On Scores, Scotties and Angel Food Cake

By John V. Sinclair

John V. Sinclair’s new book, Falling Off the Podium and Other Lessons, is brimming with anecdotes, recollections, commentaries and life lessons. Photo Courtesy of Karen Leslie Photography

From the Editor: If the great James Brown hadn’t already claimed the title, then John V. Sinclair — a cultural icon in Central Florida — ought to be regarded as the hardest-working man in show business. The 62-year-old Sinclair has been chair of the department of music at Rollins College since 1985, and recently celebrated his 25th anniversary as artistic director of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park.

He also serves as music director of First Congregational Church of Winter Park; director of the local Messiah Choral Society; and conductor of the annual  International Moravian Music Festival. And that’s not all. The inexhaustible Sinclair is one of the conductors of the star-studded Candlelight Processionals, held every holiday season at Epcot. All of this is in addition to his responsibilities as an educator and a clinician.

The bearded maestro, a graduate of William Jewell College and the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music and Dance, conducts at least 150 performances a year, most of them local but others around the country and the world. Yet, despite Sinclair’s highbrow pedigree, he remains at heart an unpretentious Midwesterner, proud of his modest upbringing and brimming with anecdotes — some wry, some poignant, but always insightful.

Many of those well-told tales have been compiled in a book, Falling Off the Podium and Other Lessons, which will be released later this year by DeLand-based Phenomenal Publishing. “Our select authors have a strong commitment to sharing their unique journeys of wisdom with the world,” says Paul Peterson, the company’s president. “John’s delightful stories and life lessons are welcome, uplifting and enjoyable. They strike a harmonic chord to enlighten readers of all ages and interests.”

Following is a selection from among the 70 or so “lessons” that will appear in the book. In total, they reveal much about the character of the man who was described by the Orlando Sentinel as “Central Florida’s conductor.”

— Randy Noles

Illustration by Dana Summers


“Horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people.” — W.C. Fields

My grandfather was a bit of a Will Rogers type who always had something folksy yet profound to say — although usually minus the humor.

When I earned my undergraduate degree from William Jewell College, he gave me two presents. One was a silver dollar (minted the year he was born, 1902). The other was a little card that read, “No college ever gave a degree in common sense!”

It was a simple version of Victor Hugo’s, “Common sense is in spite of, not the result of, education.”

During a visit to my grandfather’s store after a long week of teaching, he asked if I had made anybody mad. I replied that I didn’t think so. “Are you sure you showed up at work?” he asked. “You can’t teach without challenging someone.”

As a child, to earn my candy allowance, my chores at the store were seasonal. In the winter months, I carried coal for the potbelly stove. In the summer, I was required to grow a vegetable garden because my grandfather believed that “everyone should know how to grow their own food.”

Often, I’d clean the century-old wooden plank floors by sprinkling sawdust on them and then sweeping it up. If I ever sought praise for my competence, my grandfather’s answer was always the same: “Don’t expect a compliment for just doing your job.”

Perhaps the paramount lesson I learned from my grandfather was of the value of a strong work ethic. I was surrounded by a whole family who never missed work and never stayed home — even when they probably should have.

I’m not sure if that’s a strength or a weakness, but I’m a subscriber to Shakespeare’s contention that “there is plenty of time to sleep in the grave.”

Over the past 20 years, I’ve conducted more than 800 Candlelight Processionals, 300 Bach Festival programs and hundreds of other concerts. And while my grandfather would be indifferent to my being a conductor, he would respect me for having never canceled, called in sick or made an excuse.

I feel a bit like Ella Fitzgerald when she noted, “Even iron wears out. I think if I ever just had to sit down, I’d say to myself, ‘What am I going to do now?’”

Woody Allen once noted that “about 90 percent of success is showing up.” It’s trite, but does make an important point. The most difficult part of accomplishing any task is getting started — and showing up is the first step.

