If you were there, you’ll remember it and enjoy re-living it. If you weren’t, you’ll enjoy it for the first time. This is the portion of John Alexandar’s speech as he accepted the McCreary Na Ke Akua Aloha Mele Award at the 2014 Joy of Music – International Style. I think he really captured the spirit of his mentor and dear friend:
Although I had had some informal experience directing choirs prior to ‘Iolani, it was really my apprenticeship with John McCreary that paved the way for my career and true calling. I had directed adults, high school- and college-aged students, but had never worked at the elementary level. (I teach grades 4 to 12.) John was a master of working wit’ Da Kine Kiddies, as he called them, and I sat there like a sponge watching him in action. He never could remember any of their names, though, so he gave them all hilarious nicknames, which, ironically, he could remember: Alfonso, Esmerelda, Bernadette, Bob, Bill, Barney, Blaine, and so forth. The only reason he could remember MY name was that it was the same as his. When he needed a bathroom break, he would always say, “I need to go to the room that bears our name!”
John made learning so much fun that the time would just fly by; I try to emulate that. Interestingly, today’s research into the process of learning has proven that in a jovial, relaxed environment, much more thorough learning occurs, and long-term retention is far better than when learning occurs in a stressful environment. Note to crabby teachers across America: LIGHTEN UP!
I started writing and arranging music back in 8th grade. However, it wasn’t until I met John McCreary that I suddenly became much more interested in it, because he was always writing and arranging. Most of you probably don’t know what a prolific composer he was. During grade level meetings, he was always composing things, scribbling furiously away. He would sit there for hours sometimes, focused like a laser on his manuscript, but every once in awhile, out of the clear blue he would chime in loudly, contributing his two cents to the discussion of a particularly difficult child. “HANG HIM!!” he would shout, much to the amusement of his colleagues.
Following John’s example, I started composing choral music, but got stuck quite often, which was very frustrating. Noticing my dismay, one day he gave me some advice which was completely liberating and has resulted in a steady, well, trickle, of published works. He said simply, “Just write something. You can always erase it later – that’s why we use a pencil!” Well, technically, he didn’t ever use the word “pencil.” He made up his own term. Perhaps you know it? Lignographite manual display generator. Everyone who ever sang for John knew that term. Let’s say it together: “Lignographite manual display generator…” Oh, how I miss him!!
After 10 years of team-teaching with me, John retired, but stayed on as ‘Iolani School’s organist. Even after he retired from that 5 years later, he continued as the organist-accompanist for the Chorus and Hōkūloa Singers, right up until his death.
I learned SO many things from John that could easily take up half a dozen chapters in my memoirs, and which have shaped my professional life: how to devise a concert program from start to finish, how to transpose hymns at the piano, how to arrange choral and orchestral music, how to keep a 4th grader’s attention and make him or her want to learn, and how to use “sesquipedalian circumlocution” – the use of big words to talk your way around a topic – for one’s own amusement. However, I think the most important thing John taught me was that an essential goal in life should be the pursuit of joy. I realize that sounds hedonistic and self-centered, but when you think about it, aren’t the most wonderful people you know filled with joy most of the time? A joyous person has much more to contribute to the world. So… what brings you joy in life? For John it was being with and taking care of his family, building his home theater organ and playing it, sharing his vast knowledge of many things with those who craved it, creating and maintaining his fabulous garden, cooking for his family, inflicting his wickedly funny sense of humor on an adoring—and often unsuspecting—public, writing and arranging music, and so much more… He was the greatest example of a Renaissance man I’ve ever known.