Paleo Retiree writes:
Welcome to the third episode of my q&a with first-class jazzman and music-educator extraordinaire Ned Corman. On day one, we discussed his early years; day two covered some of Ned’s teaching and gigging adventures. Today we talk about some spectacularly talented musicians and the guidance they needed; the secrets to keeping a band swinging; and Ned’s battles with school administrators.
Paleo Retiree: Let’s talk a bit about Barry Kiener, who’s still known as the best musician ever to go through Penfield and one of the best ever to go through Rochester. He was a year behind me. He came along early in your career at Penfield.
Ned Corman: I got to know Barry when he was ten years old. He was piano player — at ten years old! — in an all-county group that Chuck Mangione led. Barry was frightening. As a player, but also there was nobody I knew other than Joe Romano who had a laser lip like Barry did.
PR: Was he indeed the most gifted student ever to go through your program?
NC: There have been some great, great musicians coming out of this area but I don’t know of any who were Barry’s peer. He was just a freak in the very best sense.
PR: How did he come to you?
NC: I got a call before Barry’s sophomore year from his dad, Burt, who I didn’t know though I knew Barry earlier. Burt said, We’re going to move to Penfield so Barry can be part of your jazz program.
PR: Which town had they started off in?
NC: As I recall, Barry was a Monroe High School student. When I hung up the phone, I said to Linda, “I just died and went to heaven.”
PR: You got yourself a live one.
NC: You could ask for no more.
PR: What was the situation like with the more mortal players in your band?
NC: This would have been 1970 or ‘71. And to get the jazz ensembles working I had to have them play a lot of rock and roll.
PR: A lot of Chicago, a lot of Blood, Sweat and Tears, you mean?
NC: Yup. And Barry came along and wasn’t much interested rock and roll. But he admired me sufficiently that anything I asked him to do, he would do. So one of the first things I had him do was play for everybody. You could just hear the air being sucked out of the room. He was a good oboe player to boot, as well as a good drummer and a good trumpet man.
PR: What was his gift like?
NC: Remember when I said I always had to work hard and practice long hours? Barry did not have to work hard to get better, but he did nevertheless. Barry, all the while, got better by thinking about it. I’d say “Barry, go over and press on the keyboard with both your forearms.” He’d do it. I’d say “Barry name all the notes you just hit,” and he’d name all 47 of them.
PR: I once spent an hour or two with Barry at a friend’s house. We’d play Barry a Bud Powell track, and Barry would amaze us by picking it out right afterwards, solos and all. When you bring in a phenomenon like that into a community, is it useful to you as a music director?
NC: When Barry was there, he played so well and had such a powerful personality that nobody dared criticize anything Barry wanted to play. So if I had some repertoire that I thought the band was going to push back on, if I had a recording of it I’d play the recording and say, “Barry what do you think of that?” He’d sit down at the piano and play the tune and he’d say, “That’s pretty good.” And then I’d have no problem getting the band to buy into the repertoire.
PR: A guy that good can sway everybody.
NC: If Barry had not come along and been part of the program, the success I enjoyed over the years would have been vastly less. In three years with Barry we played all the best stuff that was available.
PR: So he gave you credibility with the kids, and you were able to capitalize on that forever.
NC: That’s right.
PR: I heard the jazz ensemble with Barry on piano only once, but I was blown away. I didn’t know that Penfield had that kind of skill and energy in it.
NC: That band may have been the one of the best in New York State. Barry was a monster.
PR: It’s so sad that Barry didn’t live long.
NC: I remember the day Kennedy died, I remember the day Dad died, I remember the day Mother died, and I remember the day Barry died. He died of an overdose. If he’d have been able to control his diet and drug use he could well have been one of the greatest jazz piano players alive today.
PR: What kind of a kid was he? He was Jewish, wasn’t he?
NC: (laughs) Oh, yeah.
PR: I remember him as really chubby and verbal, and twice as fast a talker as anybody I’d ever met before.
NC: Yup. He was intellectually brilliant as well. He’d come off the road with Buddy Rich, and you’d say Barry, where were you on July 14. And he’d give you the town they’d played and his and all the other band members’ hotel room numbers.
PR: He had one of those minds.
NC: Do you know Jon Faddis’ playing?
PR: I know the name but I can’t summon up the sound.
