Hello! Welcome to the very first posting for Music for Life, from MusicMakers, LLC and The MusicMakers Academy. My name is Paula Penna, and I am a passionate, dedicated music teacher who has lived this blog–Music HAS BEEN for my life. I own MusicMakers, LLC and The MusicMakers Academy–the classical music school with a progressive attitude.
I figured it is probably best to start my blogging adventures by telling you a little bit about myself. Everyone assumes that, since I have built a successful music school, I must have had every advantage growing up. My story is NOT typical–AT ALL. But, I hope it is at least a little inspiring.
I started my love affair with music at age 3, when I saw my grandmother’s new piano for the first time. It is my earliest memory–it was as if light was shining on this miraculous sound-making machine. It was love at first sight, and it has lasted 39 years (and counting). I was a dancer at first, starting at age 4. I took lessons in jazz, tap, ballet, and acrobats. In college, I studied modern (although I stunk at it!).
In fourth grade I chose the drums as my instrument. I remember going to Mr. Starr and Mr. Stock (our band and orchestra teachers) on the stage, in my little dress, with my long pigtails, with my ‘application’ in hand. I had somehow convinced my mother that drums were a good choice; however, Mr. Starr and Mr. Stock didn’t agree–little girls with pigtails can’t play the drums, so here is a clarinet! It was my earliest recollection of sex discrimination, and it was a formidable moment for me. At the time, I just accepted the clarinet and did my best with it, continuing to study through middle school. My mother would play records of Benny Goodman and other Big Band era musicians to try to spark my continued interest, but to no avail–I knew it wasn’t my instrument! No drums, ugh. (Hm…now that I think of it, I have never taken up the drums–time to change that!).
My world fell apart when I was 10 years old. My mother, who had been my biggest advocate and supporter, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
I remember the day in April, 1978 when she was taken to the hospital for exploratory surgery. She came out and the docs said there was nothing they could do for her–it was discovered too late, and had spread too much. They gave her rounds of chemo and radiation, anyway–I think as a way to help her not lose hope, especially since she was the mother of 5 (all of whom were grown up except for me, the baby of the family). My entire life changed–my mother had always been active with me, but now I came home to my mother in bed instead of greeting me with cookies and milk; my mother was in and out of the hospital and doctor visits all the time, so it was hard for her to do homework with me.
My life was shattering, and finally shattered on December 18, 1978 when she passed on. I felt it–coming back from a class trip, I literally FELT her die at about 6pm. I was on the train from NYC, and my best friend, Lori, was there to hold my hand. I knew it before they told me, and I never dreaded stepping out of a train as much as I did that night, because I knew what they were about to tell me, and so desperately wanted it to not be true. My family had tried to protect me all along by not giving me details, not taking me to the hospital, even not having me attend her funeral. But, I learned something very valuable (well, I actually learned a bunch of invaluable life skills) through the experience of her sickness and death–don’t create a mystery for a child. The mystery is WAY worse than the reality, because it causes your mind to wonder and wander and be in unrest, and it keeps you from dealing with the problem, the reality. Well, come to think of it, this is true for adults, too!
I was the quietest, shiest kid you could have met (hard to believe, I know!). Music got me through, especially after my life-changing ordeal with my mother’s death. All of my report cards said “Paula is very bright, but she has to learn to speak up.” So, in the 7th grade, when Ms. Thayer met us new choral students for the first time, everyone was shocked that she picked ME for the singing solo in the upcoming concert–“September Morn” by Neil Diamond. I can still hear them saying, “PAULA? Paula can sing? She doesn’t even talk loudly!” But, there ya have it–my instrument found me. It changed everything for me. It was transforming; music is often transforming for people. I came out of my shyness, learned to have more of a mind of my own and actually speak it. And, I fell in love AGAIN–this time with musical theater.
I was fortunate to grow up in two school districts on Long Island, Lindenhurst and Islip, both of which had excellent music and drama programs, including multiple choirs and performing groups, arts publications, media rooms, huge marching bands, etc. It was like being in college, with all the class offerings. And, being an hour from New York City helped my passion along–going to see a show on Broadway every year, visiting the Steinway manufacturers, hearing music at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. True exposure, and exposure IS key to developing a musician–how else does one have a reference point? I had excellent teachers, too–they really knew their stuff, and they were dedicated. I could have sworn they LIVED at the school (true to most music teachers I’ve known, come to think of it).
