You-Go Mr. Porter: Slap!

April 3, 2014

 

Randy PorterRandy Porter got his notion of larger-then-life from his father, Maurice, who came from a line of Russian survivors of 19th-century pogroms; true adventurers who fled Moscow, crossed the Steppes, made their way through China and on to Canada, and finally settled in Oakland. Maurice, or Maury to his friends, went to Oakland High and became a traveling salesman, selling calculators and digital clocks to large chain stores in the 1960s. He made two-percent commissions, spent the money as fast he got it, and lived big. Lived big, talked loud, a good-man Willie Loman, always opting for the outrageous, always riding high on his heartful charm.

Like the time he took the family along on a business trip to Arizona, as well as to watch some spring training: On the way they got pulled over for speeding and as the cop opened his ticket book Maury started talking about how hot it was, how the kids were boiling over, and the next thing you know, he has the trunk open and he’s selling the cop some Melmac plastic dinner plates. It’s part of Maury’s ware, and sure enough, the cop puts away his ticket book and Maury puts away some cash.

Or the time, in 1974, when Maury took the family on vacation to Hawaii, and the first thing he wanted to do was take everybody out to see Don Ho. But when he called for reservations the word was, ‘you must be crazy.’ And so Maury did what he did best, he improvised. “Yes, well of course I understand, but this is Congressman Porter from California. I’m here with my family, and I was told there would be no problem….”

And suddenly there is no problem. They get to the show, they’re escorted to a table in the front row, the champagne is already being poured, and afterwards, Mr. Ho wants to know if Congressman Porter from California and his family would do him the honor of coming backstage. “What’s it like to be the son of a congressman?” Mr. Ho asks Randy, a worldly 13. “It’s okay,” the kid says and the next thing you know they’re all playing pool with the Don.

Two years later Maury, who, by the way, was a bit of a musician and played the melody sax, was back in Hawaii, on his trillionth business trip, up on a stage doing the hula, swaying with the langorous hula dancers, and right there in the middle of his bigger-than-life, he dropped down dead.

The Teaching Arts

“I think I have some of that personality,” Randy Porter said the other day, about to celebrate his 53rd birthday. He’s music director at the Westlake Middle School, not far from Lake Meritt, in Oakland. SFCV has named him Music Educator of the Year.

“I think I may come across that way to some of my students.”

Porter has 148 students in his music classes; there are 600 students at Westlake. The concert band has a cast of 36; a string orchestra has 31; and the jazz ensemble, 18. The ensemble is made up almost entirely of 7th and 8th graders.

Fifty percent are African American; 20 percent, Latino; 15 percent, Asian; 5 percent, Caucasian; and 10 percent all-other. Eighty-five percent are low income. In sum, the familiar composition of an inner city school where the rules of the road are based less on ethnicity than on personal histories of doubt, the habits of despair, and uncertain support — either at home and often at the schools, which are themselves fragile and inevitably undermined.

Such is Porter’s world, among middle schoolers, arriving every day with their dramas, large and small, and inevitably their daily rebellions. “Why aren’t you wearing your uniform today?” Porter will ask.

“My classes are really all leadership classes. From time to time, some of my students actually run the class and that’s part of my approach, to show how to lead by example.” — Randy Porter

“I dunno” is often the response.

“Well, you have to wear your uniform.”

“I hate this school, it’s so mixed up.”

“Ok, but you still have to wear your uniform ...”

Porter will tell you that the art of teaching kids in such situations is not only to be patient and genuine, but also to be relentless and creative in coming up with appropriate consequences. And when Porter gets the boy or girl to wear the uniform and give up their daily challenge, that’s a victory. And a better victory if he doesn’t have to give a detention, because for a lot of these kids a detention is nothing, it just has no resonance.

“My classes are really all leadership classes. From time to time, some of my students actually run the class and that’s part of my approach, to show how to lead by example.”

And then there are the other more serious dramas. The 10-year-old kid who lives in a homeless shelter, and every day Porter stops by to bring him to school. Or the cockroaches venturing out of a violin case, and Mr. Porter stomping on them with his shoe, but discretely, wanting to keep that reminder, that reflection of someone’s home life hidden, because kids’ll use anything to get at each other.

And also because Porter’s role, his being larger-than-life on this stage, isn’t always what you think. The outrageousness is all around so to stand out, to be in contrast, you don’t need to be more of that. Sometimes, to be larger-than-life, to catch someone’s attention, it’s better simply to be steady, to be understated, to be cool — to be “slap”, as the kids say these days. Slap means ‘good’ and is high praise in the lilt of inner city Ebonics. “Mr. Porter slap,” kids will say. Or, “Mr. Porter-you-go.”

The Power of Bach Inventions

After Maury died, his wife, Nadyne, got a job at Macy’s. She became a shoe buyer, and went on to be one of the very few people who ever rose to be an executive at the store without having gone to college. She’d gone to Glenview Elementary and Oakland High. So did Maury, although that’s not where they met.

Less now, but Nadyne used to play the piano, and rigorously. Randy Porter was ever mesmerized by listening to her play Beethoven sonatas, Mendelssohn, and Bach Inventions. “I really think that was the most important part of my musical training as a child: listening to her play, getting that sound in my ear.”

In Porter’s family, among grandparents, uncles, and great uncles, there were several prodigies and impresarios. One of his great uncles, Aaron Sten, founded the Peninsula Symphony as well as the California Youth Symphony.

Porter started out playing the piano, then switched to trombone. He took lessons and inspiration from his elementary school teacher at Grass Valley, Rudy Patiro, and by his own estimation got to be “pretty good.” “I just sort of did it, nobody told me I was good, I just kept going.” Porter got to be first trombone in an advanced band at Bret Harte Junior High but then got bored with the instrument and dropped out of band in high school. He went off to UCLA and thought he would study economics and political science. But in the dorm he found he preferred the company of musicians and artists and started playing the guitar in earnest. From there, he began to study music and then one thing led to another and he graduated with a degree in composition and guitar performance.

