This Father’s Day is the memorial service for William Appling, a renowned choral conductor and teacher, my friend and mentor, probably the most important person in my life after my parents and my family. Bill passed away on August 29, 2008.
The moment Bill Appling got through to me was the moment I found myself pressed against a Western Reserve Academy wall, feet off the floor, his giant hand clutching my flea-market tie and button-down shirt, his scowling face inches from mine. “How dare you complain? Do you have any idea how lucky you are? To have a mother who cares? To be here? You are spoiled and you don’t even know it!” Bill set me down and assumed a disgusted face, but I knew that he knew that he had my number and was pleased about it. And he knew that deep inside I was pleased, too. That was 1977.
Certain bonds require no words. Bill arranged for Richard Rogers, then the Assistant Concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra, to be my violin teacher. After two years as his student, Richard said that it was time to make a choice: to take violin seriously, or to settle for being an accomplished amateur. I asked what it would take to be serious. Richard said two to four hours a day of practicing, to the sacrifice of all other extracurricular activities. I looked at Bill, whose eyes were cloaked, his face impassive, turned to Richard and said “I can’t do this; I’m sorry”, looked back to Bill and felt an eddy of sadness wash between us. Then it dried up, but for long days I was on one side and Bill on the other.
Music or not, Bill decided I “got it” and made sure no impediment stood in my way: keys to the darkroom so I could make prints after curfew, in the wee hours of the night, a camera, recording equipment, graphic design materials. In return, I was pressed into service in surprising ways that reflected his confidence and also lack of other resources: photographer, chamber music coach, sound engineer, and poster designer, the last of which became a thread that wove our relationship for 30 years.
Bill raged against conventional wisdom. “Why?” he would ask, the pitch rising at the end, with a deeply furrowed brow. Then he would turn to me and instantly have his face inches from mine. “Why so seeeeerious? Smile, Art, smile!” he would say with the frown still on his face but a voice light with laughter.
But nothing outraged Bill as much as false marketing. “They say it’s a Top School?” he would sputter. “What does that mean? Anything? Hogwash! This is Excellence.” And he would pull out a Great LP, put it on the turntable, and we would sit in silence, just listening. Once, he conducted a master class seated at a piano, speaking as he played, starting from Bach, combining it with African music, morphing into slave spirituals, then into jazz and rock, disparate ideas pulled into a seamless continuum.
Over the past two decades, I would get phone calls from Bill without ceremony. “What are you doing? I have something for you to think about…” I would have a rush of joy at being asked.
Often having a father means that one still needs a father. Shortly before my father died, he said I could ask for one thing. “I want you to tell me that you love me,” I said. We never spoke again and to this day, I don’t know. With Bill, there was never a question. I loved him in a way I never before felt love, and felt loved in a way I never before felt. If a father is a role model, a cheerleader, a confidante, and an impetus for achieving one’s potential, then Bill was that man.
Happy Father’s Day.