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Pass It On

James M. Rohner | May 2014

    Although my cooking aptitude is mostly limited to backyard grilling, I have long been a devoted viewer of Bravo’s popular competition, Top Chef. One unexpected benefit of the reality television era is that it doesn’t take any particular expertise to have an expert opinion while sitting on the couch at home. Thus, even though my knife skills are subpar, and I have absolutely no idea how to incorporate bok choy into my menu, I can still evaluate the success or failure of the tv chefs just by looking at their food.
    In one recent season, finalists traveled to Alaska and were asked to make sourdough bread. I was surprised to learn that one key to making sourdough bread is having an excellent starter, which is a combination of flour, water, yeast, and bacteria. Apparently, when the bacteria interacts with the sugar in the flour, the acidic by-products give sourdough bread its flavor.
    A good starter is a valuable commodity and can often last for generations. Some chefs zealously protect their starters, while others freely pass them on to others. One Wyoming woman had a starter that dated back to a sheepherder’s wagon in 1889, before Wyoming was even a state. It seems odd that bacteria preserved from 125 years ago could produce safe and edible bread today. I would probably want someone else to try it first.
    I thought about the generosity of master chefs passing down their starters as we put together this issue of The Instrumentalist. In April, we asked a distinguished group of directors to share their favorite rehearsal tips. The responses were so strong that we did not have room to print every suggestion in one issue. We asked some additional educators to offer their perspectives, and part two was born.
    When it comes to great teaching ideas, copyright law does not apply. Everybody steals from everybody – colleagues, mentors, friends, and enemies. At a certain point, it can be hard to know just who came up with a particular idea for making rehearsals run more smoothly and ensembles sound better. We gave each contributor a chance to mention one idea that was stolen or borrowed from another director. This allowed them to confess their crimes or at least pay tribute to someone who inspired them. We also gave the contributors a chance to take credit for an idea they had developed over the years. Much like the chefs with their sourdough starters, these veteran directors freely shared their rehearsal ideas.
    One great result of this project was the chance to recognize outstanding directors past and present who have helped music education become such a powerful force for good. When composer and conductor Mark Camphouse recalls lessons he learned as a student of John Paynter’s at Northwestern, he is not just sharing practical teaching advice. He is also helping to preserve Paynter’s wisdom for future generations. When James Barnes tells how a walk on the Kansas campus with Robert Foster changed his perspective on teaching, he ensures that others will benefit from a difficult rehearsal in the 1970s.
    We could not be more grateful to the many outstanding teachers who helped with this article. They have reminded us that everything we do builds on the successes of others, people we may never have met. We also have a duty to help others who could benefit from our hard-won experience. It takes many ingredients for great bread to rise.