Remembering William Appling

Many of William Appling’s students, friends and colleagues have written to WASO with memories of Bill and about their gratitude for his influence on their lives and music. We are including some of these here and encourage others to contribute.

Don Holshuh

We received several holiday greetings and well wishes in response to our letter from December, 2016, including this particularly poignant remembrance of Bill from a former WRA student:

I have enjoyed reading your efforts in honoring Mr. Appling. I was a member of the glee club at Western Reserve Academy in the late 60s. I was also a member of the octet. We were not a particularly gifted group but Mr. Appling was patient, kind and most of all encouraging. None of us could read music so he would patiently plunk out our notes on the piano for each of the four groups (soprano, alto, tenor and bass).  In retrospect, I am certain that was most exasperating. Mr. Appling would do so without complaint. We had so much fun during rehearsals and at concerts. He made singing enjoyable. Being part of his glee club was a privilege.

My fondest recollection of Mr. Appling occurred following the Mother’s Day concert that was held in a downtown church in Hudson. The year was 1966 and I had just learned the previous evening that my teenage sister was pregnant. This was at a time when an out of wedlock pregnancies was considered a disgrace to the family. During the concert, I sang a note one beat after we were to have stopped. In walking back to the campus with Mr. Appling, I began to cry. He told me that that was the best note I had ever hit. When I told him about my sister, he put his arms around me and told me that my sister’s pregnancy was nobody’s business and that neither my sister, my family nor I had anything about which to be ashamed. That moment spent with Mr. Appling is one of the most pleasant memories I have about my time at Western Reserve Academy. Every time I return to WRA and Hayden Hall, I remember Mr. Appling and the walk we took back to campus that Mother's Day.

I have long thought of sharing this memory with you. This summer I will attend the 50th anniversary of my graduation. I know that there will be many of us present who will remember with great fondness the moments we spent with Mr Appling. Somewhere tucked away in all my clutter are tape recordings of our glee club concerts. You may also be interested in knowing that we used to call him “Luke” because of the famous baseball player at the time. I suspect he probably knew.

Every time I receive a message from WASO, it brings back fond memories.

Dan Katz

Dan Katz wrote the following letter in 2012 to those planning the Inaugural William Appling Memorial Concert at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio:

I was a student at WRA from 1979-1981. It was during this time that I first met Mr Appling. My brother Jeff had been in the Glee Club and I figured that any teacher who could bare to listen to my brother sing was worth checking out. So I signed up for the class. And soon I figured out why my brother was there. It wasn't just about singing. It was about "learning", learning some of the most fundamental lessons of life from an erudite scholar, genius musician, sometimes dictator, sometimes comedian, sometimes parent, sometimes friend. Someone we students all knew, who no matter how hard he rode you, always had your back. Even when I finished my solo in a vespers concert and he gave me the "choke sign", he did so with an impish grin that said to me "even though you stunk, I'm still proud of you." And of course he was right. I did choke, but before meeting him I would never have had the courage to sing solo in front of a crowd, let alone my peers. He also had me do a piano recital with just me and Debbie Jamini. For those of you who knew her, this was like having a golf exhibition with Happy Gilmore vs Arnold Palmer. I initially thought, "is this guy crazy?" but then realized that it was just another lesson from him; this time that said ok we've got the bravery down but you better keep studying academically because you can plainly see you aren't going to be a musician. This was my introduction to a man who over the next 25 years would continue to have an influence on the way I developed as an adult, the way I approached many a situation, the way I listened to both music and words and the way I sang (in the shower), and who in so many ways became one of my heroes in life.

There isn't time to tell all the stories or to describe the coincidental circumstances that brought us together again in Poughkeepsie where my family and I were so fortunate to be in his presence again for the last decade of his life. But just so you know and hopefully can take comfort in the fact that some things in life remain constant. In the end he remained erudite scholar, genius musician, sometimes dictator, sometimes comedian, sometimes parent and sometimes friend. Thank you Mr Appling and congratulations to you on this most deserved honor.