Now, don’t think I can’t procrastinate, because in 1973 I purchased a book entitled Do It Now: How to Stop Procrastinating. As you might have guessed, I haven’t read it yet.

“I was obliged to work hard. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed just as well.” — J.S. Bach (1685-1750)

Illustration by Dana Summers


“If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.” — Will Rogers (1879-1935)

It’s amazing to me why anyone would have an ugly dog when they could have a Scottie. Bias acknowledged. When I find something I like, I tend to stick with it. That’s precisely why I’ve owned six Scottish terriers — and all five of my male Scotties have been named Mac.

I’ve shared my life with other breeds, including a great little Westie named Sam and, as a child, a bulldog named Suzie and a cocker spaniel named Whimpy. But my current Scotties, Abby and Mac, are the “cat’s meow.” Pun intended.

Scottish terriers are not the most cooperative of dogs. The breed is self-assured, smart and independent — just the way I like my dogs, and my students, for that matter.

My Scotties have all had similar characteristics, yet each a very distinct personality. They’ve been “Mac Gruff,” “Mac Sweet,” “Mac Weird,” Mac Genius” and now “Mac Joyful.” An old Scottish proverb perfectly describes my philosophy of dog selection: “Be slow in choosing a friend, but slower in changing him.”

I associate my late-night musical score study with my Macs because all of them have sat near me as I’ve practiced and studied. And never once have they barked in disapproval, or offered judgment of me or the music.

All I know is that in my next life, if I’m reunited with my Scotties, it’ll be certain that I’ve made it to Heaven.

“If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and man.” — Mark Twain (1835-1910)


“If music be the food of love, play on.” — William Shakespeare (1564-1616) 

We all have our favorite junk food — and sadly, I’m an overachiever in this area. I’m convinced that when I meet St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, he’ll have orange fingers and orange crumbs on his robe from the unlimited supply of Cheetos and Butterfingers in Heaven.

Just like us, many great composers were “foodies.” Beethoven loved trout and eggs (often raw), and was fastidious with his coffee, insisting on 60 grains per cup.

Brahms was also particular in brewing his own extremely strong coffee, with lots of cream. His favorite dining establishment was called the Hedgehog Inn.

Liszt often ate bacon and eggs, and partook of libations when composing. Rossini and Grieg were gourmands. Rossini was as prolific as a chef as he was as a composer. Grieg was known to love oysters, and would linger at delicatessens.

Handel was a big man and a heavy eater. And Mendelssohn, who also had a hearty appetite, celebrated food culture while traveling. He wrote about food in letters, and had an affinity for German sausages and English butter pudding.

Like any good German, Bach loved his wine, beer and coffee. There’s a coffee ring on an opening page of his Mass in B Minor. And his Coffee Cantata tells of the disputes in mid-18th century Leipzig surrounding the drinking of coffee. It’s great fun to humanize these composers by discussing their diets.

Does the food we eat correlate to our musical listening habits?  I think it was one of my professors, Dr. Eph Ehly, whom I first heard use this analogy. Here’s my take on the comparisons.

Many people go through life sustaining themselves on “twinkies” of music. Much of the music we listen to has no nutritional value. It’s void of intellectual or spiritual purpose. It goes down easily, is entertaining and fills a void — but it’s wasted carbs.

Functional, durable music is equivalent to good carbs. This class of music is equivalent to vegetables, fruits and whole grains.  Solidly written music is important for good health.

When you need protein to sustain you, however, then you turn to the masters. Brilliant compositions by master composers feed your body, mind and soul. Timeless masterpieces are works that will speak to you, and encourage you to grow each time you hear them. The nutrition is life changing.

Enjoy desserts and good carbs, but don’t deprive yourself of cerebral and spiritual musical protein. How is your musical diet?

“Cannibals don’t eat clowns because they taste funny.” — Anon


“There are two ways of spreading light — to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” — Edith Wharton (1862-1913)

During four years teaching at East Texas Baptist University, I saw much of the country through a tour bus window. Like choirs at many denominational schools, ours served an ambassadorial role and often went on the road to perform.

