“ETIENNE, James Archie. Born May 23, 1917. Archie passed away peacefully on Thursday, April 27, 2006 at the age of eighty-eight…” So begins a simple, loving obituary for a good man.
It continued, “… Archie served during W.W.II in the R.C.A.F. After graduating from McGill University (1940), he taught music at West Hill High School in Montreal for 30 years. Here he inspired many young musicians, and toured Europe several times with his award-winning concert bands.”
Well. In my day, we never got to tour Europe – in fact, we traveled no farther than Drummondville. But had I seen this notice in the paper at the time, I surely would have gone to Mr. Etienne’s funeral. When I knew him, he was my instrumental music teacher for four years, from 1958 to 1962, at West Hill. I’ll be the first to admit, though, that I was not one of his prize students. I wheezily played clarinet as best I could, barely hanging on to the last chair in the third row.
Archie was a stern but fair taskmaster. His amazing ear allowed him to pick out the one band member out of 30 who was sharp or flat. Sure, he put us through our tiresome drills with the dreaded scales and triads, but I can at least say I learned some appreciation of music. And I did look forward to our nicely blended harmonies in some lovely pieces.
I don’t think Archie ever knew – at least I hope he never knew – that the only reason I chose instrumental music as an elective in the first place was because I wanted to be in the band. They had cool uniforms. There, I said it. 🙂
The cruelest thing Archie Etienne ever made me do was also the kindest. By my senior year, he had, in his wisdom, bestowed upon me the title of Assistant Band Manager. This meant I had certain responsibilities, none of which I remember now, but probably they involved keys, the organizing of sheet music and the like. Administrative stuff. Right, so anyway, the cruel thing was this. He told me in front of everyone at practice that for the upcoming spring concert, I was to do the welcoming speech. To all the parents. And teachers. And guests. In the (large) auditorium. Into a microphone. Shy little me.
I begged, pleaded with him to ask someone else. But he wouldn’t budge. “Oh,” he said dismissively, “you’ll do fine,” and turned to other matters. Meanwhile my stomach was somewhere on the floor and my pounding heart was echoing in my ears. I thought I’d pass out.
But on the night of the concert, after a stuttering start – “Louder!” yelled someone in the audience – I was okay (notwithstanding my trembling knees), reading my short speech, barely tall enough to reach the microphone. It went fine.
One of Archie’s students was Boris Brott, who became a top-flight orchestra conductor and violinist. Me? With relief, I ceased being a clarinettist right after my matriculation exam – in which I managed to eke out a 70%.
But I love music. And I’ll never forget Archie Etienne, an excellent music teacher.