TTN: We are so happy to present you with the first annual Heart of Art Award! What were your thoughts and feelings when you learned that you would receive the award?
Jenny: When I heard I was nominated, I thought, “Oh, that’s cool! I wonder who did it?” Then I read the nomination paragraph. That kind of stuff is completely humbling to me. It just blows my mind. It makes me happy to know that I really am having an impact on people, making a difference. Reading peoples’ comments on the website, too, was a humbling experience. I was touched to see comments from my 85-year-old voice student, GAGC alumni, my mom and my students at the gym. It reminded me of how everywhere I go, even in the gym, music is who I am. Then to win: what an honor. The very first thing I thought was, “This is not about me; it’s about the girls.” It’s the choir, not me, because there wouldn’t be “me” if it weren’t for the choir. All I can say is: wow! Here’s my thing: I’m just me. I’m a mom, a musician, a soon-to-be wife (hallelujah!) and a choral director. Even in all of that, it’s all about those girls. It’s not about me, ever. It’s about the girls and about the music.
TTN: What do you love most about the choir? What feeds you about developing talent?
Jenny: (Long pause) What do I love most? That moment, sometimes at a concert, but much more often at rehearsal, when we’re singing and it’s glorious and it hits somebody. It’s when they “get it”. You know what I’m talking about: they have that “moment”. For those who don’t have girls’ choir, it happens at All-State: when the clouds part and they go, “AHA! That delved deep down into my soul!” It’s not a lightbulb moment; it’s deep, unbridled joy at making something, being a part of making something, creating something. It’s beautiful. My favorite moment is always seeing that on their faces and knowing what it is. That moment is my favorite thing about choir. Also, the process of watching kids become musicians; not good singers, but great musicians. It’s great to see them at a place where they can read anything anyone puts in front of them, rather than just knowing how to sing 27 different songs.
TTN: What’s the vision for the kids you teach? What do you want them to do with those cumulative “moments”?
Jenny: They don’t necessarily have to go on to teach or be music majors or whatever. My ultimate goal is that they are passionate, love to make music, and that no matter what they continue to sing. I want them to continue to make music because they love it and they want to. I want to see them carry that love with them and give it to everyone around them. If they happen to do that via being a music teacher, that’s great, but that’s not my goal. I just want to provide them with a place where they can be with others who love music as much as they do: a place where that love and passion gets fostered and grows so they can take it with them everywhere. The arts are so important, especially music. It changes peoples’ lives. It would be nice if kids could get involved from the age of three or four, but even the kids I’ve taught who had a late start have been changed by it. I’ve had so many parents tell me that music changed their child’s life and gave them a purpose. I want that to happen to as many people as possible, everywhere. That’s what I want these girls to take with them, and then give away, even if they go into a field completely outside of the arts.
TTN: That’s an incredible vision. How did you get there? What was the path that led you to a career in the arts?
Jenny: Well, I can’t draw a stick figure. I am horrible at drawing! However, the arts have been in me as long as I can remember. I vividly remember piano lessons with Mr. Doubleday in Kindergarten. I remember singing with my mom in the car at four and five years old and saying, “No, you sing my part and let me sing your part,” because I wanted to harmonize. Then we would switch. Santa brought me dance lessons for Christmas when I was 6, and I danced all the way through high school. I always played the piano and sang in chorus. I was a complete music geek in high school; I was the girl who performed in multiple ensembles and accompanied the chorus. My high school choir director was amazing. He’s the one who pushed me to be a great musician; I already had it in me, but he was the one who brought it all out. When I started college, we didn’t live in Georgia. I had plans to go to UCSD. I had no idea what to major in, and definitely didn’t know I would end up as a Music major. My parents moved us to Georgia right before I began my first year of school, and I ended up at Georgia State University. We were still on the quarter system back then. I changed my major to music by the second quarter, and once I did, life was instantly better because I figured out that that was where I belonged. My undergrad major was Theory, and my original instrument was piano, but I ended up switching to voice. I moved to UGA and sang with the ASOC and ASOCC under Robert Shaw, which is what really pushed me to the next level. When you’re amongst that level of musicianship, you rise to it- or get kicked out! (Laughs) I finally found my element once I got there, and I did everything I could. I drove from Athens to Atlanta and back three nights a week for rehearsal, and sat next to Ann Jones, Shaw’s assistant. I loved every second of it. So I got certified to teach, and I’ve loved every moment of it, every child of every age. They’re all golden. Combining kids and music is perfect for me. That’s what girls’ choir is all about: high-level musicianship and kids.