On a Houston-area jaunt, we scheduled a concert at a high school just north of the city. We followed our normal pre-concert routine, and the presentation was typical in every way — until I announced an encore.

I introduced the tune by reciting the lyrics of the song and commenting that they were “words to live by.” Some of my students looked tense as we sang Paul McCartney’s “Ebony and Ivory.” I hadn’t seen those looks before.

As soon as we completed the song and the concert, several of my students approached me and suggested that we not linger. A few of the men in the choir even walked with me, and encouraged me to go straight to the bus.

As we pulled away from the school, I asked why we needed to be in such a hurry. Little did I know that we had just performed “Ebony and Ivory” in a town known for its large KKK faction.

This same town made national news as late as 1998 for the brutal murder of an African-American man by three white supremacists.

During my second year at Rollins College, I went to a suburb of Orlando to work with a high school choir. As I drove by the town hall, three men were walking around in circles, holding signs. They were KKK members, complete with white robes.

I pulled over, got out of my car and watched in disbelief. The image was surreal. How could this public display of contemptible ignorance and hate exist?

My patriotism understands and defends every American’s right to assemble. But my idealism can’t rationalize allowing openly racist and discriminatory behavior.

This should be beyond the pale of public decency — and it’s a crime, not an entitlement. Certainly, it’s not what was envisioned by our Founding Fathers. The fact that Socrates said, “There is only one good — knowledge; and one evil — ignorance,” informs us that this is not a new topic.

Woefully, the lyrics to “Ebony and Ivory” are as relevant today as when they were when they were written, more than 30 years ago.  Albert Einstein lamented that, “What a sad era when it is easier to smash an atom than a prejudice.”

Would it not be the most notable of accomplishments if, during our era, we confronted and defeated all types of bigotry?  If we’re truly ever to become a United States of America, it’s incumbent upon every citizen to condemn intolerance.

Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony
Side by side on my piano keyboard, oh Lord, why don’t we?
We all know that people are the same where ever you go
There is good and bad in ev’ryone
We learn to live, we learn to give
Each other what we need to survive together alive.
— Paul McCartney (b. 1942)

Illustration by Dana Summers


“Music has been called the speech of angels; I will go further, and call it the speech of God himself.” — Charles Kingsley (1819-1875)

My grandmother, Agnes Stewart Jackson, had a profound influence on me. She was the daughter of a coal miner, and both of her parents were poor Scottish immigrants

She was an eternally kind person and a faithful believer, as confirmed by a letter I have congratulating her on 60 years of perfect attendance at her home Methodist church.

My grandmother had a joyful heart, always singing — although not especially well — and she lived to help others. The people in the small Missouri town in which she lived lovingly nicknamed her “Aunt Aggie.”

When she learned that I was going to make my living as a musician, she shook her finger at me and said, “God gave you that talent. So you’d better be somewhere on Sunday morning using that gift.”

Since I conduct a great deal of sacred music, and have served First Congregational Church of Winter Park for 30 years, I hope to have gotten a “pass” in her eyes.

The day my grandmother passed from this world, we received a small angel food cake in the mail. She had baked it a few days before to celebrate my daughter’s first birthday.

That cake has been in our freezer for 28 years. I don’t have the heart to toss it.

I feel that my grandmother passed her servant heart to my daughter, Kaley, that day. I know she’s the one who taught me about sharing and being a gentleman. In my life, she epitomized unconditional love.

My grandmother was a wonderful person, although her life was lived without fanfare. It seems that many of us swing for the fences instead of being willing team players who realize that any good we do can make a big difference.

She had “being happy in your own skin” down to an art form. Her life reminds me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s statement:

“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and to endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

The 13th-century Persian Islamic scholar, Rumi, said, “There are many ways leading to God, and I have chosen the way of music…”

If the 14th chapter of Revelation is accurate and music is being played and sung in Heaven, and if — a big if — I’m fortunate enough to get there, I’m confident that my grandmother will greet me, and expect me to be ready to go to work.

