Archive for the ‘The Arts’ Category

Sometimes I stop and answer questions about the writing process. Here’s one that posted yesterday at Interviews and Reviews:


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Early in the fall semester, I began to pray for God to give me some kids to mentor. I listed off the ones I thought might be leadership and asked for confirmation. You know, seniors…soloists…loudmouths… Then forgot all about it in the busyness of day-to-day teaching.

But God did not forget. Sometime in mid-September, I got an email from a parent of a boy I didn’t even know, Taylor Something, who (his enthusiastic mother claimed) was a budding musical genius. He was in the band at LeFlore and played piano in church, and his mother wondered if I would teach him private piano lessons. I answered politely that I didn’t have time for outside lessons because I needed to focus on my choral students, and I sent her to the Mobile Music Teachers website. “That ought to satisfy her,” I thought, mentally dusting my hands.

Then one day a few weeks later, I was sitting at my desk during lunchtime catching up on email while I swallowed a turkey sandwich. Usually I shoo all the students out and lock the choir room door, because I need that thirty minutes of peace like I need air and water. But pretty soon I realized I was hearing a Beethoven sonata coming from the electric piano just outside my office. Loud, crashing chords, rippling scales in octaves. Dang, I must have left the door ajar and somebody came in and turned on the demo. Happened all the time, and it annoyed the heck out of me.

So I got up and stomped to the door, ready to send the intruder back to the cafeteria where he belonged. Sure enough, one of my advanced chorus kids was perched on my stool, watching another very tall, very lanky boy sitting at the piano with his back to me.

“Jaleel, what are you doing in here?” I said mildly. He asks to stay and practice a couple of times a week, and I usually let him because he knows how to keep it soft and jazzy and soothing.

Jaleel looked guilty. “I’m sorry, Mrs. White, I just wanted Taylor to show me this thing, and your door was open.”

It wasn’t until the music stopped that I realized it wasn’t anything I’d heard on the demo before. This was live music. Maybe it wasn’t even Beethoven.

The tall boy looked over his shoulder with a sheepish grin and cut his eyes at Jaleel. “He said you wouldn’t care.” He had on a band jacket, but I didn’t recognize him.

Wait a minute. Taylor. I started to connect dots. “Are you Taylor Travillion? Is your mother a teacher at Holloway?”

“Yes ma’am.” He gave Jaleel an apprehensive look, and Jaleel shrugged.

“Was that you playing that piece?” I demanded. “How did you learn it?”

“Yes ma’am, it was me. I heard it on a video game.” He got up, clearly ready to slink back to the cafeteria—well, as much as a 6’3” string bean can slink.

“Okay, hang on,” I said, looking him over. Neat haircut. Pants that actually fit, belted at the waist, shirttail tucked in. Wooden-beaded cross at his throat. Shy smile. “Y’all can stay,” I said grudgingly. “But Jaleel, go shut the door so nobody else will wander in.”

I went back to my desk, leaving my office door open. Beethoven and email, I thought, relaxing. It could be worse.

The next two nights I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about a kid who could play Beethoven by ear and couldn’t afford piano lessons. I thought about all the things I needed to do at home after school. And I thought about how I’d asked God for disciples.


The next time Taylor slipped into the choir room to “borrow the piano for a few minutes,” I shut my eyes and asked him if he’d found a piano teacher yet.

“No ma’am.”

Dang. I braced myself. “How about Wednesday afternoons after school?”

His face lit up like a Christmas tree. “Okay! That’s my only day I don’t have band sectionals.”

The next day I emailed Taylor’s mother to tell her I’d changed my mind, and you would have thought I’d bought him a BMW. Sheesh. One hour a week.

The first time we met for a lesson, I interviewed Taylor to get a feel for how much he already knew. He’s a trumpet player, so the treble clef was familiar—the bass clef, not so much. Strong rhythmic skills, again thanks to years of band. I discovered he liked to improvise and arrange (no big surprise) so I had him take notes on interval and chord qualities—major, minor, perfect, augmented, diminished—and for me, the teacher, it was like meeting an American-speaking native in a foreign country. Finally, somebody who spoke the language of music, fluently and beautifully. Taylor absorbed everything I said, without an eye-roll or yawn, for a solid hour.

Fast-forward six weeks. I now have four piano boys after school on Wednesdays—Taylor, Jaleel, Donavan and Ricardo—and it’s my favorite day of the week. Varying degrees of musical training, but all exceptionally gifted, one in each of the four grades. We’ve already covered the circle of fifths, chord structure and harmony, scale composition, and sight-reading. I find myself dredging up pedagogical techniques used by my high school piano teacher (who is now conducting ballroom dance and baton twirling lessons in heaven, God rest her soul), and now I see that Mrs. Goodman wasn’t quite as crazy as I used to think.