Bill Collins

As I read Ian Frazier’s quiet tale about William Appling, I’m reminded Mr. Appling permitted me to sing. I sang for one year. I was a freshman schoolboy and it was William Appling’s first year on school staff. His expectations were high, which was immediately evident. As Ian beautifully recalls, glee club practice was bracing. My singing experience remains with me. 

Ian uses the word artifice for one sense of what a life in the arts sometimes feels like. One might fool one’s self for a time using artifice living a life in the arts, but it’d be evident such superficiality wouldn't last. William Appling was not a user. He did not employ crafty expedience or subtle but base deception, i.e. trickery. Artifice does not signify in any of my experience of William Appling. And I know it does not in Ian’s writing, though any writer might desire improvement to one’s choice of words and prose. 

The Glee Club practiced, practiced, practiced, as difficult and challenging as any football or wrestling or track experience. Mr. Appling worked us, cajoled us, pushed us, nurtured us, and picked our music and us apart in the Hayden Hall glee club practice room. He was not about to permit squirmy worm-in-the-pants boys fidgeting away practice time. Once he suddenly slammed his piano fallboard shut. Startled the kraaapp out of us! He commanded attention, owned it, and ever after he had mine. And, incredibly, he transformed his squirm-worm boys, especially ignorant ones like me, into his harmonic vision of coherent glee, a jubilant delight. 

In that time we’d have Vespers, the Sunday evening prayer, in the Chapel, required attendance, to sit and worship, as we were able, as one. One Vespers choral offering, “El Yivneh Hagalil,” is etched in my memory. Dressed in black cassocks we processed out of closed stairwells flanking the Chapel’s chancel into twin choir stalls and we prayed and we sang hymns and listened to a narrative order of service as we waited to present out vocal offering. William Appling would rise up from faculty pew, stand before his Glee Club, peer into us, bid us rise, and led us through “El Yivneh Hagalil.” 

The Lord will build Galilee, 
The blessed will build Galilee. 

The Lord will build Galilee, the blessed will build Galilee. We sang in Hebrew, a cappella, and without sheet music. He insisted we memorize our music; folders are distractions. This added to the pressure I felt. We sang a psalm that gave me cold chills, by the end, as I recall it, and brought joy and pleasure and satisfaction etched onto William Appling’s face and into his heart, emotions only his Glee Club could see. It was jubilant satisfaction in his face with the power of simple words stirringly performed, which moved me. It was blissful release. The experience was no metaphor, it just was. 

We melded in New Harmony, our Galilee of voices a new creation and I was transformed. I was transformed by jubilant delight William Appling wrought within me, from within us, delight I’d never experienced before. I felt love. It was love. It is love. It is Holy Spirit unchanging and everlasting. He transformed faculty, students, and himself into music experience. Bill Appling built his Galilee in evening prayer in the Chapel at Western Reserve Academy and all of us felt it in the stillness that followed that short moment in time. 

Recalling now, I feel hot radiant jubilance that love. It frightened me then. I couldn’t believe that love, that it existed. My sophomore year I stopped singing. I was confused and possessed by other spirits. I don’t recall William Appling pursued me and he may have. But even 49 years later there’re times when I’m overwhelmed as I sing notes and words and feel cascades of revelations within me from music. It’s unnerving. 

If it’s anything like “artifice,” then I’m artificial. It was effort and labor William Appling was teaching us, that which exhausts and calls to return, again and again, despite sensible reason to cease, to express transformation and revelation. 

I nurture and practice and live by my gifts and talents, one of which was revealed to me by William Appling at Western Reserve Academy in the Chapel. The place I am and William Appling was is where artists who are living their gifts & talents are called to be. It is where those who seek to live a life in the arts must be. There’s nothing artificial about it.

Gretel Smith

I was 15 years old when I first attended the Summer Music Experience. I played the French horn, not very well; I think I was only invited to come because Mr. Appling couldn’t find any other horn players that summer. Everyone else was so far ahead of me in their knowledge of music and their abilities to play their instruments. I remember I kept hearing people using this unfamiliar word: “intonation.” I was too embarrassed to ask anyone what it meant. I won’t even get into what happened when I was asked if I could transpose my orchestra part. Eventually I figured these things out, and learned enough and improved enough to get through that summer and the next one. It was an amazing time; Mr. Appling kept us busy and immersed in music from sun-up until way after sundown. It was at SME that I really fell in love with music. I am so grateful to Mr. Appling for pushing us to our limits, and for making it all feel so vital, which, of course, it was.

