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Symphony celebrates 99-year-old Oakland music teacher

on October 20, 2010

“Let’s start from scratch,” says Giles “Bud” Cropsey, standing behind a piano bench in a cluttered, closet-sized room at Roosevelt Middle School. White hair neatly rims his head, and his slight frame is decked out in a blue plaid blazer, a button down and khakis. He’s here on a Tuesday morning to teach piano lessons, as he has for years. On September 4, he celebrated his 99th birthday.

Cropsey is talking to Andrea, a lanky seventh grader who towers over him. She faces away from the piano as he strikes a key. She spins around, and takes a stab at duplicating the note he just played.

“F, not G,” says Cropsey, gently.

“Oops,” she says, and plops down on in her seat. They begin the warm-up; Andrea’s fingers move up and down the piano, playing scales. The lesson is underway.

Mr. Cropsey, as his students call him, is an institution on the Oakland music scene—a longtime middle school and private music teacher, as well as a patron of the Oakland East Bay Symphony. Cropsey’s commitment to local music goes back to his youth, after he graduated from Roosevelt in 1929 (it was a high school then). He attended the College of Marin, where he was a percussionist with the Marin Symphony, and where he met his wife, Marie, a concert pianist. Though she died in 1999, Cropsey’s sons say the couple’s love of music was “their thing,” and Cropsey references her often as one of his great influences. It was her love of the piano that made the instrument such a central part of Cropsey’s life.

Cropsey’s evolution from musical hobbyist to teacher was an organic one. While he played different percussion instruments—kettledrums and xylophone among them—and dabbled with the piano, he never studied education nor dreamed of being a teacher. He had always taught his children casually, but one day noticed that his housekeeper’s son was banging aimlessly on the piano. “I said to him ‘You can’t just bang on the thing, you’ve got to play it,” Cropsey says. “So I taught him.” Other mothers got wind of the boy’s progress, and through word of mouth, Cropsey suddenly found himself with a large roster of students. He eventually began volunteering his skills at Roosevelt, as well.

Cropsey and his wife were Oakland East Bay Symphony subscribers for many years, and he later joined the board of directors. In 2000, a year after his wife’s passing, Cropsey made a $500,000 gift to the Oakland East Bay Symphony’s Endowment Fund, the largest single contribution ever received by the organization. Cropsey’s hope is that the money will guarantee a stable future for the symphony, which has had financial difficulties in the past.

This week, the symphony is honoring Cropsey with a three-day series of concerts. The Wednesday show is being held at Allen Temple Baptist Church, and the Tuesday and Thursday shows are at Oakland Technical High School. There are two shows each morning, one at 9:30 and one at 10:45 a.m. The unusual start times have to do with the audience: elementary school-aged children from all over Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

“We have a wonderful education committee, and we’re looking to tie in with classroom curriculums,” says Michael Morgan, conductor and director of the symphony. The symphony’s Music for Excellence (MUSE) program is a multi-faceted approach to bringing music to under-served communities in the East Bay. Through the program, children receive in-school mentoring and after-school instruction. Another component of MUSE is an annual Young People’s Concert, and this year’s performances double as a tribute to Cropsey.

Cropsey is the perfect bridge, Morgan says, between classical music and children. Not only does he work with them, he’s a source of inspiration to everyone who meets him. “None of us expect to be here when we’re 100 years old, let alone running around and doing things,” says Morgan. “It’s just so inspiring to see someone keep going like that. And how great for the kids that he encounters, to see him being so active at that age.”

When he was younger, Cropsey managed to balance his musical life with a pair of intense professional pursuits. His first career was as a public accountant with the firm John F. Forbes & Co, which eventually merged with KPMG. Cropsey worked there for forty years, and became a partner, but it’s his post-accounting work that he’s really eager to talk about. After he retired from accounting, Cropsey and his son, Duane, bought a 116-acre walnut and pomegranate ranch in the Sutter Buttes of California’s Central Valley. They each took courses in pomology (the study of fruit cultivation) at UC Davis, and on the first day of Cropsey’s class the professor asked each student where they hailed from. “One fellow got up and said, ‘I’m from Oakdale.’ Another said, ‘From Modesto.’ They came to me, I said ‘I’m from Oakland,’” Cropsey recalls, laughing. “When I said that, they all turned and looked at me, wondering ‘Where do you grow walnuts in Oakland?’”

Cropsey remembers his years on the farm as some of the happiest of his life. He shares a memory of sitting on his tractor during a particularly beautiful sunset. “I thought to myself, I’m the richest man in the world,” he says, “because I’m doing what I want.” Cropsey’s sons, Damon and Duane, say that their father still tends to a lush garden at his home in Rockridge. He goes out to check on his fruit trees four or five times a day.

Today, Cropsey’s priority is teaching—every Tuesday morning, he volunteers as a piano teacher at his alma mater. Students, like Andrea the seventh grader, can sign up with their music teacher and take a private lesson in a side room. Cropsey is in his element when teaching—he commands respect and keeps track of each of his student’s progress perfectly.

Cropsey also gives private lessons at his home every Sunday. At Roosevelt, he pulls out a picture of some of his weekend students and talk proudly about one little boy, who looks to be about 9 years old. “This fellow here,” he says, tapping the photograph excitedly. “He’s one of the best. He’s got perfect pitch. You’re born with this, this isn’t something that you learn.”

This is Cropsey’s modus operandi when talking about his students—he speaks quickly, with confidence and a distinct note of pride. But ask him about his secrets for long life, how he became such a wonderful teacher, or about anything else even remotely self-promotional, and Cropsey recoils and deflects with a “Oh, I don’t know.” That’s his response when asked about his feelings about the concert series being held this week in his honor.

At the second show on Tuesday, Oakland Tech’s auditorium is a sea of tiny, squirming bodies. For this occasion, Michael Morgan of the Oakland East Bay Symphony has put together a program that’s about as kid-friendly as orchestral music can be. The theme is “weather and the seasons,” and the selections are fast-paced and filled with roaring percussion. He moves from fall to summer, standing at the front of the stage with a mic and giving a short, accessible intro to the pieces, which are cut down to a kid-friendly length. At one point, the orchestra demonstrates how they create the elements of a storm—rain, thunder and lightening—through music.

Some of the students, who are mostly between the ages of four and nine, are bopping along to Beethoven and Gershwin. Others mimic Morgan as he conducts, and many draw cross glances from their teachers as they do their best to distract their classmates. Cropsey sits quietly in the front row, accompanied by his two of his three children.

He walks up on stage when the conductor asks him to, and returns to his seat without fanfare or comment. He sits contentedly through the concert, and afterwards, handles a flurry of TV cameras in his face with relative ease. His sons say he hasn’t really acknowledged that he’s being honored in this way—he’s just concerned with teaching. “We had to meet him here, because he had to go teach at Roosevelt first,” says his son Damon Cropsey. “He was very clear about that.”

Listen to learn more about Giles “Bud” Cropsey, the Oakland school symphony director celebrated for his 99th birthday.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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