The following is a wonderful interview with my older sister, Julianne, that appeared in the Indiana Gazette in Indiana, PA, today. She is a magnificent string teacher and is a magnificent example of the phrase that I use so much: "teaching music is simply a vehicle for loving children."
Her love and energy for her students is boundless. I think that comes through in the article!
MONDAY Q&A: Teacher offers music education -- with strings attached
Posted: Monday, December 13, 2010 3:00 am | Updated: 11:45 am, Mon Dec 13, 2010.
Editor's Note: The Indiana Area School District offers the only stringed-instrument training program in the county, and one of the few nationally, thanks in large part to the efforts of instructor Julianne Laird. She recently sat down with Gazette staffer Nicole Roser to discuss the establishment of the program and the importance of music.
Question: How long have you been a teacher?
Answer: I've been a teacher for 17 1/2 years.
Question: Where do you teach?
Answer: I began my teaching career at Commodore Perry School District. I taught for three years and then I went back to get my master's degree in voice performance at the University of Akron. And after that, I sang for a while and had some wonderful experiences, including singing for several years (with a Pittsburgh choir). Then, I had an opportunity to return to teaching through long-term subbing and I long-term subbed in the Marion Center, Punxsutawney and Indiana school districts, and then a position opened up in Indiana and I was fortunate enough to have that opportunity, and I've been here ever since.
Question: When did you decide to become a teacher and why did you choose to study music?
Answer: I chose to study music because I made a lot of music in school as a kid and I got to the end of my senior year of high school, and I knew that music was calling me. Truly I wanted to be a singer -- that was my dream -- and some day after I retire I still hope to be a singer again. I loved teaching when I started to teach music right after college and I started to teach that fall. I loved teaching then, but I really knew that I was meant to be a teacher when I returned to teaching after singing for a while. I do love, love, love my job. The most important reason why I teach music is for the children, and I just feel so grateful to have this opportunity. I have this wonderful job that every day I get to sing, dance, play music and make music with these wonderful students.
Question: What do you enjoy most about teaching?
Answer: I love teaching and working with the students and young people and offering to them the opportunity to love music because music is a lifelong skill. It is something they can learn forever and, in our global society, music is a language that crosses all of the barriers so they can have that music with them for the rest of their lives. It gives life to life.
Question: You are in charge of the string-training program at Horace Mann Elementary and Eisenhower, which is supposedly one of the few in the whole country. What can you tell me about its establishment, and how did you get involved?
Answer: When I was a little girl, I went to East Pike Elementary School, and my teacher Mr. Stanley Servinsky knew that my brother had been playing the violin for a couple of years and he was younger than I was, so Mr. Servinsky said, "Julianne, you already play guitar and piano, you should play a string instrument," and he said pick one. … my brother already played violin so I picked the cello and I started to play it, and I played all through school. I took a few private lessons, but not very many, and I played through college and some in graduate school, but it wasn't until I came back to Indiana and I was teaching that I had the opportunity to teach strings. Some of my colleagues said I should teach strings because I have "chops" -- "chops" is a music teacher term that means that you can play something. There was some concern for not having time for someone to teach the third-grade violin program, which had already been in place for 30 years, so I said I would be willing to take that job at Horace Mann and Eisenhower. I was already the general music instructor for several years before the third-grade program opened up.
We are one of the few third-grade violin programs in the country. It started in the early '70s when Mr. Servinsky went to the Music Educators National Conference Convention and saw violin programs in the third grade. He got some money through our district and some money from the Monday Music Club to start a program. Together with the grant and money from the district, he bought some cardboard violins, and that's how it all began. Now, what I inherited was a whole cabinet full of violins at both schools. We had already acquired real instruments, because Mr. Servinsky then went out and found school districts that were stopping their string program and he got the administration to help him and they would go in and buy used instruments from other school districts for very, very cheap. So that is how our elementary string program really built here in Indiana.
I've been continuing to carry that torch so every child in the third grade in the Indiana school district has the chance to learn the violin. At the moment, I only teach the third-grade violin program at Horace Mann, because we had such increased enrollment at Eisenhower that the band director now teaches it, but I am hoping to have the chance to teach it again because I truly, truly have a passion for teaching strings.
Question: How often do they practice?
Answer: Once a week for a half hour.
Question: Do they have special concerts?
Answer: Yes, we will have a program in January for the end of the first semester. Then other classes will start and then they will give another program at the end of the school year.
Question: So the kids really enjoy this special experience?
