Cedar and Pearl

Something to sing about

By John Piotti | May 24, 2016

Susan and I traveled to Bowdoin last Saturday night to hear Anna’s roommate sing. Virginia is a performance music major. As such, she always gives a year-end recital. This year’s was a little different, because the recital was part of her senior honors project.

So, in addition to hearing some great singing, we heard a little bit about Virginia’s research into the vocal techniques illustrated by the songs she sang. But only a little — just enough to help us appreciate the singing more. The vast bulk of the recital was simply beautiful music — both Virginia’s voice and the accompanying piano.

It was a wonderful concert. Virginia’s focus is on American operetta and musical theater from 1900 to 1940, but she began the recital with a few selections of European opera, the sort regularly performed in the late 19th century — and not only in the gilded halls of Vienna and Paris, but in far humbler settings like the Belfast Opera House. She progressed to a little Gilbert and Sullivan (“My Little Buttercup”) and then to three songs pulled from American operetta. She ended with American show tunes by Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern, including one of my favorites, Kern’s beautiful ballad, “All the Things You Are.”

It would be impossible for anyone to not be moved and impressed by this performance. Virginia sounded so good, was so knowledgeable, and clearly took such delight in the pieces she sang.

And for me, it was impossible to sit there, in the glittering Studzinski Recital Hall, and not be impressed by Bowdoin College — and struck by what our colleges do for their students. To think that there are institutions out there that exist primarily to help young people learn all they can, to help them find their own way to excel, to grow up and grow out — why, that’s the kind of thing that makes me smile even more than show tunes.

I met Virginia only two years ago, and I don’t know her well; but from what I hear from Anna, I don’t think I’m reading too much into last Saturday’s recital when I say that Bowdoin has helped Virginia grow greatly. Or to say that our society is better for it — better for all the Virginias who go through these kinds of experiences.

Certainly, I’ve seen great changes in Anna during her time at Bowdoin — and although Anna deserves credit for working hard and for being open to new experiences, the college provided the environment where she could blossom.

We have witnessed this repeatedly over the past 3 ½ years, as Anna progressed from a homesick freshman to an accomplished college senior. And two nights before Virginia’s recital, Susan and I had one of those occasions where Anna’s growth was memorialized — Bowdoin’s year-end athletic awards ceremony. Anna’s rugby coach had informed Susan and me, on the QT, that Anna was to be honored.

The auditorium was filled with Bowdoin athletes, which means hundreds of students. Anna tells us that about a third of all Bowdoin students play intercollegiate sports. It’s impressive that Bowdoin fields such a large numbers of teams, and even more impressive how successful these teams often are, frequently winning regional titles — and occasionally triumphant at the national level.

About a dozen students were honored. Each award was introduced by a different faculty or staff member, often someone with a close connection to the award recipient. As a result, we got a good taste of the deep relationships Bowdoin students forge with professors and coaches. The awards were a surprise to the recipients.

Each honored student had a chance to “say a few words.” I was moved by the heartfelt sentiments, and impressed by how articulate the students were.

Anna won the award for the top female student who was also an excellent athlete, a wonderful recognition of the two worlds she has so adeptly pulled together. She was introduced by her academic advisor, a German woman who has been so supportive of Anna, and who obviously cares for her deeply. And Anna’s acceptance speech was just perfect, right down to her squinting into the lights to see Susan waving from the audience.

In so many ways, Bowdoin has done so much for our daughter.

True, Bowdoin has resources that some colleges don’t — and Virginia and Anna have been the beneficiaries of that. Not every music major can be accompanied on a Steinway grand in a beautiful concert hall. Not every college athlete attends an institution that fields so many teams that a girl like Anna can find her place in a whole new sport, rugby.

But I don’t think it’s primarily about financial resources. It’s primarily about how a college passes along a love of learning, how it cares for and mentors its students.

The same day that we were delighted at Virginia’s recital, the Class of 2016 graduated from Unity College. Though I wasn’t there this year, I’ve attended many Unity commencement ceremonies in the past. And I’m always moved by the event — the bagpipe-led procession, the smiles of the family members in the decorated gym, the heartfelt connection between the new graduates and the college’s committed faculty and staff.

Unity College is a wonderful institution, one that does so much for the local community and the students it educates. And for many students, Unity is the perfect place, just as Bowdoin is for Anna and Virginia. The two institutions are clearly different in so many ways— their history, location, look and feel, educational focus, and — as I hinted — the size of their endowments. But both colleges succeed — because both clearly care. They not only serve the mind, but fill the heart.

Virginia didn’t sing any songs by Lorenz Hart at her recital, though she could have. It would have fit perfectly into the program. I would have suggested “With a Song in my Heart.”


John Piotti of Unity runs Maine Farmland Trust. His column “Cedar and Pearl” appears every other week.

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