Iâ€™m a Gilbert and Sullivan groupie.
Who are Gilbert and Sullivan? Writing in the Victorian era, Englishmen William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan collaborated to create amusing and tuneful operettas that are still performed. Gilbert was the playwright and Sullivan the composer. I got hooked on Gilbert and Sullivanâ€™s lively music and humorous plots when I was in high school and sang in three Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.
Over the years, whenever I hear of a G&S operetta being performed in my area, I buy tickets and attend. On a recent Sunday afternoon, my daughter Pam and I attended a performance by a local amateur group, The Savoyaires, which, having performed G&S operettas every October since 1965, isnâ€™t so amateur. This yearâ€™s performance featured three one-act G&S works, which have only occasionally been performed.
During the intermission, Pam and I began talking about which G&S operettas we had seen and where we had seen them. The conversation veered toward me telling her about my high school vocal music experience where I first encountered Gilbert and Sullivanâ€™s works and the extraordinary teacher who introduced me to them:Â Mr. Sturdevant.
In the fall of 1951, I entered ninth grade at St. Joseph High School in Michigan. Liking to sing and having sung in a number of choirs while in grammar school, I took vocal music as well as more college prep subjects like English and math. Our music teacher was Keith Sturdevant.
Mr. Sturdevant was enthusiastic and taught us music from various genres. He also had a high vision of what his students could accomplish and somehow got singing venues outside of school where we could use what we learned and perform. In being our advocate and making it fun and interesting to perform, he brought out the best in us.
A grainy newspaper photo of vocal music teacher Keith Sturdevant with some of his students. Mr. Sturdevant, stands far right, sharing a piece of music with me.
In addition to directing the high school mixed chorus, Mr. Sturdevant formed and led a madrigal group that performed offsite at the luncheons of various civic groups. He somehow got these organizations to invite us to sing for them. I was a member of the madrigal group and loved singing with the small madrigal group and performing at various community functions outside of school.
St. Joseph High School 1953-1954 Madrigal Group directed by Keith Sturdevant (not shown). I am in the first row, second from the left.
Moreover, Mr. Sturdevant in some way was able to arrange for a number of students to receive music camp scholarships at several Michigan summer music camps. The most elite of these camps was the Interlochen all-state choral music camp in Interlochen, Michigan. At the time, in addition to its regular summer music programs, Interlochen had various two-week summer music camps for high school students from Michigan.
Along with another girl and two boys, I was selected to go to Interlochen All-State Music Camp in August of 1954. My Interlochen experience of singingâ€”making music with others while being close to natureâ€”was wonderful.
Michigan 1954 all-state chorus at Interlochen State Music Camp under the direction of Geneva Nelson. I am in row three of the left section of the chorus, the first person from the aisle.
After my exhilarating experience at Interlochen, it was hard to go back to the vocal music class in September. Our dear Mr. Sturdevant who had helped us do well and feel good about ourselves had left the school to teach at a high school across the state in Highland Park, Michigan, a small town surrounded by Detroit. The teacher who replaced him was a band director and didnâ€™t know how to lead a chorusâ€”or at least not like our beloved Mr. Sturdevant did. Vocal music was no longer enjoyable and challenging, and I dropped out of the class at the end of the semester.
Early in 1955, the four of us who had gone to Interlochen received an invitation to an upcoming reunion of the 1954 All-State Chorus at the University of Michigan. One of the two males who had attended the music camp with me was able to get his dadâ€™s car, and drive the four of us to Ann Arbor, which isnâ€™t far from Highland Park. As soon as we got there, we called Mr. Sturdevant who invited us to visit him at his home.
Thrilled with the invitation, we forgot about the reunion and went. Once there, Mr. Sturdevant invited us to stay at his home overnight. Iâ€™m not sure if he consulted Mrs. Sturdevant, but we accepted and didnâ€™t even go to the reunion.
Telling the story of our visit to Mr. Sturdevantâ€™s home to my daughter all these years later, I began to appreciate not only Mr. Sturdevant, but also Mrs. Sturdevant. How many wives would host four teenagers she didnâ€™t know without advance warning?
In 1971, with my two young children in school, I wrote or contacted a few of my favorite teachers whom Iâ€™d had over the years. One, of course, was Mr. Sturdevant. Ever responsive to students, he wrote me back. While living in the same home, two years earlier he had moved from the Highland Park High School to the High School in Ferndale, Michigan.
Page 4 of the letter Keith Sturdevant sent me on May 23, 1971
Mr. Sturdevant immeasurably enriched my life. During much of my life after Mr. Sturdevant, I sang in choirs. He also helped me introduce and pass on the experience of music to my children. As a young mother, instead of singing lullabies to my children when they were babies, I sang Gilbert and Sullivan songs while I sat in the rocking chair feeding them or dressed them on their bath table.
A few years later, when my children were about 3 and 5, my husband and I took them to see a performance by Martyn Green at Ravinia, an outdoor summer music festival located in a suburb north of Chicago. Green was famous for his comedic performances of Gilbert and Sullivan works. When our family stood to leave after the performance, several people near us commented on how well behaved our children were and how they seemed so tuned to the music. For my children, the music was familiarâ€”they knew Gilbert and Sullivan's music well, for via Mr. Sturdevant, it had already been ingrained in their psyches.
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