I have a memory of Mr. Appling that stands out, probably because it involved me in a significant way. During one of the rare moments when we were all hanging out and relaxing, I was demonstrating this party trick I knew, sort of a variation on “stiff as a board, light as a feather,” in which four people would stand around a fifth, seated person. The trick is complicated to explain, so bear with me. These four people would try to lift the fifth person using only their two index fingers in the following way: person one would place his/her two fingers in the left underarm of the fifth person, person two, in the right underarm, person three, under the left knee, and person four, under the right knee. Then, on the count of 3, all four would attempt to lift the seated person out of the chair. They would be able to lift the fifth person a bit, depending on how heavy s/he was, but even a light person is difficult to lift this way, and the four lifters would only manage to get them a little bit up out of the chair. Then, after depositing the lifted person back in the chair, the four lifters would silently and with great concentration take their hands and pile them one at a time above the seated person’s head, with space between each hand. They would hold their hands this way for a moment, still concentrating intensely, and then, one by one, starting at the top, they would slowly take their hands away. Then, still in silent concentration, they would each put their two index fingers in the same places as before to lift the fifth person. This time, s/he would be lifted easily right out of the chair, seeming to almost fly up with only a little effort on the part of the lifters. It worked every time, and felt like magic. Everyone was very impressed with me and my awesome trick, and I was pretty proud of myself, especially as Mr. Appling had been there to witness the whole thing. Impressing Mr. Appling was a rare and wonderful occurrence.

The next morning at orchestra rehearsal, we were all playing our parts as well as we could, but somehow it just wasn’t coming together. Mr. Appling kept stopping us, shaking his head sadly, and starting again. He had that way of letting you know just how disappointed he was without saying a word. After stopping and starting several times without any improvement, Mr. Appling once more stopped the orchestra. He looked right at me, striking fear into my heart. Could it be that I was somehow the reason we were playing so badly? Mr. Appling gave a little enigmatic smile and asked, “should we do it?” I had no idea what he was talking about. He called me up to the podium, placed one of his hands above the score, and looked at me expectantly. It took me a minute to understand that he wanted me to put my hand above his. He then asked everyone in the entire orchestra to come up and put their hands above the score, which they all did. We all silently looked at each other. Then, one by one, we took our hands away and went back to our seats. Mr. Appling looked intently at us as he raised his baton. With great concentration, we began to play.

Miriam Michel

In my lifetime I’ve only known a very few people with whom I felt an instant musical communication, keen and clear. Bill Appling was one of them. I happened to meet Bill while an undergrad at Western Reserve University working at the Cleveland Institute of Music switchboard. I had had a disastrous experience with a piano pedant who left me swearing never to go near a keyboard again—a promise I might have kept, except for being an incurably stubborn Aries. It helped to be in the middle of all the Institute’s musical comings and goings. I took a chance and signed up once again for piano lessons.

I was assigned to Bill, and in short order he inspired me with his own playing and challenged me to find that inner music I heard from him. And so I—no soloist and with nerves of jelly when it came to recitals—eventually (and happily) actually played Mozart in public. Thanks to Bill, making music became a joy again.

Then Bill invited me into his choral world, and the music of Bach and Verdi and Mendelssohn and Morley and Vaughan Williams—indeed, all music—would be forever tinged with indelible magic. With a chamber choir we rehearsed Morley fa-la-las, looking for an elusive perfection. As the Cleveland Philharmonic Chorus we did a Verdi Requiem with an impossibly small force of about fifty-plus singers against a full symphony orchestra. The Sanctus, for double chorus, was Appling-style choral athletics. I can still broad-jump from chorus I to chorus II without missing a beat.

