Suzanne Sweeney’s first experience as a music teacher in Philadelphia was as a band conductor. She had played in band in high school, and focused on flute, as well as piano, while working on her degree in music education. After a year or so of teaching band in the Philadelphia School District, changes in budgets and hiring led to band programs being eliminated.
Confronted with this challenge, she drew on her skills in playing piano, conducting and accompanying and changed gears to being a choir teacher.
“It’s been a really fun, learning experience,” she says. “I’m totally immersed in choir now, because when I start something, I go with it 100 percent.”
The object of her dedication has been the choir at Hardy Williams Elementary School, one of Settlement’s partner schools in the Music Education Pathways program. Sweeney just began her second year leading the Hardy Williams choir, and with about 90 percent of students returning from last year, she has already found that the second-year students are serious about learning.
“They’re excited to come back, and by our second rehearsal, we were way ahead of where we were last year,” she says.
She’s also expanding her choral music teaching with the launch of a new high-school-aged, SATB choir at the Germantown Branch. Some of the new choir’s students participate in choir programs at their high schools, but many do not, and Sweeney plans to use the ensemble to stretch their horizons musically: “The goal for me is to expose them to a lot of different genres outside of what they usually listen to.”
The students are already responding well to an eclectic mix of music – gospel, African music, an arrangement of a Billy Joel song, and more – and their three- and four-part harmonies are already beginning to lock in together. “They’re all really driven by wanting to get better,” she says.
Teaching choir has turned out to be a natural fit. Teaching Children’s Music Playshop courses, on the other hand, came about almost by accident.
“I think I was chosen to teach Playshop because I have young kids,” she says, and her children, ages five and one-and-a-half, have become willing participants in her practice sessions as she works on singing and playing piano while at home.
“We’re always singing at home, and it’s really important for me to practice so I can be an example – both for my kids and my students,” she says.
During college, before she was part of the choral-music world, Sweeney says she would get embarrassed when she would have to sing. It’s a different world for her now: “Your real education starts once you take a job, and you have to be willing to laugh at yourself.”
Plus, she says, “it’s good to have a little audience at home.”