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Just before summer began, two Academy Chronicle reporters, Casey Chan and Bertina Kudrin had a chance to sit down and talk to Doctor Findley before he retired. What followed was a delightful mix of stories, memories, and tears – the latter mostly in the eyes of the two aforementioned reporters.
CC: So Doc, how did you get into music?
Doc: I remember the night I was exposed to music. I was three and a half years old and my uncle’s boys had come over with him to visit and one boy was taking piano lessons and we had an old piano in the house. It was there when we moved in. That piano probably dated back to the early 20th century, I mean it was old, but it played, sort of. And he sat down and played the Marines’ Hymn, it was what his piano teacher was working on. And we sat politely and listened, but I was amazed. I was three and a half. I didn’t know that big thing made noise.
So I was amazed, and this point I do not remember, my dad told me about it, but I sat there for the rest of the evening making him play that over and over and over again. And that was my evening, I just sat there and watched him play it. So the evening was over, dinner was over, and everybody was ready to leave and I said, “hey dad, watch this!” and I played, with my little hand, the melody. I can still remember that night because I remember my father beaming at me, and I thought, “what’s everybody grinning at? People, this is what it sounds like,” and I played the tune.
I begged my parents for piano lessons but we couldn’t afford them. Finally, when I was nine, we found a piano teacher who taught for two dollars a lesson, which back then was, it was a chunk out of your budget. But, my dad decided to get the lessons. I played the piano for four years – hated practicing – so I quit and I wound up in a Catholic seminary for a year, and wound up in the US Navy for four years, then came out and decided to pick up piano again. My dad thought I was nuts. So I went and I signed up at the University of Akron in Ohio, and I signed up and I took lessons and I practiced three hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year for four years. I practiced every day. If we were going someplace for Christmas dinner, I’d say, “let’s pick a place that has a piano, its gotta have a piano” because I was going to practice.
From then on I was hooked and I just went on to get several degrees in academics and I wound up going to five colleges and got three degrees, and I’ve done pretty well ever since. So from the age of 24 on I knew I was going to be a musician. I just didn’t know what kind of musician.
CC: Was there a specific reason why you went to five separate colleges?
Doc: I had reasons in mind. The first college I went to, I went to the seminary because I thought I wanted to be a priest. But I spent a lot of time practicing so that didn’t work. So I went to University of Akron and got my Bachelor’s Degree and they asked me to stay for my Master’s but it was Akron, Ohio, I said “I can do better than this” – well, I didn’t actually say that. I said “I have picked all of the fruit off of this tree” and that they understood, and there were no hard feelings.
Next, I went to Penn State which, at the time, had a very good music program, got my Master’s there. Then, I tried to get into a PhD program at City University of New York, and I could not pass their entrance exam. I didn’t know it at the time but it was a very tough university to get into. It sounded good, but it was very difficult because I couldn’t pass the entrance exam.
I went to West Virginia University, for a year, and I started their Doctor of Music program there, but I did not tell them that I was basically there to study to apply to the City University of New York. I did not tell them that, because they wouldn’t take me then. That was a little underhanded, but I signed up, and there I studied a minimum of 12 hours a day. Minimum. I was either in academics or the practice room or composing or studying. And any topic, any course that reminded me remotely of that entrance exam, I took it. I didn’t even care if it was required – I took it. For that year, I studied.
Then, I took the entrance exam again. They had to mail it to me. I only flunked two of the five parts, so they let me in. I arrived in New York and they said, “however, there were those two sections that you did not pass, so before we let you in, you have to study at King’s College for a year”. So it was actually six colleges – the seminary, Akron University, Penn State, West Virginia University, King’s College, and City University.
BK: Did you study as intensely at King’s as you did the year before in West Virginia?
Doc: Yes I did. I had to, because I was afraid they (City University) wouldn’t take me so I got through studies. And then once I got into the Doctoral program, what I did not know was that City was ranked the sixth best in the country. The work there was brutal. I had a skill that I acquired as an undergrad, you can rattle off an A-, B+ and you don’t have to work very hard. I don’t know if you academy kids know how to do this. You guys take your studies very seriously.
Some of [my] enjoyments were dating around a lot, having a good time, going to concerts. Doing what I wanted to do. But when I got to City that was very serious business. I met these professors who taught out of their own textbooks, very high-powered place. So I knew I had to study a lot. I went back to studying a lot.
BK: Did you find any time outside of studying to, you know, have a life?
Doc: Oh boy did I? I was – I could raise a lot of hell. That was after four years in the Navy. I knew how to party. When I got to New York, I knew I had to knock it off. That’s when it stopped. Penn State is a very party-heavy college. It is. I was a partier. Which I regret because there was where I was rattling off the A-’s.
I was smart. I was one of the smarter guys in the department, and they knew that, so I got away with a lot. But a couple of the teachers were true geniuses and I worked for them. If I didn’t think the professor had a lot on the ball, I took advantage of them and I would say “I shouldn’t have to do this paper because that last paper I did was one of the better papers in your class you can let this slide because I have a composition recital coming up and I’m not ready for that,” and they would say “ Well yes, Mr. Finley, I think we can make an exception in your case.” I knew I was going to get away with it. That’s why I did it. But there were teachers who didn’t let you pull that stuff. They were too smart. Those I worked for. I’ve been that way even in high school.
CC: How did you get into teaching? What inspired you to become a teacher?
Doc: First, I taught piano to little kids because I needed the money and I didn’t want to flip hamburgers for a living. And that was an easy way to make money, good money. Back then, I was charging 6-8 bucks a lesson which, in the 1970s, you couldn’t find a minimum wage job [for that money]. The minimum wage was 2.50-3 bucks an hour. It was decent money. I had 30 students, so I had all the money I needed.
I had a GI bill. There was a deal that the military made with servicemen. They started it after the second World War. If you served in the military, they would pay for your college education. That was a good deal. And that went on for years but then colleges got so expensive that the military couldn’t afford to do that anymore. They couldn’t afford to pay $200,000 for a kid to get a college education. So they don’t anymore. But back then, they could. So I was set.
As far as teaching, teaching, when I went in for the PhD program, I assumed I would teach college. Of course, I’m getting a PhD in music – I’m going to teach college. But by then I had also fallen in love, I met Mrs. Doc and she was the divorced mother of two of my students. And when I found out she was getting a divorce I went chasing after her like crazy. And we fell in love on our first date. We went on a date, I went home, called my dad, I said, “I met the girl I’m going to marry.” I really loved her. Five years later we got married.
One of the things that got in our way, I was teaching kids piano for $5,000 a year, which in the 1980s was not a lot of money. It was a terrible amount of money. I had no insurance. I had no savings. I was driving this old, beat up car, the rear end was six inches off of the ground, and she said, “I love you. But I can’t marry you until you get a job.” And I said, “Well, maybe I’ll get a job teaching.”
Then I found that I was out East. You may find that, in whatever field you are in, this area that we live in is an intelligent, concentrated area. The smartest people from all over the world congregate around New York City. So I was trying to land a college job against some really intelligent people. And so she said, “Why don’t you try high school?” And I said, “I don’t want to do high school! I’ve worked for five universities, got a Ph.D, and had over 15 years of study. I am not going to teach high school.” She said “Fine. Teach college. When you get a job, let me know. We’ll get married. I want to get married too.”
She was not brushing me off, but we had to earn a living together. These jobs as adjuncts payed 15k a year, with no benefits, no pension, no nothing. They were terrible. This went on for over a year and finally, I said, “Well, let’s talk more about this high school business”.
She said, “I’ve heard of this wonderful thing called alternate route.” You guys may not have heard about it either. A lot of teachers at the Academies have taken it. Well, here’s the deal. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a shortage of teachers. And there were all these people out there with Ph.Ds and masters degrees. People with Ph.Ds in physics teaching in industry, teaching in college. And high schools thought, “Boy, we could start bringing those people in.”
