The Path of Charles Bihler from Pulaski Skyway to Information Highway (Winter 2015)

Catherine and Charles Bihler

Catherine and Charles Bihler

Faculty Profiles provide an opportunity to learn more about the lives and previous work experiences of Sturgis faculty. Charles Bihler taught music at Sturgis from 1999-2004. Last summer, Eric Hieser invited him to be interviewed for the Sturgis History Documentary. During the interview, we greatly enjoyed his stories about the early years of Sturgis. Afterwards, I asked if he would be willing to share more of his story in Sturgis Soundings. Characteristic of the boundless energy  evident throughout his career, he readily agreed.

By Charles Bihler

Incomplete model of SkywayAs a very little boy in Hudson County, New Jersey, I was the building block king, creating impressive skyscrapers from sets of blocks and pieces of scrap wood. My kid brother would joyously and regularly knock down my successive models of the Empire State Building, each time barely escaping with his life. My version of the nearby Pulaski Skyway, which carried US Route 1 over the meadowlands from Jersey City to Newark, taught me the lesson that I could not build my fantasies without the assistance and participation of others, many of whom knew more than I did but many of whom needed leadership.

The next effort with scrap wood was considerably larger – a clubhouse which required the assembly advice and on-site “assistance” of my Dad. From there I moved to building bookcases for my growing collection of things musical. I eventually became so caught up in my growing music-making that I abandoned working with wood to becoming a somewhat unfocused teenager, fortunately never losing my new found love for singing and playing music.

Hubbard 1962 Chorus

Hubbard 1962 Chorus

After college and the Army, I discovered a new kind of building. I built choirs. First in Hubbard Junior High School in Plainfield and then Terrill Junior High School in Scotch Plains – Fanwood, New Jersey. Then came adult community choirs and a church choir. This work was extremely rewarding, because, instead of building rough imitations in wood, I was building teams of young people and adults. I became a dedicated and successful choral director, had my own key to the school, taught voice to promising students and, with a fellow music teacher, built an enormous collection of audio-visual materials to support our respective music teaching experiences. My graduate thesis, A Multimedia Approach to Junior High School General Music, correlated technology and the music curriculum.

Assistant Conductor of Rutgers Chapel Choir

Assistant Conductor of Rutgers Chapel Choir

My additional “graduate work” largely consisted of singing with the Rutgers University Choir at Carnegie Hall and other noted concert halls on the East Coast. In 1959, as president of the choir, I sang with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in my first of three performances of Handel’s Ode for St. Cecelia’s Day, a wonderful ode to music. The recording is still available on Sony Classical.

RU Choir_Carnegie Hall '59The photo on left is from Carnegie Hall, singing the Ode on St. Cecelia’s Day of Handel.  This concert produced the inspiration for repeating most of the Ode as the final piece of my tenure at Terrill JHS in Scotch Plains and at Sturgis.

I became president of the Plainfield Choral Society, and its successor, the New Jersey Schola Cantorum, developing hard-earned skills in leadership (A large musical group is not a democracy, but the musicians have to be kept happy!).

Terrill 1965 Choruses

Terrill 1965 Choruses

My last “edifice,” Terrill Junior High School, included four choirs which contained almost a third of the school’ population. In 1969, one of my greatest school choirs, Bel Canto, sang a wonderful piece When I Bring You Coloured Toys written by John Alden Carpenter and later set for three part girls:

 

The words are an excerpt from the poem “When I Bring You Coloured Toys” by Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. The kids are about fifty in number and all fourteen or fifteen years old.  The accompanist is fourteen and the piece is in six sharps! I miss those kids, some of whom have a digitized copy of my entire farewell concert with them. I call this collection of CD’s from concerts sung about fifty years ago, Bihler Archives, and I give them away to those former students I find from time to time.  It is very fulfilling.

The grand finale of my work at Terrill was the second of three performances of the Handel’s Ode for St. Cecelia’s Day with my junior high school choir and an orchestra of friends who were collected over the years.

And then I went on to build something else: a big decision involving leaving school music teaching. Impressed by my building skills, the assistant superintendent asked me to rebuild and expand the district’s library and audio-visual services program. This effort’s greatest moment was in 1972 when I built and simultaneously opened eight new media centers in elementary and junior high schools in Scotch Plains and Fanwood, New Jersey.

