Interview by Rachel Davis, April 2022
This year, we welcomed our new music teacher, Catherine Flynn into the RWS community. Filling the big shoes of our former music teacher, Loretta Walker, Catherine has jumped right in, and has already made a lasting impression on our students. As she wraps up her first year here at RWS, it was fun to sit down and hear a little bit more about our newest teacher!
Tell us about your relationship with music, and your career so far: I grew up really immersed in the Richmond music scene. I grew up in the Richmond Youth Symphony and was homeschooled for 7 years so I could focus on music. In high school I played in their top 3 youth ensembles. That was such a great experience, because the Richmond Symphony musicians mentor the youth musicians. In the advanced orchestra we played a side-by-side concert with the Richmond Symphony, where I got to sit next to a professional musician. It was such a cool experience, and I feel lucky that I was able to get that inside view into what it’s like to be a professional musician and work in the music field.
After graduation, I went to Georgia to Columbus State University and the Schwob School of Music. They’ve been around about 25 years, and it’s a great program. I was recruited my senior year of high school by their viola professor. They played with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, a famous touring orchestra, and they held auditions in Richmond where I was offered a scholarship to attend.
I was considering VCU, but grew up on the VCU campus for the symphony, and I wanted something different and to see somewhere new. I was able to hear the Atlanta symphony when I was there, which is one of the top 5 orchestras. I graduated in 2019 from college, then taught homeschool during the pandemic.
While I was in college, I looked for any opportunity to get my feet wet with teaching. I was a counselor for the Youth Orchestra in Georgia, I interned for a year with a church teaching their choir, and I also began teaching an afterschool violin class in a public elementary school. I really wanted to get a lot of teaching experience before graduation to make sure this is what I wanted to do.
Once I graduated, I started substituting at the public school and at a private K-12 school in the Atlanta area. I started subbing for their music teachers and worked at Columbus Music Academy, where I helped them create their first summer camps and taught about 20 students each year, one on one. I also taught a violin class for the Columbus Symphony. They have a program where they go into Title I schools and provide violin lessons after school, which was a really rewarding experience.
When the pandemic came and schools shut down, I couldn’t sub or teach any of my after school classes anymore, and felt called to go back home to Richmond.
The pandemic was really the motivation I needed to trust that I could get a job in my field. When I moved back, I took a job teaching privately for a homeschool family and their 2 school aged children. It was a fun experience and I think it really did prepare me for Waldorf. I got to create the curriculum and pull resources from different places. We went through the life of a butterfly, watched them hatch, then released them. We grew tomatoes on the back porch, and it was very hands on, which is what I believe education should be.
Do you remember what your first impressions were when you first came here? I was so excited! As soon as I took the tour and saw the school and all the classrooms, the bike trail and gardening area, I knew this is exactly the kind of school that I wanted to work in. And so much of what I was drawn to teach as a homeschool teacher already existed in this school – from cooking, the specialty curriculum, emphasis on the outdoors, and having that immersive hands-on educational experience, instead of worksheets and computers – I knew this was a really good fit for me. It was like everything in my life prepared me for this moment. I want to work at a school where the kids are excited to be here every day, and that follows their natural development.
What have been your biggest successes and challenges so far this year? Orchestra has been one of the big successes this year. It was challenging to jump in as a new teacher and to fill the shoes of Loretta Walker, who built the program. We’d also been through 2 years of school in COVID, and because we don’t have a 7th grade this year, the levels that the students could play were so different. The 7th grade is usually the “glue” of the orchestra, so the 6th and 8th graders really had to meet in the middle. There’s been a lot of bending, patience on the 8th graders parts, and a lot of stepping up into leadership with the 8th grade. And the 6th graders are learning to follow. I’ve seen a lot of the 6th graders step up as well, and I think it’s forced them to take orchestra more seriously and mature a bit faster, learning to play with the 8th graders.
In the beginning of the year, it was interesting because even playing a scale together was difficult, because the technique levels were so different. But looking at them now, they’ve come so far and are not only playing scales and learning music pieces, but they are learning to express themselves through the music. It’s not just about how they play it or what the notes are, but getting to exercise their voices and be more creative. We are now able to talk about more advanced terms, like what is our sound here or there? Do we need to be quieter? Louder? Do we want a warm color? All those things are really exciting, and they sound good! It’s wonderful to be a part of a huge evolution of their musicianship.
