I knew two things about Napoleon. He was a dictator, and he was short. Of course I was 9 at the time, but those predominant features fit perfectly with the skewed mental image I held of our elementary band conductor, Mr. Vellier. Through no fault of his own, this is how I viewed the man.
Surely, this diminutive taskmaster’s sole purpose in life was to take a shy skinny kid and prop him in front of a live audience at the end of the semester to the embarrassment of himself, his classmates and the innocent, much-beloved writers of “Here Comes Santa Claus.”
The rumor around school was that Mr. Vellier wore lifts in his boots. That way he would actually appear taller than us. But I never bought into that, maybe because the thought of thick wedges crammed into his shoes at all times would have made him seem far less frightening—a prospect my 4th-grade brain was simply ill-equipped to grasp.
The night before the big concert, I panicked and told my parents I did not want to attend. Put me on the free-throw line with one second left, but don’t hand me a recorder and expect magic to happen.
Just do your best, they said.
But what if my best is not good enough? Or worse, what if I haven’t been giving it my best all semester long?
Dad is an attorney. Surely he can get me out of this mess.
Instead, he handed over the phone.
“Someone wants to talk to you,” he said. “It’s Mr. Vellier.”
Gulp. Napoleon reads minds, I thought. He can sense my stage fright from across the city. Now, that is scary.
If this phone call was supposed to be reassuring, the exact opposite effect was sinking in fast.
That’s because there is often a disconnect between the potential we see in ourselves and the things we are actually capable of doing. Somewhere the wires are cut. And maybe it takes a friend or mentor to bring that potential out in us. Maybe something happens, something big, that forces us or inspires us to find it on our own.
I found out later that my parents had called Mr. Vellier first. It was a kind conspiracy. Good thing, because I needed him to tell me calmly and reassuringly, “You can do this.” I needed him to not be Napoleon.
I was far from the best performer the following night, but at least I participated and realized I was not alone.
Writing this month’s cover story on the efforts of Kids’ Orchestra to improve the future of our city by creatively connecting students from various schools and backgrounds has put Mr. Vellier in a new light for me, all these years later.
Seeing brave young faces show more excitement for performing than I ever did was inspirational, and watching conductor Raul Gomez work with beginner violinists was a revelation. The 27-year-old Costa Rican composer’s expertise is unquestionable, but it is his patience that can move mountains.
Mr. Vellier was always patient with me. For that, I won’t think of him as Napoleon anymore, but I will say merci.