Impersonating the Professor
It's not hard to find former students who are big fans of Robert Harris. Talk to Tony Award-winner Heather Headley (C97) or Chicago Symphony Chorus associate conductor Cheryl Frazes Hill (GMu85, 92), who says Harris "demands the best," or Josephine Lee, artistic director of the 3,200-member Chicago Children's Choir, which has sung with Samuel Ramey and Bobby McFerrin. "He's a mentor and a friend," says Lee. All three keep in touch with their favorite choir director.
Harris won the School of Music Exemplar in Teaching Award in 2000-01 and was one of three professors awarded a 2001 Northwestern Alumni Association Excellence in Teaching Award.
But how does a seasoned educator, dedicated to the profession, handle a wise guy?
Opera Carolina baritone George Washington III (Mu90), who sang in Robert Harris' elite University Chorale as an undergraduate as well as in his Trinity United Methodist Church choir on Sundays, admits to a bit of youthful insolence that put Harris to the test.
While in the Chorale, Washington perfected an impersonation of Harris that he did for other students. "I had the erect walk down, and his very precise manner of speaking, and the way he conducted with his index finger," says the baritone.
"On the bus, on the way to a concert," he recalls, "Bob comes up to me and says, 'I hear you do an impersonation of me. So — do it.' I did, and he laughed and said, 'That's very good. I'm gonna getcha.'
"At the last concert of the season — and mind you, I had never taken a conducting class in my life — we're at Pick-Staiger, and we have all these high school students in the audience," says Washington. "[Harris] says to them, 'Some students come to Northwestern to be conductors. Others mimic them.' Then he had me come down and conduct the last piece.
"It was something we had sung all year long, so it wasn't like they weren't going to follow me, no matter what I did. But, boy, oh, boy, he got me. The people in the Chorale were just cracking up, barely able to keep themselves together.
"As we walked off stage, he kept smiling at me and laughing, and backstage I said, 'OK, you win.'"
Washington, who now admits that "there were times we gave him plenty of headaches," asked Harris to be the godfather
of his first child, Jordan, now 10. "He helped me a lot, and not just with musical things," says Washington.
"It was obvious he cared enough that he wanted me to succeed." — A.T.