One of this year’s challenges, which has also been one of my favorite parts, is learning to teach every grade from 1st through 8th. It’s been hard to navigate teaching a 6 year old versus a 13 year old, all within the a few hours of my day, as they need completely different things. I’ve done a lot of reflection and study to really understand how to teach every grade in a way that meets their needs. That’s one of the biggest parts of my job, outside of teaching, is getting to know the individual grades and the children. I need that personal relationship with them so I know how to best teach them. So this year has really been the children and I getting to know each other. That’s been my biggest priority over everything and I’m so excited to continue to get to work with these students over the course of their Waldorf teacher.
I’m curious what of Waldorf’s relationship to music has opened your mind in a new way and affected the way you teach and interact with your students? I feel like in some ways, Waldorf has really affirmed many of my personal beliefs. I am a strong believer that everyone is a musician, and we are born with the ability to be musical. Music is a part of the world and it’s a part of our life, and Waldorf has reiterated that for me.
Rudolph Steiner really believed that everyone is a musical being, and it’s just one more thing to unlock and for children to discover naturally. With Waldorf education, I think also one thing that I have learned a lot more as a teacher is to let the children lead the experience. They tell me what they need. I’m not telling them what they need to learn, they are actually telling me, and it can be a curiosity-based approach.
So if they are curious about a particular topic, we can stop and go into that. I don’t always have to guide the process, which is a very freeing experience for both me and the students. I love that music is woven throughout the whole education, from the youngest up, and in every class they sing, or they play their flutes. It’s completely unlike any other school I’ve seen. As for a music teacher, it’s a dream come true! The arts are valued here, and being an artistic being is such a big part of being at a Waldorf school.
For me, part of my dream as a teacher, and part of my passion, is to make music available to everybody. And I feel like classic music is such an elitist, white-washed world, that it can be very exclusive. I really love that with Waldorf, every child gets to play an instrument. Every child gets a high level of instruction, regardless of their socioeconomic status, their background, and even if they knew they wanted to or not. Accessibility has always been close to my heart, because my music teachers are really the ones who inspired me to go to music school and to be a teacher. My teachers were very supportive of me, and flexible when it came to costs, teaching me whether I could afford lessons or not. It made such an impact on me and I want to pay that forward. I love that Waldorf gives that opportunity to every student and I am passionate about finding ways to make strings even more accessible to our community.
Has there been anything about anthroposophy and Steiner philosophy that has already resonated with you? There’s still so much to learn! But for example, before coming to RWS, I’ve never really considered that before age 7, they are in a very dreamy world, and don’t see themselves as separate from the world. For the young child, the music should be very open ended, almost leaving a question unanswered for them. Waldorf philosophy knows that the child’s mind is very open, so all the music is pentatonic in 1st grade, which keeps them in that spiritual, dreamy world, so to speak. And then in 2nd grade, you can see them start to embody and become their own person. They are “waking up” consciously, and that’s when we present diatonic and major keys, with the full range of notes and scales. I’ve learned that the minor keys and more dissonance is not appropriate for the younger child, and we see that introduced as an older elementary and middle school child.
Has it been hard to take on such a big role? I was lucky enough to have many hours of mentoring and support from Loretta Walker, the RWS music teacher for 15 years. She gave me a lot of resources and articles about Waldorf educators and Music educators. I joined the Association for Waldorf Music Educators, and I have worked really hard to make sure my curriculum is in alignment with Waldorf education. It’s a really new language and world, but Loretta has passed down so many of her resources, books, and songs, and I’ve been so thankful to use them to help make the transition as seamless as possible. I really wanted the kids to feel that it was still familiar, and just because it’s a new teacher it’s not a new program or curriculum, and that we would continue everything Ms. Walker built, but with Ms. Flynn’s personal touch on it.
As a teacher, I feel like my learning is never done, and that’s what I need and want in a work environment. I’m a very curious person, so I’m always wondering “why”. And I love that about being a Waldorf teacher; the idea that us growing, learning, and progressing is part of the job. We’ve never arrived – we are always working. As a teacher, I’m learning just as much as the kids.
Wow, thank you, Catherine! We are so lucky to have you here at RWS, and I look forward to continuing to watch you make your mark on our music program for years to come.