So, when it became apparent that I wanted to learn to play the piano (but we didn’t have money for lessons, unfortunately), I had plenty of teachers to go to for questions and advice. I’d sit on my Lowry organ at home (thanks to my big sister who passed this down to me) for hours, listening to bands like REO Speedwagon and Journey, and try to figure out the parts. I’m telling you, I often didn’t come up for air or food or bathroom breaks–I was in the zone. The first song I learned to play by ear was “Don’t Stop Believin'” from Journey.
This was back in the days of the records–I would have to keep putting the needle back into the exact spot, over and over and over, until I could hear the bass line, then the piano, then the guitar–rotating through until i could pick out every single note. After figuring out a hundred songs this way, i realized it is easiest to first pick out the bass line, and then the chords come naturally. The only problem was, I didn’t have the vocabulary and notation knowledge to be able to write it down. So, I would practice it over and over, practically salivating til I got to school the next day. I would show my teachers what i had learned, and they would tell me the chord names. Once in high school, this really took off due to having so many accomplished, musical friends who did take lessons. I learned some of the best ways of notation and remembering facts via my friends.
In high school, it was a battle of two passions–law and music. I discovered rather accidentally that I had a great mind for political science, particularly trial advocacy. I joined our mock trial team, took advanced level courses with local politicians, and won my trials–every time. I was strongly encouraged to pursue law, and this was from members of our local legislature, so I took it seriously. But, I learned one of my most important life lessons from that experience–go with your passion, go with your heart, and the money will come. It has to work that way (well, actually it doesn’t have to work that way–if you’re not willing to work smart and hard and consistently, you’re not going to reach any goals, regardless of passion). So, music it was.
I chose Manhattanville College, solely because my best friend, Doug, went there and loved it. Since no one in my family had attended college, and it was just my Dad and I, I really didn’t know where to start with the college search, how I’d get any money (we had none). I applied to 3 schools–Manhattanville, Wellesley, and Wagner College. I got into all three on account of my excellent academics, relentless dedication to after school and community activities, and the fact that I juggled working 25 hours a week with going to high school. Manhattanville won out sight unseen, largely because I already knew people there, the music program was wonderful, it was small, AND they offered me a lot of money. Other than that, I had no clue. But, again following my heart, it was the best choice of my life.
I loved it there–small classes, lots of attention, dedicated and caring professors, close to NYC, AND a beautiful campus. I found myself at a deficit, however. Firstly, i was one of the only public school kids in the Leadership Program (from where a substantial portion of my scholarship was coming), which made me grapple with feelings of inadequacy. Secondly, everyone in the music department had had the benefit of private lessons in classical music growing up; I did not. I was used to knowing the answers in class, raising my hand, etc. Now, I was really behind the 8 ball; in my first week of music theory I realized that I was completely lost. But, Dr. Mary Ann Joyce (who still teaches at M’ville) worked with me after class for a few weeks, and I soon caught up. I scored all A’s in music theory, and I graduated ‘cum laude’ while earning 164 credits. Again, it was proven to me that, if you are a dedicated student and try your best, the teacher’s door is always open for you. I’ve made this my own policy for working with my MusicMakers students.
While at Manhattanville, I realized I did not want to be a professional performer, especially not on Broadway like I originally anticipated. The lifestyle just didn’t suit me, and I knew it. I wanted to have a life, have a house, have children, etc. Since I had always been involved with teaching, and continued to teach while in college, it seemed natural that Music Education would be my degree. After taking 2 years to teach in the Somers Public Schools in Somers, NY, and founding the Somers Theatre Company with local parent, Nan Ernst, I accepted a full scholarship and teaching assistantship to Florida State University.
What a great 2 years–no student loans, I gained valuable teaching experience, and I was in the sun for two years straight! I worked for the great Tommy Wright (descendent of the Wright Brothers, no less), who taught Music History in Western Civilization. I learned a lot watching him command the crowd of 220 football, baseball, and basketball players–all undergrads who were taking this ‘elective’ class thinking it was an ‘easy A’–and actually turn them on to classical music.
