*****I HAVEN'T EVEN PROOF READ THIS YET. NO JUDGING******
I believe that most music educators can say that music has always been a part of their lives, and I am no exception among them. According to my parents, I was singing before I was talking, and I can’t recall a time even in childhood when I wasn’t in a choir or taking private lessons. If I did not want to practice, or go to a rehearsal, my mother gently reminded me that I had a special gift, and tough cookies if I didn’t want to go to church choir. To study something other than music in college seemed preposterous, and I finished a degree in Vocal Performance at DePaul. Even before I graduated, I knew that a life on the opera audition track or graduate school track was not for me. There was no use turning around and studying something else, and my other interests, such as Georgian Folk music, were even more obscure than classical singing. After graduation, I felt bitter and empty. The bitterness came from my seemingly worthless degree and not having a nice job after college. The gnawing feeling in my brain and stomach from constantly worrying what to do next created the emptiness. The cure for my worries and woes: go to China to teach English for seven months. I came back from that experience knowing that music needed to be an ever-present force in my life, and that I really enjoyed my short tenure as a teacher. A year after leaving for China, I’m enrolled in the teaching certification program at DePaul. All that is in between the events that I just summarized are the reasons I’m embarking on this journey as a music educator.
As a child, I never imagined myself to be a teacher. Being the best at everything singing in a small suburban town outside of Chicago made me a little diva. I envisioned the glorious life of a famous opera singer for myself, and I thought I was way above the rest. Somewhere around my sophomore year of college I finally got some sense knocked into me. Enough teachers told me that I did not have a big enough voice to sing in the big leagues, and to repeat the DePaul opera theatre director Harry Silverstein’s sage-like words of wisdom: one is more likely to be eaten by a shark than to make it in the opera world. After that bomb of a statistic, I started to pursue other opportunities in the school of music. Those opportunities mainly came from Dr. Clayton Parr, director of choral activities at DePaul.
Dr. Parr spent a year in the Republic of Georgia, and brought back with him a plethora of Georgian folk music. The songs he shared with me and other members of the DePaul A Cappella choir were unlike anything I had heard before, and I loved singing them. I began to realize that the music world is so much bigger than opera, and I wanted to explore the whole world through its music. In 2008, I met Patty Cuyler, founding member of Vermont-based Village Harmony, and went on a three week tour of Ukraine with her and other ethnomusically-curious people. It was soon after that trip that Dr. Parr asked me to lead a woman’s folk group and teach them the songs I learned that summer. It was a trial by fire, sink or swim experience for me. I had never led an ensemble before, but I never questioned whether or not I was capable. Our concert that fall went great, and in the spring quarter the next year I directed the women’s folk group again. December 2009, I directed a small caroling ensemble for the DePaul Presidential Christmas dinner by the graces of Dr. Parr. These concerts are Dr. Parr’s greatest lesson for me. He gave me the opportunity to try and to learn from myself and these experiences. By that December, I should have known that this was a new path worth following, but my head kept telling me to go somewhere and to disappear for a little while. And so, in mid February 2010, I left everything behind, including my music, to go to China.
Of all places, why China? The seed probably first planted itself when I began dating my partner Daniel. He’s half Chinese, and my love second to music (and Daniel) is learning of new places and people. Senior year of college I managed to squeeze in a year of Chinese language, and a good friend from home had already lived in China for two years and loved it. So why not go to China during the pique of the U.S.’s economy slump and get myself a job that only requires the employee be a native English speaker? That was my reasoning anyway. Another reason was I simply wanted to get away from everything and not be a musician for a while. Really, I had been planning this experiment for over a year and I convinced myself that I had to go in order to find clarity to my life.
