Forerunner: Lamar Robertson spent long career inspiring others

By By Johnathan Manning / American Press

Ever the teacher, Lamar Robertson is in his element when asked to discuss the Kodály Method of teaching music.

The method, he said, is more of a philosophy of teaching music using a country or region’s folk songs.

Expounding, he explained that the

method follows the teaching of Zoltán Kodály (pronounced code-eye), a

Hungarian music educator,

philosopher and composer.

“He was concerned that the people of Hungary didn’t know their own music,” Robertson said.

Since he recovered from a serious illness, Robertson’s voice is perhaps not what it once was, but when asked to sing a song,

he complies, even demonstrating the hand signs that Kodály teachers employ.

Using Hungarian folk songs, Kodály devised a way to read and write music.

“He felt the way for them to find their own identity was through folk music,” Robertson said. “He had this way to inspire

people.”

Robertson was one of those inspired and, in turn, he spent his career inspiring others.

Robertson was instrumental in the foundation the Louisiana Chorale Foundation and the Kodály Institute at McNeese, a summer

program that lasted 20 years. Along with Ann Eisen, he wrote several texts on teaching Kodály.

He has taught workshops around the country, and the world, once spending three weeks teaching in Taiwan.

“That was hard. They wanted to learn American folk songs, but to me that was against the Kodály philosophy,” he said.

He was recently awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Organization of American Kodály Educators.

“We don’t realize what we have here,” said Kari Proksch, an elementary school music teacher at St. Margaret who employs the

Kodály philosophy.

“When I go to a national (conference) the first question out of their mouth is, ‘How is Lamar Robertson?’ ” Proksch said.

“He was especially interested in training new people to teach this philosophy because not many people around here were using

it,” Eisen said.

Robertson rattles off a number of folk songs: “Old Joe Clark,” Hot Cross Buns,” “Cindy.”

He noted that though many of America’s folk songs have their origins in England or the Appalachian Mountains, their names,

tunes or words might change slightly from area to area.

“To me that’s the beauty of folk songs,” Robertson said.

Robertson still runs into his students occasionally. He said he was in Walmart recently when his cashier, a former student

whom he didn’t immediately recognize, asked him if he was “still singing those songs.”

The cashier told Robertson he was now singing those songs to his children.

“It’s that’s folk tradition,” Robertson said.

In a sense, Robertson learned music through Kodály even before he learned of the teaching method.

As a young boy, he would listen to his parents sing.

“Another philosophy of Zoltán Kodály is that music should begin in the home,” Robertson said. “I wondered why I like music,

but as a boy my mother and my father sang in the home.”

He was recently afflicted with a brain condition that affected his memory and his ability to walk, but Robertson is well on

his way to recovery, even doing a short jig while demonstrating a song.

There are elevators in the building where he lives, but he prefers the stairs to stay in shape.

He claims he was never the voice in the family. That was his wife of 44 years, Joanne, a soprano singer who died in August.

“She could very well have been a

professional, but she preferred to raise a family,” he said. “She was

one of those rare combinations

of people who was a good singer and a good teacher.”

Indeed, while Lamar was often the director, it was Joanne teaching private voice and piano lessons.

It was also Joanne who, when Lamar was at a career crisis, suggested Kodály, perhaps saving his career, and at the very least,

reinvigorating it.

He had confided in his wife that he wasn’t happy with his teaching.

“My wife, bless her heart, said, ‘Why don’t you give Kodály a try?’ ”

He signed up for a two-week conference in St. Louis.

“After the first day, I called my wife and said, ‘This is it.’ ”

He applied for a one-year sabbatical to study at the Kodály Music Training Institute, then in Wellesley, Mass. He ended up

staying three years, also teaching there.

It was through music that Lamar and Joanne met. As the music director at First Methodist Church in Lake Charles, he was planning

a special program for which he needed a soprano.

“She came and that’s how we met,” he said.

Joanne studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, Mass., and in Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship.

Likewise, Lamar sought guidance from across the globe, studying in France and, fittingly, in Hungary for three weeks.

Lamar and Joanne had three children, Chris, Trudy and Laurie, who is now a music teacher.

Lamar was a driving force behind the inception of the Kodály Institute at McNeese, a summer learning course. Teachers and

future teachers would return for three summers to complete the three-level course.

“He was a consummate educator and we were fortunate enough to have him here in this area as a teacher and as a mentor of other

teachers,” said Michelle Martin, former head of the McNeese performing arts department.

