(Editors note: This article first appeared in June of this year. It is reprinted this week).
ROBB AUSTIN'S TURN
Always Play the Sunset
November 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 between playing the notes on a page or playing the sunset, always play the sunset.
The backdrop of this story is high school music teacher Glenn Holland (played by Academy Award winning and iconic actor Richard Dreyfruss), who reluctantly accepts 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 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 local 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', and gives little thought to music impacting the lives of his students. He’s disappointed when they do not learn quickly and gets frustrated with their inability to score well on his subsequent tests.
It finally dawns on him that he – not they – may be responsible for not comprehending the music he is trying to teach.
He realizes that while it may be more quantifiable to teach ‘notes on a page,’ the real learning comes when students understand how and why the subject matter 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 that he provide her with private lessons before each class in hopes that this will help her improve. She’s ecstatic at the prospect of getting better.
Day after day she arrives early to practice with Mr. Holland but nothing changes. She still flubs the notes of the song. Finally, her confidence wanes and she decides to give up and turns in her instrument. She tearfully explains to Mr. Holland 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 supposed to be fun."
He asks her, "When you look into the mirror what do you like best about yourself?"
Gertrude has long beautiful red hair and answers, “My hair. My father says it reminds him of the sunset.”
Mr. Holland takes her 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 the song beautifully all the way through.