Answer: Yes, what we call it in the string-teaching world is "alternative styles," and it is a buzzword right now in teaching strings. Traditional teaching of strings is one aspect of learning to string, but alternative styles open up a whole new world of playing.
Question: Are there other string ensembles in the district?
Answer: We have in our school district an elementary string ensemble that Dr. Jason Rummel and Mr. Jason Olear teach, our instrumental teachers, and that is for anybody who is in elementary school who wants to play in a large ensemble. We also have an orchestra at the junior and senior highs that is directed by Mrs. Beth Grafton. We are the only string program in Indiana County, and we have had the only string program in the county for more than 30 years. I think strings are such an important part of the curriculum and they really make a round music program. If you have band and orchestra and chorus, then you truly have a round program. And wherever we have that wonderful rounded program, strings are a necessary component of the finest school music programs. We are so privileged that we can offer this to our children in our schools.
Question: Do you direct any other ensembles?
Answer: I do. I am the chorus teacher at both schools for fifth and sixth grades and I have a very active girls' chorus and I have a very active boys' chorus. The other string group that I have -- I've tried a couple of things to start string programs at both schools -- one was called fiddle club, where students would come in the evening and have a chance to play all different styles of music with local adults who play string instruments such as fiddles, string base, cellos and some guitars. We had a bagpipe in one time, which isn't a string instrument, but we had fiddle club and a great time. I also had a small chamber ensemble at both schools for a while. But this year what is happening that is special at Horace Mann that started a couple of years ago is called String Lunch, and the students who are playing string instruments can choose to do this. They come to my room and bring their lunches at lunchtime. We do this once a week when they bring their lunches and we eat lunch in the room and then we play the rest of the time. It is for playing by ear. We play standard rock tunes, Irish reels and jigs, 12-bar blues improvisations, old-time fiddle music and contradance music. Boys and girls who come to that really have a lot of fun and we jam and we are about to play our first gig ever.
Question: Where is that going to be held?
Answer: At Bethany Place. We are really excited about that. It is coming up for the holidays.
Question: Does musical talent run in your family?
Answer: My mom and dad are amateur musicians, but my mom's father and my dad's mother were both musicians. My dad's mom was a church organist and my mom's dad played the piano, played ragtime piano and cornet and he taught dance at Kennywood Park in the big pavilion. My brother, Scott, and my sister, Stephanie, and I never knew our grandparents and my parents never had any idea that we would have this ability in our family. As children we were drawn to it and then it became a lifestyle for all of us. After I went forward with my instruments, Scott was already playing violin, and he also played drums, bass guitar and piano, and then Stephanie played violin and she picked up saxophone, flute and piano.
Today, Scott is an orchestra director and travels all around the world and teaches teachers how to be better string teachers. He works in Durham, N.C., at North Carolina School of Science and Math, and he does orchestras and he is a string clinician for teachers all around the country. My sister is the orchestra director at Hollidaysburg Area Senior High School and she teaches in the district. All three of us still play music and we all play traditional music, as well as fun and nontraditional styles. Scott also plays and writes a lot of jazz and he is a recording engineer and my sister also has an Irish group with her husband and children and is also principal of the second violin section with the Altoona Symphony. So, yeah, music runs in our family and we are really grateful for that, too.
Question: What advice do you have for future music teachers?
Answer: The most important thing that a future music teacher can do is work on their skills right now -- their playing skills, their singing skills, playing piano, playing guitar and maybe some type of instrument that you can accompany singing. What I like about singing is all children have a singing voice and everybody can sing, but that singing becomes a jumping-off place for playing instruments and playing in a group, and there is nothing like playing an instrument in a group -- that is the coolest thing ever. So my advice to aspiring teachers is to play and sing and make as much music as possible now so they are ready to share that love of music with children.
Next Week: Jeff Wacker, ArtsPath assistant director at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Editor's Note: Do you know someone who would be a great subject for the Monday Q&A? If so, please call Jason Levan at (724) 465-5555, ext 270.
JULIANNE LAIRD, at a glance....
Occupation: General music teacher, chorus and string instructor
Family: Parents, David and Nancy Laird; husband, Richard Workman; and brother and sister, Scott and Stephanie
Where I grew up: Indiana
Hobbies: Music, fishing, going to the beach, stand-up paddle boarding, reading, traveling and steampunk
Favorite food: Ice cream
Food I refuse to eat: Liver
Favorite movie: "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"
Last book I read: "The Clockwork Three," by Matthew Kirby
Favorite way to spend a day: With my husband
Pet peeve: People who are unkind. I try really hard to be kind to people.
People who most inspired me: My parents