first rehearsal and in walked Maestro Brock McElheran. By this time he had been teaching at the college for 38 years and was near seventy years old. He was not a large man but filled a space with his presence. He informed us of his expectations for this group, we had rehearsal and he welcomed back old singers. Quite honestly I was intimidated and feeling out of my league. He made a point to speak to Brian and I.
“You!, I don’t know you! You need to stop me and say hello before we have our next rehearsal next week.” Rehearsal ended and I went on my merry way, living the life of a college freshman with all that you remember that entailing. I had walked by him once or twice in the halls but had not actually stopped to talk to him. Still intimidated I thought that talking to him between classes was presumptous.
Rehearsals for Collegiates were in the evening and we all usually wandered in after dinner. We settled in and suddenly “You!” with a finger pointing at me. “Yes Sir?” I responded.
“You didn’t stop by to say hello to me this week!” Then a big smile. After I got over being scared out of my mind I decided that from that moment on I would say hello to Brock McElheran.
I had the good fortune to be a part of the choir that celebrated the Crane School of Music’s centennial in November 1986. It was a “coming home” type of performance as we were performing at Lincoln Center in NYC, a train ride from my family and friends. This performance was a huge effort in coordination; two hundred choiristers, the New York Philharmonic, Sherill Milnes as a soloist and under the baton of Maestro Zubin Mehta.
Upon returning to the hotel from a day of rehearsal I was getting ready to go to dinner when Brock found me and informed me that a call had been received from my parents and that I needed to call home. This was before cell phones so I stood in the lobby of the hotel calling my parents with the assumption that they were confirming the performance that they were to attend. Instead I was told that my grandfather had died. Arrangements were being made. I was a mess, crying in the lobby. Brock had reached his dear wife Jane and comforted me. Jane took the phone, found out about the arrangements as Brock tried his best to calm me down. He found the great guy that I had been seeing at the time (Hi Tyson) and sent us off for a walk. When we returned a little while later Brock put his hand on my shoulder, expressed his condolences, told me not to worry about rehearsals and handed me an envelope.
In the envelope was the train information I needed to get home and more than enough cash for cab and train fare. When I returned I tried to pay the money back to Brock who refused and just reminded me to be ready for concert call on time, suddenly the maestro again.
50 percent of all music teachers in the state of New York and 20 percent of all music teachers nationwide earned their degrees at the Crane School of Music. Brock McElheran taught at the Crane School of Music for 41 years. I can’t begin to estimate the number of lives and careers that he touched.
Me? I decided that Music education was not for me but I have continued to sing in all manner of choirs throughout the years. Never have I worked under the baton of anyone else like Maestro Brock McElheran and I suspect that I never will.
Good-night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!