There were other trademark Appling moments, of course. Who could forget the rehearsal for a Bach Magnificat, when Bill, who had put together a chorus from college and conservatory students, amplified by his best Glenville High singers, told us to form a huge circle. And then he told us to sing and dance the Magnificat’s opening movement. Needless to say, the Glenville kids—black, inner-city high school students, got it instantly—dancing and singing Bach effortlessly, while we upper-middle-class and very stiff white college kids shuffled self-consciously. Well, true to form, Bill wouldn’t let us off the hook: it was loosen up and let the music flow through our bodies, or die trying. I can tell you that in the end it was an amazing performance—from one and all. That feeling of Bach’s intensely Baroque inner rhythm is as fresh today as the day of that rehearsal—a mere 45 or so years ago!

If we are very fortunate, if we cross paths once in our lifetime with one especially gifted person, we can open a door to what it means to be truly alive. Bill Appling is that extraordinary person. The love of music that is his legacy to us is as alive as ever. It is our own to live with and, so, to pass on to the future.

Kate Harvie

Mr. Appling will always represent for me everything artistic and compassionate.  Rarely do talent, an ability to inspire others completely, and kindness co-exist.  It's hard to imagine how many lives he touched and how many careers he launched.

Terry Lockhart

Bill McClelland told me that he did have the opportunity, just before Bill's passing, to read several remembrance letters to him, mine included:

Dear Bill:

I feel I am truly blessed- one who was not just taught music and singing by you, William T. Appling, but one who was mentored through a critical time of life. That time extended for nearly nine years, from the middle of my time at WRA all the way through graduate school at Case. I remember clearly the announcement of your appointment made by Headmaster Hallowell at the start of my Junior year- I can recall no such introductions to other new faculty, though I'm sure there were several- which speaks to the profound effect you had on me. There were three key people that got me through a tough Junior year- my mother, my academic advisor Rollie Waite, and my musical mentor Bill Appling. Some of the best advice I ever got is summed up in your three simple words: "Just do it."

I will never forget the way you realized that voice was really my instrument for applied music, not piano, and spent most of our piano instruction periods at WRA coaching me in voice. That first solo I sang in the Chapel, Lord God of Abraham from Mendelssohn's Elijah, has stayed with me- I still sing it on occasion. (I must confess that high E-flat remains a bit of a challenge for me, but on balance, I've gained a couple steps on the low end.)

Bill, you own the warmest feelings I have from WRA and Case, and I still think of you often.

I have come full circle in some fashion, in that I have recently joined the Halalisa Singers, a World Music ensemble based in the Boston area, which was founded about 15 years ago by Nick Page. Currently the group is led by Artistic Director Mary Cunningham Neumann, a fellow CWRU graduate, who also spent some time on the faculty of CIM. After moving to Boston, Mary has sung in the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, as have I. Mary tells me that although she has not met you, she is familiar with many of the William T. Appling choral arrangements, and holds your work in very high regard. I hope to bring all I have learned as a result of your teaching to Halalisa, and take my own ability and enjoyment to a higher level.

So Bill, take care, stay well, and know that I am proud to have been your student and friend.

-- Terry

I am so glad that Bill did get to hear first hand how important he was to us. For myself, I was among the most fortunate, having sung under him for over 8 years, from the time he started at WRA through my finishing graduate school at Case. I may be the only student of his that can boast of this. 

There could not have been a better musical and personal mentor for me. I will carry Bill Appling's legacy with me always, and will depend on it until my voice can no longer make a sound.

Patricia Brown

Everyone felt privileged to be taught by Mr. Appling and, even as high school students, we realized we were in the presence of genius.  Everyone respected him and there was never any unnecessary conversation or clowning around in his class.  He delighted us on occasion by playing part of a magnificent sonata or other musical composition, but his main purpose was to produce the best possible choir—and he did time and time again . . .  I still have our choir recording from 1960 that I will cherish always.  Each class thought they were the best he'd ever had, and he allowed us that privilege, true or not. He was a special human being and not one of his students has ever forgotten him.

Joel Grow

Without Bill Appling, it's very possible—even likely—that I would never have become a professional singer.

I vividly recall the thrill and wonder I felt whenever the Chapel Choir or Glee Club would sing when I was a freshman at Western Reserve Academy. I was a member of the orchestra,  whose rehearsals conflicted with Bill's rehearsals, and soit was not until my senior year when, against the orchestra conductor's wishes, I joined Bill's singers.   

