ON PORTER’S PASSING
This week, the world lost one of its unsung greats, Dr. Steven Porter.
Dr. Porter, as I first knew him, was a music theory teacher and administrator in the Binghamton schools. He was a legendary figure. He was known for his exacting attention to detail, his acceptance of nothing less than perfection, his infrequent use of well-deserved praise, and his sense of humor. Steve, as I later came to know him, was a wealth of knowledge to a young teacher, a frustrated politician trying to make a difference, an aging man fighting for his life, and a friend.
I learned some of my greatest lessons about music and life from Dr. Porter. Because of his teaching, I understand the inner workings of music in a very profound way. It was because of this understanding that truly gave me the ability to improvise, to compose.
Some of the best lessons I learned him were due to my own failures. My friend Justin Zell and I made a movie senior year that we were very proud of called “Recipe For Murder.” It was a full-length murder-mystery musical comedy. We were very proud of it. We brought it in to present to our Musical Theatre class, including Dr. Porter. It did not get the two thumbs up from the good doctor that we were expecting. Heartbroken, I asked, “Was there something you did like about it?” He smiled a sheepish grin, “I’m so glad you did it.” And looking back, he was right: the film was TERRIBLE! And Justin and I learned much more from the experience, the process, the failure, than we ever would have from his undeserved praise. He did not mince words.
More than I remember the jeers, I remember the cheers. He took extra time out of his life, and taught me how to analyze a song from the score, and reduce it down to its harmonies, its chords. That is a skill I use all the time. He said to me, “Ya know, in the 30 years that I’ve been doing this, no other student has been able to do what you can do. That is very impressive, Andy.” If you could die by the sword, you got to live by it, as well.
Dr. Porter himself was very talented. He was a classically trained pianist, an astute pedagogue on all things musical, a gifted orator, a composer, a choral arranger, an orchestrator, a dramatic director, a producer, a politician, and, of course, a writer. If Dr. Porter knew about a subject, you could be darn certain he was going to write a book about it. I recently acquired his book, “Teaching Music on the Secondary Level.” As I flipped through it this morning, I could hear his voice as if I were sitting in one of his lectures, with its conversational tone, and its many “Porter-isms.”
And yet, with all of his talent, and his ability to put that talent into so many products, he never himself made it, at least by his own standards. When I released my first CD in 2006, I sent him a copy. He promptly sent me back a 3 page review, hand-written, highlighting some of its strengths and weaknesses. (He must have softened over the years, because looking back, that CD was of dubious quality, and his review was kind.) He noted, “I have had only limited success as a composer and a writer. I have little respect for most artistic products and absolutely no idea why most things are successful. I attribute a good deal of success to influence and the gullibility of a poorly-educated audience.”
I believe in his heart that he wanted to make a big difference in the world, to have an impact concomitant with his talents. After his retirement, he tried unsuccessfully several times to run for political office. Whatever the reasons, either politically or musically, despite all of the books, and political speeches, and profound effort on his part, the world at large never caught on to his gifts.
He could have made a difference in so many big ways, but as it turns out, he made a difference in many, many smaller ways: in each of his students. Thousands and thousands of students. To all of us, he generously passed on his knowledge, sparks of his wisdom, his philosophy of excellence, his yardstick of success, his compositions, summaries of his research in book form, and his sense of public service. Those lessons reside in our collective memories and in our hearts, and will live forever as they are passed on, and on, and on.