Kyo Maclear, author of Operatic, interviews Adam Platek “the real life Mr. K.”

Operatic has two muses or inspirations. The first is the great diva, opera singer Maria Callas. The other inspiration is a middle school music teacher named Adam Platek — much less known, but (to my mind) no less fabulous.

Mr. Platek is the rare teacher in my parenting life I actually look forward to seeing. I had two sons in his music class, at various times, and in both cases, he made the experience of “parent-teacher interview” a delight rather than a dread.

Mr. Platek didn’t start off wanting to teach. He wanted to be a famous rock star. But over the last eight years of teaching public school music, he has become a rock star in his own right — a feted teacher, garnering rave reviews from a peer group not typically known for effusiveness.

When I ask my sons to share the secret of Mr. Platek’s popularity, they say things like: He always goes beyond.  He’s never a power tripper. Passion drives his classes as much as knowledge does. He doesn’t seem to bend his lessons to any boring curriculum expectations. He just knows how to create a vibe.

Having sat in on some of his classes, I can safely say I have never seen anyone enjoy their job as much as Mr. Platek enjoys teaching middle school music. His enthusiasm is contagious. Mr. Platek spent an entire year on music history, and my elder son came home one day wanting to listen to Baroque harpsichord! That’s what happens when you make education engaging and interactive.

What else can I tell you about Mr. Platek?

He is always nicely dressed and often wears a cheerful patterned tie and very narrow jeans. He talks quickly and energetically and seems not at all concerned about embarrassing himself or expressing too much passion about music or anything else for that matter. On Mondays monthly, he runs a lunchtime program called “GLOW: Gays, Lesbians or Whatever.” On Tuesdays and Wednesdays afterschool, he hosts twenty-odd bands for “Rock Band Club.” On Thursdays, he also runs a Glee Club for the “musical theatre” students.

To celebrate the launch of Operatic, Mr. Platek kindly agreed to answer some questions.

Can you tell me a bit about your teaching philosophy?

I truly believe that all people are musical, and I think it’s integral to instill that belief at a young age.  Successful musicians, in my opinion, are those that are the most focused and passionate artists, rather than the most talented or skilled. It comes from the D.I.Y. ethos of punk and indie rock, where music is for everyone and anyone. 

You know, I was just chatting with a writer whose daughter was in your class a few years ago and she claims you “turned her from a musician into an artist.” So your middle school students are clearly jiving with your message of focus and passion. Was music important to you when you were in middle school?

Yes. Music was very important to me in middle school. I hadn’t started playing any instruments until high school, but just like your character Charlie, my personal identity was strongly linked to music. I felt different and like an outsider.  I was bad at sports, and athleticism established social status in my school. I knew I had a social “place”, but hadn’t discovered that I was a musician quite yet. Music was a way for me to learn to connect socially and express myself from high school onwards, especially once I joined my first band. I felt like I was finally home.

That’s amazing. That sense of home is something I hoped to capture in Operatic. Since you mention Charliein the story, she has to find her perfect song for a music class assignment, something with “personal weight.” If you were to do the assignment, what song would you pick?

Music is funny, in that our tastes change with us as people. As a middle- schooler, I was into heavy metal and worshipped bands like Metallica (angry and loud and rebellious!). As an outsider, this provided an accurate soundtrack to my experiences. Today, I see the most beauty in great songwriting; in the ability for a song to transcend time and space.  My perfect song today is the same as it was from my childhood — Mr. K’s “Take On Me” by A-Ha. It takes me back to sitting on the carpet with my big brother watching MuchMusic and just being mesmerized by the sights and sounds.

I love hearing about peoples’ favourite songs — but also the songs people loathe. I often have intensely almost-physical reactions to music, mostly when I love it or when I think a song is trying to kill me with its badness. Do you think openness can be learned? Or put another way, how do you encourage your students — gridlocked by fashion or taste or peer pressure or whatever — to open their ears to new stuff?

I introduce new music by acknowledging that taste is personal, and I do not intend to change taste. I do tell my students that my job is to refine their personal “palette” or taste, and hopefully encourage them as listeners to discover new “flavours.”  I often speak about music like food, and my class as a “buffet” that provides many aromas. My hope is that by having students introduced to many genres and artists from different time periods and places, they will discover a new unknown fave flavour.

My younger son used to mention your hamburger review assignment. I think you recently did one for “Africa” by Toto. Can you tell me how it works?

As an optional extra homework assignment, I write a song on the board that I think is cool. They can agree or disagree with my taste by submitting a hamburger review: the top bun is something they like, the patty is something that could be improved and the bottom bun is another positive. It acts as another method to expose my students to more music, but also builds their ability to critique art in a meaningful and methodical way. 

So you’re teaching students to expand their music taste by showing them how to find positive things in even the most awful songs!

YES! And also to identify areas of growth for even the great songs. Art is infinitely subjective, and I want students to develop their critical listening skills as they ponder the sublime infinity of art. At least that’s how I think of music: an endless, deep and mysterious ocean of possibilities.

One of the inspirations for Operatic was Maria Callas. Callas is a singer whose voice is considered flawed, but she’s worshipped by many opera buffs. I’m curious about your favourite singers? What qualities do you look for in great voices?

I’ve always admired great lyricists over great voices. My fave lyricist is Jarvis Cocker of Pulp; my fave performer is Jim Morrison of The Doors; and my fave all-around vocalist is the legendary David Bowie. 

You’re a pretty influential and charismatic teacher, do you think you could get a group of kids to like opera? I don’t just mean the songs with an easy hook, I mean the tough stuff.

Thanks… *blush* I think the main obstacle in getting kids into opera is the fact that the greatest operatic works by the greatest singers are in foreign languages. Music is about identity and connection, and the inability to understand the libretto limits the appreciation. We do study some opera, namely Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” One way to get kids into opera is by repurposing the timeless melodies into a social context that would be relatable to today.

The easiest way to improve any lesson on any topic is to make it connect to the students’ home and personal life. So, for example, what would an opera look, sound and feel like via a social media platform like Instagram? Could a libretto be represented visually with still photographs? Or could all that drama be placed into a middle school milieu? That kind of stuff brings the esoteric and often intangible world of opera to their fingertips. Madame ButterWiFi perhaps?

Have you ever seen music, or let’s say Rock Band Club, change a student’s life?

Yes, music is so personal and private that there is an intense sense of pride when it’s shared publicly and enjoyed. I’ve seen quiet, shy students transform on stage through the cathartic experience of live music performance. There’s just something about making music with your best friends live for the people you care about. Music is so powerful in that it makes you live and breathe in the moment, beat to beat, and that’s where the true joy lies.

One last question: What’s a really good teaching day?

A strong cup of coffee. A lesson about some artist or genre or song I love (which is most days). And then that spark in a student’s eye, and my favourite end-of-class question: “What was the song called again?!

Operatic written by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler is now available for purchase wherever books are sold.

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