After graduation, he started teaching and in 1987 worked at several schools in the Oakland School District. But in 1989, elementary music programs were cut and many music teachers let go. Porter was offered a position at Thornhill Elementary, which was paid through the PTA. He had a similar arrangement at Montclair and Chabot. Then he was offered a true plum: to be the director of education at the Berkeley Symphony.

“These kids really inspire me ... Some are just so talented. And sometimes when I hear them play I think, ‘how did you do that?’ — Randy Porter

One project Porter is most proud of during this period is “The Big Deal Concert” he organized in 1993. He drew together 300 students to play John Cage’s landmark experimental piece, 4’33”. Cage’s playful humor inspired Porter: “So I thought, Well, this is interesting, I want to go with this. And so that lead to my teaching in a completely new way, with lots of listening and improvisation and thinking about how language is learned. We had fantastic results.” In 1998, he organized the downtown music circus at the annual Berkeley Arts Festival. He had 400 musicians scattered around the area, inside and outside buildings, on each floor, on roofs and balconies, and coordinated the whole thing by radio, with KPFA’s cooperation. The performance, of the 1960s pop hit “Louie, Louie,” went on for four hours.

After seven years with the Berkeley Symphony Porter left. His second son was born; he’d had his fill of part time jobs. “I just couldn’t afford it anymore.” So in 2000, he took a position at Westlake.

The Salesman’s Legacy

Porter has two kids, two teenage boys; not musicians, but promising young baseball players. His wife is a professional singer, as well as development director at the Aurora Theater. Meanwhile, Porter makes his life in a world often ‘at risk’, in one way or another. Which brings to mind Willy Loman’s line in Death of Salesman: “the jungle is dark, but full of diamonds.” Teaching in an Oakland public school is often difficult, what with the endless negotiating with kids, the relentless revolving door of teachers, the broad cultural apathy toward music instruction in this country, and the rollercoaster of hope and despair — but in the end, as Porter says, the energy comes back and the satisfaction is seeing the difference you make.

“These kids really inspire me,” Porter repeats, and went on to give examples, including that of a cellist turned trombone player who finally decided on the sax, “and boy, was he good.” Porter helped him get a scholarship at the Lafayette Summer Music Workshop. “Some of these kids are just so talented. And sometimes when I hear them play I think, ‘how did you do that?’

“I believe that every community has a pool of musicians and any school can offer a successful music program by recognizing that pool and tapping into it. But you need to hold on to good teachers and support them. That’s one of the great things that’s helped me. And when you get that, the rewards are substantial. Going to these festivals and hearing these kids play is so much. And that’s part of my mission, getting them to places where they can play, where they can experience success. And while I don’t give them music that’s too far over their heads, I don’t dumb it down. And when you do that, they rise up. It’s extraordinary to see.”

“What makes Randy such a good teacher is that he pulls kids along without pulling the rope ... He encourages each child to be the best they can. He says ‘you can play this, you can do this.’ And the kids really respond.” — Andrew Harteau (student parent)

Porter’s students have gone on to such venues as the Oakland Youth Orchestra, SFJAZZ All Stars, and the Young People’s Symphony Orchestra. A few have also gone on to become music majors in college. Four students are currently studying at USC, Oberlin, UC Berkeley, and the University of the Pacific.

“What makes Randy such a good teacher is that he pulls kids along without pulling the rope,” says Andrew Harteau, whose son Gus, a very talented percussionist, has been in the music program for two years. “He encourages each child to be the best they can but doesn’t tell kids to ‘play this’. He says ‘you can play this, you can do this.’ And the kids really respond.”

Others say that what distinguishes Porter is that he takes such pride in his students, and you see that in his expressions while he’s conducting. When someone plays his or her part with accuracy and verve Porter makes eye contact with them and offers a nod, which is at once a message of encouragement to a young musician, but also part of an invitation, as if to say, ‘welcome to this community of like-minded people and isn’t there something truly wonderful in making such fantastic music.’

Scratching Surfaces

Asked to describe the correlation between music and good citizenship, Porter replied, “It’s in working together toward a common goal and realizing that as a member of a group you have a responsibility to hold up your part.” He went on to outline the way music draws out all the aspects of intelligence: breathing, reading, counting, manipulating your hands, and matching what others are doing …. “And at the end you’ve created a piece of art. Incredible! I don’t know what other activity draws out so many skills and qualities all at once.”

He paused and added, “And no matter how good you are, you never master it. It’s a life-long process. Open one door and you’re faced with countless others. I feel like I’m good at what I do, but I also feel I’m just scratching the surface. I know this: When it comes to service, to helping others, you have to feel good about yourself and music is a good place to develop that.”


 

Upcoming events: April 5 and 6, El Cerrito High School: The California Music Educator’s Association Band and Orchestra Festival. Westlake will play at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

April 28. Yoshi’s in Oakland: Westlake Jazz Ensemble, 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., $15, Program includes selections from Count Basie, Miles Davis, and Stevie Wonder, along with such hits as “Superstition,” “Jungle Boogie,” and “Respect.”

Mark MacNamara (macnamband.com) is a San Francisco-based journalist who has written for such publications as Salon.com, Vanity Fair, The Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Nautilus. In recent months in SFCV, among other pieces, he has written about a music director accused of embezzlement; a profile of conductor Alondra de la Parra; an essay about the controversy over ‘trigger warnings’ for college courses; a report on a strike at the Metropolitan Opera; and a feature about the housing problem for artists in San Francisco.