NC: Jon’s one of the really great musicians I’ve been lucky to know and make music with. And Jon and Barry both had that incredible memory. Jon was a Dizzy Gillespie disciple. Great high-note player, a real horse. Nobody did that shit better than Jon.
PR: What kind of a guy is Jon?
NC: He’s this guy who does these heroic musical things — and he’s shy as all get-out.
NC: A shy lead trumpet player is an oxymoron, but Jon was a shy lead trumpet player. Linda and I would visit in New York and stay with Jon and Sylvia in Turtle Bay. Jon sometimes couldn’t talk — he’d be too shy. And whenever that would happen, he’d go over to the record player and put on a Dizzy Gillespie track and play. You couldn’t tell that he was playing because he sounded just like Dizzy. Or he’d put on a Miles Davis track and you couldn’t tell Jon was playing because he sounded just like Miles. He had whatever that is that you have to have so you can sound like whomever you want to sound like.
PR: Were the parents ambitious for Barry?
NC: Extremely. If you picture your typical ambitious Jewish dad and mom, a lot of people would say Burt and Betty were it.
PR: That can be tough on kids. How did you handle Barry?
NC: One of the ways I was effective with Barry is that I never asked him to do anything he didn’t want to do, and I never pushed him to do anything. “You’re a vastly bigger musician than I am,” I’d say to him, “and I have immense respect for you.” Whatever solace and comfort he got in that environment really helped him a lot. The auditorium in the high school was off limits except when there were rehearsals going on. And the small grand in the pit at the high school was the best piano we had. A really good instrument. Any time that Barry wanted to, I gave him access to that instrument.
PR: Barry wound up touring with Buddy Rich. Did you help set that up?
NC: No, I think Joe Romano set that up. Romano was Buddy’s lead player a couple of different times. So Barry went to work with Buddy the summer after he graduated from high school. Barry and I, when he’d come back from a tour he’d often bring me something. We talked while he was on tour. A lot of the therapy I did with Barry had to do with his complex about education. He was not unlike Jon Faddis in that. Jon Faddis left high school to play lead with Lionel Hampton’s band. Both of those guys’ psychological issues, I think, had partly to do with not going to college when all their peers did.
PR: How’d it mess their heads up? It sounds great, being able to skip college.
NC: Both Jon and Barry grew up in high schools that had strong academic departments. You can be a wonderful musician but not have the strength of personality to resist the feeling that everyone else is going to college, why aren’t you?
PR: Growth and development stuff, I guess.
NC: A little while after that, what starts going on in your mind is, “Holy shit, I’m this good, but look at all those people with formal training. If I had formal training, what might I do?”
PR: Did Barry and Jon really feel they needed more musical training?
NC: When Barry and I would have those conversations, and Jon too, my response would be, “If you go to college somewhere you’re going to be messed with. Academia, by and large, doesn’t give a shit how good you play. It just doesn’t work that way.” But Barry still felt he needed it. So what I did develop for Barry was I put him in touch with a guy who taught piano at Nazareth College. I had a number of conversations with the guy, and they made me confident that this guy would teach Barry the mechanics of playing the piano that you’d get from playing from a classical standpoint but not mess with his music.
PR: Did Jon and Barry have trouble growing up in a mundane sense? Like learning how to date or work with other people?
NC: They both functioned at an incredibly high level in an atmosphere outside of being a regular teenager. I suppose they missed a lot of that. When I brought Jon to town the first time I said, “I’d like you to spend time with the trumpet players.” And you know what he did? He went with them to the batting cages.
PR: What the — ?
NC: They went and hit balls. No trumpets.
PR: Sometimes these super-talented people are dwarves where the other sides of their personalities go.
NC: Jon wanted to do kid stuff! When Jon first came to Penfield he was only 18 or 19. He’d gone straight out of high school and had swung across the country with Hampton. And at 18 Faddis is one of the hottest players in the country … but he’d never got to hang out and go to the batting cage. After that, he’d come back up here every two or three years, and he’d play the rehearsals and concerts but he’d never do anything overtly pedagogically.
PR: Really? Why not?
NC: Well, my approach was never to push. He’d stay with us and we had a close friendship. But the point I’m getting at is, over time, he did start to do things educationally. And these days he continues to be a great, great player but arguably his biggest contribution to humankind is having been a pedagogue. Why he didn’t buy into that when he was younger, I don’t know. His dad was a high school principal.
