Those Who Can, Teach

AISD Music Directors William Dick & Elizabeth Brady

It is most musicians' dream to stand in front of thousands of concert-goers, sonorously playing the music of the masters to wild applause. But just as rich, if not more so, is playing in front of six dozen kids, teaching them the music for the benefit of their generation and beyond. Just ask William Dick and Elizabeth Brady. "The look on [students'] faces when they are able to accomplish something -- that's the thrill for me," Brady says. Dick concurs: "As I turn over in my life, I really am glad I'm doing something that allows kids with the urge to succeed. We're providing an opportunity for those kids to strut." Brother and sister, the pair have been music educators for more than 20 years, working primarily with AISD students. Both are conductors of the Austin Youth Symphony's (AYS) high school orchestra and directors of the Armadillo Suzuki Organization, a network of 500 families with children in private training. While both came from performing backgrounds -- he plays violin, she cello -- and while Dick's initial experience of teaching at the university level was sour, both seemed destined to teach the music they love.

The siblings grew up in Winfield, Kansas, which curiously gave them a head start in their musical education. The town had the first youth orchestra in the nation affiliated with the public school system as opposed to a mainstream symphony or university. "The most unique thing about the entire program is that we didn't think it was unique," Brady says. "It was not a matter of if you were going to play, but when." Both of their parents were musicians, playing in church and country-western ensembles, yet it was their teachers who planted the early seeds of the profession in the two. "They always stressed the idea of teamwork; maybe that's why it's a big deal to me now," says Brady. Adds Dick, "The teachers were dynamic people. In my case it was the hardest thing I ever encountered, but also the most synergistic thing I did in school. The violin was my replacement for Ritalin."

Dick went from a bachelor's degree in psychology at Arizona State University to a master's in music at UT Austin in 1970; Brady studied music at Kansas State. She came to Austin to visit her brother over spring break and, as she puts it, "Once I got to Austin, like so many people, I was like, `Uh oh, I'm going to stay.'" She did some graduate work at UT in 1971 and played with the Wichita Falls Symphony, a string group, and a pickup group, yet, Brady says, "I think I always knew I wanted to be a teacher." She had conducted private lessons since her undergraduate days and began substitute teaching with AISD. When a colleague and friend of hers became terminally ill in 1972, she took over the job. Soon after, she became active in the All-City Orchestra and conducted its junior high orchestra for nine years.

Meanwhile, Dick was experimenting with a performing career. He played with orchestras in Austin and Corpus Christi, worked in pickup bands, and spent much of 1972 performing with country singer Michael Murphy. His one attempt teaching music -- at the University of Wisconsin -- soured him on academia, but he spent three years subbing in Austin because, he says frankly, "I needed the money." The experience drew him irresistably to teaching music to the young, and he came on with AISD in 1975. "At the university level, the kids were too old to physically change," he says. "With kids in general, if you're working with music as a physical skill, the younger you get them, the better chance you have. And in some ways, they're more interesting."

There's no room for the stereotype of child musician as socially-hopeless-egghead in Brady and Dick's classroom. Their aim is to make playing in an orchestra an experience of immersion for students, with significant disciplinary and intellectual, as well as aesthetic, rewards. "As a teacher, the biggest reward for me is when the kid does something he didn't think he could do, and that can happen collectively," Brady says. Dick elaborates, "I think these orchestras do something for kids that is important way beyond the concert, although the concert... teaches them strategies to deal with the here and now. The `now' is in front of 600 people, and you have to call on your individual skill to coordinate with others. Then your job is to hook the audience into the emotional or expressive thing you've got going."

To illustrate the value of musical training, the two quote scientific research linking it with heightened abilities in math and science. They point out that many members of the orchestras they have conducted over the years have been valedictorians. "When you see a note, the brain cognates and sends a mental command to [play] it," Dick says. "If you're going to be a brain surgeon, I want to know that you can do that. We're superior to other academics in that the stimulus comes in and you have to respond."

Both bring an almost missionary zeal to their work with students, drawing upon the historical and physiological aspects of the music. "You read history books to know what man did, but art is the physical manifestation of that person," Dick says. "It's like that whole idea of time travel. When you're playing music, time has changed since then, but the notes haven't. That's what Tchaikovsky was hearing when he wrote it." Says Brady, "It's like a matching-wits game with the composer."

In choosing what their students play, Dick and Brady like to blend pieces from across the ages. They have complete freedom in programming the music for the various orchestras, as evidenced by the year-end Austin Youth Symphony concert, which featured both a piece by Tchaikovsky and "Sinfonia India," by the 20th-century Latin-American composer Carlos Chavez. As Dick plainly puts it, "We try to do something contemporary so it's not just old stuff, but they need to play masterpieces. The kids need cultural literacy."

Last year, the All-City Orchestra reorganized as the AYS, which yielded the creation of the first public school youth orchestra to offer musical training to students in grades one through 12; generally, Brady and Dick note, public school orchestras begin with the sixth grade. "At the time this came about, our coordinator didn't want it to sound like an elitist group of kids," Brady says. "[The orchestra] should be representative of the whole district." In addition, the new structure allows the ensembles to admit students from the greater Austin area, not just the city itself. The expanded pool of talent is among the reasons the AYS will be the only school orchestra from Texas to perform at a festival in Austria next summer.

Many graduates of the AYS and All-City Orchestra have gone on to schools such as Eastman, Juilliard, and the Curtis Institute. Alumni can be found playing in symphonies all over the country; Dick and Brady point with pride to former student Sumner Ericson, who went to Curtis and recently became the sole tuba player with the Pittsburgh Symphony. Austin "is not a backwater," Dick emphasizes. "The kids are going out on a world market and getting the jobs."

Ian Moore is one of the pair's most prominent students, and although his career path has led him to opening shows for such bands as the Rolling Stones and Van Halen, his approach to music reflects his days of studying violin with Dick and playing in Brady's junior high orchestra. "He [Dick] was just a really musical person; he encouraged us to go as fast as we could," Moore says. "I was getting burnt out on classical, but it's really come over into my life on guitar. My best thing on violin was tone and vibrato. It's funny that that was the thing that stood out and was really cultivated.

"You understand, in junior high school, you're pretty immature; the things that make you happy are simple," Moore continues. "Anybody that can work with junior high kids is a kind of saint."

Neither Dick nor Brady have completely forsaken performance. Brady plays at institutes, churches, and weddings, and performs with a cello choir a few times a year. Dick performed with Esther's Follies for several years in the Seventies, and now plays weddings, parties, and for close friends. Teaching is in their blood, though, and whether it's the mundane tasks of arranging a concert or bringing the music to life in that setting, they find meaning and satisfaction in them. The culture owes its survival to people -- to "saints" -- like these. n

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle