My school was in a working-class city called Milwaukee [in the state of Wisconsin in the US], although I lived in a pretty affluent northern suburb in which my mom settled. My school there was called Lake Bluff Elementary, which was a very liberal-minded institution. It had a big music department, if you want to call it that, headed up by a single person: Mrs Jane Perkins.
From the 3rd grade [Year 4], I was in the choir. We played two or three concerts a year, the costs of which were met by the local community.
Not only did Mrs Perkins head up the music department, she also directed plays. I performed in a couple of those, but I seemed to excel at singing. In fact, that was really the beginning of my singing career, in that it gave me confidence in my singing ability and taught me things like harmony that would later become my hallmark.
Mrs Perkins must have been in her twenties at the time, so not at all old or stodgy. And in the choir we didn’t sing traditional songs, although around holiday concert time we would learn Christmas carols.
The question, of course, is how do you get a bunch of young people interested in choral music? Well, the way Mrs Perkins did it was to be a good A&R [artists and repertoire] person and pick songs that would resonate with the pupils. She chose to teach us songs that were on popular radio, on rock and roll radio. So we were singing songs from Stevie Wonder and James Taylor, and we would perform the songs of these artists when the parents came to the concerts.
I was often chosen as the soloist, so I’d be singing these songs from the radio with Mrs Perkins accompanying me on the piano. I never thought of myself as a particularly gifted singer. In fact, I just assumed that everyone could sing the way that I did.
The school itself was a late 19th-century building that stood dauntingly on the landscape. It was very institutional. The music room was up in a corner of the building, and it was a fun place to be.
The choir practised before the school day had actually started. I mean, can you imagine this: getting kids to sing at 7.30 in the morning? For the first 10 minutes we were allowed to play records, so the older kids would bring in the latest Led Zeppelin albums and we would listen to them on Mrs Perkins’ stereo.
I attended the school on a scholarship, which would be unheard of there today. This meant that I was also able to attend a music camp up in Madison during the summer. I do believe that had Mrs Perkins not selected me as a soloist, given me scholarships for summer music school and continually set the responsibilities for good performance on my shoulders, I wouldn’t have achieved the other academic and professional things that came later in life. Confidence in oneself is the lasting gift of a great teacher.
After I had spent four years in the choir, my family moved to Los Angeles, and shortly after that I started the music project that is Bad Religion. At the same time, Mrs Perkins moved to San Francisco, so I lost touch. But I did look her up quite recently, and she’s back in Wisconsin. And, lo and behold, she’s still a music director. One of these days, I’m thinking of going to see her in a surprise appearance.
Greg Graffin was speaking to Ian Winwood