PR: Maybe he was pushing back against that.
PR: When did Barry start using the drugs?
NC: I’d guess it was in high school. He was very much under Joe Romano’s influence. Joe was 20 years Barry’s senior, and the circle around Joe in Rochester, I think, were all doing drugs. Barry was a welcome player among them by the time he was 12, so I can’t imagine he wasn’t part of that culture with them. But Barry and I never talked about drugs.
PR: Did a time come when you became aware that drugs had become a problem for him?
NC: When he died of an overdose I was stunned. I knew that he had used early on, but I also knew he’d gotten clean. When he went out the last time with Buddy, I think that he was clean when he left. But the road is really hard and I’m sure a lot of people in the band were using.
PR: Let’s get a little into the nitty-gritty of Penfield and teaching.
NC: Being a music teacher in a lot of respects is the best gig anybody can have. Playing music, you get instant feedback, and there’s relatively little that you do in life that gives you that instant feedback, in the pedagogical world at least. You get feedback in academic subjects as you ingest information, but the big carrot academically is your exam.
PR: If you’re teaching trigonometry, the feedback is pretty slow.
NC: Deferred gratification ain’t necessarily bad, but with music you can be instantly inspired. You play something, and it’s hot, and you really feel good. You really do. It’s not unlike listening to great music. You listen to it and you get hot. But when you’re playing, you’ve exerted yourself and worked hard and when all of the sudden the music works, it really picks you up off your seat.
PR: When you’re leading an ensemble do you feel similar things?
NC: Yeah! Sure! What I remember is “This is really working!”
PR: How much freedom did you have as a teacher?
NC: I always got in trouble with colleagues and administration because I would never do curriculum. I never had a curriculum plan. I had in my head what I had in my head. But to try to devise a curriculum plan would have freaked me out. It would have been straitjacket stuff.
PR: They must have hated you for that.
NC: The music teachers I respected and admired, I don’t remember any of them doing any lesson plans. When I would walk into a rehearsal, I had in my mind what had happened the day before and a sense of what I wanted to happen that day and where I wanted us to end up.
PR: More instinct and experience than a lesson plan.
PR: Were there eras when the bands were good and the kids were enthusiastic, and other eras when things weren’t so good?
NC: Things were never poor but they never again excelled the way they did in the early ‘70s and mid ‘70s. In particular the class of ‘76 was loaded with wonderful, wonderful people. Really intelligent folks but great players too.
PR: Was there an era when it was harder to get the kids’ attention?
NC: Well, for a bunch of years there were two middle schools, Denonville and Bay Trail. And the guy that had the band program at one turned the kids off.
PR: What was his special knack?
NC: I never watched him rehearse, but the kids who played for him and continued to play just didn’t like playing for him. His choice of repertoire was not inspiring either.
PR: When we talked about Barry Kiener, you said his presence helped galvanize the other kids. Was that typical — good kids set off the spark in other kids?
NC: Barry was such a phenomenon that he was exceptional. But if I were to go back to any class list I could point out three or four, or a half a dozen, kids in that class who were good musicians, were nice people and who had leadership skills as well. And, you know, the extent to which your ensemble is going to excel is proportional to the competence of your first trumpet player.
PR: Actually I did not know that.
NC: And to a lesser extent your first clarinet player. Concert band first clarinetists are like symphony orchestra concert masters. But your first trumpet player predominates so much that if they can’t make it go then it doesn’t go. Also in a jazz ensemble the drummer is central. Your band doesn’t swing any more than the drummer can swing. The drummer can carry it. It’s the same at a high school level, a college level or a professional level. At the professional level, the proficiency is very high. But even so, if you go and listen to Goodman or Rich or other well-regarded big bands, one of the things that’s better about the better groups is the first trumpet player and the drummer.
PR: How did you keep the playing level up and the enthusiasm level up?
NC: Part of what I did well was select repertoire that, however strong the ensemble was, it would be at the right level of difficulty that they would likely succeed and not fall on their face.
PR: Is it more important to push them a little or for them to be comfortable with what you give them?
NC: It’s a combination, being sure to give them nothing that isn’t playable for them, and at the same time, some things that are challenging. In my experience, kids get off more on technical challenges than artistic challenges. So it’s important that you aren’t programming music that’s all whole notes. You want to program things that people will want to pay attention to.