One of the coolest things about my little “master class” is the way these boys feed off competition. Nobody wants to be the last one to figure out the answer to my leading questions. They all want to be first. The intellectual power in the room, the sheer musical giftedness—not to mention the testosterone—is enough to fuel a nuclear reactor. Don’t ask me why there are no girls there. I don’t really care. If God wants them there, they will come.

Another sweet byproduct is that I’m training choral accompanists for the next three years. And these children of the 21st Century have been teaching me how to use the Finale digital arrangement program that has been sitting in my computer for nearly two years (who has time to read a 900-page instruction manual??). Taylor is already writing marching band arrangements, and I fully expect them all to be writing full orchestrations and original choral pieces by the time they graduate.

So am I congratulating myself on developing this trail-blazing piano class? On sacrificing yet another hour a week without pay?

On the contrary, I go to Wednesday night prayer meetings and cast myself face down at the altar, begging God to help me keep up with my students. I feel like I’m dog-paddling in the deep end of the pool, and my floaties just popped. If you know what a pathetic swimmer I am, you’d know just how terrifying that image is. I am scared spitless and exhilarated beyond measure. And I don’t know why I put this out there for the world to read, except to encourage someone else who may be ready to back out of the insanity that is teaching in a public high school.

You’ve got to find where God is working and go there. Do not settle for mediocrity. Do not settle for safe. There are children out there who need a human face and human hands to lead them. And these children will create and foster beauty and teach others who will do the same.

Please, somebody remind me of this tomorrow when I shut and lock my choir room door.

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One of my students showed up early on the first day of school last year. Lights-barely-on early.


“Hey, Mrs. White,” said Walter, “this is my cousin Tyleem. He wants to be in choir.”


I peered over Walter’s shoulder and saw a skinny little boy dressed in a Freshman-white shirt, neatly pressed khakis, and a big smile. He looked like he’d barely passed the fourth grade. I couldn’t believe his voice had even changed.


“How old are you?” I said suspiciously.


“Fourteen. I’m small for my age.”


I’ll say, I thought. “Were you in choir in middle school?”


“No ma’am, but I was in the band. I play the trumpet. And I sing at church all the time.”


“He sings real good,” added Walter. “You should hear him.”


“All right,” I said, feeling like Simon Cowell, “let’s find a practice room and give you a listen.”


Okay, sometimes I’m wrong. The kid sounded like a little bit Michael Jackson, a little bit Stevie Wonder, with a smooth deep lower register and soaring falsetto, dead-on pitch recognition, and decent sight-reading skills. So I emailed the freshman guidance counselor and asked her to change Tyleem’s schedule.


Fast forward to November, with Christmas around the corner. I found a gospel/R & B piece called “Baby King” by singer/songwriter Mark Cohn (who also wrote the blockbuster hit “Walking in Memphis”), and when I played the recording for the choir, they went nuts over it. After class that day, the choir president stuck his head into my office on his way out. “You ought to let Tyleem sing that solo. He was up there just goofin’ off and sounded better than the guy on the CD.”


This time I knew better than to argue.


By the end of the semester, Tyleem had acquired the nickname “Baby King”. Every time we performed that song, something electric would happen between the choir and the audience. In Memphis they call it “mojo.” My buddy Simon calls it the X Factor. Whatever it is, you know it when you hear it. And I was going to have this kid in my choir for three more years.




Then one night in early January, Tyleem and some fraternity brothers were coming home after a meeting and ran out of gas on a dark county road. They pushed the car off to the side and started walking toward the nearest gas station. The next thing Tyleem knew, he woke up face down underneath a running vehicle, screaming in pain from the muffler burning his back, and calling for help. Some time later a passerby finally stopped, called 911, and an ambulance arrived.


Tyleem was in the hospital for months, recovering from third degree burns. I went to see him as soon as I heard what happened, and had to wade through a crowd of teenage boys to get to him—marching band members, fraternity brothers, church family. I hugged Tyleem’s grandmother, who was sitting on the couch beside the bed, then turned to find a very small pile of boy lying on his side under white sheets.


“Mrs. White,” he whispered, “how am I going to learn the choir music this semester?”


My eyes teared up. “I’ll bring you a packet of music and a CD.”


Well…he didn’t get back to school in time to perform with us very much that semester, but when I announced info about summer show choir camp, Tyleem was the first to sign up. In fact, he was almost the only one to sign up. And I had to drive twenty miles up the interstate to Whistler, Alabama, to pick him up and take him home every day. We did this for two weeks at the beginning of summer for vocal camp, and again two weeks before school started, for choreography camp. We had some great conversations on those long drives. We talked about church and family and horses and cars. And music, of course.


