Westfield, Where are the Notes to Your Opus?

Well, I guess you can cut the arts as much as you want, Gene. Sooner or later, these kids aren’t going to have anything to read or write about.” ~Glenn Holland, Mr. Holland’s Opus

One of my favorite actors is Richard Dreyfuss. He is an excellent actor, he’s in a large majority of my favorite movies, he has an awesome laugh, and he believes civics should be taught in public schools.

He was also in an incredibly profound movie; Mr. Holland’s Opus. It is one of my favorite – and least favorite – movies. It is the perfect example of art imitating life. A musician is hired as a music teacher. He starts out feeling rather uneasy about his decision to enter the classroom. Three decades later, he can’t imagine what he will do when he is forced to leave it.

I know many music teachers, choir directors, and band directors who went into public education, not with the trepidation of Glenn Holland, but as a force of positive energy with great plans to inspire. Unfortunately, most times, the only people who wanted them there were the kids, and sometimes (if they were lucky) the parents.

I’ve written multiple times over the years (on two different blogs) about the importance of arts and music in public education. I can literally feel my blood pressure go up every time I see athletics heralded and music cast aside.

Indulge me while I tell you a story…

I was the kid that played in Pigtail League when I was little because I grew up with a love of watching baseball. I would sit with my Uncle Sonny on Saturday afternoons and eat olives out of the can meant for the salad for Sunday dinner while we watched the Yankees or the Mets on our local television station. We would go through the packs of baseball cards my Aunt Roslyn would bring home for us from the deli she and my Uncle Tony owned. I still have an entire photo album full of baseball cards he put together for me.

Because I was born at the end of the year, all my friends moved up to the middle school softball league a year ahead of me. I went with them to the first practice to see what I was in for when I would join them the following year. The coach took one look at me, asked my why I was there, said “no visitors during practice,” and told me to beat it. I was quite taken aback. My friends went off to the field to start warm ups and I walked away dejected. I stopped and looked over my shoulder once and the coach caught my eye and gave me a nasty look. I quickly took off. I knew my softball career was over.

I attempted track and field when I was in high school, but I was terrible. I was slow and uncoordinated. I mainly gave it a try because a few friends were on the team and I had a crush on a boy that was a runner. They wound up keeping me around as the team manager.

But the music department was where I really belonged. I was in chorus, marching band, orchestra, jazz band, and concert band. I couldn’t get enough. I would plan my entire high school schedule around chorus, band, and orchestra. Before school, we would all collect in the band room and just sit and talk. After school, we would need to get chased out so the room could get locked up. We would all regularly cut class with the standard “I have a band lesson” excuse.

My senior year I was stuck with an English teacher that absolutely terrified me. The Vice Principal came in the first day of school and wrote “Queen of Peace summer school” with an address and phone number. He then proceeded to point out all the students he was sure wouldn’t graduate. I picked up my books, walked right up to the principal’s office and said “I’m graduating on time; get me out of his class!” Yeah, I could definitely throw that Belleville sass around when I wanted to, that’s for sure. I spent most of the next day in the guidance office reworking my schedule to get into another English class. It came at a great expense. I had to rework my entire schedule and drop all three of my music classes. I was devastated. I actually went to all three directors and personally apologized and explained I was terrified of this teacher and had convinced myself I wouldn’t graduate if I tried to stick it out. It took two weeks to get me out of his class. In those two weeks, my average was already a 45. I could barely get my marking period average up to a “C.” It threw off my entire year. But I’m not bitter or anything. Much.

But back to music. That’s where I knew I belonged. I wasn’t popular, except in the summer when the pool was open. I wasn’t interested in most of my academics. I just wanted to go to my writing classes and my music classes. Forget science, math, and worst of all gym. I was far from the best musician, but I was definitely the most enthusiastic!

I knew we weren’t respected. I knew we didn’t get the budget we deserved. But we worked hard. We learned more than just how to read dots on a page. We learned about teamwork, loyalty, we protected each other. When one of us hurt, we all hurt. Those are very special people to me. Music kids are a global community bound together by notes on a page.

And that experience was directly affected by my teachers.

Those special people who spend countless nights and weekends in busses with hundreds of boisterous kids who really don’t even think that teachers actually have a personal life. Teachers that spend their own money on supplies for their classroom. Teachers that know which kids are having trouble at home and need some extra attention. Teachers that know someone’s father was laid off from work and they don’t have money for lunch, so they tell the lunch lady they’ll pay for their kid’s lunch later when he’s not around. Teachers who listen to Christmas music in the spring and spring concert music in the fall. They do all this quietly without fanfare.

“You work for 30 years because you think that what you do makes a difference, you think it matters to people, but then you wake up one morning and find out, well no, you’ve made a little error there, you’re expendable. I should be laughing.” ~Glenn Holland, Mr. Holland’s Opus

So why am I sharing this sermon? Simple. This week, the Westfield Public School system took a machete to their arts, music, and drama programs. The final budget announcement was made, ironically, shortly after an announcement the district was named one of the best school systems in the nation for the arts by the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM).