 Roofing the Scotch Plains House

Roofing Father-in-Law’s House

All this time, I continued to rebuild my little Cape Cod home in Scotch Plains, doing most of the work myself – learning how to build by doing. The culmination of this was the morning in 1976 when a friend helped me move the one-piece center staircase to a different location inside the house. I had built a model of the necessary section of the house to see if it might work. It looked like it would – and it did.

After fourteen years in multiple roles as a leader and builder in Scotch Plains-Fanwood, I moved a short distance to the school district of South Orange and Maplewood, where, during seven years I met the world of computers, a new environment in which to build. And build I did. There were several buildings which required renovations which included new library media centers, and every school also got its first computer lab. The staff designed and implemented a universal computer curriculum, and then it was time to move on again.

One of the most challenging positions open in the country was that of Coordinator of Media Services in Greenwich, Connecticut, to which I was appointed and which consumed me for the following fourteen years, beginning in 1985. The challenge that was similar in the technology systems of all the districts I had known was defining the role of the computer. The math departments at first “owned” the computer, for it was seen as a tool for budgeting, scheduling, and all of the other “nuts and bolts” of running a large school district.

However, my media teaching staff felt that the more important developing role for the computer was as a research and learning tool pervading the entire instructional program in all of the schools. This accompanied the birth of the internet, another long round of building and renovating library facilities so that library media centers would embrace all of kinds of technology and would teach the use of them to all students. There were years of difficult discussions about direction, platforms, wiring and more that were constantly reported on the front page of the local newspaper, Greenwich Time.

It had been almost thirty years since I’d left the teaching of choral music. A vice presidency of the Greenwich Choral Society and a chance to do production and rehearsal conducting work was a wonderful way to re-sharpen my choral teaching skills. But as successful as my work had been in Greenwich, I eventually yearned to return to the classroom. But there was one impediment to finding a job: I was too old to become a beginning teacher again!

Having almost given up on the idea of teaching again, Catherine and I took a week at our beloved Shady Knoll Campground in Brewster during July of 1999. The day before we left to return to Connecticut, I opened the Cape Cod Times and saw a very small ad: “Music Teacher, Sturgis Charter School, 508-778-1782.”

First, Sturgis Music Room, 1999

First Sturgis Music Room, 1999

During the interview, I discovered that age, experience and my personal philosophy were actually positives to those who were trying to rescue Sturgis from a difficult first year, much of which hung over the school during my first year there. A tiny music room (big enough for a card game!) was followed by a larger facility, which held chorus and orchestra for Sturgis’s first holiday concert in 1999. The Sturgis Madrigal Singers occasionally enjoyed the unusual experiences of organized wandering through the halls singing Gregorian Chant or Renaissance madrigals, and so did most of the classroom audiences!

Sturgis Madrigal Singers 2002

Sturgis Madrigal Singers 2002

In my forty years in education I never worked so hard as my five years at Sturgis (1999-2004). After all, I was a beginner in the business of high school teaching. The Sturgis student of 1999 was hugely different than those I taught thirty-some years before, and it took every bit of my energy and skill to succeed. The moment I knew it was OK was after my first holiday

First Holiday Concert, 1999

First Holiday Concert, 1999

concert when parents spoke to me in the hallway, thanking me for what I was doing for their children, the first time I had heard such words in thirty years! The most difficult experience occurred when the school almost went under. It was the first example of student, parent and community support that put Sturgis on the path to greatness.

In May, 2004 the combined choirs of Sturgis Charter School sang the third performance of Handel’s Ode for St. Cecelia’s Day, accompanied by members of the Cape Symphony provided by the support of choir parents!

 

After eleven years of retirement, I still look forward to the requests to come in and substitute. I find the current faculty, most of whom do not know me, to be cordial and helpful, and the students a pleasure to teach. I would do it all over again without hesitation. Sturgis is a wonderful opportunity for those who are fortunate to attend, and I would recommend it to anyone who would consider working there.

The ironic part of the story is that I have had so much fun teaching and making music since I arrived at Sturgis in 1999, that I have forgotten most of what I knew as a computer education pioneer!

Charles Bihler Conducting - Cartoon by Gerald Hoffnung-1Articles by Charles Bihler:

Charles Bihler on the Ninth

Mahler: Eugene Ormandy to Jung-Ho Pak

My Journey with Saint Nicolas

My Sixty Years with Carmina Burana

Walt Whitman, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Vaughan Williams’ Personal Plea for Peace: Dona Nobis Pacem

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