The Home Church
April 17, 1999
Peter Hilliard, TKA conductor
When I was hired to direct the band at The King's Academy, Carol Schultz raved to me about a young oboist, Missy Belton. "She's played in all these regional bands and symphonies, and she's just phenomenal!" I'll admit I was skeptical. Back at the Conservatory we used to joke that the oboe was "an ill wind that nobody blows good" and "How do you get two oboes to play in tune? Fire one."
The oboe is an excruciatingly difficult instrument to play well. I tremble at the thought of living in the same house as a beginning oboist. But how greatly I underestimated Missy. I called every instrumentalist in the school that summer. Missy was the first one I called and there were two things that struck me about her. She seemed a little shy and she knew her stuff. I asked her what she had been playing with her orchestra and when she mentioned Stravinsky and Prokofiev I had a little inkling of her ability. And when I finally met her in the restaurant where I played piano, she seemed not so much shy as quiet, and of course very beautiful.
We had a small class. I taught music theory, history, and performance skills. In retrospect it was probably more than most of the class could handle, but Missy was always two steps ahead, helping the boys with the difficult assignments. I can't tell you how wonderful it was, after rehearsing Hot Cross Buns with the beginning band, to play a Bach Cantata with Missy. For a few moments we were in an ideal world, speaking J S Bach to each other.
I have taught hundreds of students in my career so far, but none could touch Missy. She was impeccably prepared for everything, she took direction like a pro, she laughed off my pianistic errors, and she took in the world with wide-eyed wonderment and boundless enthusiasm. If my children turn out to be as wonderful as Missy it will be a spectacular blessing because she was exactly what any parent would hope for.
We rehearsed and played music from all the major periods. She played some of my music and she even played in the pit for a corny musical I conducted. She always shone and she was always very modest about her performance. But the highlight of our friendship was the recital we did together in this very building. I've said it before and I say it again now without the slightest reservation: It was one of the greatest honors of my life to accompany her.
I can still see, as clear as day, the image of her across the piano from me, radiant and determined, nervous and brilliant, artist and child, all at once. She nods, the way we practiced, and we're off, in a flurry of magical pitches. We keep our eyes out for those difficult passages and we sail past them, listening as carefully as dancers watch one another. She may not have said a word all that day, but who needs to say a word when you can sing like an angel using only a piece of wood and metal.
The music is ours now and the music is everybody else's. We can feel the audience enjoying our dance and, in all the beauty and excitement, it's hard to remember that we are actually playing this difficult piece of music and not floating through space on clouds of butterflies. Then all at once it is over, much too soon. She blushes and I am so proud of her that I almost forget to bow.
Missy, that's how I feel now.