Last week, the American music world’s shine grew just a little dimmer.
Richard Toensing (‘Dick’ to his students), a composer, conductor and music educator, passed away on July 3, just a month after announcing to his friends and colleagues that he’d been diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer.
The honors Dick achieved in his time on Earth place him in the finest class of American composers. You can read about them in his obituary, here. But since his accomplishments have already been well-documented (and maybe since I tend to think we spend entirely too much time talking about awards and jobs in this business), I’m going to use this space to share some other thoughts.
Dick’s music is, I think, quite similar to the person he was. It’s intelligent, often soft-spoken, but with a glow that seems to extend from somewhere deep within. Listening to a Toensing piece might be akin to watching the embers after a fire: a gentle sense of warmth pervades everything, but it’s never stagnant — the glow flickers and dances in languid, unpredictable ways. A perfect starting point is his Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ for a capella choir, a “choral concerto” born from Dick’s Orthodox Christian faith.
The nature of Dick’s music – thoughtful, reverent, and with intense love for every single note – might tell you something about how he taught his students. In my time as a Toensing student, I wrote a big band piece (my Master’s thesis – no, you can’t listen to it), a handful of chamber and electronic music, an orchestra piece, and a choral motet. Every project was different, but the common threads in lessons are there. Dick insisted on looking at each week’s offering in silence. “Would you like me to play the MIDI file, or maybe plunk it out at the piano?” I would say every week. “No, it’s fine — I hear it,” was the clockwork reply.
Dick taught his students that every single note demands love, attention, and a reason for being. He taught that if you can make every note meaningful and beloved, you needn’t write so many of them. As young composers are armed with more languages, tools, and creative possibilities for their music, we tend to become obsessed with making our music masterpieces of organization or clever demos of chops with the ensemble at hand. Upon seeing an early draft of my orchestra piece, Of Stellar Waters, Dick taught me that before compositional systems, or color, or orchestrational tricks, there was one concern that every composer must address:
“Does it sing? Does every note in every line sing?”
Dick believed that emotion came first, and the things music school teaches us are only worth their weight if they serve the emotional goal. He was quick to remind his students of that lesson. Likewise, he was quick to know when and how his students were lying musically, to him or to themselves. When I brought him a short sax quartet which used serial techniques and cleverly designed the form around the row, he remarked that it was “an adequate atonal piece by a much better composer”. And even if it didn’t feel like it in the moment, looking back on that piece (as well as pieces that garnered much more positive reviews), he was right. He was always right.
Every Toensing student has a Toensing story, and patterns emerge quickly. He would reflect often on his time with the late, great Ross Lee Finney, and share the most ridiculous, over-the-top impression of a teacher you’ve ever heard… even relaying the absurd way Finney would mispronounce his name (“TOYNSING!!!”). He would often take students to lunch (yet another sign of his greatness: he knew exactly when they needed it), and every time would insist that they share one of the Alferd Packer Grille’s oversize cookies — his treat, of course. His soft-spoken nature and reliance on audiating meant that every lesson was filled pregnant silences that could mean anything at all, and yet he knew to never let the knot in his student’s stomach grow too tight. Sometimes the icebreaker was a brand-new Finney story. It meant a slow, wise introduction to a time long ago, a diminuendo into young Richard entering Finney’s office timidly and respectfully, only to be greeted with… “TOYNSING!!!!” Better than a cup of coffee.
No one would ever accuse Dick of coddling his students. True to his upbringing, he demanded work, dedication, and a bit of a thick skin. If you came to a lesson without the work done, he sent you away to do it. He was quick to tell you if he disliked something, and slow to spell out the solution — he believed you should find it.
But Dick loved his students, and he cared for them. He would write any letter and make any phone call, but his dedication goes beyond that. He would lend students hours of extra time to help them make tough decisions about music or life. He would go out of his way to get students in touch with the right people, or point them to the right opportunities, or just to help them learn a little something about art.
And most importantly, he believed in his students, even when their belief in themselves faltered. Dick spent hours upon hours counseling me about the decision to come back for a doctorate… and the follow-up decision of where to go. When I confessed my temptation to give up on composing and go to law school, his advice helped keep me at the writing table. When the acceptance letters were all assembled, he helped remind me that the most important consideration was which school would make me the kind of artist I wanted to become. Without his help, I’d be in a much different place right now, and there may have been no music there at all.
On top of it all, Dick led by example. He wrote music out of love: love for his community, love for his church, love for his family, and love for the music itself. Every day involved composing, right until the end. In the email sharing news of his illness — the last time I would hear from him — Dick spoke barely of his illness, instead concentrating on how proud he was of his students and his joy in having taught them. His last words before signing off were a simple, beautiful expression of the man, and the musician, that he was. Those words: “write good notes”.
And in his honor, I pledge to always try to do so. Thank you, Dick Toensing, for teaching me to sing.