The program celebrated its 20th anniversary last summer, but was been shut down because of a lack of funding.

Amy Chaffin grew up musically under

Robertson, first meeting him when she was 8 years old in the Herald

Choir at First Methodist.

She also took music lessons from Joanne.

“I was fascinated with his whole demeanor, the way he absolutely loved music,” she said. “There was something about him that

was special because he loved music. It permeated everything about him in the world that we knew him.”

Although he was employing the Kodály philosophy, that was never mentioned.

“It was fun, yet you learned from him. You never realized that you were learning from him,” she said.

Chaffin went on to become a music teacher, but at some point, like Robertson, she sought something more in her teaching.

“I really needed something that would give me a reason and a purpose for me to continue to teach.”

Robertson suggested she try the Kodály approach.

“He knew exactly when it was time to come back and do that study,” she said.

She came back to McNeese the next three summers to complete the Kodály course.

“I really immersed myself into it,” said Chaffin, the past-president of Kodály Educators of Georgia. “I felt so appreciative

because I never understood until I began training in it what he was doing all along.”

Proksch has a similar story. As a student at McNeese, she was a flute major working as a color guard instructor at two local

high schools.

“I decided that wasn’t for me,” she said.

One of her mentors at McNeese told her she should go sit in on his wife’s third-grade music class.

“The third-grade class was doing things better than I could as a college student,” she said. “I was jealous. Why could these

third-graders do things I couldn’t do?”

She also sat in on one of Robertson’s classes.

“The lesson was magical,” Proksch said. “Watching him teach that class was what hooked me into wanting to teach kids the same

way.

“He really makes kids love music.”

Abbie Fletcher, who accompanied the Louisiana Chorale Foundation on the piano, went with Robertson to school one day.

“If you spent a day with him in elementary school, it was one of the best days of your life,” Fletcher said. “If you went

in to see him and watch his techniques, it was so much fun.”

It wasn’t just children who learned from Lamar.

“He teaches adult students the same

way,” Proksch said. “So that when we go into a classroom to teach, we

have the same passion.”

Fletcher said Lamar initially began the Louisiana Chorale Foundation as a vehicle for his wife, Joanne, the soprano.

He ended up being a strong influence with the chorale singers in the area, she said.

“He was delightful and had a great

sense of humor,” Fletcher said. “He had a marvelous way of conveying

that we were making

the music. His part in making the music was to direct, but that

was not more important than the singers’ roles. It was just

a joy to work with him.”

Ann Eisen first met Robertson three decades ago. She owned a piano and organ studio in Beaumont, Texas, before she moved to

Lake Charles in 1979.

Having done some music teaching in her Beaumont church, she decided when she moved to Lake Charles she no longer wanted to

own a studio, but wanted to become a teacher.

As a student at McNeese, she was required to observe music teachers, one of whom was Robertson, who was teaching in Sulphur.

“I traveled over the bridge to the school and, as a lot of Kodály people say, I had an instant conversion because of the way

he taught,” said Eisen, who eventually did her student teaching under Robertson. “I was instantly hooked.”

When she student-taught with Robertson, he was the only teacher in the area Kodály certified, she said.

“Lamar was very fair with me and very

kind because when I began teaching, I was middle-aged, so my ideas were

already entrenched,”

Eisen said. “A lot of the things he did clarified a lot of the

things I did and put a label on them.”

Once Eisen also became a teacher, she and Robertson would get together at the end of the school year to put together workbooks,

which they eventually published.

They would also work on curriculum together ­— they joined notes and co-wrote books for teachers.

Their first book, “An American Methodology,” is now in its second printing.

“That was the great part about working together, because in discussing, we would come up with new ideas,” Eisen said. “If

they worked, then they became part of the book.”

Each book dealt with different aspects

of teaching, Eisen said — the self-explanatory “Yearly Plans” gave

teachers direction

for the school year, and “Directions to Literacy” instructed

teachers how to guide older beginners in the Kodály philosophy.

Another book, “From Folk Songs to Master Works,” laid out a plan to enable students to be able to read and interpret classical

music.

“We had developed this, but never put down exactly how to do it,” Eisen said.

Robertson may not teach anymore, but he’s still advocating on behalf of music education, expressing sorrow that the Kodály

course at McNeese is no more and lamenting the general state of music education.

“We’re feeding their souls — that’s what I love about the Kodály concept, it’s not just music, it’s feeding the human soul,”

he said. “Every child should have music every day. Instead of less music, they should have more music.

“Kodály music, I think.”