TTN: What was the defining moment for you? When did you really know that this was what you wanted to do with your life?
Jenny: You know what? I don’t believe there was one, which is weird considering I didn’t start out as a Music major! I just had one of those “Aha!” moments. I thought, “DUH! What took you so long? ” Coming into the Music program, I finally felt like I was home.
There was, however, my student teaching experience. That was an incredible learning experience. I started the week before Spring Break. The woman I was supposed to study under told me, the week before the break, that she had breast cancer, was to have surgery that Monday, and would not be returning after. So I ended up teaching these kids for the remainder of the year. There was a sub present, as Georgia law requires the presence of a licensed instructor, but the actual teaching was all me. It was sink or swim: I learned really fast what worked and what didn’t. There was a lot of what worked, and we went with it. I loved them, they loved me. We were a team; we had a goal. Four weeks after the break, they had to give a concert for which the music hadn’t even been selected. I chose all of the pieces. That’s when I met Marcia Laird. She would come to observe me teaching and gave me all kinds of feedback, mostly to the tune of “You are a master teacher. I’ve learned so much watching you. How did you know to do (x, y, z)? It didn’t occur to me to do it that way.” Everything I learned was from rehearsals with Shaw, Brensinger, Ann. You fix the problems when they occur so things are learned correctly. Encourage them to make mistakes, to make noise. If you’re not singing out, we’ll learn the piece wrong, and when concert week comes and you’re singing full-voice, there will be mistakes everywhere. If I can hear the mistakes, I can fix them. That’s my job. Once the mistakes are fixed, then we create music out of all of it. I learned this from experience. I only took one class in conducting. I don’t have an Education degree. I’m a very unlikely candidate. I’m a music geek who happens to have a decent enough instrument and a thorough understanding of vocal pedagogy, so I can at least get kids to sing with proper placement, etc. All of that comes from singing with incredible directors from high school onward. All of them were technicians. That’s why I am the way I am. My mom, who sings in a choir I direct, has always said “What an incredible thing to go from watching my daughter’s backside during a concert to watching her face when she directs, and experiencing the connection that happens week after week in rehearsal. You can convince anyone they can do anything, and they eventually do.” I don’t know where that comes from. I think I’m just luckily (or divinely), properly placed in doing exactly what I was intended to do. It’s not a job, it’s a joy. It’s my heart. I love kids; I love music.
TTN: Who were the people who inspired you along the way? Is there anyone you try to emulate?
Jenny: I’m a mishmash of all who influenced me. My mother, of course. My high school choral director Dennis O’Draine. Greg Broughton. Then there was the influence of Robert Shaw, David Brensinger, and Ann Jones. They had such passion for what they were doing and such a meticulous demand for technical perfection, not to mention the musicality you couldn’t get unless they were standing in front of you. I’m quite certain that shaped much of what I do in rehearsal. Also, Marcia Laird, former president of the GMEA and band director at my first school. She and I are the same person: how we are with our children, the way we perceive music, all the same.
TTN: Thank you so much for sharing your time and your love of music and the arts with us. Do you have any funny anecdotes to leave us with before we part?
Jenny: I do stupid stuff all the time! I’ve called people morons in rehearsal (in a totally non-derogatory way). Those things become something goofy everyone says anytime something ridiculous happens, even things completely unrelated to music. I use accents all the time. I don’t know why, I just do. Everything is just fun and joyful. Music is a lot of work. Sometimes it’s hard, especially with the girls, when we’re working that hard not to have those moments of levity. I just want this to be a place where the kids can have fun, make music and be who they truly are. I hear things from the kids, like “There is no place like this choir; it’s home, it’s safe, it’s family. I can just be me and that’s okay.” It is truly special to know that somehow, in some way, I was a part of creating that space for somebody. Kids need it. They need to know that they are loved exactly for who they are, and that they don’t have to be anything different.
Interview for The Talent Notes by Melissa Baden