Discovering Your Opus

August 24, 2021

In the fall of 1964, 30-year-old Glenn Holland is a successful and talented musician and composer from Portland, Oregon. He retires and takes a position as a music teacher at John F. Kennedy High School so that he can spend more time with his young wife Iris and work on his symphony.

Holland at first struggles in his new job, but then learns how to connect with his students by using rock and roll and other popular music to convince them that music is a fun and worthwhile pursuit. He becomes a popular teacher at the school and rises to the task of creating a school marching band with help from the football coach, Bill Meister, and they become lifelong friends. Holland persuades principal Helen Jacobs to maintain funding for the school's arts programs, despite a shrinking budget and the objections of vice principal Gene Wolters.

The time Holland devotes to his classes, the marching band, orchestra, productions and mentoring both struggling and talented students leaves him little time to work on his symphony, or to spend with his family. When his son, Coltrane, is found to be deaf, he is severely disappointed that he will never be able to share his love of music. He fails to learn American Sign Language properly, leaving him unable to communicate with his son and creating a rift between him and Iris, who has to raise Coltrane mostly by herself. As the years progress, Holland grows closer to his students at Kennedy High and more distant from his own son. An argument with his teenage son finally makes Holland realize the error of his ways and he learns to communicate with his son and repairs his relationship with his wife.

In 1995, then principal Wolters shuts down the school's arts programs, citing further cuts from the Education Board and the need to prioritize reading, writing and math and Holland is laid off as a result. Holland makes an impassioned plea to the Board, to no avail, and becomes despondent believing that his teaching career has amounted to nothing. On his last day, Holland's wife and son help him clear out his office and take him to the auditorium. It is packed full of ex-pupils who greet him with a standing ovation. Gertrude Lang, a struggling clarinetist and now Governor of Oregon, gives a speech praising Mr. Holland, that his legacy is more than just the symphony; it is all the people he has helped and influenced over 30 years. She joins ex-members of the school's orchestra, who have been practicing the symphony, on stage. Mr. Holland conducts them in its premiere performance.

“Mr. Holland’s Opus” is among my favorite gifts from cinema. I think it speaks to the greatness that lies within each of us, yet is compromised by the realities of life: the need to provide for a family, stability, sacrifice, practicality. Dreams once had, but now stuffed and catalogued in that part of the brain reserved for fantasy.

But wait!

Imagine for just a minute. What if there’s a chance we can rewrite the script? What if for each of us there are double doors behind which are an auditorium full of people anticipating the debut of your symphonic masterpiece, one for which you have been preparing your entire life? And what would be that masterpiece? Might it be something artistic, a landscape, portrait, or even an abstract? Could it be a book of poems or a dramatic novel that has long been on your mind? Is it more of a “bucket list” type item related to travel to new destinations or an athletic endeavor such as a hike, run, or cycling event?

What if the only thing holding you back from fulfilling that suppressed desire is something as simple as the little voice inside of your head whispering, “you can’t” or “you shouldn’t?” You shouldn’t apply for that dream position. You can’t get into that school. Who are you to think that your boss will go for your idea? You can’t make a difference.

I run across people all the time who are victims of their own limiting beliefs. Truth be told, I too can sometimes be among that clan, as I’m sure so can most of us. In those moments I find it helpful to change the statements into questions. Why shouldn’t I apply for that dream position? Why can’t I get into that school? Why wouldn’t my boss go for that idea? Why shouldn’t I be the one to make a difference?

Then I ask the next question, “What’s behind the auditorium doors?”

The Seed Sower


168 Hour Work Day