Saturday, July 20, 2013

Remembering the Fearless Whistler

By the time I arrived in Athens, GA to audition for admittance into the University of Georgia's School of Music, I already had my heart set to attend the University of Central Florida. Then I met Dr. Ronald Waln, and I knew instantly he was the teacher for me. My audition was a lesson, not a tryout unlike the rest of my auditions. I walked into his studio ready to begin my audition, but he excused himself to run to the restroom. He was missing for 20 minutes when he popped back in and asked me to run my scales. When I was done he asked, "Could you play those again? You played them much better when I wasn't in the room." He got it. His teaching style was about encouragement and growth, not about testing or pressure. When my audition was over he walked me back to my mom who was frantically driving loops around the gigantic campus since she didn't know were to park. He waited with me until my mom drove up dodging the mob of students crossing the street during the change of classes. Once I got back into the car I said to my mom "I thought I wanted to go to UCF, but now I'm not so sure."

 Dr. Waln was coming to a close of his teaching career when I started my freshman year. I was going to be the last graduating class he taught, but he still obviously enjoyed teaching and performing. I'll never forget his first faculty recital my freshman year. He played "The Fearless Whistler" for solo piccolo by Michael Isaacson. When this 70 year old man picked up his music stand and ran across the stage for the sake of performing the piece up to full theatrics, I knew I made the right decision to go to UGA. He understood the balance technique, work, and fun. Its something that has stuck with me through the way I work and how I teach.

 UGA's School of Music was tough. The freshman class was 95 people, and by junior year I think we were maybe 30. The rumor was that the School of Music had the highest drop out rate. It wasn't uncommon to see someone breaking down in the student lounge. I was struggling. In fact, at the end of my sophmore year I dropped by Dr. Waln's office to tell him I was dropping my music major and going to be a single major in Graphic Design if I could get in. I thought Dr. Waln would say something like, "I understand, and that's probably a more stable career anyways." But instead he said, "That would be a big mistake, and I think you should keep at it another year." Somehow I came out of that studio still as a music major, and from that time on I had a different attitude. Everything indicated I should pack it on out, but someone from the inside believed in me even when I didn't. Everybody was telling me no, but this person who listened to me for at least an hour a week was telling me that I had what it took to get through this. At first I thought he was nuts. But when someone had been teaching as long as Dr. Waln you have to believe him. It got easier from there.

I lost touch with Dr. Waln when I graduated, something I regret. I did exchange some emails with him within the last couple years and he seemed his usual upbeat self, carrying on about his wife, the house, playing bassoon again and traveling. I doubt he remembered me out of the sea of flute students he taught over his life, but I'll remember him always and hope to keep his upbeat disposition when I perform and teach.


Bret Pimentel said...

I attended UGA after Dr. Waln's retirement, but he was a fixture in the reed room, producing batches of bassoon reeds and dispensing grandfatherly advice to the UGA music students. I had many conversations with him myself, and he ended up being an important figure in my education even though he wasn't active faculty. I can't think of anyone more generous and thoughtful.

Anonymous said...

Nicole, This is a wonderful tribute to Ron Waln, my friend and church family. As I prepare to help celebrate his life, would you mind if I shared some of your words? I know it would bless his family. Let me know.
Rev. Martha Aenchbacher, Athens First UMC

Nicole Chamberlain said...

Of course! I wish I could be there on Saturday, but I have a concert at the exact time. So I will be celebrating Dr. Waln's life through practicing what he taught me while I was at UGA, and pray that UGA will have a memorial concert in his honor like they have done for other professors in the past.