I was raised on a farm in rural Maine, and it seems unlikely for a farm boy like me to become a musician. Yet here I am, a musician and a music educator. I first attended the Northern Conservatory of Music in Bangor, Maine in the fall of 1970, and I am so glad that this was my first experience as a music major. None of you
have probably ever heard of this school, and yet, for those of us that were fortunate to experience this very special place for the last two years of its’ existence, count those years as among the most exciting and rewarding of our careers and lifetimes. More about that later.
The Conservatory closed its’ doors in1972, if my memory serves me correctly. It was a very, very sad time for those of us that were there. I eventually transferred to Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, where I was challenged to grow and mature musically and emotionally. The students from the Conservatory, who attended those final years, have kept in touch and all belong to a ListServe that enables us to share what is
going on in our lives, etc. More recently, a member of our group has been researching the history of the Conservatory, and has posted lists of graduates since the opening of the school in the 1920’s. I was reading
his most recent posts last week and there in front of my eyes was Laura Nottage! You may not have known her, but I knew her well. She was my elementary, middle school and high school music teacher and my first and only piano teacher before college. A flood of memories ensued, and although I have known this for many years, this woman gave me more than I could ever repay her for. I kept in touch with her for all the years that she was alive, and I remember clearly the day I got a phone call from my parents in Maine informing me of her passing. I
miss her, but my life is richer because of her. I want to share some of this with you, and than draw some conclusions.
Mrs. Nottage. That was how I addressed her as a student, and that is the way I addressed her for the rest of her life. It was out of a high level of respect and love that I never called her Laura; she never asked me to do anything else, and I would have never thought to address her in any other way. When I was very young my parents had me start piano lessons with Mrs. Nottage. I remember it well, as at the time I was attending a small two room school house in Waldo, Maine; the school was the Van Poland School, and it really did consist of two classrooms, separated in the middle by a multi-purpose room with a cement floor which served every other purpose that the school had. Concerts, lunch every day, assemblies, etc. It also had a very large Mason and Hamlin upright grand piano, and that was the piano that I look my first lessons on every week at some point during the school day. Mrs. Nottage never missed a lesson and neither did I. She attended to me and my development with care, love and professionalism. I practiced diligently for my lessons, but I might add, not because I was that motivated at the time. My parents were making a big sacrifice for me to take these lessons, and it was never a question that when I got home at night I would practice. Period. No questions. And I did.
I remember every piece during those years; did we not all study piano from the John Thompson method?! I am sure that many times I was not as prepared as I might have been, but Mrs. Nottage never complained and stayed the course with incredible patience and kindness. I came to look forward to those lessons, and I remember that in middle school she had me play in my first concert in the gymnasium of Morse Memorial School in Brookes,
Maine. I remember the piece being the Burgmuller “Tarentella;” and I was hooked! She was proud of me and complimented me after the performance.
Now that I think about it, that was the first time I ever really entertained the thought that maybe I might be a musician. Over the years she taught me piano and introduced me to my first Bach, Chopin and Beethoven. I once played an “arrangement” of the Mendelssohn piano concerto (first movement) with the high school orchestra at Mt. View High School in Thorndike, Maine. During high school she decided that I should study organ, and my parents agreed, and so she brought me to the Methodist Church in Belfast, Maine where she gave me my first organ lessons on the wonderful two manual tracker pipe organ that she had played for years. She was the choir director and organist at that church. Purportedly she had studied organ with E. Power Biggs; she
certainly knew her stuff, and soon she had me playing Sunday services there from time to time as her substitute. Later she arranged for me to have the keys to the church, and I was able to practice organ whenever I wished. There was also a grand piano there, and I made good use of that privilege.
My first singing experiences were with Mrs. Nottage too. She was my classroom music teacher and we sang a lot! I remember one particular day in school when she had come to our classroom for class, and during a song we were singing she broke down and started to cry. She left the room but soon returned composed and continued on. Later our teacher had told us that a close friend or relative had passed away, and she had been upset. I distinctly remember making a connection that day to the power of music as it related to our emotions. During all those years in chorus I sang all sorts of literature with Mrs. Nottage; not all of it was great stuff, but at the time I thought it was! But what I do remember is that she always strived for many of the same things that we as choral directors in our school strive for today. She was good…..very good. She was responsible for me auditioning and being selected to sing multiple years in the Kennebec Valley Festival, and it was there that I was exposed to Gerard Chamberland, director of Choral Activities at Gorham State College, now the University of Southern Maine. I was changed, and I knew from that moment on that this was what I wanted to do. The piece was the Handel “Hallelujah, Amen” from Judas Maccabeus. I was hooked, thrilled, moved and absolutely struck by the power of this music. Mrs. Nottage also encouraged me to audition for Maine All State, and I did, and I was accepted, only to find myself in Bangor Auditorium singing under Robert Page. It was an experience that has stayed with me all my life.