One day we were discussing what it takes to be successful as a performer in the music industry. Tyleem could hardly comprehend that I’d chosen to get married, raise children, and teach music, instead of taking the stage.


“Mrs. White,” he said, voice and expression dead serious, “I just want to be famous. I know that’s why the Lord saved me in that accident.”


“He’s got a plan for you, for sure,” I agreed and told him I wouldn’t be surprised if he someday was famous. “But remember fame and money don’t necessarily bring happiness.”


“What do you mean?”


I fumbled to say what I meant without getting preachy. “People who get famous because of unusual talent are often used by people wanting a ride along with the money. If your feet aren’t grounded in your family and your church and good friends who will tell you the truth, it’s easy to get dragged into habits—destructive habits—and places you’d be embarrassed to be seen in now.” I looked at him. “You’ll be better off chasing after excellence and good character.”


“Huh. I hadn’t thought about that.” He looked like he didn’t particularly want to think about it, either.


“Just remember who really loves you, Tyleem.”


“Yes, ma’am. I will.” He gave me that bright smile again and changed the subject.


And we’ve been up and down since then. He won the closing solo in that show choir production and had girls asking for his autograph and phone number afterwards. Which created something of an ego problem—culminating in his math teacher putting on the screws by refusing to let him attend a choral field trip because he was failing geometry.


He was dumbfounded when I concurred. “You’re not gonna make her let me go?”


“Nope. You don’t go anywhere with me until you have a B in math.”


“A B! But I hate math!”


“You have to know how to keep track of your finances if you’re going to be a millionaire.”


Miraculously Tyleem had an 85 in math at the end of the quarter.


And then there was the time he skipped marching band to make up work he’d missed in English. Band directors being notoriously unsympathetic, Mr. Standifer socked Tyleem into retract—in-school suspension. Baby King turned on the charm and talked the retract manager into calling me to ask if he could come to the choir room for an hour to “work on his songs.”


“Absolutely not.” I hung up the phone, wondering if Stevie Wonder’s teachers ever wanted to mash him into a greasy spot on the rug.


Some days I think I’d like to go back to writing fiction full-time. Stay home with my dog and my computer. Work in my jammies.


But then I remind myself that I was specifically steered toward—nay, shoved into—my career as a teacher at LeFlore High School in Mobile, Alabama. I’ll never be famous. But I might just teach someone who will be one day.


If you want a great concert, come out to Bellingrath GardensMagic Christmas in Lights on December 1. Meet Baby King in person. Just don’t tell him I called him that.




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The young people in the cover photo with this blog entry are more dear to me than I can say. Six of them are seniors, and my eyes instantly sting when I think about their upcoming graduation. The ten or so missing from the photo—due to scheduling conflicts, family emergencies, and disciplinary issues—are equally part of my heart. The stories I could tell, the lessons I have learned, would fill up an entire year’s worth of Glee episodes. The old maxim that “the more you put into something, the more you get out of it” has become a cliche for a reason. It’s true.

And, as I noted a few months ago in another blog, the more you invest in another person’s life, the more joy and pride explodes when things go well. And the more it hurts when disappointment or separation ruptures the relationship.

Multiply that by forty.

To the right are four of my brightest and best. We had been invited to sing the National Anthem for the Opening Ceremonies of the Mobile Special Olympics. So last week on a cool, perfect spring morning we loaded my little Honda and drove to the  “prep school” side of town. Of course the students were thrilled to be released from classes. But more than that, I saw a blossoming of generosity and humility as they understood they were giving to students less physically and mentally blessed than themselves. I wish I’d had my camera ready to capture the expressions of awe when the four of them looked up as the Coast Guard planes zoomed overhead while they sang “o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Truly a grand moment.

A few days later, I arranged to take twenty or so students to a matinee production of Puccini’s Tosca, performed by Mobile Opera at the Civic Center Theater. Gorgeous sets, full live orchestra, $60 seats for $5 (it was the “dress rehearsal,” but I didn’t see a single glitch). Can’t beat a deal like that.

That was the first time I’d seen Tosca, though I was familiar with many of the arias from my undergrad studies at Mississippi State and graduate work at Southwestern Seminary. I missed a lot of the performance, though, because I kept watching my students’ faces as these wonderful professional musicians brought 19th century Italian and French history to life in glorious color, sound and language. During the scene where Tosca lies prostrate, singing her grief and love—from a position in which most of us have difficulty breathing, much less effortlessly zinging out high C’s—I was afraid a couple of my girls might leap onto their chairs and whoop. They managed to maintain dignity, but it was a near thing. Beautiful.

