Hearing (inner) voices
Sometimes, we find ourselves when we aren't looking. Usually, who we truly are is right there, lurking, but it takes a special moment for all the noise to move to the background so our inner voice can be heard. For James P. Keyes '63, that moment came in April 1995 on the stage of the Ohio Theater in Columbus, Ohio.
It was a Saturday. The Columbus Symphony Orchestra and Chorus were performing Johannes Brahms's Requiem, and Keyes, a tenor, was on the risers watching conductor Alessandro Siciliani for cues. "We were at the end of the performance, the seventh movement, angelic, polyphonic stuff," recalls Keyes. "My dad was very ill at the time, and the music was so emotional that I was profoundly affected. Suddenly I thought, `If I don't get into music, and I mean at a professional, full-time level, before I retire in fifteen to seventeen years, I'm going to be damned pissed off.' And I was frightened."
So frightened, in fact, that the very next Monday, before he could change his mind, Keyes was in the office of the undergraduate music education program at Ohio State University (OSU) gathering information on how to apply. His timing was perfect, at least for a person who doesn't worry about preparation time. Auditions were being held that very week, on Friday.
Keyes began playing the trumpet when he was just six years old. "Curiously, and ironically, I took up music at the encouragement of my dad, who thought I needed to learn to play an instrument," says Keyes. "He wanted me, for some reason, to play the clarinet, but it had way too many keys. The trumpet only had three." So trumpet it was. After years of lessons, Keyes was, by his own reckoning, `pretty good.' He played in the band at Ohio's Bexley High School and in the pit band for plays; he also sang in the school choir and performed in occasional operettas. On the side, Keyes had his own dance combo, The Five of Clubs, that played at dances and, in the summer, swimming-pool parties. "I was having a fine time," he recalls. "Playing music was just something I did."
Inevitably, graduation drew near and it was time to think about college. While dad was thinking about sending his son to Amherst, Wesleyan, or Williams, son was thinking about being in the marching band at OSU. "Well, we were not going to Ohio State," says Keyes, who has a charming way of referring to himself in the first person plural, "because in those days, it was pretty much `Y'all come,' and it did not carry the appropriate and desired (by my parents) academic prestige.
"Besides," Keyes continues, "what would be the point of studying music? There's no money in it. My dad ran an elevator in the Ohio Theater when he was a kid, and he saw all the vaudeville musicians up close. His opinion was that we didn't need any druggie musicians in the family."
Kenyon came into the picture when Keyes was not accepted at the other colleges his parents had chosen. "My dad used to go up to Kenyon to watch Don McNeill ['40] play tennis in the late 1930s, and so Kenyon was suddenly on the table," says Keyes. "I didn't really understand their outlook or have the where-withall to debate it. So, away we went."
There were some struggles. Keyes felt ill-equipped in classes, where his fellow students had read things he had never even heard of and traveled to places he had never been. "They were a worldly, savvy, diverse bunch of people, and coming from Bexley, I had no idea about diversity," he says. Keyes had seldom ventured even as far afield as downtown Columbus. His reaction to a summer-school mathematics program taught at the old Central High School, to which he rode a public bus, was "Wow, you can go farther than Lazarus," the downtown Columbus department store. He was amazed.
Then there was the elusive matter of a major. His first try was biology, in the pre-medical program. "That's what dad suggested I was supposed to do," Keyes says. He was cruising along, but barely getting Cs, when one of his professors, James Robinson, called him into his office and kindly but bluntly said, "You need another major." Next, Keyes tried history. Again, his advisor suggested that this was perhaps not the best fit. Finally, he settled on economics. "I liked economics just fine," says Keyes. "I especially liked comparing one economy to another, one mode of thought to another." He has a sense of humor with regard to his undergraduate academic performance. "I sailed right on out of there with a killer 2.1 average," he recalls.
