My Time as a Teaching Artist at Memorial Prep with San Diego Opera
Did you know that the California Arts Council just approved $7 million dollars in arts funding for the state of California? Incredible, right?! When was the last time you heard about a flood of funds into the arts? Clearly the economic pendulum is swinging… amen! Hallelujah! I’ll take it!
Part of that funding went to the San Diego Opera… another score! Money from that grant is going to support education and outreach programs, specifically getting SDO Teaching Artists into the schools- teaching music and the various parts of theatre production. Very, very exciting.
This last May I took on the role of Teaching Artist for SDO at Memorial Preparatory for Scholars and Athletes, the very junior high I attended. Located in Barrio Logan, it’s a school that is experiencing many changes and challenges. The surrounding neighborhood is going through it’s own gentrification, the rents are increasing and currently the school is one of several in SD Unified that is actually under-enrolled.
(The front of the school is just as I remembered, I love the tagline for the school… “Excellence with an attitude!” Yup. Those of us that went to Memorial never lacked attitude…)
My first day on campus I was flooded with memories of my time at Memorial. When I walked into the theatre and stood on the stage again, I found myself brought to tears. Twenty years ago I had been the lucky recipient of the Junior Theatre Outreach program at the school. Really that’s where the singing, acting and movement on stage first crystalized for me as a budding artist. Now there I was, a part of the San Diego Opera outreach program hoping to inspire and educate in my own way.
The students I worked with ranged in ability- some were fairly adept with their instruments and others struggled to even match pitch. I knew I had my work cut out for me. The idea was to get them all singing a couple songs for the graduation! A real challenge!
My favorite moment of my first day? The look on all the student’s faces when Mr. Paredes the music teacher told them all that I had been a student at that school… just like them. A white woman coming in from San Diego Opera? No way! Way. At that point the gauntlet was thrown- if I could come out of that same environment, what were they going to do with their lives?
What’s the impact of all this? What was it all about? Where is that money from the state of California going? Are we getting any bang for our buck with programs like this? Let me tell you this one story and then you can see for yourself.
One of the students in my second group had been labeled “trouble”. She was a chatty Cathy, I knew her name within minutes of working with the group. When I asked her to settle down, she showed considerable “attitude”, and she clearly knew her reputation. The next week she was gone. When I asked of her whereabouts, I was told from the other students that she was “missing”, her mom hadn’t been able to find her, but there were rumors she was hanging in the park around the corner from the school… with older boys and alcohol. A couple days later she reappeared at school and I was told that she was on a very short leash. Any flack and she was out. Singing in chorus was a privilege. We didn’t have any problems, so she stayed in the chorus and actually became one of my better voices. I made a point of always telling her I was glad to see her and pressed on.
(My serious approach to music education…)
The last day of class almost all the students were gone on a field trip. My trusty pianist Maria Didur and I sat waiting to see how many students would actually show. She was the only one. She was about to walk out when I told her to stay, “hey the opera is paying me to be here and teach. Stay for a free private voice lesson!” We worked through some warm ups, I talked technique with her, worked on some basic concepts of performance, dealing with nerves and then chatted about her life. She was most likely going to change schools in the next year and sometimes sang at church.
At the end she sang solo through the Star Spangled Banner (one of the songs we were doing with the chorus and not easy to sing). I told her to promise me to keep singing, stay in choirs and wished her the best in life. At that point we packed up and said farewell to the 2014-2015 school year. Little did I know that she left our room and went straight back to the band room where she sang the Star Spangled Banner for Mr. Paredes and the whole class. Promptly told him she wanted to sing it a-capella at the band concert that very evening. Fantastic.
(The band concert in the school auditorium.)
I got to the concert just in time to watch her walk out in front of the curtain and sing her solo. This coming from the girl who disappeared, who was skipping class, who was trouble, who acted like she didn’t care. THIS. THIS is why we teach music in the schools.
At that moment she was important, she felt talented, she had value. Who knows how she’ll go on to live her life, but my hope is that she will always cherish that moment she felt the joy of singing- courtesy of the San Diego Opera via an “outreach program”. They have a far wider reaching impact than we can ever imagine.
Keep reading and listening,
Anishka (aka Nishi la Tremenda)