Friday, September 4, 2009

Sibling Assignment #105: (Former North Idaho College Choir Director) Rick Frost’s Way of Being

InlandEmpireGirl assigned the following question for our current sibling assignment:

Other than family members, who has been an influential person in your life and why?
IEG wrote beautifully about the poet Jane Kenyon, here, and Silver Valley Girl will be posting her piece later.


Rick Frost, 2009

Maybe our Kellogg High School choir director, Dale Lange, required us to go.

Maybe I went simply because I enjoy choral music.

Maybe I went because I hadn't done anything about applying to four-year colleges and I was sure I was going to North Idaho College and I thought hearing their choir would be fun.

I don't know, but I do know that the North Idaho College choir came to Kellogg High School in the spring of 1972 for an evening performance and their performance astonished me.

The choir's sound electrified me: it was energetic, dynamic, and, to my ear, flawless. The choir members were joyous, their performance robust. They sang with huge smiles, animated not only by the music, but by the joy of singing.

That night convinced me that I was not only definitely going to North Idaho College, but that it had to be a remarkable school, given how inspiring the choir made me feel.

I was also inspired by the choir's director, Rick Frost.

His influence on me began that night and continues to this day.

I'll begin with to this day.

Back in the 1980s, when I was a graduate student, I immersed myself in the rigors of the academic study of literature and rhetoric. It intoxicated me. For a while, I was very successful and began to envision myself pursuing a career of academic research and teaching, of being a professor of Shakespeare.

My failure to write a dissertation obliterated these ambitions, but a very good thing happened: part-time teaching positions in English were available at Lane Community College in 1989. As I began to compose my application letter, by experiences at North Idaho College rushed to mind.

I thought a lot about Rick Frost. He faced a sizable challenge as the choir director at North Idaho College: enrollment was open and he really had no idea what kind of talent he would be working with and could assume that, in the beginning, his choir would be very rough, raw, in need not only of training and instruction, but of humane encouragement. I was among those raw, rough singers.

Looking back, now holding a full time position at Lane Community College, and as I think about how raw and rough so many of my students at LCC are, I realize that Rick Frost was demanding. We worked out challenging choral pieces, much of it sacred, and some of it was over our heads, beyond our abilities.

In particular, I recall singing selections from The Messiah. Rick Frost wanted every syllable of the glorious words of each piece to reach the upper balcony of the gymnasium where we performed. I'd never had a teacher demand such precision. Again and again we spoke out loud the words from Psalms 24: 7-10: Who is this King of Glory? Who is this King of Glory? Who is this King of Glory?

It would be so easy to have this mighty question sound like bees buzzing (izzz) followed by air being hissed out of a balloon (thisssss), but by repeatedly articulating each syllable, we made each word clear and crisp, without lingering sibilant sounds. To this day, when I join in the Messiah sing a long at a local church, I sing this chorus with the discipline Rick Frost inspired in me and when I teach poetry and read the Old Testament lesson in church, I do all I can to make each syllable of each word have its own life.

Rick Frost always believed we could grow into the music he chose for us to sing. We sang pieces in Latin. He treated secular pieces like Fiddler on the Roof and songs from South Pacific with the same attention. With humor, patience, precision, discipline, and love for us and the music, he steadily helped us become more refined, more joyous, and more passionate about singing and about the literature before us. He drew our best selves out of us and drew out stellar performances.

I suppose I experience moments in teaching writing and literature when I'm tempted to harangue my students.

But I'm reminded of the magic Rick Frost worked without hectoring us, without putting us down for being a ragtag bunch of largely inexperienced singers from the Idaho panhandle. He kept encouraging us, driving us, helping us do it right, and I've tried to carry out that same ethic of instruction in my work and am fully committed to the idea that it's the best way to work with the rough, raw, sometimes largely unprepared community college students I encounter every year.

Rick Frost was the only instructor I had at North Idaho College who openly professed his Christian faith.

I could tell early on that Rick Frost's Christian practice was very different from mine. It's still true. I always knew that Rick's way of living and the language he used to profess his faith were ways I would never know. I was right.

It didn't and doesn't matter. Rick's faith touched me deeply. Not doctrinally. Not in terms of life style. I was a young drunk. I was profane, a Zinc Plant kid. I rarely shared my faith. I experienced God as a sparring partner much more than as an ally or as Lord. I fought with God all the time.

That's how I knew God was there.

I felt the punches.

Rick's faith touched me in how his actions and the ways he treated me and the rest of the choir were the word became flesh. I began to realize that his way of being, his kindness, patience, and dedication; his ability to bear with us, and do so gently and with good cheer – these manifestations of his character were really manifestations of his Christian faith and practice. For the first time, I was conscious of a person whose secular vocation was also his spiritual calling and that what Rick Frost did for a living, and how he approached his work and his students, was inseparable from being a Christian. The doctrinal, denominational, life style stuff didn't matter to me: I was moved by Rick Frost in a way that was deeper than apologetics.

It's kind of weird, really. I'll be fifty-six years old in December. When I sang for Rick Frost back in 1972-74, he was in his late twenties. Even though Rick Frost is now in his mid-sixties, because I haven't seen or talked with him since 1974, it's that very young man who is still inspiring me, still giving me a pattern of teaching and humaneness to model myself after.

And I try. My way of being a Christian instructor in a secular environment is to raise questions regarding a well-lived life, to explore loss, sacrifice, and reconciliation, to examine the nature of suffering; it's to look at literature as raising questions about the nature of human nature and the human condition and to dig into the ethical dimensions of what we read. My way of being a Christian instructor is to look at life from multiple perspectives. Sometimes my students know I'm a Christian. It comes up sometimes. Some are baffled that I teach the way I do and am a Christian; others are inspired. Ultimately, however, it comes down to how I regard my students and how I try to treat them.

And so it is with Rick Frost. While I'll always remember reciting over and over the words "The Glory, the Glory of the Lord" to get it right and I'll always enjoy having sung Buryl Red and Ragan Courtney's Celebrate Life (HE is alive! He IS alive! He is aLIVE!), fondly remember all the choreographic workouts we went through with Ron and Sally, cherish the memories of performing in places as far away from each other as McCloud, CA and Libby, MT, and recall the tedium of recording an album in Corvallis, OR, in the end, it's not these things that have influenced me the most.

No, what influenced me most was Rick Frost's way of being.


You might be wondering, where is Rick Frost today? He's a professor at Eastern University, a Christian university in St. David's, PA, just west of Philadelphia. He conducts the Eastern University Choir, teaches the Church Music program and teaches musicianship classes.

1 comment:

Songwraith said...

I attribute Rick Frost with effectively teaching me music theory. His instructional talent and willingness to invest extra time (with one he knew had little music background--even piano) put me in good stead for follow-on theory classes at Idaho. There's absolutely no question that I would not have been able to continue my music pursuits with a lessor instructor--for a composer, that's no small thing.