Interest, Talent, and Opportunity: Nicholas Gerren's Music Education from Elementary School through the Moscow Conservatory

Article excerpt

Introduction

Opportunities for African Americans to attain and display academic excellence were less abundant at the beginning of the twentieth century than they are now. During the first half of the century, the same community produced several students who would later have successful careers as music educators: Nicholas Gerren (1912-2002), dean of the music department at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio; William P. Foster (1919-), director of bands emeritus at Florida A and M University; and Reginald Buckner (1938-1990), chair of the Jazz Studies Department at the University of Minnesota. All three came from the northeast community of Kansas City, Kansas. They are outstanding products of the training and support that those neighborhoods provided to the resident children. These three men lived in the community at different times, but they received similar opportunities to develop their talents there. They attended the same junior and senior high schools and had some of the same teachers. Their interest in music, their talent, and opportunities to develop that talent converged with support from their families, schools, and community to allow them to become successful music educators in spite of the limitations commonly imposed on African Americans at that time. They were trained and poised to take advantage of whatever opportunities were presented to them and to seek out alternative avenues to success when the options open to Caucasian students were closed to them.

Students thrive academically in an environment where parents, teachers, educational administrators, civic leaders, and community residents work collaboratively. Several recent books have popularized the old African proverb that it takes a village to raise child. Hillary Rodham Clinton, in her book It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us, and Terry Casey, in her volume Pride and Joy: The Lives and Passions of Women Without Children, both used this proverb as the starting place for their philosophies. They both believe that everyone in a community must contribute to a child's development if they expect him or her to develop social responsibility, emotional health, and productive citizenship. (1) Investigating the educational experiences of Nicholas Gerren, one of these successful music students from Kansas City, Kansas, will help to validate or discount the importance of family, community, and school to the success of students in general, of the children of the northeast section of that city, and of Nicholas Gerren specifically.

Nicholas Gerren was particularly successful as a music student. What was it about his music education, in addition to the influence and support of his family, school, and community, that allowed him to succeed against the odds? Gerren was the oldest of the three prominent music educators who emerged from the northeast community. Until his death on December 10, 2002, he remained in Wilberforce, Ohio, close to Central State University where he had retired as dean of the music department in 1977. Gerren himself, during interviews with the author during 2000-2002, discounted the effect of racial discrimination on his career, and yet the roadblocks were clearly present as he described the lack of opportunity for employment with symphony orchestras. He chose instead to concentrate on the opportunities he was given, such as being the first African American student to play in the orchestra at the University of Kansas. (2)

Gerren's music teachers played a major role in his success. Throughout his career, Gerren credited his music teachers with providing inspiration to pursue a career in music, appreciation for classical music, grounding in his instrument, encouragement to develop his talent, and opportunities to study and perform. Gerren appreciated these opportunities and prepared himself to take advantage of them.

Who was Nicholas Gerren?

Nicholas Gerren was a concert violinist. …