And what a joy it was!  Though I was nervously shaking the first few times I sang as a member of the Choir and Glee Club, I LOVED it.  And I still do.  I went on to major in Voice in college, later had a graduate assistantship, and then moved to NY to sing.  Even that, Bill had a hand in. I was on his staff at the Summer Music Experience, where the Gregg Smith Singers were Artists in Residence. Bill arranged for Gregg to hear me, and he hired me on the spot.  Within a couple of months I had moved to New York City to sing with Gregg,  and there I also sought—and fairly regularly found—singing work in Opera, Concert, Recital and Musical Theater for the next 30 years.  I was very lucky to find fine teachers and make good connections quickly, and to find quite a bit of work right from the start. 

There's still nothing that gives me quite the same pleasure as great singing, whether from solo voices in anything from classical to jazz to theater,  or from really fine vocal ensembles of any size.  I suppose I'd have loved to hear that great singing whether I'd met Bill or not, but I wouldn't have enjoyed it so thoroughly and knowledgeably. And I almost surely would not have had the joy of the life of a singer.

I owe Bill plenty.

Karen Rees

When I think of Bill I remember his toughness, humor, honesty and discernment . . . He would accept only the best from us and that's what he got!

Christina Hamme Peterson

In the fall of my sophomore year, I heard news that a new professor of music had come to Vassar. He was a master pianist, the students said, and the kind of conductor who not only taught you to sing the music, but also to read the music. I had been in a choir in high school when I started to notice that those little dots on the page moved up and down with me. There was something to this reading, I thought. And if he could teach me, I would go. 

It was a madrigal group, two to a part with 16 of us in all. They were true musicians, these other students. They could read. They had beautiful voices. One or two of them even had perfect pitch. 

“I’ll sing quietly,” I thought to myself. “Blend into the background. Listen to Mr. Appling. And learn.”

He sat on a high stool in front of us in the basement of the chapel, Diane at the piano. Sometimes he would stop us to point out the meaning of a stanza, to explain the richness behind the music. These were words I wrote down, recorded in the margins of the music like kernels of wisdom. Other times he would kid us. “This is a gospel piece,” he would say. “You people need to get some soul.” “Oh boy, oh boy,” he would moan. “You know this needs a lot of work, don’t you?” “What on earth were you doing there?” But it was always said with humor, with a smile. 

It wasn’t until well into the second semester that he turned his gaze to me. I was singing quietly as usual, trying not to make too much noise or to be too obvious. Trying not to ruin the beauty of those around me. When I came to a note I wasn’t sure of I was especially careful to drop out entirely. I was sure he didn’t notice. I was sure no one would notice. That was important.

He stopped us mid-verse. “Christina,” he said. “Why don’t you sing that note?”

“I don’t know it, Mr. Appling,” I replied. “And I don’t want to mess it up….”

He looked at me, his baton across his knees, and leaned down from his high perch. “It is that note you should sing the loudest,” he said. “That way, you’ll hear it from yourself. If you actually do know it, you’ll hear that it is right. If you don’t know it, you’ll hear that it is wrong. But either way, you’ll be sure.”

He was right … and he took us all the way to perform in New York, original pieces, and ultimately I was able to read an entire piece myself, to audition for other choirs in other places and to sing at Carnegie Hall. 

Today, I am a professor of statistics. I teach students in the school of education to do something that terrifies them. At the beginning of the semester, when I ask the students if there are any questions, they are silent. Then, I tell them about Mr. Appling. I tell them that when they are unsure that is when they should sing the loudest. I tell them to listen to Mr. Appling. And after that, do they sing! 

Reg Hubbard

From William Appling, I learned that by being actively involved in the creation or performance of music, one can be “tuned” and brought into harmony with the Creator, which brings a mindset and ability to nurture all that He has created.

Jack Finefrock

For William Appling

Ah, Bill, when shall thy grateful choir,
meet at the Chapel once again,
and sing, in one accord,
of who you were, and we were, then?

Old men must speak in covered sighs,
of the boys they were, of our many tries,
to match those notes you offered then,
when singing boys were led by men.