PR: People like challenges, don’t they?
NC: That’s not peculiar to music. Anybody who’s teaching and does a good job has to have some sense of the students’ ability and interest and of building a curriculum of study that matches those characteristics. If you aren’t able to do that you aren’t going to be a successful teacher.
PR: Did it take time for you to develop a repertoire that was well-suited to the students?
NC: When I first showed up what I had to deal with was the repertoire Bill Bradley had selected, the library’s contents. After that, part of what you do is go to conferences and hear other groups play, to learn repertoire you didn’t know otherwise. One of the skills you had to have as a teacher was to be able to look at a score and understand what it was. I’m not a master score reader, but I could look at a piece of music and have a sense of where it might fit in my program.
PR: How about the question of talented kids. How did you spot them as they came along?
NC: I didn’t go to all the elementary and middle school concerts but I went to a lot of them. And it doesn’t take much to listen to a band of young kids like that and think, “Watch out for this player!”
PR: It tends to be self-evident?
NC: Yeah. If I went to listen to an elementary concert, by the time it was over, I probably would be able to give you a good read on the profile of the group and I’d be able to, all things being equal, specify that these are the people who will excel through middle school and high school. I would make mistakes, but generally I had a good sense.
PR: What would you pick up? Some innate musicality?
NC: It’s not always the case but if you watch kids play there’s almost always an animation about kids who play well.
PR: So there are visual cues?
NC: You cannot predict 100% by virtue of what you see, but if a kid is doing well, they’re involved differently than kids who are not doing well, who tend to be passive participants.
PR: I find the mystery of art talent very hard to discuss as well as hard to explain. To me it’s almost like a sports knack.
NC: The whole nature / nurture issue is something I remain very curious about. We talked about Jon Faddis. In Jon’s case, there were things that he did that I could never do. Jon, like Barry Kiener and Amy Tait, I think, got better just thinking about it. They had this ability to assimilate and then reproduce what they heard. However they’re wired up, it’s just different than how I’m wired-up. In Faddis’ case, I can do a lot of what he can do, though it’d take me a lot longer to get it done. But I could never do the rest. I just would not have it.
PR: In creative classes I’ve taken, I’d spot degrees of talent.
NC: It’s a classic bell-shaped curve. There are a few people who really tear it up. Most of us are in the middle. And there are a few people who can’t get it no matter how hard they try.
PR: You mentioned Amy Tait. I didn’t know her.
NC: Her dad and twin brother built one of Rochester’s most successful real estate-complex businesses. Aside from Barry Kiener, Amy was probably the most gifted student who passed through the program I led. She was a really exceptional clarinet player. She played principal in the Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, and she won the solo competition, and not just by a nose — she won by yards. She was a really great saxophone player, too, though not a jazz player. She never could improvise.
PR: Did she have a lot of drive as a musician?
NC: In my experience Amy’s driven at whatever she does. She’s a perfectionist. If you tell her she’s going to have to run a four minute mile she’ll do it in 3:55. She’s very intent on not only doing the best she can but the best anybody else does. She’s also a lovely human being and an exemplary parent.
PR: Did Amy go on to have a music career?
NC: When she was a junior in high school she came to me and said, “I don’t know what I want to do.” She’d spent one year at Interlochen Academy. It was a year when I’d been involuntarily transferred, and, I’ve always liked to believe, her protest was to go to Interlochen. She came back for her junior year and was tearing it up. But she also didn’t know what to do. “I play music well,” she said, “but I do other things well too.” My counsel to her was “Go home and sleep on it. If when you wake up tomorrow morning you feel you have to play the clarinet or die, you should do it. But the only way to be a musician is be prepared to put up with with all sorts of indignity and all sorts of lack of recognition.”
PR: It’s not the easiest life.
NC: And Amy was a brilliant student. She decided she didn’t want to play music that badly. So she went to Princeton, where all four years she played lead saxophone in the Princeton Jazz Ensemble, but she got an engineering degree and worked in business in New York for a while, came back to Rochester and took her family’s business public.
PR: That need to play music, is that a different thing than the innate music talent?
NC: You can definitely have the innate music talent and not the desire. That was the case with Amy. My own evolution was, I have got to play the clarinet. This is what I really wanted. If somebody had told me I couldn’t, I’d have been very unhappy.