Generally, I find my life spent in China hard to explain. First of all, it’s impossible to describe accurately because most people have no frame of reference to a place like it. Second, I look back on my life there more fondly than when I was living it. There are a lot of things about China that I didn’t like, but I’ll never regret my time spent in the classroom. I had a lot to learn about teaching on my own, and there were plenty of classes that did not go well or as planned. At first, I thought that I would be better teaching older kids in classes that were more conversation based. Actually, it was not until I left China that I realized my strengths were geared more for children, and the classes I would miss most were the beginning English classes with kids as young as three years old. Fun was the emphasis of all the classes taught at my school in China. The requirement to be a “fun” teacher upset me at first. I thought kids should be learning English, and it is my responsibility to be a teacher, not a babysitter. But in a school system where kids go to school for eight or nine hours a day and then go to a supplemental English class because their parents make them, games and fun activities are the only way to keep their attention. I quickly learned a variety of ways to make my lessons more enjoyable for my students. The more classes taught, the better I became at thinking of activities and implementing them. Activities and games that I created also needed to be quickly adaptable to accommodate the various number of children in a given class. One time, I was responsible for teaching almost 80 kindergarten aged kids! I had a lot of help in managing the group, but the sheer volume of my class was kept a surprise until the start of class. SURPRISE!!! That’s reason #49 why I didn’t like China, all those lovely little surprises.
In my self-imposed exile from music, I didn’t anticipate how much time I would think about my future and how music would be a part of that. I found myself regularly telling people that back at home I was a musician, but having to use the past tense bothered me. It began to annoy me that my peers in China did not think of me as a musician, but as just another English teacher. Being a musician was an important identifier to me, and I couldn’t just erase that part out. In China, I was finally coming to terms with myself as a musician, and that was the main goal of the trip. There was still a large hurdle for me to cross, though. Spending countless nights alone, I questioned myself about why I did not pursue a performance career straight out of college. What kind of music did I want to perform? Should I focus on folk or classical music? Should I be a performer or a teacher? Should I stay in China longer to teach and try to make a music career here? I still haven’t answered all these questions, but I did come to one important conclusion. Music has always been the force that leads me on my path of life, and I’ve always liked where music has taken me. The real question was then, What do I need to do to make my life of music satisfying and sustaining?
I left China after seven months of teaching English. There were many reasons why I left, and my explanation to my friends over there was that I needed to finish some things in Chicago, and then hopefully soon I will return. By that time, in the end of September 2010, I knew that returning to DePaul for my music education teaching certificate was most likely my next step. This now brings me to present day.
Being a music educator just seems to make sense now; combine what I love most with what I do well. In the time since returning home, I created a voice and piano studio out of my little apartment in the lower west side of Chicago, and in the suburbs. Most importantly, I love teaching these private lessons, and I wonder why I didn’t start them sooner. My level of musicianship and pedagogy hasn’t changed since graduating from DePaul, but I suppose earlier I did not have the confidence that I do now. A confirming moment for me came when discussing my new occupational status with one of my friends and fellow vocal performance graduate. She said, “I would have no idea where to begin with a student.” Her lack of confidence in her own abilities struck me as sad, but I also know that it has taken me a lot of work, patience, and faith to build what I have today. Every experience I have had leading to the present will make me a better teacher, and I look forward to the trials and tribulations ahead to make me a stronger, well-rounded teacher.
Before concluding, it is appropriate to reflect on what kind of music educator I would like to become. This metaphor or vision I have for myself as a teacher is not yet clear, but the more classes I take the more it will develop. Already, I know that my strengths are more suitable for teaching younger children. I do enjoy singing with and teaching adults, but only so far in the private setting. Also, I know that to be a high school music director requires working more hours than are in a day. Perhaps saying this is selfish, but I want variety in my day and time to myself. I want to be able to go home and not be consumed by all the other extracurricular activities at school. Another thing, as musically talented as I am, I have never been a musical perfectionist. While directing the women’s group, it was hard for me to hear the errors of my colleagues. This skill will develop over time, but so far the desire to conduct an older ensemble is not in me. Knowing this about myself, I can conclude, at the present, that a career in general music education may suit me best. With my strong background in folk music, I am particularly excited to learn about the Kodály method, and would love to someday teach a world music class. One vision I can clearly see is teaching a song much in the style of Ella Jenkins. I am calling and the students are responding with their voices and instruments to a song like Toom-Bah-Ee-Lero. I agree with other music education philosophers that exposure to different types of music helps children develop a larger world perspective. By studying songs from different cultures, we simultaneously create a community amongst the students and induct them into the global community. I find this is music’s greatest power because I can attest to it. Music has made me a citizen of the world.
All those years of practice and rehearsals have led me to this point. I thank my parents for their undying support and encouragement, and now those tough cookies (all those unwanted church choir practices) taste delicious because they are the fruits of my labor. My gift is music, and my music guides my life. Though I am treading on a new path, the path of a music educator, I know that my destination(s) will be satisfying.