So I would like to take this opportunity to thank a few friends who have invested monetarily in my work with the music students of LeFlore High School this year. You’ll never know until you get to heaven what a difference you’ve made in the lives of young people who will, in turn, make a difference in the lives of others to come after them. Besides the two events mentioned here, I have been able to take students to choral conferences, college scholarship auditions, and arts festivals. I’ve purchased music, CD’s, and small equipment which has put items in their musical toolboxes. I’ve wrestled in prayer over every nickel I spent, because I wanted to make the highest possible impact for good.

I don’t know how else to express my gratitude except to say thank you and God bless you.

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Mobile County Honor Choir 2010

I have taught in the Mobile County Public School System off and on for nearly twenty-five years. Like most people, I kind of have a love-hate relationship with it. You know, everybody thinks education is a good thing. We ought to encourage boys and girls to learn to read, write, and do enough math to become a good citizen. There’s a lot of disagreement about the outside details, though. (Do we teach them sex education? How much recreation and play time do they need? What percentage of time should be allotted for sports and the fine arts?) And how many stinkin’ tax dollars are enough to fund it?

My first experience was at Blount High School, which is traditionally an all-black school, not too far from LeFlore, where I teach now. At the time, the Birdie Mae Davis Civil Rights suit had just been settled with the agreement to relocate the entire faculty of Blount (who all  happened to be black) to other schools, and re-hire a half-and-half color mix. I was one of the white half.

The Boys After the Concert

It was an interesting year. I was assigned to teach four sections of ninth grade English (try teaching Romeo and Juliet to a bunch of urban kids who spoke a fine version of Ebonics), and one section of chorus. The chorus room was in such bad shape (no heat or air-conditioning, broken windows, mildew everywhere) that I simply moved the piano to my English classroom and entertained the whole English wing during 3rd period chorus. Though my English classes were an exercise in frustration, I discovered that my chorus students loved music and would try anything I handed them. I might still be at Blount today if I hadn’t had two babies in diapers back then, and it absolutely broke my heart to drop them off at daycare every day. My husband and I decided I needed to be home with them, so I taught piano lessons out of my home and did a part-time gig with the Dauphin Way Baptist Church children’s choir program. Good decision, looking back.

The Girls After the Concert

Anyway, by the time I went back to teach full-time after sending Ryan and Hannah off to the Navy and college respectively, my interests had drifted away from music toward creative writing. I needed a full-time job, so I took the Praxis exam and recertified to teach Language Arts. Found a job pretty quickly at Causey Middle School, where my relationship with Mobile County Public Schools took a swing to the dark side. I found myself doing daily battle with adolescent hormones, a portable classroom infested by chronic dust and roaches, a disorganized principal, and an insane amount of paperwork.

Um, no thanks. I finished out the year, then quit my job, enrolled in grad school at the University of South Alabama and taught Freshman Composition as a teaching assistant. Absolutely loved that year hanging out with college students. But with Masters in Creative Writing in hand, I started looking for a high school English job.

Which is how I wound up at LeFlore. They needed a chorus director worse than they needed a reading specialist (school had been in session for 4 weeks already), so the principal asked me if I’d be willing to take the music Praxis and get recertified [yikes, cramming music theory and history for two months!]. But I passed by the grace of God, and here I am doing what I’m born to do.

Rehearsal Day - The Girls

There are frustrating days, of course, but there are days like Monday and Tuesday of this week when I got to watch and listen to nine of my top students experience the joy of participating in County Honor Choir. The public school system has its problems for sure, but there are moments of shining glory when I wouldn’t want to be anyplace else. Imagine 140 gifted teenagers singing Randall Thompson’s Last Words of David…”Cantate Domino” by Hassler…Moses Hogan’s arrangement of “I’m Gonna Sing ‘Til the Spirit Moves in My Heart”…”Salmo 150”, which is a glorious, sort of Spanish-influenced piece in Latin.

Rehearsal Day - The Boys

I wish I could share the music, but these photos will give you a little flavor of the event. Maybe one day I’ll write a book, sort of my Lower Alabama version of Pat Conroy’s magnificent The Water is Wide.

But right now I’m too busy teaching music.

Performance Warm-Up

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My friend Leanna Ellis has a new book releasing this month, and I wanted to tell you about it. Here’s the scoop:

Once in a Blue Moon
ISBN: 978-0-8054-4988-4 B&H Publishing

Faith is the first step to soaring.

