Lessons from Areta

Cory NevilleUncategorized

It has been over six months since I’ve updated the blog, which is too long. Typically, I get the urge to write when something in the news related to music education catches my eye, or if I notice a particular trend among our band and/or orchestra students that I think may be addressed effectively in a blog post, or if something big is happening.   I suppose that helps to explain why I haven’t had too much of an urge to write since last June.  The news related to music education hasn’t changed significantly—music is still every bit as awesome for every student’s total development as it was six months ago. Good news there. There haven’t been any big things to announce—things are going smoothly and have been blissfully uneventful. Students are learning music (and by consequence, learning about themselves) in music class and are having a good time doing it.  Easy.  And if I were to write a post on a trend among the band and orchestra students, it would be the shortest post ever:

“By June 2014, our students were doing really excellent things as you saw and heard. Since that time, the students have continued to do really excellent things, as you have seen and heard.  So, you know, we’re gonna try to keep that going n’at.  The end.”

Overgeneralized?  Sure.  But not inaccurate.  So many good things have happened so far this year that there really hasn’t been anything more important to do than to keep that momentum going—yes, that means my captivating blog posts get pushed lower on the to-do list. Increases in school spirit and morale, increasing enrollment, increasing musical skill and quality of performance, new ensembles run by the students, increased role of student leadership….the list goes on. We’re only halfway through it, but I’m already proclaiming 2015-16 a successful year.  Get this…this entire marching band season, the student leadership met at 6:45 every Tuesday morning to participate in leadership training—it was so successful, the student leadership from both the concert band and the orchestra has been doing the same recently to see how student leadership and initiative can make a positive impact in those organizations. When a teacher makes students do more, it’s good. When students choose to do more, things are really good.

The importance of focusing on the quality of the student experience as a way of ensuring music education’s effectiveness was instilled, drilled, and beat into me by my close friend and invaluable mentor, Areta Kalogeras.  Ms. K, as she was affectionately known to those both inside and outside of what is a close-knit community of Pennsylvania music teachers, was a longtime band and orchestra director at North Hills Jr. and Sr. High Schools for 33 years. As a senior in undergraduate school, I had the good luck of being placed with Ms. K to do my student teaching. Today, after a decade of mentoring and friendship since that time, she was laid to rest after being largely cheated out of her well-deserved retirement–getting a cancer diagnosis shortly after retiring and succumbing to the disease this past Sunday after years of fighting.  Cancer strikes again—a sadly familiar story to everyone.

She was a very special person who had a significant positive effect on those she came in contact with (to say the least).  I personally have never met anyone more generous, or with a bigger heart.  I learned a tremendous amount from her and even though she is gone, I don’t think I’ll ever actually be done learning from her—her influence is immeasurable and far-reaching.   I’ll be studying her success for the rest of my career in the hope that I can become more like her both as a teacher and as a person.  This positive influence however, did not only come from her.  It also came from the content she chose to teach: music. Music not only allowed her to tap into the potential (and I’m not just talking about *musical* potential, but all-around human potential) of her students, but also empowered her students by providing a medium in which they learned to take pride in everything that they did, to treat others with respect, to go beyond expectation, to take responsibility, etc.   As was said at her funeral service this morning, she had an uncanny ability to help students develop strengths that were already inside of them from the time they were born.  Areta plus music education yielded staggeringly positive results:  thousands upon thousands of people who owe the success stories in their lives in part to what they learned through music.

No teacher can *make* a student have pride in what they’re doing, or *make* them respectful, or *make* them exceed expectation. They can only keep planting seeds and trust that the ground is fertile enough that those seeds will take root.   Music is that fertile ground for so many students regardless of natural ability or talent–and that is a profound reality that underscores the importance of the arts in the education of every student.   Ms. K was a master at planting the right seeds at the right time. Some seeds took longer than others to grow, and perhaps a few never took root—but through music, she always knew she had fantastic ground to work with.

I am grateful that she taught me this lesson among the many others I’ve learned from her over the years. Music education is fertile educational ground and it has been tremendously gratifying to see the positive things that I’ve listed above about our students taking root.   Teaching music is a lot of trial and error—particularly in a program such as ours where our identity is not so clear-cut after decades of changes. To whatever extent I’ve managed to plant any of the right seeds at the right time, I owe Areta a debt of thanks.   To whatever extent I haven’t, I still owe her a debt of thanks for instilling in me the motivation to keep trying to do better.  And, to whatever extent music education at QV provides all of us a place to learn and grow, we should all be grateful and keep pushing for whatever positive experiences we’ve had together to be something that every student and every family is motivated to experience to its fullest potential.

To my favorite Greek:  Αρέτα , σας αγαπώ , σας ευχαριστώ , και θα σας λείψει .