Crown Point High School won numerous awards under Jim Deal's directorship. | Jeff Manes/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 5, 2014 6:22AM
“Playing music is supposed to be fun. It’s about heart, it’s about feelings, moving people, and something beautiful, and it’s not about notes on a page. I can teach you notes on a page, I can’t teach you that other stuff.”
— From the film “Mr. Holland’s Opus” (1995)
Last year — after 25 years — Jim Deal retired as choir director at the Methodist Church in Lowell. Soon, he will quit the pit at Crown Point High School, where he spent most of his 41-year career as orchestra director.
Deal, 63, lives in Lowell with his wife Marty, who has worked at Chase Bank in Lowell for years. They raised one son, Kevin, who is an English teacher at Lowell High School and a friend of mine.
Our interview took place in his classroom at Crown Point High School. One wall was covered with plaques from various contests, including state finals competitions. More than a few of Deal’s former students have gone on to become orchestra directors.
“I was born in Hobart and never lived any place else until we moved to Lowell,” Deal began. “After graduating from Hobart High School, I went to Ball State University and studied French horn. I was on a horn scholarship. Got my college paid for.”
You entered college in 1969. Those were some tumultuous times.
“Vietnam. My draft number was 52 and it had already been called. I had taken my physical and had been auditioning for military bands. I thought that’s what I was going to do. Then they ended the draft right when I graduated.
“When the war ended, I had to scramble for a job. That’s when a position opened up at Crown Point High School. I was hired here in ’73 as the assistant band director.”
Where did you earn your master’s degree?
“Valparaiso University. Jeff, this isn’t very interesting. I’m not an interesting person.”
“I had a double major in music education and music performance. And, of course, I wanted to be a professional horn player, but I thought I’d get the education degree just in case it didn’t work out.”
Even the best-laid plans ...
“I guess I could mention that I played in the Northwest Indiana Symphony while in high school.”
Impressive. Besides the French horn, do you play other instruments?
“In music, you generally focus on one instrument and get very good at it. Now, I teach strings — viola, violin, cello and bass, primarily.”
Jim, while in middle school, one of my twin daughters decided she wanted to play the violin. So I bought her a used one for $150. After a couple of months of that, I told my buddies in the mill: “You know, when the violin is played exceptionally well it can bring tears to your eyes.”
I’m not done yet. I concluded my profound statement with: “And when the violin is played excruciatingly bad, it can create the same effect.” Mercifully, Nicole Ane gave it up.
“Ha! That’s what I used to tell my students. Nothing makes a person leave the room more quickly than playing high and out of tune without vibrato.”
Tell me more about teaching strings.
“In the mornings, I teach fifth-graders — they’re bused in. Once I’ve gotten them started, they are under middle school tutelage. Then they come see me when they’re freshmen. I have two high school string ensembles with about 60 kids in each of those groups.
“Monday nights are orchestra nights. That’s when we audition the band kids. My big orchestra is about the size of the New York Philharmonic.”
Mr. Deal, the orchestra director at CPHS? Were you a strict disciplinarian or were you more of a laid-back kind of guy who allowed the kids to have some fun with it?
“I grew up with the old-school band directors. The old-school band directors yelled a lot. That’s what I was used to. I always thought my last two names were ‘you idiot.’ ”
As in: “Deal, you idiot!”
“Yes. As a teacher, I realized that my personality didn’t go that way. I found it much easier and more beneficial to be more inspirational than intimidating. You don’t have to be in orchestra. That’s a good thing because I only have students who want to be with me.
“I started the orchestra program at Crown Point in ’75. It was kind of scary. There were only nine kids.”
“People appreciate music. You can touch them. When you touch people they remember you. You can say things in music that there are no words for. That’s when the fun really comes in.
“I spend most of my time teaching fundamentals. You have to play the note in tune. You have to play the right note. What finger to put in. What a good tone is. You do all that because you know if they get all that right they can take it to the next level. Now, we’re going to make some beautiful music together. When that happens you can see it in the kids’ faces. That’s the payoff.”
What are you going to miss the most about the job?
“The kids. I sometimes feel I’m more comfortable in a room filled with high school kids than I am with adults. They’re fun and they keep you young. You can get such passion out of these kids. They’re not jaded like adults.
“At Crown Point, the top 10 students of the graduating class pick their favorite teacher every year. One of them picked me this year. This is the letter he wrote me.”
May I read it?
“By all means.”
“ ... Your students are free to participate as they please, but thanks to your guiding hand are compelled to do so. Through your persistence and hard work, excellence — both educational and musical — has been forged ...
“My involvement in your class and your program — as you founded the strings program at Crown Point High School — have been instrumental in the shaping of my work ethic, interests and life at large as the sense of drive, freedom and personal investment have been profoundly altering.
“Thanks to your efforts, thousands of children have and will be able to share the life-changing experience known as the Crown Point Orchestra Program. For these individuals, and for myself, I thank you Mr. Deal.”
— Jackson Roush
“Isn’t that nice? The interesting thing about Jackson is that he is extraordinarily intelligent but extraordinarily shy. In all those years, I probably had about 20 one-on-one conversations with the kid. I had no idea.”
Mr. Deal’s final concert will take place at 7 p.m. Thursday. To get tickets, call Crown Point High School at 663-4885. His personal extension is 11109. Seating is reserved.
There’s a word that automatically comes to mind when I think of this gentleman’s splendid career at Crown Point High.