Teaching the language of music - The Explorer: Import

Teaching the language of music

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Posted: Tuesday, September 28, 2004 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:48 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Sept. 22, 2004 - The choir director at Mountain View High School, Dean Schoff, knows what it means to take a risk.

He and his wife, Anna Salerno-Schoff, went to Graz, Austria in 1981 and auditioned for the American Institute of Musical Studies. The opera singers subjected themselves to the scrutiny of the world's most prestigious opera instructors to participate in the tradition of performing arts.

Both were accepted to the academy and Dean was given a five year contract to perform opera in Europe.

They lived in Europe for five years before returning to the United States.

"The most important experience we've had is the sharing of culture," Anna said. "We've seen big changes in art and opera, there's been a lot of cutbacks. It's getting harder and harder to keep the passion alive."

Now, in an effort to keep the tradition of opera and passion for music alive, Dean and Anna have taken on the role of instructors. Both conduct private singing lessons out of their home, they work together at the Opera Workshop at Pima Community College and Dean has been the choral director at Mountain View High School for four years.

After moving to Tucson in 1995, Dean directed the choir at a local church and taught communications and drama at Mountain View. He said he takes a one-on-one approach to teaching.

"Well, you have to teach anybody and everybody individually, which makes working with voices very interesting," Dean said. "Number one, it makes the student feel good, because you're actually focusing on the student, you're not focusing on the whole class.

"And, when I'm working with a choir, I'm working on an overall sound, yes, but I do work with a lot of students within that context to make better sound. I'll take a row of singers, or I'll take four or five singers, and I'll work with them individually as a group and I'll switch that off day after day."

And the most important thing for him is for his students to develop confidence, self-esteem and the ability to take a risk. At that point he can see that he is succeeding as an instructor, he said.

"I had four kids this past weekend that went to Las Vegas to audition for the American Idol," Dean said. "They're going out there and putting themselves on the line to sing and to perform in competition. So they've got a good sense of themselves a good sense of self esteem."

Mountain View Principal Richard Faidley said Dean's experience as a professional opera singer is a tremendous asset to his students.

"Dean is the type of person who is actually working in the profession outside of teaching," Faidley said. "His experience as a performer brings a much needed richness to the curriculum."

Also, Dean's emphasis on voice and linguistics in the classroom can be applied by students in other academic subjects, Faidley said.

At Pima Community College, students have greater vocal maturity and slightly more dedication, Dean said. After all, the course is an elective and students don't have to be there. Though, Dean said they have much to learn about voice and music.

"Some of them are really ready to take off and go and have really good careers," Dean said.

Anna is the stage director at the Pima Opera Workshop. She works with students to develop characters and teaches students how to convey characters to the audience through singing, costume and poise. The students perform scenes from classic and modern operas.

Anna became captivated with opera when her high school music teacher in Tempe, Conn. took her to a performance. While she couldn't understand the language, she was mesmerized by the music. Now she wants to expose students at Pima Community College to opera and in turn, expand the audience for the art form.

The couple saw the reality of their efforts when they traveled to Graz, Austria with four of their former Pima students who auditioned for the American Institute of Musical Studies. Their students competed with, and held their own against, students from some of the great music conservatories around the world, Anna said. All were accepted to the institute, which gives students from Germany, Italy, Russia and Australia, among others, the ability to study with prestigious music teachers in a variety of musical performance disciplines. Dean and Anna are faculty members on the summer program, and they used their experience to prepare the students as best they could. But when it came to performing, the students had to rely on their preparation, confidence and abilities, and Dean was able to once again watch his students take a risk.

Dean has studied music for most of his life; he began playing piano at the age of five. He then moved on to other instruments and when he was a teenager, discovered he could sing. He received his doctorate in performance from the University of Wexler in England. He can also conduct an orchestra, which is something he misses doing. He speaks nine languages including German, Italian, French and Russian.

Dean and Anna met when both were opera singers. They both enjoyed performing immensely. Dean said when he sang opera he literally gave himself away, exposed himself from the inside out.

"It's extremely sensual, it's sensual and it's captivating that a person can create that depth of sound that comes out of the whole body," Dean said. "It's not a magnified, amplified microphone that's doing this, it's the human body that's creating this sound."

Dean and Anna got married almost 25 years ago, and maintaining that level of commitment between opera singers for that long can be difficult, Anna said.

There are times when work comes easily, and times when you have to struggle to find a job. So if one partner has the starring role in opera after opera on a tour in Europe, while the other's cooling off, jealousy can set in, Anna said.

"I don't think you can be jealous of each other. If you're hot, you're hot and when you're not, you're not," she said. "For me my secret is I really experience joy for other people."

Dean said the cornerstone of any successful marriage is trust.

But perhaps for Dean and Anna, the success in their marriage comes from their shared passion. Now they strive to expose others to the power of singing.

Anna said music can have a healing effect on the body both physically and emotionally. She has had people come into a lesson with a headache, or pains in the neck or back. She said the physical activity of singing stimulates circulation through the body and is good for the lungs, and for some students, their pain disappears. And the music lessons can also contribute to a student's confidence.

Music is also a powerful communicator, Dean said. As he and his wife have traveled throughout the world, he's found music is something that ties him closely with people he's just met.

"Music is a very common language, it's probably one of the biggest things that connects us with each other," Dean said. "All barriers tend to drop - you don't see black and white, red and yellow, different languages yes, but we're still speaking the language of music."

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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