R – In a few hours I’ll be heading up to Orono to catch a concert. It’s a particularly special one. Dr. Dennis Cox is one of the formative figures in my life, and he will be retiring this Spring as director of choral activities for the University of Maine. “DC” as his students know him, has been there since the late 1970’s. During this tenure he has transformed the choral program, and established one of the truly special places in the world for people up there to call their home: University Singers. This weekend is that ensemble’s final two performances with him. I’ve mentioned a number of people in this blog the last few years who have had an incredible impact on me. Denny has been included among them and this morning I’m feeling the need to articulate why. His impact on me is in no way unique and I don’t want to imply otherwise; he has touched the lives of literally tens of thousands of people and all our stories are woven with very similar threads.
I had heard about this “Dr. Cox guy” for years as an undergraduate at Keene State College, and student taught with an esteemed teacher (Jean Nelson, who will be getting a blog post written about her in the near future) who had collaborated with him and sang his praises left and right. He sounded like a real character who had a very special gift of bringing out the very best in everybody, musically and personally. I made a mental note to eventually see him at work, and I then moved on with my career. Five years later I was manager for the Vermont All State Chorus, that year under the direction of UConn’s Dr. Peter Bagley. He was sensational, and at the end of the Festival I asked him who I should hire for the coming year who would build upon the work and spirit of what he accomplished. He didn’t even flinch: “Dennis Cox.” By this point I was getting the distinct feeling that somebody was trying to tell me something.
Mothers Day weekend, 1994, I waited for Denny to arrive at a hotel in St Johnsbury, Vermont where I was waiting with a couple of friends of mine including our accompanist, Rob Gattie. I was really nervous. I was finally going to meet him and thought, “What’s this dude going to be like? How will he carry himself and how will he even treat me, a very young teacher?” We eventually heard a knock on the door and in he walked, baseball hat on his head, a cat-caught-the-canary smirk on his face and he exclaimed, “YA CHA CHAAA!”
THIS was Dr. Dennis Cox?!!!
Yup. Absolutely. It is not possible for a professional in the field to carry themselves more unassuming, engaging and authentically than Denny. I hadn’t realized that, but I learned in a hurry. The Festival began the next day and all weekend I saw two things that mind couldn’t reconcile: 1) he was the first conductor I had ever watched who never mentioned one single word about respect, self-discipline or focus, 2) that choir was the most respectful, self-disciplined and focused choir I had ever witnessed. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and it made no sense. We had lengthy conversations over meals that weekend how and why he set out to do things the way he did. He was extraordinarily gracious in answering so many questions from me (those who do know me understand that I can be an awful pest that way!).
Why was all this really all that significant? Unknown to Denny, at that moment 6 years into my career, I had started to believe that I had failed as a teacher and was in the wrong profession. I had enjoyed much of my time at my first gig in Bellows Falls, but the program had stopped growing. I couldn’t accept that. I was actively looking to get my Masters degree to become a guidance counselor and leave teaching altogether. I was that close to doing so. That Summer however, Denny sent me a letter thanking me for the All State experience, and offering me an assistantship with him to get my Masters with him a year down the road. Supported by an enthusiastic response from my fiance, we left Vermont a year later.
My 14 months in Orono was the most pivotal of my career because I finally “got it”. Observing and learning from Denny, I WAS able to finally reconcile how he was able to elevate singers and people in an extraordinary way without telling them to cow-tow the line or “do what he says or else” or any other type of phony motivational tactic. In doing so, he unlocked in me the type of conductor and teacher I always wanted to be but couldn’t get to. I learned that loving your singers, valuing them as musicians and as people and everything they bring to the table is the single most important thing you will ever do as a director. Everything else flows from that. Hold them accountable musically, hold yourself to being brilliant musically, but then invite the singers in to do the same. And lead them there by their own choosing.
Nearly 20 years later, there is not one single success I’ve enjoyed in my career that is not directly attributed to that year up north. I sang with University Singers and experienced that “family”. I remember smiling in rehearsal til my face hurt. I remember watching Denny wryly turning odd stories into remarkable musical results immediately after telling them. I remember lip syncing in concert with tears in my eyes the verse in Cape Breton Lullaby, “Daddy is on the bay, he’ll keep the pot brewing” thinking of my Dad who had passed away a couple of years earlier. I remember endless wonderful moments from Spring Tour including an impromptu concert in a corner sandwich shop and being snowed in, in Tuxedo, NY. I remember making friends with people who are and always will be a special part of my life. I remember DC benevolently fostering all of it, just as he had done for the previous 18 years, and just as he has done in the 18 years since.
Steve Smith taught me that an educator must spend their lives dropping apple seeds. The great ones yield the most. Denny has yielded the most. He didn’t accomplish this because of the number of letters he has after his name, because he had any ego attached to the endeavor or because he was somehow “lucky”. He accomplished this because he’s DC. And he puts his singers first. As people. And because he understands the transformative power of music and how to connect it to everybody. Retiring is a neat time, but Denny will never be “retired”. His fingerprints are permanently etched in the fabric of New England choral music.
Tonight is going to be a very special concert. Like everyone else who will be attending this weekend, I can’t wait.