Mrs. Nottage took me to the University of Maine, Orono, one December (just me!) to hear a performance of Messiah. I had never heard anything like that as a rural farm boy, and I was moved beyond words when the Hallelujah Chorus arrived, and everyone stood! I had no idea why everyone stood at the time, but the experience was overwhelming for me. Mrs. Nottage was unselfishly grooming me for something that I had no idea about; she saw something in me that no one else saw. I wish I had said thank you more often.
Mrs. Nottage was married to a wonderful man, Clinton! She was devoted to this man, and as I look back on it, she was, simply put, madly in love with him. Indeed, Mrs. Nottage was a beautiful woman, although I did not much take notice in those years. But what I saw was her devotion to this man who was a custodian in the local school district. He would go to concerts with her, and she would use him for opinions at dress rehearsals and other performances she was involved in. She always said that he was her best critic, and she trusted him implicitly. Late in his life he was afflicted with Alzheimers. It was a slow process for him, and Mrs. Nottage, against all advice, kept him at home and cared for him until the very end. I remember her saying that they had shared this beautiful life together, and that she would not leave him alone just because of this illness. I remember Mr. Nottage during those years, still with Mrs. Nottage at his side, always unwavering, steady; as she always was with me and her other students.
Toward the middle of her career she decided that Mt. View High School should have a string program, so she did just that, taking cello lessons herself for several years, learning a new instrument late in her life. The string program at the high school endured for many years, and to my knowledge, still exists. It is a miracle to me, still, that for years she was the only music teacher in a district that was not only rural but spread out over a distance that would make any job in this state seem like a dream. She taught music in many small schools in many small towns in this district, and was also one of two music teachers at the high school. I also remember that she taught us middle school students music theory in special classes just for that purpose. Imagine! And everyone was required to take them, not just a few. Mrs. Nottage gave and gave and gave to her students as unselfishly as anyone I have known since. She also had two children and managed to do all the things with her children that any other mother would do, and still do her job! In particular I remember her daughter Linda, a talented dancer, and her son Darren (I think) that she was so very proud of.
When I went to graduate school I played for a couple of graduate vocal recitals, and would you believe she showed up for one of those performances. I was so honored that, as a retired teacher, she took the time to attend, and, after the performance she came up to me and said, with that smile I remember so well, “so where did you learn to play piano like that?” We went out to dinner and had a chance to catch up. I also remember her coming to my senior piano recital as an undergraduate in Vermont.
I look back on all of that and I see that Mrs. Nottage set an example for me and so many others. And I also reflect on all that she gave me that was not quite so visible, but nonetheless, a beautiful gift from her to me. Those piano lessons sent me on a journey that I would never give away; the love that I have for the literature of that instrument. I never became the pianist that I think I was capable of becoming, but at one time I was pretty good, and I think she was proud of me. But even more importantly, she gave me the gift of learning to play the organ, and the love of that instrument and its repertoire has consumed a large part of my life. One of the most precious things she gave me was the love of the choral art; something that I know was also close to her heart as well. And she also modeled, by example, the love and respect that individuals have for each other in a marriage, and the example she showed through the love she had for her children never left me. She served all her life in the church as a choir director and organist, and through example modeled her love for God and the example that He set for us all. Mrs. Nottage was a devoted, committed, dedicated and hard working music educator, and as I look at myself and what I do as a music educator, I fully realize that as hard as I try, I could not possibly do what she did in her lifetime for so many young music students. I wonder sometimes if we all might reflect back to those individuals in our lives who worked so hard to make possibilities become realities for us. There are many Mrs. Nottages’s in this world, I am sure. But for me she was instrumental in shaping my life, and I wonder sometimes if we all might work a little harder and complain a little less. What we do is so very important, and as music educators we fill a role in the lives of our students that carries more import that we all might realize. I wish Mrs. Nottage, and those like her, could return for a while, because they might have some very valuable knowledge to pass on to us. Think about it.