PR: That wasn’t the case with Amy?
NC: Her family was not wealthy but they were successful. They lived in one of the nicest homes in Penfield. And if she was going to be a musician she was probably going to have to starve for a bunch of years. So if it isn’t in you strong enough to persevere and prevail over those things it’s probably better to do something else, provided there’s something else you can do. I’m sure Amy got a great deal out of music that she doesn’t get out of the money things she does. But she didn’t want to go through what you usually have to go through to have a life as a musician. I suspect Amy is the kind of person who is happy doing whatever she does well.
PR: Was it all smooth sailing for you during your career in Penfield?
NC: Not at all. I was fired and re-hired three times in the first four years I was there.
PR: I don’t recall your battles with the Penfield school administration.
NC: It was an adventure. I don’t say that sarcastically.
PR: What was the main issue?
NC: I was told months after beginning the gig that they wanted me to lead a pep band. I said, “I didn’t agree to do that.” And they said, “Well, that’s part of the gig, do it or get out.” And they effectively fired me and then rehired me. And then they did it again. And hundreds of people showed up for the Board of Education meetings and said, You shouldn’t do that.
PR: Which year was this?
NC: The first firing was in ‘68 the second was in ‘69. I was hired back because the community was up in arms about the firing. A bunch of Eastman School and Philharmonic people lived in Penfield, and I was doing well in the teaching gig, and all these people showed up and said, “What are you firing this guy for? You’ve got a good one here.” Mr. Peck, who’d hired me, stayed through my tenure year. And the year after I got tenure Mr. Peck retired. He and I never talked about it. My ego may be in control, but I’m pretty sure he stayed on to make sure I got tenure.
PR: Was that the end of it?
NC: No. The next thing that happened was that Vern Wyland was hired to succeed Mr. Peck, and he had me in his office and he said, “We’re going to have this marching band.”
PR: That again.
NC: I said, “Well, you can do that but I’m still not going to lead it.” So he had me involuntarily transferred, which was tantamount to dismissal. He was trying to make sure that I would get out of here. He thought I would be sufficiently insulted that I wouldn’t want to save the gig.
PR: Did he just not like you? Was it really all about the marching band?
NC: It was mainly sports craziness, I think. The football / soccer thing. Do you remember that?
PR: I do. We’d always been a big soccer town. Parents hadn’t wanted football because they didn’t want their boys getting hurt.
NC: Penfield never fielded varsity football until 1967, the fall before I arrived.
PR: Did the music vs. football thing reflect something that was going on in town generally?
NC: I’m not sure it was a music versus football thing. Penfield was a cultured town. We’ve talked before about the blue-bloods controlling the school board. Well, there was a point when the football fans became powerful enough that the school district agreed to start playing the sport.
PR: How did that happen?
NC: As you remember, there was an old soccer culture in Penfield — George Steitz, the coach, was a legend by the time I started to teach here. So soccer was the predominant fall sport. Meanwhile college football was evolving, NFL football was evolving: Football mania was rising all over the country. And there was a constituency in the Penfield school district that wanted to have a football program. The district resisted it for a period of time. But there came a time when there were four votes on the Board of Education that wanted football versus three that didn’t. It’s not central, but important, to remember that I grew up a few miles from Penn State. And Bellefonte is a big football town. Arguably our graduating class’ claim to fame is its undefeated football team coached by a Penn State graduate.
PR: What kind of townsfolks were the football fans?
NC: Well, the high school was playing football for the first time the fall before I got here. And that reflected political activity to get control of the school board and support the growth of football. Had football not become part of the school district culture, I think Mr. Peck would have continued to have been superintendent for a bunch more years. I think he liked being superintendent. But he didn’t like dealing with the contentiousness on the board and, increasingly, in the community.
PR: And the contentiousness was entirely over football?
NC: It represented something more. The nature of the way the board was constituted was changing. The folks that were coming into the board were increasingly people for whom another notch on the gun handle was achieved by being on the school board. Before that period of time, it was what you did for the community, because you loved your community.
PR: I see. The old town fathers versus the new corporate people. Was there also a rivalry between the athletic programs and the musical programs?