I watched the video of the meeting and a few statements were made that really made my blood boil. I actually needed to let some time pass before I wrote this because I was so incensed I knew I would not be able to effectively share my frustration, anger, and disappointment.

“It included everything we wanted to do, that we wanted to continue to do from this year moving into next year.”

I found this comment particularly disturbing. Does this mean you didn’t want to continue your arts and music program? Did you even try? Do you even care?

“We did not reduce any of the stipends associated with any of the extracurricular athletics.”

Well, thank goodness for that! I can’t even say anything about this comment without sounding like Yosemite Sam.

You know what I didn’t see with cuts? Supervisors. Coaches. Athletics. I. Am. Disgusted.

“The day they cut the football budget in this state, that will be the end of Western Civilization as we know it!” ~Glenn Holland, Mr. Holland’s Opus

One community member tied the district’s budget issues to a hotly contested Edison fields project. This is a project to replace the school’s grass fields with synthetic turf that will cost the town a whopping $9 million. Do they really need to do that? How about the athletics teams just be appreciative they were spared from the cuts and forego this project for the year.

A board member asked a question he received from a parent that was a perfect example that they have no idea what they are affecting. There is a music program that has 40 students in a class. There is a teacher and an assistant. The assistant will be eliminated. The parent wanted to know how that class will be handled. The answer is priceless:

“I don’t know the specifics. I’m sorry” ~Superintendent Gonzalez.

It is worth mentioning, he laughed and put his hands in the air in the classic “I don’t’ know” fashion. The sarcastic laughter from the audience was palatable and the confused look on his face said it all.

In all, 24 total positions will be cut. Of the 24 positions, 10 directly affect the arts and music. That is simply shameful.

I have submitted an OPRA request to the district for specific budget information for a “part two” on this topic.

In the meantime, if you are sick of seeing the arts and music being cut. If your blood is boiling as much as mine, I encourage you to email the Superintendent of Schools and Board Members and share your dissatisfaction. For your convenience, I have them listed below:

To reach all members of the Westfield Board of Education, please use group e-mail: wboe@westfieldnjk12.org

Board of Education Members:
Brendan Galligan (President): bgalligan@westfieldnjk12.org
Sahar Aziz (Vice President): saziz@westfieldnjk12.org
Robert Benacchio: rbenacchio@westfieldnjk12.org
Michael Bielen: mbielen@westfieldnjk12.org
Leila Morrelli: lmorrelli@westfieldnjk12.org
Sonal Patel: spatel@westfieldnjk12.org
Amy Root: aroot@westfieldnjk12.org
Kristen Sonnek-Schmelz: ksonnek-schmelz@westfieldnjk12.org
Mary Wickens: mwickens@westfieldnjk12.org

Raymond González (Superintendent): Email form

If you decide to contact them, please be respectful.

“There is not a life in this room that you have not touched, and each of us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus. We are the music of your life.” ~Gertrude Lang, Mr. Holland’s Opus

The Official Jersey Bucket List – Part Two

After the publishing of my “Official Jersey Bucket List,” I received many requests for a part two. I will admit as soon as I published it, I continued to come up with more ideas. There is so much to see in New Jersey, it is almost impossible to include it all in one list.

Let’s face it, in light of the Coronavirus outbreak, many of us will staycation this summer, so why not turn into a Jersey tourist for a day and check out some of our great places right outside your front door! Some are currently open, while others aren’t quite there just yet. But that’s OK, as you will have plenty ideas as the summer continues. Here are some more ideas in my “Official Jersey Bucket List – Part Two.”

Visit a public farm: While many refer to Jersey as “The Mall State,” we are officially known as “The Garden State.” From the top of the state to the bottom, there are public farms, wineries, nurseries, and “pick your own” options available. I recommend you check out Hillcrest Orchard & Dairy in Branchville, the home of Jersey Girl Cheese.

Visit one of our great museums: In 2018, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City put in place a mandatory entrance fee of $25 for non-New York residents. Up until now, The Met’s entrance fee was by “suggested donation,” which made it accessible for all. Now it will be far from that for many. I can’t tell you how much this ticked me off. However, it was a good reminder that there are MANY great museums right here in New Jersey! I recommend you check out the Newark Museum, our largest museum in the state, which opened in 1909. A personal favorite of mine is the Museum of Early Trades and Crafts, which focuses on 18th- and 19th- century craftsmen and artisans. If you are looking for something outside, visit the Grounds for Sculpture, which opened in 1992. It is a 42-acre sculpture park, museum, and arboretum founded on the site of the former New Jersey State Fairgrounds. These are just three museums in our great state. There is at least one museum in every county, so no matter where you live, there’s a museum nearby.

