by Henry "Hank" Stark
Ithaca College's classical music programs are -- and I say this completely without hyperbole -- absolutely indispensable to my cultural life. But I need to be honest with you: My enjoyment of the output of the School of Music has been compromised by strong, intermittent feelings of guilt.
I came back to live in Ithaca in 2000; I'd obtained my undergraduate degree at Cornell years ago and wanted to return to the area for retirement. I'd been living in a suburb of Hartford, Connecticut, midway between Boston and New York, and so had been fortunate to hear many top-quality orchestras, chamber groups, and soloists on a regular basis. I was convinced that coming to "centrally isolated" Ithaca was going to be a huge step down the cultural ladder. I knew that Cornell University and Ithaca College hosted visiting artists, but I guessed that those concerts would be few and far between.
As I sampled the musical fare at Ithaca College, I was amazed by the quality of musicianship of the many student performance groups. I became a regular at concerts of the symphonic band, wind ensemble, concert band, chamber orchestra, and symphony orchestra, as well as many faculty solo and ensemble recitals. During the school year I found myself on South Hill as many as five times a week -- driving almost 20 miles round trip to attend performances.
At each free concert my sense of guilt grew; the more I enjoyed the music, the guiltier I felt. Why? I was reaping the artistic benefits but wasn't paying a dime. I wondered, how could I relieve myself of the guilt if the College refused to charge for admission? No one else was aware of my increasing conflict. I decided to seek professional help.
I learned that a dean named Arthur Ostrander oversaw the IC School of Music. I called him and requested a meeting. He was receptive, even though he had no idea that he was about to become my surrogate psychiatrist. At our first session I explained how conscience-stricken I felt about enjoying the wonderful music he was indirectly responsible for making available to me. I told him it was imperative for me to assuage my guilt by giving something back.
Perhaps, I mused, I could make a contribution to the School of Music? The dean, a quick study if ever there was one, picked up immediately on my problem and agreed that he would be willing to accept some money from me on behalf of the music program. Being a rather quick study myself, I saw that we could both benefit from this solution.
But the story doesn't end there. During our conversation I had revealed that I was a proficient piano player with an abject lack of knowledge of music theory. Dean Ostrander suggested I audit a theory course.
I jumped at the idea. At first it was difficult being three times older than the next-oldest student in the class. The other students, I think, suspected me of being a spy for the teacher. But eventually we developed a wonderful relationship, com paring homework and test results, and I learned a lot from Professor Marge Porterfield.
One music course led to another -- and then another. Four semesters flew by. I had never played in a band or orchestra and had always wondered what it would be like. I asked the dean if I might attend rehearsals with a performance group from the first day through to the performance.
Ostrander lost no time in conferring with Professor Mark Fonder, director of the concert band. Before long Fonder was providing me with the scores of all the musical selections they would be playing for the concert. He introduced me to the band so they would know why that strange older man would be sit ting behind the percussion section in a re hears al room every Tuesday and in the fifth row of Ford Hall every Thursday. The students in the concert band were terrific. They answered, or tried to answer, all my questions, such as
- What's the difference between a cornet and a trumpet?
- Why do trumpet players use scores written for cornets?
- How does a timpanist adjust the skins on kettle drums?
- What's the difference in pitch between a tuba and a euphonium?
[Test your music savvy --then, see Answers.]
They were patient with me and fun to be with. I loved the music, was learning from the rehearsals, and liked interacting with the students. Although I never played with them, I am without a doubt a much more informed listener because of the classes and rehearsals.
However, just knowing how valuable this experience was caused my old problem, guilt, to resurface. What could I do?
I had noticed that IC students spend most of their time in just a few locations: campus, dorm, Wegmans, Pyramid Mall, Collegetown, and downtown Ithaca -- all within a few miles of each other. Be cause I love the countryside around Ithaca I wanted to expose them to the culture and natural beauty outside the immediate area, so I thought I could kill two proverbial birds (my guilt and their unfamiliarity with the area) with one stone.
I suggested to Dean Ostrander that we take the band on a trip to a new cultural experience. I would pay for the day, including buses, lunch, and incidentals. I was so happy; now I would wipe out my guilt with one easy check-writing swoop of my pen.
But it wouldn't be that easy. Ostrander, Fonder, and I soon realized that many great regional musical venues such as the Binghamton Opera, Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, and the Skaneateles Music Festival were quiet during the school year.
Then Fonder had an inspired idea. He contacted his former student and concert band member Diana Cassar-Uhl '96, a staff sergeant who plays clarinet for the U.S. Army Band in West Point, New York. A plan was hatched. The concert band would take a bus from Ithaca to the U.S. Military Academy and each band would play a concert for the other. In addition, they could break into sections and play together -- e.g., clarinets from each band would combine.
Time grew too short this year, so we're working on it for next year in an expanded form: each band might play a public concert at the other's venue. As I anticipate how many people could benefit from this ex change, I've noticed my guilt feelings are diminishing.
To keep guilt in its proper place I continue to make modest annual contributions to the School of Music. I'm so liberated that I'm able to attend and en joy wonderful concerts in Whalen Center this year -- as many and as often as I please.
Henry "Hank" Stark is a freelance writer and a regular columnist for the Ithaca Journal. He guest lectures on marketing topics at Cornell University and TC3. During his 35-year career he was a national sales manager and vice president for major apparel companies and was twice named salesperson of the year at Levi Strauss. Hank and his wife, Cher, are residents of Kendal at Ithaca. You can read about his contributions to recycling and sustainability in his "Final Word" essay, Pitching In, in this issue,.