JO SORRILL (aka JOANNE BALL)
| SIR ADAM BECK COLLEGIATE INSTITUTE
ONTARIO'S "SINGING HIGH SCHOOL"
When I entered Sir Adam Beck Collegiate Institute, (more fondly called “Beck” or “SABCI”), in the fall of 1951, it was known as Ontario's "singing high school".
From the very beginning, what I enjoyed most was its “auditoriums". Every Friday, from 11 until 11:45 AM, the whole school gathered and sang together. And SING we did! Everything from old pieces like “The Wiffenpoof Song” to current hits of the day such as “Love is a Many -Splendoured Thing”. Sometimes we would do hymns such as “Now the Day Is Over” in four-part harmony. (I can still hear the basses rumbling down to those deep notes!)
The leader of these auditoriums was a person who loved and taught music, especially choral, at the school - Carl Chapman. He really knew how to get us singing. The other essential member of the team, Marg Adams, provided excellent support from the piano.
Friday was absolutely the best day of the week.
MAKING MUSIC WITH CARL CHAPMAN
During my first year, I took a music course with Carl, (who I, of course, called "Mr. Chapman" then). It was during this time he began to get a sense of the musical gift I’d inherited. Even though I was only in grade nine, he invited me to audition for the Glee Club, a privilege usually reserved for students from grade ten on. I passed the test and soon found myself singing alto.
What a thrill it was to put on that green jacket with the Beck crest on the pocket the first time, along with the white skirt and socks we provided ourselves. Because of Beck’s musical reputation, it was an honour to be part of it.
A few times that year I was asked to play for rehearsals. One of the things I enjoyed most was Carl expected the accompanist to embellish the accompaniments. I loved not having to stick to the notes on the page.
Toward the end of grade nine, knowing Marg was graduating, Carl invited me to audition for auditorium pianist. The main requirement was that one had to be able to play by ear because the melody and chord symbols were all that were provided. And sometimes not even those.
I was very nervous during the audition and remember saying I’d never be able to play as well as Marg. Fortunately, Carl knew differently.
I had to trust that because I wanted to do it so badly. I was already a church organist and loved to accompany people singing. I’d also be playing a wonderful grand piano at least once a week. I’d learn a great deal and it would give my self-confidence a terrific boost.
While he auditioned others, I waited in terrible suspense - until he gave me the word he had chosen ME! I played for a couple of auditoriums before the year ended and then had to wait all summer before playing again. I needed the time to learn all those new songs.
PLAYING THE GRAND FOR THE "SINGING AUDITORIUMS"
When classes started in the fall, Carl and I would meet to choose and go over the songs we were going to sing that week. Those I didn’t know he would hum to me until I learned them. I’d find the right key and write it beside the title on the list.
It certainly wasn't what you would call a foolproof system. One Friday, soon after we’d begun a particular song, it became obvious we were five notes higher than we should have been. I had started it in E flat instead of B flat! Carl stopped us, looked at me, and asked if we didn't need to pitch it a “little lower”. Was I embarrassed! (Since that day, I have always written down the key AND the starting note.)
But Carl was right. During the five years I was school pianist, I really learned to play the piano and especially to play by ear, picking up many of the songs just by listening to the radio.
Playing for an auditorium full of kids, aged 13-18 or so, was a thrill. The enormous sound, coming at me up there on the stage, would often send shivers up the back of my neck and bring tears to my eyes.
There are so many highlights from this period in my musical life.
Our Christmas auditoriums, always at least an hour-and-a-half in length, remain the absolute number one. Parents and friends were invited to squeeze into the few remaining spaces. Not only did we sing for that amount of time, but, we would keep singing both before and after the traditional turkey dinner in the cafeteria, for at least another hour-and-a-half, with everyone gathering informally around the piano. And, being really "high" by then, I would play with sheer abandonment, surprising everyone, including myself, because I was normally such a shy person. The last two Christmases, a large organ was brought in for me while Donna Steinbach played the piano. By then, I really didn't know which instrument I enjoyed more.
Playing for the Glee Club was great in other ways. I not only learned good accompaniment skills but, watching Carl, I learned how to conduct a choir.
We also went away on overnight trips to places like Niagara Falls, Windsor and Detroit, a big deal in those days.
I think I was in grade twelve the year we put on Gilbert and Sullivan's 'Mikado'. While we had a school orchestra, the piano really helped fill out the sound. One of the best things was that the accompaniment was quite demanding so I was able to skip classes in order to practise!
Unfortunately, Carl Chapman's young son died sometime around the very day of our opening performance. Earle Terry, London school music supervisor, got us through that first one. I was glad I had learned the piano part so well because I knew it was a great help to him, coming in at the last moment as he did. Carl conducted at least two of the performances that week, even though his heart must have been broken.
Another thing I enjoyed about being part of this operetta was that I was expected to wear a formal evening gown. Did I feel like a queen! And, on the last night, I was presented with a huge bouquet of flowers.
When it came time for me to graduate, there was the usual closing auditorium where all the awards for outstanding leadership were presented. I received the coveted pin for being part of the Glee Club for five years and the even more coveted Beck crest for being the school pianist. Not many were given that award so it was an honour and thrill. I was also presented with two records of my most favourite music: Nat King Cole's “Love is the Thing” and Rogers and Hammerstein's “The King and I”.
But perhaps the best part of all was the speech of thanks from long-time friend, Jackie Brewe, expressing the school's appreciation for my music, followed by a long, standing ovation which left me in absolute tears. To be recognised in such a way, by one's own teachers, peers and friends was truly an unforgettable experience.
BECK'S "LAST HURRAH"
For years after I left Beck, I would literally dream at night about playing for one more auditorium. That dream finally came true in 1982.
Twenty-five years after graduating and just before my 44th birthday, Beck had its "Last Hurrah". The school was being closed, due to population shifts, and was about to become an office for the board of education. What a bitter-sweet time.
I was invited back, along with other school pianists, to play. When I first walked into the auditorium on the Friday afternoon, Carl and I had the biggest hug one could imagine (and a kiss, too, I do believe). We hadn't seen one another in years and so it was a wonderful reunion.
Hundreds of former students packed the auditorium for singsongs all Friday evening and Saturday afternoon. We had two pianos and an organ, with three of us rotating from one to the other, playing our fingers to the bone, while Carl Chapman conducted. We sang our lungs out, squeezing in every song that we’d ever sung, until we were absolutely hoarse.
Sunday morning we had a worship service at the university, with former Glee Club members making up the huge choir and students, who had become ministers, taking leadership. I played organ and piano for most of it - a thrill of a lifetime and something I will never forget.
Interestingly enough, I have never dreamed about it since. The aching longing I had to "do it one more time" was finally put to rest.
Eight years later, in 1990, I invited Carl to join other special friends in celebration of my 40th anniversary in church music. Although age prevented him from attending in person, his letter was a "keeper". In it he said how much my music at Beck had meant to him so long ago. Obviously our time together had been very significant and meant a great deal to both of us.
A couple of years before he died, I travelled to London to spend an afternoon with Carl. Mrs. Chapman had passed away and he was living alone in an apartment in the Cherryhill area. I don’t know which one of us was more glad to see the other. After some reminiscing, he told me he had reserved the gymtorium in the building for the afternoon where there was a piano. For two hours I played the old songs while the two of us sang our hearts out. The time was like gold. I never saw him again.
Participating in the music at Beck, and especially working with Carl Chapman, has enriched my life in a way that nothing else could have. I will be forever grateful.