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Always Play the Sunset

July 8, 2012

If you haven’t seen the 1995 movie, Mr. Holland’s Opus, you should, and if you’ve seen it once, you should see it again.

It’s about finding fulfillment where you least expect it, and when given the choice in life between playing the notes, or playing the sunset, always play the sunset.

The backdrop of the story is about high school music teacher Glenn Holland (played by Academy Award winning and iconic actor Richard Dreyfruss), who reluctantly takes a teaching position so he can make some money, and have the summer off to work on his real passion, composing music.

The movie starts out with Mr. Holland in his early 20’s and newly married. It then takes us through the attitudinal changes that occur during his life, and how he deals with it, personally and professionally.

In the beginning, he carries out his duties as a school teacher flawlessly. He arrives on time, and does exactly what is asked of him from school administrators.

He sees the job as primarily teaching notes on the page, with little thought about how music might matter in the lives of his students. He’s disappointed when they do not learn, and frustrated with the ineptness of their answers on a test.

It finally dawns on him that he – not they – may be responsible for not comprehending what is being taught.

He realizes that it may be more quantifiable to teach ‘notes on a page,’ but real learning can only begin when students understand how and why something is relevant to their life.

This is revealed in one touching scene when Mr. Holland connects with a young student by the name of Gertrude Lang. She is desperately trying to master the clarinet, and one song in particular, “Stranger on the Shore.”

It’s a beautiful song, and she plays it horribly, but not for lack of practice.

Mr. Holland suggests he provide some private lessons before each class in hopes this will help her improve. She’s ecstatic at the prospect of getting better.

Day after day she comes in early to practice, but nothing changes. She still can't play the notes of the song. Finally, her confidence wanes and she decides to give up and turns in her instrument. She tearfully explains that everyone in her family is a high achiever, and by mastering the clarinet she’d hoped to carve out her own expertise.

Mr. Holland now realizes he’s been teaching her the wrong way. “We've been playing the notes and there's a lot more to music than notes on a page," he says. "Playing music is suppose to be fun."

He asks her, "When you look in the mirror what do you like best about yourself?"

Gertrude, who has long, beautiful red hair, answers, “My hair. My father says it reminds him of the sunset.”

Mr. Holland takes the music sheet away, and asks her to play “Stranger on the Shore,” again, however with one caveat. “Forget the notes, close your eyes, and play the sunset."

She proceeds to play it beautifully all the way through.