The teacher who brought music to life for me

By Jayson Jacoby March 08, 2013 08:24 am

One of life’s great mysteries, it seems to me, is how each of us, as a child, came to acquire those interests which persist into adulthood, as stubborn as barnacles.

Sometimes there is no mystery, of course.

Take for instance the woman who became fascinated with the ocean the very instant, as a little girl, that she peered into a tidepool and felt the queer sensation of a sea anemone’s tentacles grasping her finger.

Or the boy whose first-grade field trip to Gettysburg spawned his insatiable curiosity about the Civil War.

Both of those examples involve rather specific hobbies.

But what about more general subjects — an abiding appreciation for music, to name an especially common example?

This affinity, I think, is one which most of us absorb over an extended period of immersion, as it were. This is quite different from the immediate experience of the girl on the beach or the boy on the battlefield, either of which, to belabor the analogy, is more akin to an inoculation straight into a vein.

I had occasion to ponder this sort of osmosis recently when I learned that Peter Benson Roth, who was my music teacher in Stayton public schools from first grade through eighth, had died of cancer. He was 64.

And although I have only slightly more aptitude for playing music than I have for advanced math — which is to say, on the low side of negligible — I have no doubt that were it not for Mr. Roth’s influence, my mp3 player would hold substantially fewer songs today, and I would listen to them without quite the same sense of glee.

(We do not as a rule use courtesy titles such as “Mr.” in newspapers but I simply can’t think of the man as anything but Mr. Roth.)

The vast majority of teachers, in my experience, are pleasant people, and I got on well with almost all of those whose classrooms I was assigned to. 

But Mr. Roth was my favorite by a wide margin. He is the only teacher who, at random moments over the nearly 30 years since last I was in his class, I thought I ought to look up.

Now of course I won’t get the chance.

I regret this because I wanted to tell him that his love for making music, for listening to it and for relishing every note, worked its way into my soul and continues to enrich my life to this day.

Which is as fine an epitaph, I think, as can be given to any teacher.

Mr. Roth didn’t introduce me to music.

My dad in his youth was an inveterate buyer of LPs, and one of my favorite pastimes was to kneel in front of the wooden cabinet where he kept his albums, and examine its contents.

I could easily while away an hour learning about The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and The Shirelles. That cabinet, I came to understand by the time I was teenager, was nothing so much as a catalogue of the 1960s and early 1970s, rendered in stylus-scratched vinyl and thin, peeling cardboard.

When my older brother and I shared a bedroom we often went to sleep with The Doors or The Moody Blues issuing softly from the speakers.

I was a committed classic rock fan before I stopped believing in Santa Claus.

But it was Mr. Roth who taught me to appreciate music not just as a listener, but as a budding musician who understands, in a small way, the immense talent needed to create sounds of enduring quality, and even beauty.

He did so not merely by teaching me to play the guitar, although he was an exceedingly adept, and patient, teacher.

I can’t say how many children learned the basics of the guitar, or the piano or the recorder from Mr. Roth, who was himself a virtuoso. But over his 32-year career as a teacher in the North Santiam School District, I suspect the roster must surely number in the hundreds.

More important than teaching me the difference between an A chord and an E-minor, Mr. Roth showed me that music can be — indeed, that it should be — just plain fun.

There was nothing at all contrived about his enthusiasm, either. Kids aren’t naturally cynical, of course, but I think even a first-grader can detect the unpleasant scent of feigned interest or worse, patronization, in an adult.

But when Mr. Roth was hunched over his piano, pounding out the Peanuts’ theme song (I was well into adulthood before I learned the actual title of Vince Guaraldi’s jaunty piece in fact is “Linus and Lucy”), his joy was too obviously pure to be mistaken for anything but the genuine article.

Even today when I hear that tune I don’t see Charlie Brown’s piano-playing pal, Schroeder, with Lucy draped over the piano. Instead I see Mr. Roth and his unkempt hair, which reminded me of Beethoven or some other slightly eccentric 18th century composer, tossing his head back to keep the tangled curl out of his eyes.

I recognize now that Mr. Roth had a natural advantage over most of his colleagues simply because of his subject.

I liked most of my math and English teachers too, but let’s be honest — dividing fractions or diagramming sentences just can’t compete with joining your classmates for a rousing vocal rendition of “Windy” or “Midnight Special.”

Yet I doubt that many other music teachers have ever played “Frankenstein,” the blistering instrumental by the Edgar Winter Group, during class, much less at volumes that these days might prompt a lawsuit.

And so every time I’m driving somewhere and that song comes on the radio, and I start smacking the steering wheel hub as if it’s a snare drum, I remember Mr. Roth, and I cherish the gift he gave me, the gift to listen, and to love.