“Music is a sublime art precisely because, unable to imitate reality, it rises above ordinary nature into an ideal world, and with celestial harmony moves the earthly passions.” — Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)


“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” —Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Most musicians have habits or rituals — I prefer to call them “traditions” — that we observe prior to a performance.

I don’t have the proverbial lucky cufflinks — though I do have a favorite pair — or a token in my pocket. But while I’m onstage, a couple of ibuprofen, a glucose tablet and a handkerchief are never far away.

My first concert during the annual Bach Festival will always be conducted while I’m wearing a new pair of socks. And prior to that performance, I’ll eat a very specific meal: fried macaroni and a grilled-cheese sandwich.

I’m often asked about the recipe for fried macaroni. It’s easy: boil it, drain it and, like any good unhealthy food, fry it in lots of butter. Over the years, however, dietary demands have changed my eating habits. The macaroni is now whole-wheat, and the bread is multigrain. But it still accomplishes the same thing.

The tradition goes back to when my wife, Gail, and I were dating. I would stop by her parents’ home after an evening of teaching trumpet lessons, and she would often cook this meal for me. So, it’s comfort food — and something we share.

This ritual helps to ground me, and to put my work in perspective. It reminds me that my work would simply not be possible without my wife, my willing muse.

Mark Twain said, “To get full value of joy you must have someone to divide it with.” And Hector Berlioz combined the power of music and love when he said, “Love can give no idea of music, but music can give an idea of love.”

In my case, they’re intimately entwined.

“There is no place for grief in a house which serves the Muse.” — Sappho (c. 630-c. 570 B.C.)


“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” — Matthew 6:24

I believe I can keep numerous plates spinning at one time. But I’ve learned that trying to multitask can have unfortunate results, and that no one probably does it as well as they think.

When Taylor, my son, was a small child and just starting to walk, I was at home waiting on a repairman, watching my son and studying Mozart’s Requiem. My wife was gone, and I had just gotten out of the shower.

I heard the doorbell ring, so I threw on a robe, picked up Taylor out of his crib, grabbed my Mozart score and, along with Mac, my little Scottie, ran to the door.

Sadly, it wasn’t the repairman but two female Jehovah Witnesses. In order to open the door and receive their literature, I sat Taylor down and tucked my score under my elbow.

Just as I reached for the pamphlet, Taylor and Mac bolted for the door. As I lunged to keep them in the house, my music fell to the floor and my robe fell open. What do you say when you’ve just flashed two Jehovah Witnesses?  All I could think of was, “Excuse me.”

The advice given in Proverbs 4:25, however, would have been prudent for these two women at my door: “Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you.”

Illustration by Dana Summers


“I never did give them hell. I just told the truth, and they thought it was hell.” — Harry Truman (1884-1972)

Growing up in Independence, Missouri, you’re not only allowed to quote Harry Truman, it’s a requirement. For a history buff like me, having a former U.S. president living in town provided plenty of opportunities.

President Truman left the White House and truly became a private citizen. Therefore, many residents of Independence have their own Truman sightings.

He and Bess lived a block away from the junior high school I attended. I have a fond memory of the president stopping to hear “Hail to the Chief” during one of his morning walks by our band room.

Lieutenant Westwood of the Independence Police Department accompanied President Truman on his walks. This was before Secret Service agents protected past presidents.

You could sometimes even see the president’s silhouette through the window of his home as he sat in a chair, reading.

Often, dignitaries and other politicians came to visit Independence’s most famous resident. I saw, among others, Hubert Humphrey, President Johnson, Richard Nixon and Robert Kennedy make their way to President Truman’s house.

After author and historian David McCullough’s appearance at Rollins College through the Winter Park Institute, I drove him to his hotel and asked if he was hungry. He responded, “I’m hungry and I need something to drink.”

