Robert Barrow

Robert BarrowMy first impression of Mr. Barrow was when I went to audition for the Glee Club in the fall of 1964. As a small town kid from New Hampshire I’d never had to audition for anything. With a high school population (grades 9-12) of about 150, students were constantly being drafted into organizations rather than working to get in. I liked to sing. Mr. Barrow liked my voice. I’m pretty sure that at our first practice rules were laid down as to attendance and outside practice. He mentioned that it was quite common to hear a baritone or second tenor part sung alone by a student walking through the quad. I thought perhaps not. Very soon I thought nothing of singing my part alone walking across the quad. This guy knows his business and his students. Even as a freshman I realized that he knew all our names, our strengths and weaknesses and would put us in a position to succeed as a group. All of us were important to the Club. Never made it seem that some were more so, even though it was obvious that some were more gifted than others. We all had a place.

Every spring vacation the Glee Club would go on tour. By bus. In 1966 we did a bus trip through the area with Hollins. Other than the incredibly out-of-tune piano in Covington, VA, there was nothing to remark about this tour. Now I know that that was because of the principles upheld by Mr. Barrow.

I don’t think we were ever friends but we were friendly. However the attitude of professionalism that was instilled in me lasted me throughout my life. In my career in the grocery business I saw how skills of 100-200 people needed to mesh to create an organization. I think that training started a long time before I started my career. I was always thankful that I had learned that. Everyone has skills, everyone can be professional. Being in a profession rather than a job leads to a desire to learn new skills and improve others. Anyone with this mind set is a valuable employee and a good boss will work hard to find the proper place for this person.

Bob Cricenti

2 thoughts on “Robert Barrow

  1. Robert Barrow was the finest professor I have ever had. His lessons in harmony and music theory were superb, surpassing those I subsequently received in graduate school. He once said in one of his harmony classes, “Take this down, gentlemen. It’s pure gold. You won’t find it published anywhere else.” As a student of Ravel, Hindemith and Vaughan-Williams, he knew what he was talking about, and he could put it across with incredible clarity. As a music major, I got to know Professor Barrow a lot better over my four years, and I was privileged to see another side of him–his wonderful sense of humor–that might otherwise have escaped me. When I told him that I was in the Williams Flying Club, he said, “Well now I’ve got to tell you my experience of flying in the Alaskan bush country.” Apparently, he was in the cockpit of a ski plane, sitting next to the pilot, as the latter attempted a takeoff in a heavy snowstorm. After a few seconds of gunning it, the pilot observed that they weren’t coming up to speed properly. Mr. Barrow looked out and noticed that there was a bear scrambling around on the wing. As he told this to me, he was chortling away. Irwin Shainman was also in Barrow’s office with me, and I can still hear both professors laughing heartily at the conclusion of the tale.

    I will always think of Bob Barrow as the professor who persuaded Stephen Sondheim ’50 out of the math department and into a music major. I remember Mr. Barrow saying that he went down to New York City once every year to visit “Steve.” It would have been fun to have eavesdropped on those conversations. In a TIME Magazine cover story about Sondheim many years ago, he credited his career to Professor Robert Barrow of Williams College–a fitting and deserving tribute.

    Mr. Barrow was delightfully unrestrained when things went bad during a glee club rehearsal, especially if it involved a joint concert with a women’s college. I remember one day when he turned to the ladies and said, “You’re flat,” with the double-entendre registering immediately amongst the Ephs. Another day, in the Williams chapel choir area, he told us all, “You’re going to fall flat on your faces, if not in another direction.” I loved him for his candor and authenticity. We were listening to a Brahms symphony one day in class, and he got tears in his eyes as he said, “Sometimes I find it hard to believe that such people actually walked the face of the earth.” I’ve quoted him on that many times since.

    In short, Robert Barrow was in a class by himself as professor, musical mind, mentor, coach and friend. It is difficult to stand before his cold gravestone in the college cemetery and contemplate his vitality, keen intellect, kindness and humor. If he had taught graduate courses, I would have stayed put in Williamstown until I had taken them all.

  2. An additional comment re Stephen Sondheim ’50 and Robert Barrow. Upon hearing of Sondheim’s death over this past weekend, I was reminded of a wonderful excerpt from Stephen Citron’s book, “Sondheim and Lloyd-Webber: The New Musical,” published in 2001 by the Oxford University Press. It appears on pp. 38-39:
    “I took an elective in music during my freshman year,” Sondheim said. “The teacher, Robert Barrow, was so sensational that if he had taught geology I would probably have become a geologist.” Most of the students at Williams College avoided Barrow’s classes because he was considered factual and dry in his teaching of harmony and theory. Barrow looked at music as a craft and taught his students to make their music as dispassionately as a carpenter makes a table. In truth, basic theory and counterpoint with its plethora of rules is not unlike fitting the pieces of a complicated puzzle together—an assignment that would mightily please the teenage Sondheim.

    “I thought he was wonderful,” Sondheim added, “because he was very dry. Barrow made me realize that all my romantic views of art were nonsense. I had always thought an angel came down and sat on your shoulder and whispered in your ear, ‘dah-dah-dah-DUM’ [the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony]. It never occurred to me that art was something worked out. And suddenly it was the skies opening up…. He taught me to first learn the technique and then put the notes down on paper.”

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