Check out the Jersey music scene: Bands like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes are known for that “Jersey sound.” What some may not know is that the sound is actually something we all know from the shore – the Calliope. Listen to the keyboard of those bands and see if your memory brings you back to The pipe organ and drum sound from the merry-go-round you couldn’t wait to ride when you were a child. Of course The Stone Pony is a Jersey icon, but there are plenty other music venues in the state. Check out the Count Basie Center for the Arts.

Visit Ellis Island: New Jersey has one of the most diverse immigrant populations in the country. And while New York thinks they “own” Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, they are actually in Jersey waters. Ellis Island is a National Park and offers an amazing amount of information about the story of immigration in the United States. Trace your family history in their genealogy database and you can even add your family information to the story of the Island.

Go to Fort Hancock: Another great National Park in New Jersey is Sandy Hook. While many people head to Sandy Hook just for the beach, there is a lot more to do on the over 4,000 acres of land that comprise the park. This piece of land has played a significant part of American History going back to the 1700s. One part of Sandy Hook is Fort Hancock. In 1895, the U.S. Army renamed the “Fortifications at Sandy Hook” as Fort Hancock. The installation would protect New York Harbor from invasion by sea. Its yellow brick buildings were constructed largely between 1898-1910, with the fort reaching its peak population in World War II. There is now a push on to preserve these old buildings that are, unfortunately, beginning to crumble. Hopefully, they will continue to persevere.

Visit the Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park: Located in-between New York City and Philadelphia, New Jersey was able to play a part of the industrial revolution during the early 19th century. How? Through the Delaware & Raritan Canal (known as the D&R). In 1834, the D&R was officially open for business and was one of the busiest navigation canals in the United States. Its peak years were in the mid to late 1800s, primarily moving tons of Pennsylvania coal. By the end of the 19th century, canal use was declining throughout the country. In 1973, the canal and its remaining structures were entered on the National Register of Historic Places. It is now a beautiful place to fish, hike and bike along the 70 miles of the canal.

Visit Walpack, but please be respectful: Officially founded in 1731, the Dutch lived on the land known as “Wallpack” as early as the mid-1600s. The of the town’s name comes from the Lenape Native American content word “wahlpeck,” which means “turn-hole (eddy or whirlpool). It is not considered a “ghost town,” as about 20 residents still call Walpack home. The town is located within the confines of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. The town has a sad history since the 1970s that includes a failed national project, eminent domain, vandalism, looting, and fires intentionally set. Many are afraid one day what is left of the town will be gone. During the lockdown, vandals broke into several buildings and left behind an incredible amount of damage. If you are so inclined, consider joining their historical society to help repair what was damaged. If you know anything about the damage, please contact NPS Dispatch at 570-426-2457. It is a beautiful place, but if you visit, please be respectful of the history of the town and its residents. Take only photos and leave only footprints.

I hope you enjoyed this “part two” of my official Jersey bucket list and it provides you with more ways to enjoy your staycation in our wonderful state!

Jersey Music and Down the Shore: Perfect Together

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Carousel at Wildwood. Credit: Andrea Lyn Van Benschoten

As it is now Memorial Day Weekend and many of us head down the shore, we often can’t help but think of our youth. Our first car, driving down after prom, windows open, and music blasting.

We have great pride in this state; especially pride for our music. Whether you come from the era of Connie Francis (from my hometown of Belleville), The Four Seasons (from the city of my birth, Newark), Frank Sinatra, Bon Jovi, South Side Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, or The Boss, just like everything else, if you live in Jersey, you have strong opinions about our music.

There is a special sound that comes from Jersey music. As soon as you hear it, you know it is must be a Jersey Guy. But what makes that “Jersey Sound?”

One word: Calliope.

What? Let me explain.

When you go down the shore, you may not head to the rides like The Scrambler anymore, but we all look forward to a ride on the merry-go-round. No matter your age, we all turn into little kids when we head to that special ride that has been on the boardwalk for generations. That unique music mixed with pipe organ and bass drum is one of those happy memories we think about in January when the temperature is in the single digits and the snow is above your knee. While the correct name for the instrument that provides that music is the band organ, most people refer to it as the Calliope.

Now with that in mind, listen to the last minute of Springsteen’s Jungleland or the first 30 seconds of Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, thanks to Roy Bittan. Hear that right hand? That’s the homage to that wonderfully unique sound of the calliope. Add to that Danny Federici’s organ, glockenspiel, and accordion playing, and you have what is known as “that Jersey Sound.”

You can hear this same sound when you listen to Love on the Wrong Side of Town by South Side Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. By the way another Jersey favorite son, Jon Bon Jovi also gigged with the great Southside Johnny.

Many will argue that the prominent use of a horn section is a big part of what makes up that unique sound, and they would be correct. After all, what is The E Street Band without Clarence Clemons? And the use of trumpets hitting the high notes in Southside’s band is a mainstay of his band. But that piano and organ combo is what makes up that special sound.

So as the weather gets warm and we all head down the shore, windows down, wind in our hair, remembering our youth and blast our favorite Jersey music, you can thank the carousels of our childhood for that special music that sets us apart from the rest of the country.