It was my first quartet rehearsal. I was already in the room when he arrived. Messy blond curls, worn-down Birkenstocks, crinkly eyes, warm smile. Introductions followed and I could tell he was the real deal. I was completely at ease; it was like I had known him my entire life. From that point forward I never once questioned his goodness or his intelligence.
O Sacred Head
But that wasn’t our first meeting. We had met very briefly once before at a NASA reception. That’s North American Saxophone Alliance, friends. Saxophonists we are, astronauts, we are not. Slightly tipsy, I asked him about the wooden cross he was wearing around his neck, and which hung outside his shirt. It was so obviously there. I had never seen this before. Catholics, from where I came from, wore diminutive gold crosses underneath their blouses. But Charles’ declaration of faith was not so private. The cross represented a bold spiritual thoughtfulness, which, as I was to discover, permeated his musical and academic life in a refreshingly unusual and honest way. He wasn’t shy about religion and acknowledged the spiritual and the mystical in his thinking and in his art.
I envied and admired the well-roundness of his intelligence. Most of the musicians in my orbit at that time were like me; incredibly smart in some areas and incredibly dumb in others. His skill-set was broad and balanced. The spokes in his wheel were many: Performer, Composer, Theorist, Professor, Teacher, Coach. He cycled from one project to the next producing Constant Music. Charles indulged his artistic preoccupations be they high or low. He knew how to enjoy single malt Scotch and McDonald’s take-out at the same time.
Slap and Split
He fired me from the Quartet. Over the phone, without consulting the others. How dare he! We yelled at each other and then calmed down. I had become uncooperative. Having had come to some rather raw and unfortunate conclusions, and unsure of how to proceed, I stopped talking in rehearsals. I mused about quitting, but it was Charles who pulled the trigger, forcing me to consider my behaviour. Youch. The conversation was laced with regret, but in the end, it was all for the best.
I wasn’t the only one he took to task. Once, somebody made a snide comment about a musician we all knew who wore long, vibrantly patterned peasant skirts. He passionately defended this mildly bohemian choice with brio—¡olé!—as the right and, indeed, obligation of the artist. On Charles’ scoreboard: Creative Expression: one, Good Taste: zero.
We organized student recitals together. I learned a lot from watching his protégés. And we could yak about pedagogy for hours, in the car or while pigging-out at the Indian buffet.
I appreciated the opportunity to just be around him. When he joined a conversation my antennae would perk up and I would become more alert and receptive. He might say something significant. The potential to learn something new or to consider a fresh angle on an old theme was high.
He was such a great teacher because he wasn’t my teacher.
I never formally studied with Charles.
Instead, I studied the example he set. The lessons drifted naturally, unknowingly, filtered through colleague-ship and friendship.
Sometimes the biggest impact a teacher can have has nothing to do with allotted instructional hours and defined educational objectives. (Sorry for the eduspeak.) The richest and most persuasive opportunities for growth rarely develop through such formal arrangement.
Life, in all her charms, allows for delightfully unplanned circumstance. Teachers and students mysteriously collide. Who is the teacher? And who is the student? Does it really matter if everyone is learning?
A salute to you, Charles Stolte, on this World Teachers’ Day, Saturday, October 5th, 2019. For novelist Mordecai Richler, to describe someone as, “an original” was the highest of praise.
Praise Be for Charles Stolte, an original.