While Keyes was a student at Kenyon, there were few opportunities for him to express his musical interest. He sang in the Glee Club, the Kenyon Singers, and the chapel choir, and he played the guitar, but the College offered no applied music program and only a few courses in general music appreciation. As he settled into his major and began to enjoy some academic success, he focused his extracurricular life on varsity golf and managing the football team while enjoying dates and parties. A member of the golf team for four years, Keyes still shoots around eighty. "In my junior year, Bob Legg ['65] came on board, and that really turned things around," Keyes recalls. "It was like having Tiger Woods join the team. I think our team average was about seventy."
After graduation from Kenyon, Keyes joined Columbus's WBNS-TV (Channel 10) as a producer and director. He enrolled at OSU in a master's-degree program in economics, primarily, he says, "so I could use the OSU golf course." He attended only the summer, fall, and spring quarters; looking back, he considers it "just messing around." However, not long after graduating from the College, Keyes wrote to alumni secretary Brent Tozzer expressing a "strong inclination towards education" and, in particular, towards teaching, and he gave that as his reason for pursuing an advanced degree in economics at OSU. The inner voice was speaking, but it was a bit off the mark-and it was ignored.
During his years at WBNS, Keyes was active in Kenyon alumni affairs, and he wrote and produced a film for use by the admissions office. Those years also included marriage to Sheila Long and the birth of two children, Andrew (now thirty-two) and Tiffany (now twenty-nine).
Before long, family pressures necessitated that Keyes make more money, so he left WBNS and entered the advertising field. He had been relatively happy at WBNS; the work was creative and offered expression to that side of his personality. But the next several years became a struggle. While advertising has its creative side, much of the work can seem like drudgery, especially if one feels temperamentally suited to doing something else.
"Of course, work always has some unpleasant elements," observes John G. Meddick '64, Keyes's close friend and Kenyon roommate. "That's why they call it work and not play. But Jim just seemed not really at home in the advertising life, although he worked hard and did a fantastic job."
Keyes had a series of jobs during this period, and in 1981 he formed James P. Keyes and Associates, a consulting firm. He put some of his creative energy into training and showing horses, a hobby he pursued with his wife and children. The children flourished, but the marriage crumbled and ended in divorce.
Music continued to simmer on the back burner. Keyes sang in various church choirs and performed professionally with The Fiddler and Jim, playing banjo and guitar. He occasionally took his banjo along to provide accompaniment for the talks he gave as a consultant and as a motivational speaker.
In 1988, while singing in the choir at St. Mark's, Keyes met his present wife, Barbara. "Barbara is the other reason that people join church choirs-camaraderie," says Keyes with a laugh. "She's a decent singer, but she just doesn't think of herself that way." Nevertheless, the two found they were in harmony.
Keyes credits Barbara and his friend and colleague Gary Garber-director of the choir at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, where Keyes was the tenor-section leader-with encouraging him to audition for the Columbus Symphony Chorus, the move that led to his epiphany with Brahms.
Heading into the 1990s, Keyes formed a marketing communications partnership called the Un-Agency, a sort of consortium of freelance marketing and advertising professionals. From 1992 to 1994, he brought his expertise in advertising and marketing to Kenyon students through a project he created, "The Think Tank." Each week, a group of ten to twelve students who were interested in advertising as a career would meet with Keyes and work on real projects from actual clients. Under his supervision, the students would develop copy ideas, graphics, and selling strategies, and then they would do the presentation to clients screened by Keyes as being willing to work with the students.
"It was successful," says Keyes. "The students were able to think in creative ways and to stay on task. I truly enjoyed working with them." His hopes to expand the program into a paying venture, however, did not come to fruition, and the project died.
Thirty-two years after the fact, OSU was not too concerned about Keyes's 2.1 average. They were interested in finding out if he could sing and play and whether he had a basic knowledge of music. With only four days to prepare, Keyes consulted Gary Garber. "They don't want you to sing the hardest aria ever written," he advised. Getting out a hymnal, they selected a psalm, and that was what Keyes prepared for the audition. "They let me in," says Keyes with a certain amount of awe, and in September 1995 he enrolled at OSU as a full-time student in the music education program.
