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RIP Marvin Ray Stewart

TALKING TO MYSELF: 18 Feb 2014     Word has come that my elementary music teacher and high school band director, Marvin Ray Stewart, has left this world to help Gabriel blow the horns in heaven. Between his moves and mine, I'd lost touch with him over the decades. Then, out of the blue, he called me late last fall to tell me that his wife had located Butter in the Morning at their local library. With the same humor and delight in life that I remembered, he told me how much fun he was having showing it to all his friends with a "See there, I'm in a book!" tag line. How he laughed when he described their reactions! There is so much I could say about this good man and the role he played in my early life, but since this essay tickled him, I will let it suffice for now. "...Mr. Stewart did not make a musician out of me. But we did make music once. Music joyful enough, forgiving enough, to burst our hearts." RIP Marvin Ray. 

 Mr. Stewart’s Band

"What do you think of the glockenspiel?” he asked.  As he waited for me to answer, he rubbed his chin with one hand while the other cradled his elbow.  This was his serious stance not his more typical joking around mode.

To be honest, I didn’t have a thought one about the glockenspiel.  But I wanted to be in the band awful bad, so I said, “I think it sounds great.  When’s my first lesson?”

In addition to his work with band and choral music at the high school, Mr. Stewart traveled to the scattered elementary schools in the county teaching what I guess would be called music appreciation.  Every other week, dull old arithmetic or geography would come to a halt and we grade schoolers would troop to the stage in our “gym-torium” for a 1950s version of fine arts class.  He would play on the upright piano – oh, he was good – and we would sing songs like “Tell Me Why” and “On Top of Old Smokey” and “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain” as loud as we could. 

I loved singing, and I adored sweet, funny, handsome with a Cary-Grant-dimple-in-his- chin Mr. Stewart, but I couldn’t carry a tune in the proverbial bucket.  When the much ballyhooed seventh grade musical, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, rolled around, I was cast in a small comic role.  I wisely elected to pantomime the words in the chorus numbers.

It had become apparent to Mr. Stewart and me that despite my enthusiasm, the High School Glee Club was not in my future.  It was about this time that he and I started talking about the possibility of my taking up a band instrument.  We both saw the advantage of it.  I wouldn’t tilt the High School Glee Club off-key when I arrived as a freshman, and yet I’d still get to enjoy music.  After I thought about it, I decided band would be more fun than Glee Club anyway.   The band got to go on trips to places like the State Fair in Louisville and the Tobacco Festival at Carrollton.  And it played at every ballgame.   Marching in formation to form a giant O C looked exciting.

In retrospect, I realize that Mr. Stewart may have suggested the glockenspiel because I could do little harm with it.  It’s an odd musical instrument, best described as a poor man’s xylophone.   At least in my hands, it never approached the resonant tones of its more uptown, swinging cousin.  In lots of pieces, it has no part to play, and when it does come in, you can’t hear it because of its loud neighbor, the bass drum.

The thing about Mr. Stewart is that he believed in giving everyone a chance, usually multiple chances as students tended to take advantage of his good nature and let him down.  There was the time “music mice” ate up all the profit we might have made on the chocolate bars we were selling to buy new feathers for our caps.  There was the time the seniors messed with the date of the regional contest on his calendar, and we got out of school and drove to Covington on the wrong day. There was the time – but I digress.  The point is Mr. Stewart thought every student’s education could be enriched by music.

Now in movies I’ve seen about music educators, the hard-nosed, no-nonsense teacher usually takes downtrodden, misfit children from the ghetto and drills them on how to play something like the violin until they end up so skillful they’re invited to play at Carnegie Hall.    Having learned to EXCEL the students are then able to whirl off to Juilliard – or at least to an engineering degree at MIT--without a backward glance at gangs, drugs and violent fathers.

Although we probably would have been classified as poor, disadvantaged farm kids if we’d had sense enough to know it, we never came close to excelling at music. In hindsight, I realize what an uphill struggle Mr. Stewart must have had organizing our countywide consolidated high school’s first ever band.   His budget was tiny, and it was almost impossible to gather scattered rural students for after school practice. 

So in spite of Mr. Stewart’s talent and encouragement, our band was ragged.  When we marched, our bass drummer, a laid back, affable fellow, was habitually out of step.   Our lines were crooked despite the drum major’s loudest efforts.  Our OC wobbled around and ended up looking more like a D trailed by an O with a small bite out of it.  The clarinets were forever bringing practice to a screeching halt with their broken reeds.  Our ace trumpet player --who actually was quite good--would periodically shout, “We stink!” and go on strike for the rest of the week.  Some days, not all sections ended at the same time, on the same note -

None of this seemed to get to Mr. Stewart.  He went right on laughing, telling jokes, encouraging us, and introducing new music.   He pushed us out there at ball games, to parades and competitions and at least once a year into a joint concert with other neighboring high schools with a big deal guest conductor.   He seemed to believe there was joy in the doing, in the making of music, even mediocre music.  That was an important lesson for this over earnest student to learn.

 I had one big number, “Stars and Stripes Forever,” where the glockenspiel had a one measure solo.   As the old Sousa march swelled to a crescendo, I would tense with anticipation.  Then he’d nod his head towards me, and smile, and I would hit the bells with all the force I had – too loud, I realize now.   But for 30 seconds, I made music large enough, grand enough, to burst my heart.

One after another, we graduated, and became teachers, farmers, businessmen.  Our saxophonist became one of the preeminent ministers in the Southeast.  But none of us went on to careers in music that I know of.   Certainly, Mr. Stewart did not make a musician out of me. 

But we did make music once.   Music joyful enough, forgiving enough, to burst our hearts.

©Georgia Green Stamper