It’s been almost exactly two years since I left Sacred Heart Academy. Eleanor, the child formerly known as “Bun,” was due towards the end of March and I started my maternity leave somewhere in the middle of that month. So even though it seems like SHA must have been in another lifetime, it really hasn’t been that long. Like sands through the hourglass…
Summarizing eight years of Catholic high school teaching into five or six paragraphs is a daunting task, to say the least. I do find it hilarious that I ended up as a high school choir director anyway. How I actually got the job is a bit of a mess, of course, because it wouldn’t be my life if it weren’t messy. In June 2004, after moving back to Buffalo with an almost one-year-old Connor, I sent a bunch of résumés and cover letters on fancy fake linen paper to all of the area private schools, ending up with interviews at two schools. Not bad for a blind search. The interview at Sacred Heart went great–I was asked to demonstrate my “conducting skills” (HA HA HA HA HA) with the Chamber Singers and teach a piano lesson. The head-of-school and I really hit it off, and she seemed eager to hire me. “You’d probably like something full-time, wouldn’t you?” she asked. “I would!” I replied eagerly, knowing that my chances of securing a full-time teaching position with no teaching degree were slim to none, but hey, it was one of my more optimistic moments.
It turned out that I ended up replacing the former music director in what could only be labeled as an “awkward transition.” Kudos to my head-of-school for taking such an enormous leap of faith that this girl would figure out what the hell she was doing, with so many people dead-set against me being there in the first place. That first year was a nightmare–I went from twenty-eight Chamber Singers to thirteen the following fall. I had to figure almost everything out by myself–nearly all of the other music faculty quit when the former director left, so I was left scrambling through bits and pieces of information squirreled away here and there. Trial by fire, that was for certain. But I stuck with it because I needed a job, my family needed to eat, and there were people who believed in me, and guess what? I DID figure out what the hell I was doing.
My job required skills beyond most music education majors–I was part school accompanist, part musical director, part music ministry coordinator, part vocal coach, part piano teacher, part theory teacher, part administrator, and part travel agent. I had so many hats to wear, I was constantly losing track of them in my first few years. I was the music director (different from the actual Director, to clarify) for seven different musicals:
- “Cole–A Musical Revue”
- The King and I
- The Sound of Music
- Thoroughly Modern Millie
- The Pajama Game
As director of the Chamber Singers, the school’s audition-only choir, I dragged them all over the Northeast–we toured Virginia Beach, Toronto, Philadelphia, New York City, and Cleveland. We sang for various Catholic Education events; we sang for a September 11th memorial ceremony, we performed at NYSSMA festivals, we sang at the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, we even spontaneously broke out into song at the top of City Hall, looking over the Buffalo skyline. We sang for U.S. naturalization ceremonies and in the middle of Wendy’s. We ate at Tim Horton’s too many times to remember. We sang for Mass in our humble school auditorium, and we sang a Mass at the cavernous Philadelphia Basilica. It took a few years, but those girls and I bonded, and they taught me more than I probably taught them. Side note: you haven’t really lived until you’ve driven a 15-passenger van loaded with sixteen girls in formal black dresses into a city parking garage.
By the way, I should mention that I am not Catholic, so learning the Catholic liturgical year and order of the Mass was a steep learning curve. But in a Catholic school, you have a lot of help, mostly in the form of indiscreet sidelong glances (“Play here. Yes, now. NOW!”).
There were two projects of which I was particularly proud. With the support of the administration, I had a Clavinova digital piano lab installed so I could teach multiple beginning piano students in group classes. SHA is unique in that the school offers private music lessons during the school day as a part of a student’s schedule. Considering how much a parent can fork over for music lessons, it was quite the deal; the fee that the school charged practically gave lessons away. I knew it would free up my time considerably to have four students working together at once, and based upon my experiences teaching keyboard studies classes at Peabody, collaborative learning enhances any experience. I knew the girls would benefit greatly from learning together. The pianos were well-used during my time there–I often found girls practicing with their headphones on during their study halls, and I certainly utilized them in my own practicing.
The second project was to record a CD of the Chamber Singers in 2010. I had a particularly strong group of singers that year, and the last CD that the choir recorded was in 1996. I figured another one was due. The recording process was in itself a great learning experience for all of us, and the CD turned out beautifully.
When I took the job at SHA, I told myself I’d give it five years and then it would be time to move on. In the fall of 2011, Daniel and I were expecting a baby, and though we often talked about moving to Rochester where his roots were, there were no pressing opportunities that could justify bringing us east. One day I had a thought: what if I could get into the Eastman School of Music? I’d often thought about going back to school and had dabbled with earning my teaching certification, but I just couldn’t get excited about the mechanics of teaching third graders to read, something which every certified K-12 teacher in New York State is required to do regardless of their area of expertise. A doctorate would be much more fulfilling work, and I’d get to do the thing I loved the most: collaborate with other outstanding musicians. Preparing my audition would be hard work and would require time management skills and dedication, but I knew that I worked best when I had a goal, and this would certainly be a worthwhile goal. And there was no pressure–if I didn’t make it, I still had my job. If I was accepted, we could make the decision whether I should attend after the baby was born, and we’d figure it out then.
May the road rise to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
The sun shine warm upon your face
The rain fall soft upon your fields
Until we meet again
May God hold you in His hand
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.