The Davis Discovery Center on Franklin Avenue in Columbus has been in existence for ten years. A division of Columbus Parks and Recreation, the center exists to introduce to the performing arts as many people as it can reach. The facility is open to youth ages six to nineteen, and its classes are free. A large number of home-schooled children participate in the regularly scheduled classes in dance, drama, and music.
As Keyes was winding up his student teaching and preparing to receive his degree in December 1999, his cooperating teacher at Westerville High School referred him to Mike Schirtzinger, the program director for the Davis Center's performing-arts programs. Schirtzinger was just beginning an arts-education program that would be linked to, and connected closely with, the Ohio proficiency test. "Ironically, that's a subject that fascinates me," says Keyes. "It's very controversial, and Columbus is under the gun to improve student performance on the test. I've followed it primarily because my wife is the literacy facilitator in the Columbus elementary schools. It's my contention that music and the arts can be connected and intertwined with the core curriculum. An example would be giving instruction on the Civil War and slavery and including a component about the songs of the Underground Railroad." Schirtzinger, it turned out, shared his views on this matter.
At the end of his conversation with Schirtzinger, Keyes was offered the assignment of teaching the music portion of Partners in Play, a program at the Davis Center that relates four aspects of art-costume, dance, drama, and music-to the core curriculum. "After about a nanosecond of reflection, I accepted," Keyes says with a chuckle.
Each day, eighty or so kids in grades two through four from one of the Columbus elementary schools arrives at Davis for the day. The kids are divided into four groups and each group is assigned to one of the four areas. At the end of each forty-five-minute class period, they switch. The themes offered include butterflies, the circus, pirates, the Serengeti Plain, showboats, and the Underground Railroad. It's up to the regular classroom teacher to select the theme that fits best with what he or she is teaching the class at that particular time. "I suspect the Underground Railroad will be very popular in February for Black History Month," says Keyes, "though why we aren't teaching black history for twelve months of the year is a mystery to me. Anyway, that's my favorite one."
Walking around the Davis Center's cavernous theatrical spaces, one of which is set up for a play about Winnie the Pooh, Keyes is clearly in his element. As he talks excitedly about his work, his sentences are punctuated with rhythmic demonstrations of stomp, jazz riffs, and a bit of finger snapping. "This place offers more variety of opportunity than I believe a public school teacher would have," he says.
In the first year of the program, the outreach was only to Columbus public schools. This year, the plan is to include other elementary schools that are within a reasonable drive of Columbus. Also new this year is a summer program that introduces children to elementary general music. The focus is on American musical genres-blues, field songs, jazz, pop, ragtime, and spirituals. The children are given the freedom to compose their own songs and to make up raps based on the day's news.
In addition to his work at Davis, Keyes conducts the Delaware Community Chorus and sings in the OSU Men's Glee Club and the choir at St. Mark's. He also teaches a class on the history of American music in the Upper Arlington Life-Long Learning Program. "I think you become a better singer if you understand the history of the music you're singing," he observes.
Have there been sacrifices involved in making a mid-life career change? "Certainly there have been," says Keyes. "We eat out less, we take less-fancy vacations. But my wife and children have been completely supportive of my decision."
Marriage to Barbara added two more children to the family, Catherine, who is the same age as Tiffany (twenty-nine), and Nathan, who is twenty-six. All the children except for Nathan, who makes his home in Colorado, are living in the Columbus area.
Keyes has embraced his new vocation with the zeal of the converted. "I just like to be around music, and what is amazing is that now I get paid to think about music and do things with music. Imagine that! No Puritan work ethic, no suffering."
The inner voice whispered music. The inner voice whispered teach. And there we are.
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