NC: There was competition there also. The chair of the music department before I came to town was Ruth Steesse. And Ruth had Elmer Peck’s ear. They’d worked together for years. He was even-handed and equitable, but she had his ear. And that’s why, when I came to work, there were four grand pianos at the high school, and why the Penfield string program was the outstanding string program in our area and maybe the state. It was wonderfully equipped. We had lots and lots of basses and celli and violas. If you wanted to play in the string program in Penfield, there was an instrument that was available for you. Anybody who looked at the school district budget looked at it and said, “Holy shit, why is all this money going to music?” It was that extreme. Instrumental music, if you wanted an exemplary program, needs a big budget. So there was tug and pull between athletics and music. More generally the pull was between the arts and athletics.
PR: Did you figure these dynamics out pretty quickly?
NC: I think so. In the American Legion band program I grew up in, the band program deteriorated because it developed factions, and that conflict caused the program to disintegrate. So I had that sense from my early years. One of the reasons I never wanted to have a football band program was there would have become a parent group, and that parent group is always vulnerable to becoming controlled by a faction. When you’ve got two power groups, if they can’t find ways to work together, one side is going to try to bring the other side down.
PR: What did you have against a marching band anyway?
NC: (Laughs) I had nothing against a marching band, nor a pep band, if somebody else would do it. But I also knew the kinds of things that can happen by virtue of a marching band program becoming predominant. Marching band programs by and large attract ambitious band directors. They want to have a hot marching band program because it’s the most visible way to attract support from the community and there is honest belief in the byproduct.
PR: Makes sense. But you didn’t want that role for yourself?
NC: The reason I didn’t want it was that it would probably get out of control, and if it got out of control it would probably try to compromise the string program. Kids who grow up looking at marching bands and all the hoopla find it pretty boring sitting in the back row of the cello section.
PR: What became of the marching band plan finally?
NC: There’s never been a marching band program in Penfield. Well, there was for one year. The year I was involuntarily transferred, Vern Wyland hired a man named Mick Lutz, a successful band director from Michigan, and Mick Lutz was hired to replace me and start a marching band program. He did, and with modest success, because an awful lot of the kids would not play for him. I told everybody and anybody I could, “Don’t boycott him, play in his program.” I had no concern about being overshadowed, but I had great concern that if kids didn’t play, adversaries in the community would say, “Corman’s poisoning them and telling them not to participate in the program.” When Mick Lutz came here to work, Vern Wyland made a classic mistake. He said I should continue to teach jazz ensembles at the high school. So instead of keeping me out of the high school, which would have been an effective way to give Lutz some latitude, I was at the high school five afternoons a week doing jazz ensemble. It may have been that Mick did not have jazz ensemble skills.
PR: That’s interesting that you wanted to protect the string program.
NC: We supported the string program and made sure the string program had first dibs. As a musician, being a soloist is what I wanted to do, but when I came to teach in Penfield, I didn’t want there to be dissension in the department. And, for all the turmoil I went through, I had the support of my colleagues in the department. When protests were going on about me being fired, there were always music teachers there supporting me.
PR: How did that year with Mick Lutz play itself out?
NC: Mick did the best that he could. For myself I filed a grievance. And the arbitrator ruled in my favor. Then the district took the matter to the highest court in the state, the Court of Appeals, and we won again. So at the end of the year the district was compelled to give me my former position back. Mick Lutz and I had a meeting, he asked if I’d reconsider and stay in the position I was in, I told him I didn’t think I could do that. So he had no gig.
PR: Sounds like Lutz was the really unfortunate one.
NC: He was a nice guy. But if I were in his position and was offered the gig as he was, I would not have taken it. I would have known what was going to happen. Students liked playing music with me.
PR: How did things play out with Vern during this stretch?
NC: We were in combat. But I did my best to be civil to him and he did his best to be civil to me. We just never were in the same place at the same time. Vern liked to say, “We can agree to disagree.”
PR: But he was still your enemy.
NC: Yes. With the grievance, something my lawyer told me as he agreed to take my case was, “One of the things you’ve got to do is be sure there’s something in the media about this every week.” So, with that, I started to learn about public relations. The press loved the story because it was contention they could build on. We had stuff in the paper regularly. It sometimes pitted people in the district against each other. There were parents that supported me very strongly, and parents who supported the football band program.
PR: You started to be politically savvy.
