F. BRIAN FERGUSON | Gazette-Mail
Music teacher Fred Meyer, a retired professor from West Virginia Institute of Technology,displays a few of the violins he keeps on board for students as part of a program in Putnam County Schools called Teays Valley Strings. He travels from Charleston to Putnam County four days a week to teach in four schools introducing students to music much in the same way he learned to appreciate it as a schoolboy.
By SANDY WELLS , Staff Writer
October 2, 2017
What goes around really does come around. Or, in this case, it's called giving back.
Fred Meyer's vocational die was cast as a schoolboy. He learned to play the clarinet and oboe in school. He played in the high school band and orchestra.
He went on to study music education at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, got his master's degree, recruited music students and played oboe at Cornell University, taught in Maine, and earned a Ph.D.
In 1972, he landed in Montgomery as a music professor at the then-thriving West Virginia Institute of Technology. As the economy ate away at the school and its music program, he chose to retire in 2006.
He played oboe and English horn in the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra and still plays with the Kanawha Valley Band.
Now, he's giving other students the opportunity that determined his future — introducing them to the joys of music. Four days a week, he travels to Putnam County to teach music, mainly violin, in four county schools. He collects instruments for pupils to use as they learn.
Students in the program, called Teays Valley Strings, entertain at community events, in assisted living homes and other places.
At 74, the mild-mannered musician enjoys hiking, travel and, of course, his music. Looking back, he says the only drawback in a fulfilling life is making those darned reeds for his oboe.
“In fourth grade, I could get out of class to play the clarinet once a week for a lesson from somebody at the school.
“In junior high, they needed an oboe player, so that’s when I started playing oboe. The main problem with the oboe is making reeds. You can buy clarinet reeds for a couple of dollars, but you make your own oboe reeds if you want to survive. You have to be able to adjust it.
“Haverford High School had over 1,200 students, so they had both a band and an orchestra. They had a seven-period day. One week, we would have band twice a week and one week we would have orchestra twice a week, so you could do both.
“In high school, I started auditioning at different schools on the oboe. I wanted to be a musician and teach music. I went to Rochester to the Eastman School of Music and studied music education. In the summer of ’66 I started my master’s degree, and in the fall of ’66 I got a job in Ithaca, New York, at Cornell University and helped them with their orchestra and played oboe.
“There was a composer in residence, Carl Husa, and I was his assistant to help find people to play in the orchestra from Ithaca College, so I didn’t do that much teaching, more recruiting and phone calling.
“I taught in Maine for about three years and started my doctorate in the summers. In ’72, the job became available here in West Virginia teaching music at West Virginia Tech. I taught full time until 2006 and taught some night classes there after that.
“When I came to Montgomery in ’72, we had over 30 music majors. We were offering a degree in music ed. The job market slowly dried up, and it became harder for a music teacher to find a job.
“Montgomery is not the most beautiful town. Montgomery has nice hills, but housing is a problem. We didn’t have space for dorms. It had an excellent engineering reputation and a good printing program. They’ve moved to Beckley, now. Coal is not doing as well, so that’s part of the reason.
“I liked West Virginia, the countryside, the hills and the people, but it was very hard for us to find housing. So we lived in an apartment in London for a while.
“We moved to Charleston more than 25 years ago. My daughter was in grade school, and we came here for the schools.
“I play oboe and English horn. I have a clarinet, but I don’t play it much anymore. I play violin well enough to teach beginning students.
“After I retired, I started volunteering in Putnam County. I had a boy coming here from Putnam County to take violin lessons. The boy’s father didn’t want to come that far.
“At Tech, when we would have classes with less than 10 students, they would cancel them, and I was just sitting there shuffling papers. I thought I could be more productive than that. I was close enough to retirement age.
“So I went to West Teays Elementary in 2006, and we started about five students on violin. We call it Teays Valley Strings. I teach at four schools. The others, if they want to take lessons, they can come to one of those four schools — West Teays, Hurricane Middle, Hometown Elementary, George Washington and Winfield Elementary. I go to Putnam County every day but Friday.
“We have a board of directors, and we ask for donations. I acquire instruments, and if a student shows an interest, I let them use one of the instruments. I have probably 25 instruments for students to use.
“Music helps with creativity and coordination, especially for the youngsters. It’s good discipline. It helps organize their thought process. A lot of students, when first starting off, I teach them by numbers. We don’t look at the music itself. That’s an additional activity to put into your brain. We number the strings.
“Here’s a fiddle tune. I have it marked 222, 333. The student knows this is on the D string. The 222 means you play the second finger three times on the D string. Then the third finger three times. They don’t know that this is an F sharp. That comes after they’ve been playing.
“I teach them on two strings to begin with. Once they have played for a year or so, then we can go ahead and learn some other strings. The first thing I do is put tapes on the instruments, so they know exactly where to put their fingers. I prefer this method because you aren’t into reading right away.
“The ones that are really patient progress pretty well. Some can’t handle it and decide to quit. Sometimes they switch instruments.
“Charleston is a great place to be. Not too big. Not too small. It’s got good arts, good industry. But then you go to Putnam County and things are booming. Look at Toyota.
“I’ve gotten a lot of support from the principals. In Boone County they’ve had to cut teachers and even in Kanawha County. But Putnam County’s population is holding up pretty well. I’m lucky to have such interest there.
“We have all the instruments for a string orchestra. We just need to develop a little more reading facility. In Charleston, they have the youth symphony, and we aren’t quite that far along until we learn some more reading. That’s our object, to play in the public schools and art museums and maybe play for the governor sometimes.
“We did a concert this summer at the Huntington art museum. We played at Winfield Elementary School. We play at retirement homes.
“I played oboe and English horn in the symphony. I’m not good enough on the string instruments to play with them. I do play with the Kanawha Valley Band on Symphony Sunday and Doctor Woodard at State has a community chamber orchestra that I play with.
“My life has been fun. The difficult part is trying to make those reeds for my oboe. It takes a lot of time and patience. You take a piece of bamboo and split it and gouge it, and it takes forever.
“I like to hike and travel. I’ve been to Nepal and China. My wife and I have been quite a few places in Europe and England and Scotland. We’ve been to Budapest. We just like to go places and learn about different cultures.”
"You can buy clarinet reeds for a couple of dollars, but you make your own oboe reeds if you want to survive."
A family portrait from 20 years ago depicts Fred and Olive Meyer with their now-grown children, Andrew and Elizabeth.
Then-Gov. Bob Wise presents the Governor’s Award to music educator Fred Meyer, who also earned the Distinguished West Virginian designation from Gov. Gaston Caperton.
In the garage of his Weberwood home, Meyer stores the instruments he offers to students who want to join his fiddle classes and Teays Valley Strings program.
Newlyweds Olive and Fred Meyer started their married life in 1967.
In 1961, future music professor Fred Meyer graduated from high school in Haverford, Pennsylvania. He went on to study music education at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.
This portrait from high school features Fred Meyer and his oboe, the instrument he switched to in junior high after playing the clarinet since fourth grade.
As a kid in Haverford, Pennsylvania, Fred Meyer would discover his life's calling as part of public school music classes.
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