What was supposed to be a brief stop ended up being a long meal, during which Mr. McCullough shared his impressions of the time he spent in Independence while researching his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography on President Truman.

I told him that my mother wrote the president every year to ask for an autographed picture, which she would give to the highest-achieving student in her sixth-grade classroom. He would always respond, writing, “How nice it is to hear from you again, Mrs. Sinclair.”

My mother-in-law tells the story of a friend going grocery shopping with a young child. President Truman, who was waiting in his Chrysler for a staff member, volunteered to babysit while the family was in the store. He said he was pleased to do so because he missed his grandchildren.

President Truman was a wonderful gentleman. My final memory associated with him is of playing Taps at a local ceremony commemorating his life.

Harry Truman faithfully did his damnedest.

“He held to the old guidelines: work hard, do your best, speak the truth, assume no airs, trust in God, have no fear.” — David McCullough (b. 1933), in Truman


The connections we make in the course of a life — maybe that’s what heaven is. — Fred Rogers 

The fall of 1990 was a challenge, professionally and personally.  It was my first semester as department of music chair at Rollins College and my first semester as artistic director and conductor of the Bach Festival Society.

My mother had retired the past spring after a long teaching career. It was mid-September, and she and my father had come for a short visit to see the grandchildren.

A few days after they arrived home, I got a call from my father, who told me that my mother had suffered a small stoke, and that she was having tests run to determine the cause.

Physicians discovered an aggressive, malignant brain tumor. The next few months were agonizing as we watched her diminish until her death in mid-November at age 61.

I saw my mother often during her last two months. During my final visit, a few days before her death, she wasn’t cognizant. But as I said my goodbyes, I kissed her forehead and whispered in her ear, “I love you and I will see you in heaven.”

We live in a time where many mainstream Protestant churches are shrinking, and there seems to be an increase in secularism and nonbelievers.

I’ve listened to scientists, and have been told that my Christian faith is archaic. And it’s true that my answers to life’s mysteries are few, and I have tons of questions and even doubts.

I’ve studied the stages of faith by philosophers such as Fowler, Piaget and Kohlberg. They’re interesting and helpful, but none capture my belief. Isn’t that the very heart of faith — believing what can’t necessarily be proven?

I do know that I couldn’t be as effective or sincere in interpreting sacred music if I didn’t believe in what I was presenting. Many great musicians have been able to do so, but I couldn’t deal with being disingenuous.

For instance, how could one look at a creation like the St. Matthew Passion and be concerned only with the historic context — and not the powerful beliefs -— of J.S. Bach?

What I’ve neglected to share with you thus far is what happened at the end of my mother’s life. It’s something that solidified my faith.

While I don’t sleep often, or long enough, when I do fall asleep I’m not easily wakened. But on the night my mother passed, I was startled and sat up suddenly in bed.

My wife asked what was wrong, and I replied that my mother had just spoken to me. She said, “I love you and you’ll be OK.” Not more than a moment later the phone rang, and my father reported to me that my mother was gone.

Draw your own conclusions. I have.


“The robe of flesh wears thin, and with the years God shines through all things.” — John Buchan (1875-1940)

I’ve never quite trusted systems and technologies that reproduce or amplify sound. Early in my career, I learned that a performer is often no better than the equipment of the sound technician.

Suffice it to say, I prefer acoustical performances as a way to control sound and to make performances more present and less artificial.

In 1888, when Sir Arthur Sullivan first heard a phonograph of his music, he expressed his thoughts to the inventor, Thomas Edison. “For myself, I can only say that I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the result of this evening’s experiments,” said Sir Arthur. “Astonished at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever.”

At First Congregational Church of Winter Park, we were trying out a new wireless audio system, and all the bugs hadn’t been worked out. It was the beginning of Advent season, and we had just sung the beautiful hymn, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.”

Suddenly, the church’s sound system started to pick up signals in the area. At first, all we could hear was static. Then, just before the anthem, a police radio message came across loud and clear.