NC: I decided at that point that I was going to become politically active and that I’d work to get the board’s majority changed, and that Vern Wyland would be let go. And a number of us did that. Not alone, other people were involved. But after Vern was superintendent for seven years his contract was not extended.
PR: How did you make that happen?
NC: We got candidates elected to the school board.
PR: You really did become a political animal.
NC: Yup. I was never without friends on the school board, so as these issues came up the numbers of people that showed up weren’t insignificant. 200 or 300 people would show up. The community had a half hour open mic, and there were always people signed up to speak on my behalf. I didn’t think Vern was a good leader for Penfield School District. He pitted people against each other. He did not like teachers. He was brought here as somebody that was a kickass guy, because the people that ran the board thought Elmer Peck coddled his teachers.
PR: Vern was going to get the teachers under control?
PR: And he had a whip-cracking personality?
NC: He seemed like a jock from the word go. His daughter Wendy was an Olympic diver. He was brought here, it seemed, because the people that controlled the board wanted to build a sports dynasty in the district.
PR: When you presented your case to the people, how did you frame it?
NC: As pro-education and pro-student. Part of my rap has always been, “I’m a music teacher but I teach kids.” Music was the thing I happened to know how to do that made me effective with kids. I always thought my purpose in teaching was not to have a great band or instrumental program but to help kids through difficult times and help them form an improved basis to grow into adults.
PR: Were you able over time to characterize Vern as anti-education?
NC: Well, that seemed evident from the beginning. He was somebody who was an authoritarian. His job was to get the teachers to stand up straight. One of the things he did initially was he unilaterally changed the job description for department chairs. He thought they were underworked. Prior to Vern, all chairs taught one period a day and were administrators for several periods a day. Vern changed that to three periods of teaching and two periods of administration. You can argue whether the balance was one way or the other, but it was arbitrary, and when you do something arbitrary you alienate people.
PR: Is tension between athletic and arts programs inevitable?
NC: It needn’t be. Internally in Penfield I never had a fight with a coach. Some of the musicians I was most proud of were also some of the best athletes in the district. When conflicts between athletic commitments and music commitments were visible, I always went to the coach or the coach came to me and we worked it out so we weren’t putting the kid in the middle. Kids cannot miss sports practices except for music performances; but kids cannot miss music rehearsals except for athletic contests.
PR: There’s such a big temperamental contrast between arty people and jocky people.
NC: The truth is that at the time that Vern got voted out, there was a showdown between his constituency and his opponents. But the showdown was not to have control of the political process, the showdown was about returning the district to dealing well with kids and teachers. A greater good was served. Part of the reason I was successful in that regard, I think, was that I was a good high school athlete myself. Had I decided to be a baseball player, I was told I’d have done as well as I did as a clarinet player. So I’ve got a strong competitive sense about things. But I never took bands to competitions because I never wanted music to become competitive for the kids. I would never do that, because it creates a false motivation and environment. The reality is that musicians are competitive for their jobs. But if you sit down in the middle of an ensemble and your main objective is to be better than the guy next to you, it’s going to be a long time before you make great music.
PR: What was your feeling finally on getting rid of Vern?
NC: If Vern hadn’t been stopped, he’d have run roughshod over the entire school program in Penfield, so I’m really proud of having helped stop him. People need to know that unions do some good. Having said that, I’m the first to admit that unions fuck up so much it’s ridiculous. Unions do what unions do. But on balance, in my experience I would never work without a union card.
PR: These battles must have really absorbed you on a personal level.
NC: The year I was involuntarily transferred, Linda and I bought a house in Penfield, a substantial house. Part of why we did that was to make a statement: Sucker, we’re here in town, and we’re here to stay. The year of the arbitration, Linda’s entire life was devoted to running papers and making sure things got done.
Come back tomorrow for Part Four of my five-part interview with Ned Corman.
- You can buy Ned’s memoir here, or download a free PDF of it.
- A terrific piece by Kecia Bol about Ned and his memoir.
- The National Association for Music Education visits Ned.
- Ned pitches the memoir on local TV.
- Beginning at 18:45, Evan Dawson talks to Ned about the memoir.
- Penn State interviews Ned.
- A visit with “Now’s the Time” co-author Rob Enslin.
- A video visit with Rob.
- Check out a lot of other interviews that we here at UR have done.