How did he do it? Storytelling, his natural charisma, and by really knowing his stuff. He was an older gentleman in his 70s when I met him, and he just recently retired after being at FSU since the 1940s! By the way–he also wrote the FSU fight song. And, he went around the country doing Gershwin impersonations and commanding a hefty fee while he charmed those audiences, too. I learned a lot from Tommy, too, as I did from all of my teachers–KNOW YOUR STUFF INSIDE AND OUT, he would say, NO EXCUSES.
If you really know your stuff, you’re not lecturing–you are relating, and through that comes the teaching. And, this is the most genuine teaching because you are connecting with your students instead of talking at them. Tommy taught me that, as well as the value of a great sense of humor (which came in handy when it was my turn to teach the formidable FSU football team!). I graduated with a 4.0/4.0 gpa, mainly because I was challenged by my husband to “out-do” his graduate school gpa of 3.9, and, well, I couldn’t let him down, right? 🙂
Manhattan School of Music came next. I LOVED that job–my favorite working experience next to MusicMakers. I worked with Kathy Wise Soroka, who had worked with Leonard Bernstein at the NY Philharmonic in the education department. Bernstein is one of my idols, and this was an unbelievable experience. Did you ever have the good fortune to work for someone who genuinely wanted you to succeed? That was Kathy; she loved everyone, and knew how to meet goals without stepping on toes. She was (and still is) a genuinely kind, good-hearted person; whoever said you have to be brutal to get ahead obviously didn’t know how much MORE powerful kindness, and genuine interest in another person truly is. I learned this from Kathy, along with a heck of a lot more.
This experience, where I got to help write curriculum with the aid of people like Herbie Hancock and Pinkus Zuckerman, was life-changing. Training the undergrads on how to teach, and supervising them in the most unimaginably POOR local public schools was eye-opening. Walking through Harlem, for instance, I was shocked by people living in cardboard boxes, cars burning in the street. And, the lack of greenery and even one blade of glass was what really indelibly impressed me–concrete, bricks, that’s it. It dawned on me at that moment that not all kids grow up with trees and grass and soft spots to watch the clouds move by.
No wonder these kids grew up to be prisoners of their own upbringing, stuck in those same tenements–they had no point of reference, no realization that THIS was not what ALL people experienced. They may have seen it on TV, but that is a far cry from believing in your soul that you CAN to better. I remember the moment I made a mental note of that realization; since then I have referred to it hundreds of times, and it is a guiding principal of how I teach, and how I teach other people to teach–put yourself ALWAYS in the shoes of the person who has entrusted you with their education; until you do, you cannot be relevant and cannot reach them.
To be a master teacher, one must put themselves aside and see the material through the eyes of the student. My students often ask me how it is that I am “in their brain”, especially when I use my analogies to teaching voice concepts (I’m known for my quirky analogies, often humorous)–this is how; I’m in their body for a moment and intuitively the answers to how to teach that concept come to me.
All of that preparation at Manhattan School of Music, Florida State University, Manhattanville College, my various public school teaching experiences, couldn’t have prepared me for parenthood. I left Manhattan only because I was pregnant with my daughter, Rachel, and didn’t wish to raise her in the city, in day care. My husband and I moved to Connecticut because my sister lives here, so it seemed like an easier choice than going cross country to Arizona to be closer to his family. So off we went–no jobs, no place to live, and a baby on the way.
I decided THAT was the time to start my music school, which by this time had become my dream. Pregnant, not knowing anyone, no money saved, no connections, and a husband with no permanent job–sure, seemed like the perfect time, huh? Everyone thought I was crazy, but I did it. It was intuitively easy to decide–follow my passion and the money will come. 13 years later (my daughter just turned 13, so it is easy to remember!), I am still in love with music, in love with my music school, and passionate about teaching.
Well, there’s MY story up till now. I’m only 42, and I have a lot more that I want to accomplish. I would love to hear YOUR stories of how music came into your life. I’m purposely not going back to edit this blog post; what you just read is exactly how it came into my mind. For better or for worse, it is what it is. Looking forward to more!