Interest, Talent, and Opportunity: Nicholas Gerren's Music Education from Elementary School through the Moscow Conservatory
Vandiver, Dale Campbell, Journal of Historical Research in Music Education
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. His original goal was to make his living as a classical violinist. In 1934, when he received his degree in music performance in violin from the University of Kansas, most American symphony orchestras were not hiring African American musicians. In an interview with the author, Gerren described a conversation with Dean Swarthout at the time of his graduation. The dean congratulated him and asked what he was going do with a degree in violin since there were no jobs for African Americans in symphony orchestras. The dean suggested that he meet with E. Thayer Gaston, who is known as the Father of Music Therapy, to see about completing the requirements for a degree in music education. Gerren began work toward his music education degree during the summer of 1934. He finished the requirements for the degree in a year and received his B.M.E. in 1935. (3)
However, Gerren was not dissuaded from his desire to perform and continued to seek out other opportunities. His search took him to Russia, where he studied violin and conducting at the Moscow Conservatory and performed with the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra for two years. He wrote to Eileen Southern, a noted African American musicologist and professor at Harvard, on his inclusion in her Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians in 1979:
At the Moscow Conservatory of Music Boris Ossipovich Sibor, Head of the Violin Faculty, took a strong personal interest in my adjustment and development there. He was especially helpful, too, toward my becoming a member of the Moscow Radio Theater Symphony Orchestra. (4)
When Gerren returned to America, he found the same conditions he had left. American orchestras still were not hiring African American musicians. Gerren made the best decision he could in his situation. In order to satisfy both his musical and survival needs, he became a collegiate music educator.
Nicholas Gerren's career in music education extended over thirty-eight years. He retired from his position as professor of music at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, in 1977. Gerren had been a music instructor and director of string ensembles at four other schools: Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas; Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri; Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina; and Prairie View College in Prairie View, Texas. He served as dean of music and fine arts at Central State University and as head of the department of music and chairman of the fine arts division at Texas Southern. He represented those institutions at many regional and national meetings and served on professional and civic committees. (5)
Nicholas Gerren's experiences and career commanded respect from his peers. He wrote to Eileen Southern, "In gathering material for response to your inquiry I ran across programs of our joint faculty recital at Prairie View State College." They had served together on the college faculty early in their careers. Among the special achievements he described to her in that letter were these programs at Texas Southern University:
During the times that Leopold Stokowski was conductor of the Houston Symphony Orchestra I was at Texas Southern University in Houston. This was the early 1960s. I invited him and he came to the university for a visit at one of our rehearsals. Maestro Stokowski gave his permission for me to attend rehearsals of the Houston Symphony Orchestra. Upon two occasions, I had the honor and thrill of visiting with him in his hotel suite to discuss conducting problems. It was a rare privilege as the visits were incident to programs I was preparing for performance at Texas Southern University. The programs I conducted utilized full orchestra and through grants from The Music Performance Trust Funds of the Recording Industry, I was able to utilize members of the Houston Symphony Orchestra. The Choral Finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Verdi's Manzoni are notable examples. (6)…
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Publication information: Article title: Interest, Talent, and Opportunity: Nicholas Gerren's Music Education from Elementary School through the Moscow Conservatory. Contributors: Vandiver, Dale Campbell - Author. Journal title: Journal of Historical Research in Music Education. Volume: 15. Issue: 2 Publication date: April 2004. Page number: 96+. © 2007 Ithaca College, School of Music. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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