Greg Fiocca

There was a scene in the 1970 World War II film "Patton", about half-way through when the U.S. 3rd Army is bogged-down in France by bad winter weather, supply issues and no air cover.  One night General George Patton, after being told by his staff that they were unable to breakout of hedgerow country, goes into a tirade, shouting to the entire command staff that they will not stop moving and that they will be victorious or "...let no man come home alive"...

 Shortly after this impromptu speech, Patton's trusted personal aid tells him "Sir, sometimes the men aren't sure if you are acting or not."   Patton replies, "It's not important that they know - it's only important for me to know..."

One hot, humid summer day I was working in Bill's studio at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio.  (I worked at Summer Music Experience as the camp's schedule coordinator - a gig not for the faint of heart; a combination of air traffic controller, labor relations manager, diplomat and no PCs - I became a big fan of large poster boards and rulers, and had all the Cleveland Orchestra faculty/coaches' numbers by memory.)  

Suddenly there was a commotion outside the door. 

"Get in there!" Bill's voice rang out. 

As I turned to look at the cause of the scuffle in bolted a young voice student from Cleveland and then Bill, close behind.  

"Sit down!" Bill says to him and then he closes the door.  I began to work my way back towards the door, trying to slip away from what was obviously going to be an intense coaching session between Bill and this very talented tenor, who could not have been more than fifteen or sixteen years old.  Bill looked at me and shouted "Stay here Greg."  So I took a seat at the piano bench.

He continued, "Greg, find his information card (no iPads....or PCs....) and pull his mother's phone number.  I am sending him home."  The student was petrified.

"Please Mr. Appling, please don't call my mother!"  he cried out.

Bill looked at me and repeated, "Call his mother..."   The student began to tear-up a little but continued to plead with Bill that he would get serious about his attitude and his singing.

It was at that point I recalled that scene from "Patton" and so I obliged.  I walked over to Bill's desk, pulled the kid's card, pressed the receiver to my ear and began dialing....2-1-6....slowly.

By now the young tenor had a look of terror in his eyes and continued to argue his case at which point Bill waved me off.  I hung-up the receiver and sat back down. 

Then the magic began, and quite frankly the lesson, not only for that student but also for me.

Bill sat down and began the now famous "You don't know how talented you really are, do you?" speech and flawlessly spun into the speech the reason that student was there on scholarship and what his responsibility was, not only to his mother but also to himself and his gift for singing.  First, with the help of my role, we got the student's attention.  Then Bill, as only he could do, made that student think about time, how little there was in life, and how this gift for music required every available minute to practice and hone those skills, moving forward and maturing into something special.  Bill mentored in such a way that he was fully invested in your growth and success as a musician and also made sure that you never took for granted your responsibilities and talent. 

In this case, the student was a bit of a class-clown and a tad unfocused, (a lot like me at that age), but Bill knew how to make him think seriously about his time, how he spent it and with the full expectation of successful outcomes.  He was a master at clearing away the career-derailing mental debris and re-directing wasted energy that so often blocked the path of a student's progress - the consummate teacher.

I worked SME for three or four years and even longer at Western Reserve Academy during the school year teaching cello and was witness to several such conversations, each uniquely tailored for the specific student - never boiler-plated.  After all, Bill was an artist so nuance was clearly in his arsenal as a performer and music director, but he had that elusive and intangible gift of orchestrating those nuances to ignite a student's passion and focus on what was important - the consummate mentor.

Usually after one of these fireside chats, Bill would go into repose, exhausted from the energy required to move students from point-a to point-b, so I would suggest a hearty meal and some laughs to re-energize him (and me)! 

One final note and confession.. It can now be revealed, thirty years later, that the dent in the right-rear bumper of one of the WRA academy vans came while I was at the wheel.   While picking up an additional grill for a camp cookout in Bill's driveway I did in fact back into a large tree that had fallen a week earlier during an intense thunderstorm.  The tree guys left large sections of the trunk in the turn-around area and the rest is history.  There were two additional counselor riders, whose names will remain anonymous.  Only two 8 x 10 black and white photographs of the incident, (which we re-created for the photo-op), exist.   One went to Althea Fisher, the beloved SME administrative assistant on the afternoon all the counselors left for home that particular summer.

The other is safely tucked-away for posterity.