We heard an arrest for alleged prostitution as the police officer blurted, clear as a bell, his concern about “sexually transmitted diseases.”

It’s true that fact is always stranger than fiction, because the anthem that day was based on John 1:14, which reads, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”

“The human being is flesh and consciousness, body and soul; his heart is an abyss which can only be filled by that which is godly.” — Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

Illustration By Jim Zahniser


“The child is in me still and sometimes not so still.” — Fred Rogers (1928-2003), from The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember

A few remembrances of Mister Rogers: On January 27, 2001 I found a package sitting in front of my office door.  Inside was a note reading “Happy Birthday Mozart” in the distinctive handwriting of Fred Rogers.

In the package was a “dog-ugly” tie with faces of composers on it. We “re-gifted” that tie to one another many times, each of us claiming that it was simply too lovely to accept.

A year earlier, some Rollins College students and I took a trip to Italy, where we sang at the Vatican. In describing the trip to Fred, I told him that students were talking about all the Pope John Paul-related souvenirs offered by nearby vendors.

Some were rather tacky. In that spirit, the students came up with a few products they noticed were absent, such as No Nun Sense Pantyhose, Pope-sicles and Pope on a Rope soap. The next day, hanging on the doorknob to my office, was soap on a rope with a note from Fred, which read, “You will need to carve it yourself.”

Fred was a fine pianist and a wonderful musician. I invited him to a Bach Festival Choir and Orchestra rehearsal and handed him a score to follow along. I asked him to let me know what he heard. The next morning he returned the score — along with a detailed and precise list of items needing to be addressed. He was right on the money.

It must be a family trait. For many years, my colleague and friend Dr. Daniel Crozier — Fred and Joanne’s nephew — has, at my request, attended Bach Festival rehearsals and served as “my ears.” His musical insights and keen hearing, like those of his uncle, are remarkable.

Fred and Joanne, along with other friends and colleagues, were at our home for a holiday party. Shortly after they arrived, I noticed Fred wasn’t visiting with the other guests. “Joanne, where’s Fred?” I asked. She said, “Find your children and he’s probably there.”

Fred was, indeed, visiting with my children. I said, “Fred, you’re off duty.” He responded, “I’ve always loved children more than adults.”

At the same gathering, I showed Fred my cufflink collection. He examined each pair carefully, but appeared to particularly admire one elegant pair with treble clefs on them.

Several years later, we were invited to attend a golden wedding anniversary party for Fred and Joanne in Pittsburgh. What do you give such a famous couple for a present?

I wanted the gifts to be personal, so I gave Joanne a blanket bearing the Rollins seal — they had met when both were students — and I gave Fred the pair of cufflinks that he seemed to have liked the best.

In 2003, I received a letter from Fred that he had mailed shortly before his passing. Inside was a pair of cufflinks with the image of an owl on them. He had written, “To John, cufflink collector, from X the Owl.” (X the Owl was a mainstay on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.)

Shortly afterward, a second envelope from Fred arrived. Inside was the cufflinks I had given him and a note reading, “To John, my friend, thank you for sharing these with me.” You can only imagine how I cherish those cufflinks — and how special it is for me to wear them.

The cufflinks aren’t special just because Fred Rogers had worn them. They’re special because he thought it was important to return them to me as his time was drawing near.

That sort of kindness and consideration of others was so Mr. Rogers.

“Most of us, I believe, admire strength. It’s something we tend to respect in others, desire for ourselves, and wish for our children. Sometimes, though, I wonder if we confuse strength and other words — like aggression and even violence. Real strength is neither male nor female; but is, quite simply, one of the finest characteristics that any human being can possess.” — Fred Rogers (1928-2003), from The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember

Falling Off the Podium and Other Lessons will be available through the publisher’s website, phenomenalpublishing.com, as well the usual online booksellers. You may also buy a copy at the Rollins College Bookstore, 200 West Fairbanks Avenue, or at programs sponsored by the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park.

Share This Post