by Tom Cleary, Flynn Teaching Artist
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I remember waiting at the door of the South Burlington High School chorus room, clutching my music for Charlie Parker’s Yardbird Suite. It was my first piano audition—for the Vermont All State Jazz Ensemble—and I wasn’t sure what to expect. To my surprise and relief, one of the judges came to the door with a smile, shook my hand, and joked that the piano toward which he directed me was really a painted piece of wood. I’d practiced for the audition, but the joke provided a crucial opportunity to laugh before sitting down to play in an unfamiliar and high-level setting. In a way, that joke launched my musical career.
After two years in the All State band, I went on to study music at Hampshire College and music education at UVM. The smiling judge, as it turned out, was George Voland, who at that time led the jazz band at South Burlington. When I returned to Vermont after college, I got to know George better as a teacher and musical collaborator. His approach to playing and teaching, which combines impeccable musicianship and an inclusive, encouraging attitude, has had a profound influence on my own work as a pianist and teacher.
I try to follow George’s example in my FlynnArts jazz combo. Whether they carry a bass clarinet, an electric guitar, or a microphone for singing, I let them know I’m glad to see them and try to provide a challenge that moves them forward. The same approach is taken by the Flynn, which performs the balancing act in so many ways: assembling seasons that combine cutting-edge artists and crowd-pleasers, starting each performance with a warm welcome from a staff member, offering classes as well as performances, and by sponsoring field trips in which teachers and students are challenged and inspired. The masterclasses I’ve attended with my combo students had an immediate motivational effect: the lasting effects of those classes were heard in the combo’s First Night and Discover Jazz Festival performances.
It’s no accident that I reunite with George at many Flynn events. Although he’s retired from teaching in schools, he’s still at the Flynn each week as a jazz instructor, as a baritone in my FlynnArts jazz choir, and often as an audience member. At any Flynn event, one can see a house full of people like George: dedicated, well-informed, and passionate supporters of the arts, drawn in by the Flynn’s dedication to courageous, well-rounded, and excellent programming. When I’m George’s age (and that won’t be long), I hope to still have his dedication to absorbing and contributing to the Flynn’s energizing resources, and I hope the Flynn is still there to offer them.