With apologies for writing this column without having seen the movie “Boyhood,” I have to say that if I ever created a film on modern day parenting, one of my scenes would show the first born child’s transition from middle school to high school. I still remember pretty vividly the parents’ night during the freshman year for my son, Princeton High School Class of 2010.
The kid had coasted through middle school, finessing homework and assignments for term papers and projects, always managing to get by with a minimum amount of work. High school, I hoped, would be the time he caught fire. And so I followed the map from classroom to classroom for a compressed version of the school day, meeting each of the boy’s teachers, some of whom might light that fire in my child’s brain.
It’s all a dull memory now. Teacher after teacher cited their credentials and then recited the landmarks of their curriculum and their procedures regarding homework, extra help, etc. By the next to last period I was numb, and fighting to stay awake.
Then came the last period, music, and I was suddenly awakened by a diminutive teacher holding a jumbo cup of coffee. I couldn’t tell if the man was nervous or angry or just juiced up by the caffeine he had obviously been imbibing. All I do recall is that he snapped me out of my slumber and energized the entire room with talk of the Princeton High School music program in general and the “Studio Band,” as the school’s leading jazz band was called, in particular.
The goal of the program, as I recall it, was to win the national jazz competition held at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. The band director, Joe Downey, was the brother of the legendary and longtime director of the band, Anthony Biancosino, known as Dr. B, who had died of cancer a few years before. I quickly came to realize that Downey (he changed his last name because he also competed in Irish step dancing and the Italian-sounding last name just didn’t fit) was not anxious about following in his brother’s footsteps. He was just plain excited.
So much so, he told us parents, that occasionally he had pushed students too far — and made them cry. And when that happened, he felt worse than anyone. It was never his goal.
At the time, I said great. If my kid was moved to tears because a teacher who would not allow him to finesse his way through another subject, I figured that was a small price to pay. In the meantime, following the high school music program would be a lot more fun than tracking the kid’s assignment in English or social studies.
Amazingly, it all worked out — not once but twice — for my family. The first son gradually worked his way up the ladder in the band program, and by his senior year became the trumpet soloist for the Studio Band, which by then was directed by a less intense, but no less competitive bandleader named Joe Bongiovi.
Two years later my younger son entered the high school, won a solo award on trombone at Berklee, and then followed his brother to enroll in music studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. The fact that they both did best in the subject that may have been the most challenging didn’t surprise me.
Since then I saw “Whiplash,” the three-category winner at this year’s Oscars — a movie about a tyrannical band director written and directed by Damien Chazelle, an alumnus of both Princeton High and the Studio Band program.
It turned out that “Whiplash” was one of three Oscar contenders with connections to Princeton. “The Imitation Game,” which dramatized mathematician Alan Turing and the code breakers at Bletchley Park during World War II, made me take note of his time as a graduate student at Princeton in the late 1930s, and the groundwork he laid for the modern computer age.
The aforementioned “Boyhood,” another nominee, starred Ethan Hawke, who grew up in West Windsor, appeared in a middle school play there (with a cast that may now include thousands), and then transferred to the Hun School before getting his big break in “Dead Poets’ Society” in 1989.
But for me the big contender was “Whiplash.” Our sister paper, the monthly Princeton Echo, last December presented an interview with Chazelle, in which he said that the drill sergeant-like band director (played so convincingly by best supporting actor J.K. Simmons that it took me a while to figure out he is also the professorial character in the Farmers Insurance commercials) was “definitely a proxy for a bandleader I had in high school. It was a very competitive jazz band that was modeled after professional bands. And I remembered being very terrified.”
In that same Echo coverage Chazelle’s mother, Celia, a history professor at the College of New Jersey, put the comparison into perspective. “Dr. B would set extremely high standards, and he would let a performer know if they were not meeting those standards. The movie comes out of Damien taking that fear and creating an imaginary nightmare scenario.”
At least as quoted in the paper, Chazelle’s father, Bernard, a computer science professor at Princeton, took a slightly dimmer view of the former high school band director. “I think the movie is told from the brain of that teenager, where everything is amplified. So at the time, Damien probably felt that [Dr. B] was a psychopath. But then you realize that no, he was just using certain pedagogical methods, which probably are not to be condoned. I think they’re probably bad ways of doing things.”
I thought about calling the Chazelles for this column and comparing notes, but decided not to — let them enjoy their son’s moment in the Hollywood spotlight.
But, like a lot of good movies, this one made me reflect on my own life. While I never thought my kids came close to being bullied by their band leaders, I thought again, and also asked the kids. Nothing negative came to light.
One of the high pressure moments for my older son was performing with the band at Carnegie Hall. He had a trumpet solo, for which he had to leave the risers and walk to the microphone at center stage. He got there late and started playing the solo as he was still walking.
I talked to Rick later about the challenge of timing the walk so you hit your mark just before you are supposed to start playing. I wondered how the pros did it. Maybe they just don’t start the solo until they get there, my son said. If he had the Carnegie Hall appearance to do over, he just would have come in a measure or two later.
The younger boy’s high tension day came in his senior year, at the national competition at Berklee. Frank had won an outstanding jazz soloist award the year before, and an original composition he had submitted in his senior year had won another competition and would be performed later that night by the Berklee School’s big band.
So maybe he had other things on his mind when he performed with the high school’s small jazz ensemble in an early morning competition. The rules said that ensembles were limited to something like 18 minutes of playing time. With no director to guide them, Frank’s group played passionately, to huge applause. But soon there were frowns among the musicians. The Princeton ensemble had gone eight seconds over: Disqualified.
Later in the day the entire Princeton High Studio Band assembled for the big band competition, the most coveted prize of the day. Waiting outside the performance center my son was disconsolate, his head in his hands. Joe Bongiovi, the director, asked me if I wanted to talk to him. If I were ever to make this into a movie, the father at this point would say something, the kid would respond angrily, and 17 years of fictional rage would fly between father and son and across the movie set.
But this was just real life. I told Bongiovi that anything I said would probably make things worse — this was the kid’s time to shine, or not. He did shine, as did the entire band. They came home with a first place trophy. Not an Oscar, but good enough.