A few weeks ago I found out that my high school orchestra teacher, Dan Holt, passed away over the summer.

I was so sorry not to have been able to go to any of the gatherings held in his honor, so this blog entry is my tribute to him.

(And what better time to practice gratitude than Thanksgiving?)

photo of Mr Holt posted on FB by Jake BrookmanIt feels nearly impossible to write, though. What can you possibly say about someone who had such a profound impact on you?

I guess all you can do is tell stories.

In the mid-90s, I was one of Mr. Holt’s students in the community youth orchestras he directed – first the Young People’s Concert Orchestra (YPCO) and then the Young People’s Symphonic Orchestra (YPSO), both at what was then alternately known as CASA or the Symphony Music School.  These ensembles fed into the Saint Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, but once we made it there, we often played in both SLSYO and YPSO just so we could spend more time with him.

These Young People’s Orchestras brought together students from all across the Saint Louis region, and were often a safe haven for kids who “wanted their Mozart as much as their MTV” (to quote an advertising poster that featured a picture from one of our rehearsals).

posterIt’s not an exaggeration to say those two-hour sessions were the highlight of my week.

Mr. Holt made these orchestras both challenging and musically fulfilling. It never felt like we were kids in some extracurricular activity; he took us seriously as developing artists, even when we were as young as 7th or 8th grade.

What we did, how we played – it mattered to him, and we could trust his compliments because he’d also tell us when something wasn’t sounding up to our potential.

A friend recently remarked that she always thought he got a better sound out of those orchestras than anyone else who took the podium, and I definitely agree.

rehearsalHe also took great care to communicate that the way we related to each other was part of our musicianship.  Mr. Holt created an ethos in which we strove for excellence, together, as a group. He talked about having a ‘friendly competition’ with your stand partner, that the two of you should be egging each other on in the best way possible: who can play with the most care for the dynamic markings? Who never misses an accent or an entrance? When you hear the other person do something you like, can you copy it the next time it comes around?

To this day I still channel a memory of him telling us to “fake it ‘til you make it,” demonstrating on a student’s violin how it looked when you played the hard parts with lots of tension and effort, and then what a huge difference it made to lighten up and play with a sense of ease, even if you weren’t totally sure of yourself yet. (How many times have I done this with my own students? How many times have I remembered this advice during a performance, and felt my shoulders relax just as the tricky parts came up?)

11265201_1046614702024795_8057646364844570515_oHe was the first teacher I ever saw apologize to a student. He did it from the podium, took his time, and was so sincere. (We hardly knew how to react.)

There was a time that he asked me to play in a woodwind quintet for a children’s opera. I remember my excitement when he called; I remember getting off the phone and berating my teenage self for not playing it cooler. (Now I think how that enthusiasm was something he lived for, and sparked over and over again.)

My memories of those concerts are hazy, but there’s a crystal-clear moment from a rehearsal when he looked at me and said I was really playing well that day. (More than any performance high, I think I’ve chased the feeling of that practice ever since.) What he meant was: you are playing like every note matters. Which, of course, it does.

YPCO flute section 1996But more than this: my mother reminds me of a time I broke a viola string in the first piece on a concert.  He held the whole orchestra while I ran backstage to replace it, just so I could play on the second piece too.

Those are the little things that are really the big things – this message of: we are all part of this, everyone on stage matters, we are doing this together.

Honestly, there isn’t really anything special about my story – but then that’s a mark of how special Mr. Holt was.

Through decades of service in his school district and community positions, he touched the lives of literally thousands of students.

Now that his alumni are spread out across the country, I think we’re kind of like a dandelion puff that’s been scattered to the wind: everyone might have landed in different places and taken root in different careers, but we’re all giving voice to the kind of genuine impact a music educator can make over the course of a lifetime.

bio in programIf, like me, you’re hearing this sad news a little late: there’s a beautiful Facebook group dedicated to sharing memories (a tip of the hat to Jake Brookman for setting this up).

I was beyond delighted to find this video of him talking with students in a 1993 YPCO rehearsal:

His distinguished-yet-unassuming body language, his willingness to pause and reflect, his uncanny ability to connect with one student across a room of a hundred, the warmth he projected from the podium… it’s been two decades, but watch a few seconds of this video (say, 2:20-2:45) and it all comes flooding back.

It was also lovely to relive a memory of playing Dvorak in YPSO via this circa 1998 concert video:

Finally, I also appreciated reading how Mr. Holt described his philosophy of education on his website.  My favorite passage:

I consistently provide my students with the skills, advice and direction, and the love of music making so that they experience life-long enjoyment from music. I endeavor to create situations where students learn and perform at their highest potential, recognize and appreciate quality, and develop a respect for the role music has in their lives…It is my most strongly held belief that students not only need but that they also want to know about symphonic music.  The key to achieve that concept among young people is in both the content and the context of symphonic activities and performances.

All I know is, this was a worthy mission that he accomplished over and over again.

Thank you so much, Mr. Holt. Thank you for everything.