But who would go to a college and spend two years of teaching courses with statistics and learning developmental psychology; who would drag themselves through that? These people have masters degrees plus 30 credits; they have Ph.Ds and they are not going to put themselves through that. So the high schools sent word out. They said, if you can land a job teaching high school, the state will certify you to teach at that high school and you can take evening classes for one year. So I applied for a job and I got in, and I landed a job at Park Ridge High School, which was not a bad high school. It was a small town; all the parents knew all the kids. It was very familial. Park Ridge was a tiny little high school. But I landed the job and I saw my first huge paycheck. I got my card saying that I had medical insurance, which was basically free medical care. I thought, this is not a bad deal.
Then, I started falling in love with kids. I got hooked on teaching kids. And then this job at BCA opened up. Michael Lemma gave me this job.
BK: How did you meet Michael Lemma?
Doc: What happened was, I was in Park Ridge, but the school contained grades 7-12, and there were 385 kids (in all). Think of the size of that school. We had grades 9-12 with 1100 kids. That’s how small that school was. So there were years when I had a choir and we would go out somewhere to sing, like at a rest home. The choir would come along, and since I had no tenors that particular semester I would stand there, conduct my choir, and sing the tenor part at the top of my voice. It was frustrating. Despite it all, though, it was a great school. The kids worked their butts off, they were super dedicated, and they would do anything for me. But the talent pool was small, and this meant that there occasionally was a struggle, and I wanted out.
I wanted to teach at a larger school. Every few months, I was mailing out ten resumes. One year, there were four openings for a choral director. I went on 11 interviews and none of them hired me. I was so depressed that summer. And then in July, the phone rang and it was Mr. Lemma. He said, “Did you send me a resumé?” I said, “Sir, I sent a lot of resumes.” He said, “I kept yours because it looked interesting. We just let go of our choir teacher, and our choir program is just getting off the ground. We have 18 kids in the choir. Would you be interested in coming in for an interview?”
I came here, and it was the academy. And I can’t describe the caliber of the students. Mr. Lemma said, “We have basically skimmed the smartest kids in the county of the top and put them in one school.” And I said, “Who do I have to kill to get this job?” And he laughed and said, “I don’t think you have to kill anybody. But let’s just take a look at your stats and your resume.” So I tried as hard as I could to impress this guy. And he called me in August and said “You got the job.” And I’ve been here ever since.
CC: Can you tell us some stories about some of your most successful students you have had in the past?
Doc: Most successful? Avie Raya got into the music academy. She was a moderately good singer, but her resume was so crammed with these glowing things that she did. You meet kids like this. She was the president of three clubs. These students work their tails off and make it look easy; she’s one of those people.
She comes in, and she’s an ok singer. In her sophomore, junior and senior years, she was in the county, regions, and all state choirs. Ranked top ten all three years. Became choir secretary. One of the hardest workers. She was a success story. But then, this is the academy. All of you are success stories. That’s why I’ve enjoyed teaching here, that is why I’ve stayed for this long. I could have retired two years ago, but I could not bear to part with you guys.
BK: Well actually, we were wondering, if you are ok with telling us anything about your family. Do you have any kids?
Doc: I am happily married. I step parented two wonderful kids, who are now fully grown. My stepdaughter lives in Bergenfield. My stepson is a freelance photographer in NY. Yeah, he struggles. It’s rough, being a freelance photographer in NY: that’s rough. But that’s the life he’s picked and he loves it. What can I say, he’s in the arts. I can say, “Don’t go into the arts, it’s a stupid thing to do.” But really what can I say, I’m a composer.
I will tell you one funny story, about my first date with my wife. Well, she worked in the city in children’s clothing design. And she told her office worker that she was going out with her kid’s piano teacher. So, of course, that is very gossipy. So when she went into work the next day, they were all over her. All of her coworkers were interested: “Well, how did it go? How did it go?” She said, “Well, he’s a great guy. There is only one problem,” she said. “He’s a composer.” And this one girl said, “That is the second worse profession there is.”
CC: What’s the worst?
Doc: That’s the question; her statement begged the question. So of course, my wife said, “What’s the worst?” The girl said, “My husband is a poet.”