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A Better Ending for the TEACHER Archetype: Mr. Holland’s Opus


Welcome to our third yearly cycle of Better Endings for Your Life Path! This month’s Sagittarian related Universal Archetype is the TEACHER.  So for this week I offer a “Better Ending” revision of a popular story involving the TEACHER Archetype. And I know right where to go: Mr. Holland’s Opus. This is a popular film that I have always ‘loved to hate,’ precisely because of its ending! This is the tale of a gifted high school music teacher who sacrifices much with respect to his own possible career as a composer by dedicating so much to his teaching. He has a symphony composition he works on for decades, but it is never ‘finished’ enough for him to submit for professional success.  The movie script celebrates that at his retirement–and somewhat like the fable “It’s a Wonderful Life”—many of Mr. Holland’s former students show up to honor his positive influence on their lives, and, his student orchestra plays his unfinished symphony for the first time.


This sounds so positive and heartwarming, so why do I “love to hate” this story?  Well, I am a Teacher! I hate that the likeable but often frustrated Mr. Holland has to sacrifice his deep passion and talent for being a composer for the sake of teaching and inspiring his students.  Yes, of course it is a good thing that he has encouraged and fostered his students’ success in their lives, but it need not have been at his own expense or sacrifice. His completing the composition and sharing it professionally with the world, possibly launching him into a wider public field of musical contribution, would also inspire his students!

So, here’s my application of the Principle of Better Endings to the storyline of “Mr. Holland’s Opus”; er, let’s call that instead, Dr. Holland’s Symphony!    


Glenn Holland accepted a job teaching music at JFK High School after earning his MA in Music at Columbia University, in order to earn a living and support his family while he worked on his major musical opus, a symphony he had nurtured ever since his own high school piano teacher and mentor, Francis Scelsa, had taken his class to a Metropolitan symphony event and asked him to close his eyes and “see” the music rather than using only his ears.


Glenn found teaching music at high school disappointing at first; it seemed hardly any of his students appreciated music in the way he felt they could. Over the years he dedicated himself to becoming a better Teacher, one who could inspire a dedicated passion in his students, and over time, more and more of those under his tutelage did find their own love of music and the arts, though most went on to other pursuits after graduating.

Glenn never gave up on his dream of completing his symphony, music that haunted him and called him to the piano every summer break and Winter intercession. One  summer, after a huge success with bringing the JFK High School orchestra to perform at a national competition at Ohio State University, Glenn heard from within what his own inner Teacher compelled him to do; he rented a cabin in the Chautauqua Lake region in New York for two full months. Glenn’s wife and son were supportive; Wendy was also a teacher and was directing a summer school program that summer, and their son Cole had left for college the previous year but he would spend the summer at home helping his mother.


Glenn immersed in his symphony for two full, glorious months of his personal composing retreat. He felt like Gustav Mahler, with his cabin on the lake, and often he would take long walks along the shoreline or row out onto the lake in a small rowboat to greet the sunrise before resuming his work of love at the piano.

Glenn was deeply affected by a statement a colleague of his had recently shared at his retirement from teaching:  “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” (See E   At 52 himself already, Glenn knew in his heart of hearts that it did not have to be that way; he could yet indeed fulfill his inner calling.


And so it came about that around 12 noon, July 12, a few days after a wonderful Fourth of July season at the Chautauqua Institution where their own world famous Symphony performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 had brought Glenn to uncontrollable tears, he did it: his “Monarch Symphony” was complete! In Glenn’s elation, he called a member of the Chautauqua symphony whom he had befriended over the summer: Paul Williamson, who played violin there every summer but also taught high school music in Pennsylvania during the academic year.  When Paul read Glenn’s symphony and heard Glenn play its overture on the piano, he was struck with its eloquent simplicity.

      “What will you be doing with this? Where will you publish it?”

      “I’ll start sending it out around to music agencies next month, but I just wanted to share this with someone!”

To Glenn’s surprise, Paul asked for a copy of the composition—which Glenn gave readily as he knew he could trust this man—and Paul showed it to the Director/composer of the Chautauqua Symphony herself, Sheilah Parnes, who loved it immediately. Near the end of the Chautauqua season the symphony always performs a new composition, and oddly this year Sheilah had not yet committed to any of the few scores she had been reviewing.  She put Glenn Holland’s “Monarch Symphony”—named after Monarch butterflies—onto the program schedule and August 20th, the Chautauqua Symphony played and recorded the world premiere performance of the Holland Monarch Symphony.


Glenn’s symphony was a huge success. He sold it that very September to a major music agency, and he realized finally that his talent was no chimera; as if he had opened a door to a new world of possibility, he developed several more compositions and began a new symphony. Glenn also received letters of reference from his Chautauqua colleagues and, in what he might have felt was his “eleventh hour,” Glenn received an invitation with a full scholarship from Julliard to earn his doctorate in Composing.

Glenn Holland quit his job at JFK High School that December.  At a closing assembly in his honor, Glenn expressed his gratitude for all that he had gained from teaching through the years, and many of his former students expressed not only their gratitude for his teaching but also they spilled over in their speeches about the “new hope” he had brought to each of their hearts by his perseverance and success.

The evening of that assembly, at a gala community event at the local performing arts center, the JFK High School Orchestra, under Glenn Holland’s heartful conducting for the last time, played the Monarch Symphony, Symphony No. 1 of the later Dr. Holland’s repertoire which grew to seven symphonic masterpieces over the next twenty-five years.


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I welcome your Comments and invite you to write your OWN Better Ending to a story involving the Teacher Archetype this month!