The day Armstrong stepped on the moon has special memories for most Americans, but not for Bryn Seymour. It’s the day her mother died. Despite death defying feats, guilt has always pulled Bryn down time and again. But a perfect love shows her taking a leap of faith is the first step to soaring. But it only happens … once in a blue moon.

About Leanna:

‘Leanna Ellis takes a back seat to no one,’ says Debbie Macomber. But Leanna hopes she allows God in the driver’s seat as she taxies her two children to and from all their activities, lets her menagerie of pets in and out … in and out …, figures out what to cook for dinner (or where to order takeout), and at the same time keeps those quirky characters in her head from bothering others. Winner of the National Readers Choice Award, Leanna writes quirky women’s fiction with a splash of romance. From a long line of southerners and patriots, she lives with her family in Texas.

To buy the book from Amazon click here.

To read an excerpt of Once in a Blue Moom, click here.

To check out Leanna’s website click here, and her blog here.

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Early in my career at my favorite writing spot--Carpe Diem Coffee Shop

How’s that for a self-absorbed title? But me is all I’ve got. Wait, I am all I have. Never mind.

What I mean to say is, I’ve always liked my names. All forty-five of them, and I never particularly cared what anybody called me. My mom and dad named me Tomi Elizabeth Cook. “Tomi” is sort of after my grandfather, Thomas Evans. “Elizabeth” is, I think, my father’s wistful recollection of a a woman he knew while he was stationed in Germany during the Korean War. But my mother wanted to call me “Beth” after the sweet tragic character in Little Women (Mama played the role of Beth in her high school play).

My sisters have always called me “Bethie,” and my dad would call me “Tomi Beth” when I was in trouble. High school friends at church nick-named me “Cookie” but that never stuck very hard. Teachers of course wanted to start out the school year calling “Tomi” from the roll…and I was so shy it was often weeks before I got up the nerve to whisper that I like to be called “Beth” instead. Being called by a nickname taken from the end of your middle name requires way too much explanation.

And then I got married, and things really got complicated. When you fill out your marriage license you need your whole legal name. And I was about to stick a fourth one on the end of it. I knew I’d need to use my maiden name for most legal forms, like Social Security. So I decided to drop the whole “Tomi Elizabeth” thing and just go for Beth Cook White. Simple and clean.

But wait! Drivers license administrators do not like nicknames. They insisted on the one from my birth certificate. So for many years my Social Security card and drivers license didn’t match, which created innumerable headaches when applying for jobs and graduate school. I developed a sort of identity schizophrenia, which may be redundant, I don’t know.

My students know me as Mrs. White, though one insists on referring to me as “Hattie” for reasons known only to her.

You may be wondering what this has to do with writing and publishing. And who cares anyway?

Well, when I sold my first novella to Tyndale back in 1998, I had to pick a name to write under. It’s quite an important decision, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Do you write under your own name and capitalize on the friends and relatives who *should* be automatic buys? Or is it more important to protect your identity? Do you go for legal simplicity and use your own name, or take the opportunity to create the perfect persona for the type of book you write?

I didn’t have an agent at the time, but I had several friends who had published books. Everybody but my husband went with the “pick an elegant, romantic professional name.” One day, they said, you’ll want a little distance from the reader on the street. Frankly I had no illusions that I’d ever be remotely famous. I mean, you always hope you’ll become a best-selling author, but really. Seriously? No.

So I sort of compromised and chose my legal married name, Elizabeth White (by this time I’d changed my Social Security listing for simplicity’s sake). It was my real name and it sounded romantic and elegant.

Unnnnnfortunately, all my high school and college friends knew me as Beth Cook. Some people to whom I sent free copies of my first book never connected it with me and discarded it! What?! Yes really. Who’s this Elizabeth White person? And the longer I’ve used that name to write under, the more uncomfortable it becomes to say “I write as Elizabeth but please call me Beth.” It sounds so pretentious.

So here I am, taking a corner in my writing career. I’m not famous, but I have a few loyal fans. I may annoy the heck out of them by changing anything about the books and the author they like. I may confuse some people. Are the stories the same? Will the writing style change? After all, some authors pick a pseudonym when they switch genres.

But you know what? I kind of like the idea of starting fresh. There’s nothing wrong with what I’ve been writing—in fact, I’m pretty proud of most of my published work—but I want to stretch myself. I want to reach a broader audience. I want to be more professionally accessible.

And here’s the deal. I’m tired of pretending to be romantic and elegant and erudite. I’m just a quirky Southern girl with a wide range of interests from teaching to art to music to literature. And I want to write about that. In my own name.

I’m just Beth. Can I get away with that?

Feedback welcome.

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