Ed Alstrom passed out sheets of green paper to the students in his music class at Golda Och Academy (GOA) in West Orange and instructed them on where to place notes on the bass and treble staffs on the page, then urged them to spend five minutes a day repeating the exercise.
“Sight-reading music is just a muscle,” he told his students, a recording of “Round Midnight” by Thelonious Monk playing softly in the background. “All it takes to learn is repetition. I would recommend you taking those work-sheets out from time to time if you really want to learn music.”
He stressed this point because he was concerned that these foundational lessons might be undermined because of the class schedule; they would not meet for several weeks due to the High Holy Days. While his students would be observing the holidays, Alstrom — an Episcopalian raised in Ridgewood — would spend his days and nights at a variety of other music-related jobs, including at two synagogues, a Baptist church, and in the organist’s booth at Yankee Stadium.
It was another Alstrom — his wife, Maxine, a pianist — who was originally considered for the GOA job. Maxine, who is Jewish, “threw her resume at it,” he said. Ultimately she accepted a job at the Hovnanian School in New Milford, but she suggested the school consider her husband for the position. It turned out to be a good fit, and Alstrom started at GOA in September.
Alstrom is tickled by the way it worked out. “The Jewish girl is teaching at the Armenian Christian school and the goy is teaching at Golda Och,” he said.
Head of school Adam Shapiro was confident in Ed for several reasons, including his having worked at synagogues in the past, but he was particularly intrigued by Alstrom’s wide variety of musical expertise.
“Ed is an exceptionally talented musician who brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the position,” he told NJJN in an e-mail. “Our students have connected with him easily and are looking forward to a year full of meaningful learning and singing.”
Alstrom — who said that arts education, though it is neglected in many other schools, is vitally important — is eager that his students develop a love of music, whether or not they play instruments.
“I am trying to split each class between listening and theory,” he said
Switching off Monk’s jazz piano solo that was playing on his laptop, Alstrom showed the students an image of several 45 rpm Motown records that dated back to the 1960s.
“What are these?” he asked the teens, some of whom may have never seen the vinyl discs with large spindle holes in their centers. “This is what I listened to when I was your age. There weren’t even cassette tapes around.”
Then, switching to YouTube, he played several versions of “My Girl,” originally by the Temptations, and proceeded to deconstruct what he called “one of the most significant Motown records ever made.”
One of Alstrom’s goals is “getting these kids out of the mindset that this is their grandparents’ music.”
His intent is to begin with the early blues of Robert Johnson through the rhythm-and-blues of Little Richard and Chuck Berry, to soul and Motown, protest music and the British invasion, with healthy doses of jazz, ska, and reggae. “The whole scope of it,” he said.
In addition to teaching three classes at GOA, Alstrom leads the school’s choir. Later in the year he will take part in a joint venture with the school’s drama department in producing two musicals, “Pippin” and “Really Rosie.”
His own musical journey began at the age of five, when he started playing the organ at his home. “We didn’t get a piano until I was 12, and I was already a pretty proficient organist,” he said. He began playing in rock bands while he was in grade school, then taught himself to play guitar and bass in middle school.
Alstrom earned a bachelor’s degree from Westminster Choir College in Princeton, where he studied classical and church music by day. By night he was driving to bars in North Jersey where he would play disco, rock, country music, and jazz gigs.
“I was getting my pop music education on the streets and my classical music education in schools,” he said.
His background also includes time in the pit bands of Broadway and Off-Broadway musicals, including “Leader of the Pack” and “Hairspray,” and as a sideman with such famous musicians as Chuck Berry, Bette Midler, Herbie Hancock, and Steely Dan.
“I have always thrived on diversity,” he said. “I’ve never wanted to do one thing.”
After he married Maxine — the couple live in Pine Brook and have two children, Sophia, 29, and Nina, 24 — Alstrom began attending the Conservative Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell with her and her parents. “I began doing productions with the cantor, Joel Caplan, on nights when they were allowed to have instruments in the temple,” he said.
Alstrom found steady weekend work at two other houses of worship, Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield (the Reform synagogue allows instrumental music on Shabbat) and Central Presbyterian Church in Montclair.
In 1997, he formed a trio called “Acid Cabaret,” which still performs occasionally in styles ranging from show tunes to be-bop, from Gilbert and Sullivan to a rock version of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.”
Of all Alstrom’s gigs, it is his weekends in the Bronx as the organist at Yankee Stadium that is the fulfillment of a boyhood dream. It was an ambition that began at age nine, when his father took him to his first Yankee game.
After his day at GOA, Alstrom headed for the church in Montclair to lead a choir rehearsal. The following day he was to play at the stadium.
“I hope the game doesn’t go into extra innings,” he said, “so I can get to shul in time.”