Renowned author Ian Frazier was a student at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio, when William Appling first came there to teach in 1965. He has written this appreciation of him.
Teaching someone to be an artist is hard. Unlike mastering a subject or a skill, being an artist partakes of mystery. In the arts, at the highest levels of difficulty, the exchange between teacher and student is a combination of leap-of-faith, personality transfer, E.S.P., and unknown elements—a bond, in short, as close as any in the teacher’s or the student’s life. From the point of view of the student, someone who can give you this gift—who can bring that little piece of divine fire, cupping it like a match in the hand—is simply irreplaceable. For many hundreds of students, that irreplaceable teacher was William Appling.
In a life spent in music, William Appling taught people to sing and to play the piano not just well, but transcendently, gloriously, better than they dreamed they could. The adjective “beloved” should be given a sharp look, to scare away cliché, before putting it beside “teacher,” but it’s just a fact to say that as a teacher William Appling was greatly beloved. When he came to Reserve in 1965 he moved the music program upward almost in a leap, showing that it could equal or exceed the high standards the school set for academics. When he took the stage to conduct or perform, you could feel the seriousness, the aspiration; at a William Appling concert the Chapel shone as if newly gilded.
After his years at Reserve he taught at Vassar College. During his long career he also taught at other schools, and for many years he directed the William Appling Singers &Orchestra. On top of that he maintained a schedule of public solo performances on the piano and collaborated on a number of recordings, including “Shall We Gather,” a collection of hymns and spirituals which he did with his chorus and his former student and longtime friend, William McClelland. The influence of Bill Appling’s achievements continues to radiate outward today.
My own qualifications for writing about him are limited, because I have no musical ability and can’t sing. Mr. Appling told me so himself. Once for complicated reasons I happened to be sitting with the Glee Club when they were rehearsing for a Christmas program. As Mr. Appling led them in a run-through of “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel,” I stood and joined in, just for the heck of it. Mr. Appling stopped the music instantly: “What was that?” He walked down the rows of singers, looking intently into each of the twenty-odd faces. He came to me. “You!” he said. “You were singing! Don’t. Don’t sing!” This directness may sound cold, but I found it bracing. Back then, as others of that generation will recall, we were constantly being told we could be whatever we wanted and accomplish anything we set our minds to. The enormity of the possibilities this left us sometimes made for vagueness and loss of focus; I was grateful to have one area decisively closed off.
Though I never studied with Mr. Appling I learned all kinds of truths from him. I had many fine teachers at Reserve, but only Mr. Appling gave me an accurate idea of what a life in the arts—the life I ended up with—would be like. I remember once Bill McClelland and I were sitting in the empty Chapel on a weekday morning while classes were going on. I forget why we were there, but as we were lounging in the pews and shooting the breeze Mr. Appling came in to check some production detail for a concert. He saw Bill and me sitting there and gave us a shrewd look. “Oh, I see,” he said. “It’s the old ‘sit-in-the-Chapel-in-the-morning’ trick.” I loved when he said that and I love remembering it now. The moment was prophetic and full of meaning. Being a writer, or any kind of artist, is the old “sit-in-the-Chapel-in-the-morning” trick; as an artist, you’re generally apart from most people, you’re not where any system or bureaucracy wants you to be, and what you’re doing combines things of the spirit with, basically, messing around. And it’s a trick, definitely. Art is artifice, even quackery, but with endless, powerful consequences: a frail wand, but a profound spell.
Moving as that story is to me, I don’t know if it explains what we learned from Mr. Appling, or how. We—his admirers and his students, both—learned from Mr. Appling just by seeing the way he was. Mr. Appling had perspective. He always kept a certain distance between himself and any situation he found himself in. I remember he told me that his father told him never to have just one job, so he’d never be tied to just one employer. Perspective is perhaps the artist’s most important resource after talent and drive, and it’s the one most painfully obtained. Bill Appling cared strongly about any project he happened to be working on and about the people he was working with, but at the same time his overriding concern was for something greater, better, less defined than any of these immediate attachments—it was for music in the higher sense; or for Bach, maybe; or for something mysterious that would be trivialized by being named. All of us who enjoyed talking to Bill over the years can recall moments when the words would fail and he’d say, “You know. . . ?” And he’d sort of wait, letting his listeners make the jump, catch on. And then you went to his concert, and the music came pouring in, and it lifted you by the front of your shirt, and suddenly you understood what he had been talking about.
His distance and his rigor made gaining his approval all the more exhilarating. If he told you you had performed a piece of music beautifully, you could be sure he wasn’t just being polite. Nobody followed the progress of his students more closely than he did, even after they went out into the world; nobody took more pleasure from their successes. What a smile he had! I remember how he called me sometimes to congratulate me for a piece of writing. He had a smile you could hear over the phone.
The last time I saw him conduct a performance was at a concert of choral music at a church in Manhattan. The hour arrived for the concert to start. The audience quieted down, waited, then waited a bit more. Then Bill Appling came out. He held attention with the gleam of his shirt cuffs. The chorus looked at him, everybody looked at him, in expectation. The silence he commanded was vast. By the quality of the silence, by the poised way he was standing, you could tell this was going to be good.
I like to think of him standing there. He gave so much to so many of us. God bless you, Bill. May we live up to you.