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October 1, 2019

The Gift of Music (RWC Alumna Spotlight: Cheryl Heimberger)

RWC alumna Cheryl Heimberger recently donated a complete Orff instrumentarium to the Roberts Community Music School and the Department of Music and Performing Arts’ Music Education program. Having acquired the instruments over her years as a music teacher, she hopes to share the wonderful possibilities they bring with a whole new group of students through her gift.

Cheryl remembers her time at Roberts as one of excellent musical preparedness. After graduating, she worked in Special Education for three years. She remembers going home in tears frequently, unable to separate the heaviness of work from life outside of it. She earned her master’s degree in Elementary Education from SUNY Brockport, receiving certification in N-6 Elementary Education and K-12 Music Education. After pursuing her new field in the city, she found it to be strikingly similar to her original job. In fact, within her first two weeks at Schools #5 and School #17, two of the students that she had taught at Convalescent Hospital were removed by family due to the many times she had dealt with them and CPS.

As Cheryl recounted her early teaching days, she said, “I tried many times to move out of the city, and finally God told me, ‘This is your mission.’ Throughout history, missionaries have prayed not to do things, and God has said, ‘This is what you are going to do.’ God made it my mission to teach in the city, and I did that for 32 years.”

“Becoming a parent and getting trained in Orff at Eastman were probably the two most important things for changing how I taught children. In the early days,” Cheryl continued, “I secretly wondered how I would possibly do what I was doing and still be a parent – teaching seemed to take all of my effort and time. Becoming a parent made me understand child development in a whole new capacity. You always think of children being older than they are, especially tough city kids. When you have children of your own, you realize how vulnerable they are and how much they need care and support. Making a vow that I would treat my students the way I would want my own kids treated was huge for me.”

The city schools value professional development, and Cheryl took advantage of the opportunity to pursue training in the Orff approach at the Eastman School of Music. Her primary teacher, Jim Solomon, has over 30 years of experience teaching public elementary school music. Most influential was his concept of approaching student management in a way that treated children with respect and dignity while finding ways to make it of interest to them. “His mindset of teaching you how to develop your musicianship on your own was very instrumental in my thinking,” Cheryl added.

Carl Orff was a German music educator, composer, and philosopher. He felt that he could make a difference in poor mining communities by training their children in the arts. He planned to teach them with a kinesthetic approach, utilizing song, speech, motion, dance, drama, and other active learning methods. His approach grew into developing melodic percussion instruments that were child-friendly but also had high-quality sounds. Orff’s partner Gunild Keetman did most of the teaching, while Orff was the theoretician.

“They made a huge difference in those communities, and it spread around the world from there,” Cheryl explained. “It’s an excellent way of involving students with short attention spans who don’t read music very well. It lets them make music before learning to read and write it. They get to experience and enjoy it aurally before they have to become mindful of what they’re doing. So, especially with students who are frequently behind in learning reading and writing skills, it takes away a lot of the fear of making music. I taught at a high school for a while, but even so, a majority of middle school students were coming in who couldn’t read music the way you’d expect. A lot of Orff music consists of layering ostinatos on top of each other. When you do that with bands, it sounds complex but is actually quite simple. It gives them something to feel proud of and successful in right off the bat – the rhythm comes quite naturally to them in a lot of ways.”

Throughout her career, God led Cheryl to meet incredibly wonderful teachers who molded her throughout her life. “I often think that urban teachers are looked down on for what they do,” Cheryl related, “but I think they’re some of the best teachers anywhere. You have to be. If you’re not a good teacher, you’re gonna get eaten alive! I saw a lot of people burn out and leave, but I also saw people’s strength come through in a way you never would have dreamed. The people that came through were ones who learned to let the children know that they cared about them and respected them without looking down on them. You can’t lie to children. They know whether you’re sincere or not.”

So, what kept Cheryl from burning out? After a few moments, she thoughtfully replied, “It would waver back and forth. I was frequently moved between schools, and being without a classroom or support systems were my hardest situations. One school I worked at part-time became home for me. I gave up other long-term full-time assignments to stay in that building full-time. Finding a home is important, especially if people think like you, want to teach like you, and care for the kids like you do. It may take a few different buildings or ways of getting there,” she encouraged. “It may not happen immediately, but don’t give up on that.”

When asked what was hardest to leave as she retired, she immediately answered, “The kids! I still have students calling me all summer that I’ve set up for scholarships. On my way to my parents’ last weekend, a thirteen-year-old called me to tell me it was his birthday.” Through misty eyes, she explained, “He wanted me to tell him ‘Happy Birthday’ because he didn’t have enough people to support him at home.”

“Another student just graduated high school and got a scholarship at Eastman. I taught him flute in 4th grade, and now he’s traveling to New York City and playing jazz. He’s going to be playing professional in an orchestra someday,” she added fondly. “It’s really fun when kids you don’t even recognize come up to you, reintroduce themselves to you, and let you know that they’re doing well. The success stories outweigh the murders and the kids that you see die.”

Cheryl hopes to see her Orff instruments used to change children’s lives, just as she used them over the last 30 years. “Maybe if the students can see them being used in classes, they’ll see how accessible they are and want to learn more about them,” she explained. There are still numerous opportunities for Orff training throughout the greater Rochester area. The Greater Rochester American Orff-Schulwerk Association (GRAOSA) hosts three annual workshops at Crane Elementary School. From there, students and teachers can apply for scholarships for additional training in the Orff levels at Eastman. Cheryl exclaimed, “There is so much training available right here in our neighborhood,” with optimism that the next generation of music teachers would be inspired to take advantage of it.


Written by Emily Hutchinson, 10.1.19

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