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In memory of my friends: valued colleagues, esteemed teacher

(4/22/2010) Last week, I lost three friends.  Each of them had been battling against an illness that in the end, won.  However, when I think of each of them, I will remember their goodness, joy and insight.   Each of them led lives of service, teaching and sharing their knowledge with scores of young people.


Jim Sicks was assistant principal at St. Joseph Catholic School, where I taught K-8 Music for nearly five years as a new teacher, fresh out of college.  The first semester I taught, I was lucky not to get eaten alive.  I'm sure I've blocked out the times I had to call on Mr. Sicks' assistance to help me deal with some middle schooler!  Nonetheless, Mr. Sicks always had a smile for everyone and was always there to help.  If he needed a favor, he asked in such a way that you'd find yourself doing back flips on your way to completing the task.  I believe that this calm demeanor and smile brought out the best in people. The children at the school loved Mr. Sicks.  They respected him and valued his fairness.  He was an authority figure, but also an ally.


Dr. Leonidas Sarakatsannis was a fantastic concert pianist and college professor.  I met Dr. S at a colleague's Christmas party three years ago.  He was the absolute life of the party, sitting at the grand piano.  He would play some serious classical piece and then spontaneously transition into a show tune.  He was a riot!  In 2008, Dr. S and I collaborated on two concerts.  Our rehearsals were half laughter and half actual practicing.  Well, maybe it was more 60% laughter and 40% practice.  How we got anything accomplished, I don't know.   He loved to play the beginning measures to a piece and then crack a joke just as I was concentrated and taking my initial breath.  I'd laugh, saying, "Dr. S!  You can't do that to me!!"

Earlier this semester, I was over the moon because our teaching schedules coincided on one day and we'd see more of each other.  In between students, we'd be cracking jokes and making a complete raucous in the hallway.   Dr. S was an all around bringer of joy.


Last Friday evening, I found out that my beloved voice teacher, Shirlee Emmons, had passed away.  I last saw her in early February at her home in New York City.  I took five hours of lessons with her that trip.


Shirlee was a brilliant woman.  Her work began to influence me long before I met her in person.  One of my voice teachers introduced me to Shirlee's work through her book "Power Performance for Singers" co-written with Alma Thomas.  In this book, I read the affirmation:  "I have an unshakable belief in myself and my ability."  These words have fueled my journey as a classical singer.


Even though I didn't believe that affirmation at first, I said it until I did.  "I have an unshakable belief in myself and my ability."  That growing belief in myself encouraged me to write Shirlee an e-mail and ask if she would see me for a lesson.  In my mind, I thought it was kind of gutsy for "little ole me" to write an e-mail to a big name New York City teacher, but I did.  I believed in myself enough to know that I deserved a teacher like Shirlee.


I visited her in New York for the first time in May 2006.  I saw her for three lessons that visit.  At the first lesson, I felt an instant connection.  I knew I was in the right place.  But when I left, I was feeling some frustration, not knowing how I could ever make this work, being that I lived in Florida.  By the end of the third lesson, the details of how it would work weren't important. I was just determined that it would work.  And it did.


Shirlee was my teacher for nearly 4 years.  It is absolutely impossible for me to begin to tell you everything that I learned from Shirlee.  Clearly, the first lesson was the importance of believing in one's self.  There was far more information, insight and guidance imparted upon me.  Shirlee was tough, exacting but always kind.  She was an excellent technician.  Through her teaching,  my artistry continually elevated to a higher caliber. 


Shirlee knew what I wanted to accomplish with my singing.  She knew my dreams.   In our lessons, she gave all she had to help me accomplish them.  I could easily spend 2.5 hours in a lesson with Shirlee continuously and neither of us would bat an eye.  It was easy for us to get lost in the work.   We were both passionate about singing and time was of no consequence.


I will miss Shirlee's e-mails.  Every once in a while, I would write her somewhat of a novel-like e-mail to update her on what was happening with my singing.  She would respond point by point.  She was very giving in this way.  Always eager to help.


Shirlee's work lives on in the five books that she wrote.  Her work shines through all of her students, many of whom are teachers and professors.  I realized earlier this week that I quote my teacher all day long.  I'm sure my own voice students hear me say, "My teacher Shirlee would say..." at least once a lesson.  She is with me all the time in my teaching. 


Shirlee essentially created an army of singing angels to bring beauty to the earth.

I have often said to my friends, "if I am half of what Shirlee was at age 86, I will be very lucky."  A brilliant mind, a big heart, an outstanding person.  I feel like no amount of words can do her justice.  She was simply amazing.

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