I don't remember the first time I met Irvin Cooper. I wish I could. It must have been during the fall of 1967. I'm surprised that I don't remember. He was not the type one would easily forget. Physically, he was striking- strikingly peculiar. He was rather short, stocky, and broad. He had a marvelously rotund stomach and at his age (he was around 67 when I first encountered him) his walk, or better still, his gait was reminiscent of an overweight banty rooster who had stuffed his craw so full he was about to tip over. All he needed was a red suit and white beard to make the perfect midget Santa Claus. And he smoke a pipe-that infernal pipe! As a graduate student I had a briefcase, which I carried almost ten years after I left Florida State University. I opened it so many times in his presence that ten years later when I opened it, I could still smell the odor of stale, stagnant, burned tobacco. Ten years later!
He had a philosophy about that pipe. He smoked it for pleasure, but that was not the only reason. He once told me that every creative person should smoke a pipe. He believed that pipe smoking precipitated the flow of creative juices. It was, what I considered at that time, my doleful duty to take three trimesters of choral and instrumental arranging under his tutelage. (Over a hundred published arrangements and compositions later, that doleful duty has become my deep delight.) Cooper taught arranging sitting at his desk and all of his ardent, avid, ambitious students stood around the desk as he fastidiously dissected our glowing works of art we called arrangements. If he found places that were particularly horrible, and that was quite often, he would, as duty demanded, rewrite that particular part. This was no chore for him because he was generally "Johnny on the spot" with a multitude of creative ideas. Occasionally, however, the creative juices would not flow and this was when the pipe ritual would begin.
In silence we would remain with our heads huddled around his desk. He would reach into his pocket and remove an antiquated, moth-eaten, dark brown, wrinkled pouch of malodorous, fusty tobacco. With our heads still huddled around his desk, his pipe would be filled with tobacco and pressed down with his pinky-several times. Then from his desk drawer would be sheathed a small, metal object with a flat head and as if his pinky were completely unsuitable he would continue to pack the tobacco with the head of the pipe packer, having, of course, continuously to fill the pipe with more tobacco as it was packed down.
With our head still huddled around his desk, from his pocket would come his cigarette lighter, a decorative gadget of which he was quite proud. After several inefficacious flicks which produced sparks but no flame, he would laboriously search his desk for the lighter fluid. With our heads still huddled around his desk, he would fumble through his pockets for a dime which served as a screwdriver to open the bottom of the lighter in order to squirt the fluid into the cotton packing. If he missed the hole, the fluid would spray wildly onto the desk. With luck it would not spoil the choral arrangement that was spread before him. Occasionally one's pants would become flammable as a result of his poor aim. After much travail the lighter would become operative and he would commence to light his pipe. Within a matter of seconds a suffocating cloud of smoke would engulf us. NO LONGER would we remain with our heads huddled around his desk. With "jack-in-the-box" reflexes, each of us would surface for air.
Then, almost as if he were being mesmerized into some tranquil state, he would lean back in his chair, rock gently, puff slowly, and think silently. Shortly he would proclaim ecstatically, "Oh, I know what we should do here" and he would take up his pen and rewrite that particular part of the arrangement with the stroke of genius. The new idea was always extremely good, and if we commented on that fact, he would gingerly say: "Your's would be too, if you smoked a pipe!
After four fruitful years of erudition with the master I received both masters and doctorate degrees in music education from Florida State. Immediately, I accepted a music education position at the University of Central Arkansas and spent the remainder of my life validating and promulgating the many wise ways of working with adolescent youngsters I learned from the master himself.
I don't smoke a pipe, but when I think about my old briefcase and mentally smell that stale tobacco, I'm reminded of my destiny. All of us who have worked, or will work, with adolescent singers have been influenced by Irvin Cooper and his contributions through the Cambiata Concept. Those contributions have made our work much easier. He often said in order to be successful in teaching youngsters of the middle years, "one must believe completely in what he (or she) is doing and have an undying love for adolescents." It is a special calling, but only those of use who have answered the call really know!