10 years ago I graduated from Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts, affectionately known as FWAFA, the charter school that supported the World renowned and Grammy award-winning Texas Boys Choir, Singing Girls of Texas and the Children's Choir of Texas.
I can almost remember my graduation like yesterday. We arrived at the synagogues across the street early to take pictures, and Mr. Johnson helped me get my regalia on properly. We processed down the aisles into our seats as Mr. Johnson played the famous commencement processional on the organ.
Our commencement speaker was the president of WRR 101.1, Dallas-Fort Worth's for profit classical radio station. I remember sinking into my chair feeling like I was still moving. I was exhausted from months of being in constant motion as a result of many performances and rehearsals with Fort Worth Opera, the Texas Boys Choir, UIL One Act Play, and an overly ambitious audition schedule. Yet, I sat there in my cap and gown eager to soak up very kernel of advice he had to give us.
Looking back, his words were not profound in a life altering kind of way. But I remember being left with the feeling that I could go out and conquer the world, and do great things with my classmates. I truly wish I had a recording of his precise words because they would possibly mean something different today. By the end of the speech, I was filled with BIG dreams, and incredibly excited about what we would do with our future.
It has been a long kept tradition since FWAFA's inception to sing Joseph M. Martin's "The Awakening" together with the recent graduates, the Texas Boys Choir, the Singing Girls Choir, the Children's Choir of Texas and former graduates in attendance.
As we stood together as a class, many of us were completely overwhelmed with emotion. Sadly, the acoustics at the synagogue were absolutely terrible, but that did not stop me from getting chills. That inexplicable frisson happens every time it is performed. For me I think it has to do with what it represents, and the symbolism of the FWAFA family, the new and the old, coming together to sing in one accord. The music grows from a barely audible & percussive whisper to a majestic anthem with its penetrating melody. The lyrics are profound, and are as poignant today as they were when we first sang it together at the Great Hall with the Class of 2001. The first year I was fortunate to sing that laser focused descant with the CCT, under the direction of Jerry Bierschenk and Mark Stamper, and vaguely remember a shoe being thrown in our dress rehearsal. Needless to say, the performance standards were set extremely high in those days.
Leaving a Legacy in a Letter.
Every day leading up to graduation and all summer long, I would rush home eager to check the mail. With the prevalence of Venmo and PayPal, today's graduates might be checking their email instead. But back then I was excited to receive cards filled with congratulatory remarks, and even more so for those filled with money.
Looking back there is one gift I cherish the most. It is a letter and pen from Victor Johnson. I believe it was received because I asked him to robe me at my graduation, or it was because I was one of his first students to graduate, along with Christina Ward. Interestingly enough, I commissioned both my classmate Christina and Mr. Johnson to each write a song for my senior recital project at Eastman School of Music.
Many things have changed since that letter was penned to paper. One thing has remained consistent. Mr. Johnson is an incredible mentor - one highly sought after by young and old students alike. For the past 17 years, Mr. Johnson has taught at FWAFA, and has touched the lives of thousands of students.
Mr. Johnson started his teaching career just weeks before 9/11. I was in Mr. Johnson's class when Dolly Blevins, Texas Boys Choir, Inc.’s Executive Director, came into our classroom and asked us all to sit down. She informed us all that our country was under attack, and many of our parents would be coming to take us home. As is the norm, Mr. Johnson remained calm and kept us under control.
I remain proud to be one of Mr. Johnson’s first students at FWAFA, and it is sad to say his time at FWAFA has come to an end. He will be missed by so many, including, the many students who have been mentored by him and the parents who experienced the positive impact Mr. J had on their children's lives.
I recall him giving me extremely challenging music theory assignments when the other assignments were too easy or boring for me. No joke, once, he wrote out an unrealized bass line told me to write four part harmony with good voice-leading - as a 6th grader!
< emphatically gesturing that my mind was blown >
He challenged me to be the best musician I could be, and more importantly, the best person I could be. He helped nurture my love for music even when it faltered, and facilitated a safe environment for learning amongst so much change.
Although I was officially only in Mr. Johnson’s class for one semester, Mr. Johnson has been and continues to be a thoughtful and trusted mentor to me. He donates his time, expertise and guidance to me (and many others) - long after graduation. And has been the calm amongst many a storm.
I can't tell you how many times I read that letter leading up to college and in my early years at Eastman School of Music. It's a heartfelt and comforting letter. One you can't read without tearing up. Thank you Mr. Johnson for your service.
Passing the Baton.
@ FWAFA Graduation 2018.
"This is the song that broke all of our hearts and made us so proud all in the same moment tonight. Our wonderful friend and colleague Victor Johnson is leaving us after 17 years. The young man who takes over directing toward the end of the video is Jackson Hill. He was one of Victor's students when he was in our Children's Chorale. Now Jackson is the director of the Children's Chorale. The beauty and symbolism of Victor's passing the baton to Jackson was incredible. There weren't enough tissues for all the crying faculty members. This song is performed by our Academy Mixed Choir, all of our graduates, and the FWAFA alumni in attendance tonight. Victor Johnson, we all love you so much. Thank you for everything you've been to all of us and especially to your students."
- Karen Mitchell Smith
My advice for this year’s graduates:
Hold on to the calm to your storm, and be grateful for the mentors in your life - listen to them!
Keep your passion for justice alive, it will surely change the world for the better.
Stay connected to your classmates, you never know who will pick you up and dust you off.
Keep honing your craft, it will guide you, even in your darkest hours, and make sure to share your talents.
Dream big and set unrealistic (10X) goals for yourself, and don’t settle for anything less & ignore the haters.
Write down your goals because sooner or later they're going to come true, no matter how ridiculous.
Embrace change as the only constant, and foster your ability to learn & adapt.
Strive for excellence and perfection in everything you do because those around you're watching.
FWAFA's Class of 2018 graduates,
I am particularly proud of you. You all made a strong and unapologetic stand for what you believed in and did so in a peaceful manner. Doing the right thing will take you very far in life. Keep your mentors close and your classmates closer - you'll unlikely have friends just like them. May you find comfort in your accomplishments, and never rest on your laurels. I pray you find the calm to your storm.
the Singing Lawyer
- Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts, Class of 2008
- Texas Boys Choir Scholarship Recipient, 2008
P.S. Don't be afraid to get dirty every now and then . . .