Artistic integrity is much more profound when it comes from a person who is perceived to be authentic. Teachers whose integrity comes from a place of empathy, understanding, and from not being particularly concerned with political correctness often have a lot of success in dealing with tweens and teens. The students see them as being “real.” One particular teacher stands out as my example of the importance of being who you are and doing what you do unapologetically, energetically, honestly, and with humility. You never know whose life will be touched by the simple act of being genuine.
When I was in sixth grade, I received an invitation to join the Greater Des Moines Youth Symphony. Even though I was the youngest player in the group, Mr. Brauninger (the conductor that year) steered me to a seat in the back of the first violin section and thus began my education in standard orchestral repertoire. We played “real” music, music that lived in another realm that I had not even imagined in my wildest dreams, music like Saint Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture and Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait (the program of the first concert I played with the group). I continued performing with the GDMYS through my senior year. There was a new conductor every couple of years or so, and when I hit high school, the new conductor was Sandy Tatge.
Mrs. Tatge was incomparable. I had never had a teacher like her. Ever. Or since. She was one of those teachers who impressed me multiple ways. To me, she was the Epitome of Coolness and Rad. She had long, gorgeous, curly, fiery red hair that was always perfectly controlled, but looked like it would run away and do its own thing at any available opportunity. She boldly wore purple, magenta and a host of other bright neon colors, regardless of how badly The Experts said it would clash with her hair. She accessorized! Where most female teachers wore scarves or bits of very understated jewelry, Mrs. Tatge had a purple cow pin that she wore religiously to nearly every rehearsal. We teased her every time she wore it, as teenagers are wont to do, and it became such a “mascot” for our group that we noticed (and teased her again) when she didn’t wear it. She was very good-natured about it and years later, I often thought that maybe she was just messing with us, to see what our reactions would be if she wore a different pin.
I would never want to intentionally embarrass Mrs. Tatge, but I hope that she doesn’t mind if I tell this story, because it has held such a special place in my memory all these years. One day after a summer chamber music rehearsal, she graciously agreed to go WAY out of her way to give me a ride home. She put the key in the ignition and … her face suddenly got this Look that said “Uh-oh, THAT was what I forgot.” Out of the speakers, which were cranked to window-rattling decibels, wafted not the classical stuff I expected, but classic rock courtesy of KGGO. My jaw hit the floorboard in absolute amazement. She looked at me, winked, turned down the volume a smidge, and said that we really SHOULD be listening to something more appropriate, more educational. But the station stayed where it was. That sealed it for me. I would Defend The Honor Of The Purple Cow to the death, if necessary. She became in that moment The! Greatest! Teacher! Ever!
I remember very little of what we performed in Youth Symphony, but I have never forgotten that moment of authenticity and how important it became a few years later when I started teaching.
To be continued…