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People trust me with their children…!
Today was one of those days which never got off the ground. From the moment I walked into Concert Choir at 7:15am, I proceeded to stagger my way through double-bookings, clashes, missing pages of accompaniment, flat batteries, sick choral kiddies, dropping a jar of ashes (yes, it was Ash Wednesday, just to add to the fun), and other assorted mild to epic fails.
While sitting in the corner of the classroom, throwing down my lunch in record time in stony-faced silence + generally hating all forms of life, my Year 12 Prefects appeared with a cup of tea + a Freddo.
“Okay, Ms Kwok. We need to talk.”
Instantly, the alarm bells went off and the braincells went into overdrive, “What NOW?! Have I forgotten something? Have I let these guys down?!”
Miss Year 12 Head Prefect put her arm comfortingly around me and said, calmly and soothingly, “Look, Ms Kwok, you have to LET IT GO. You can’t do it all. You can’t nail every moment of every day. It can’t all be AMAZING.”
Sir Year 12 Deputy Prefect: “We made a cup of tea + stole a Freddo for you. Chill out. Stop saving the world for the next 20 minutes.”
Miss Year 12 Deputy Prefect: “Plus we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to quote you back to you.”
Damn it, you three. I just got schooled, and in the most caring way possible. 😭
I have recently returned from our Year 12 Retreat; two days of connective activities, reflection, team-building, and most importantly, time away from the intensity of study for our Year 12s. And for some, believe me, even two days felt like an eternity away from their books!
On our first night on retreat, we had a candle-lighting ceremony. The purpose of the ceremony was to offer a candle to anyone in the Year 12 cohort, staff and students included, as a message of hope, love, apology, forgiveness, or any other unspoken message that needed to be given silent voice. And that was exactly the challenge of the ceremony; that there be no words spoken. That whoever you were giving your candle to, or receiving your candle from, could trust that you knew what the message was. It was safe, poignant, and incredibly powerful.
I remember sitting in the beautiful, wide glass-walled chapel at Nunyara in Belair and taking in the beauty of all the lit candles flickering against the evening darkness. I could see the Adelaide lights in the background, and the sounds of magpies singing their final songs. The chapel lights were off, and the candles cast illuminating glows over the faces of our Year 12s.
There was a pause of uncertainty and fear at the very start of the ceremony; nobody wanted to be the first, to be the one watched as they traversed across the room, all just a little unsure and afraid. I also remember knowing exactly who my candle would go to, and that I would absolutely be one of the few staff members who would stand up and walk over to the student I was delivering my candle to, rather than waiting only to receive them.
My candle was always meant for a student by the name of Anthony. A giant, strapping young man who struggled with family life as much as he did school, whose every interaction with me involved either shaving, uniform, smoking, being late, dodging teachers, backtalk, and assessment dates. I love this young man, but I also knew, deep down, out of all my 23 tutor group students, he was the one that I wasn’t a perfect fit for. And no matter how I framed my words, he needed someone different to me to care for him.
But he got me, and in the 3 years we have been together as a tutor group, we have inched towards a grudging understanding, an uneasy and slightly volatile truce. My young man Anthony, I wish that you could have had the tutor teacher you needed, someone you could talk soccer with, and who would have that easy authority and humour that would inspire you into action. I want you to know how much you are loved and valued, despite the clashes we have had.
I stood and began walking, and felt the eyes of a whole Year 12 cohort of students and staff following me, across the falling dusk, tracking toward Anthony. I could see him react: Sure she’s not coming over to ME with her candle? I stood deliberately, humbly, and gently in front of him for a moment, looking him squarely in the eye, before I held out my candle. He looked at it curiously, and for a moment, I wondered if he was going to accept it, or swat it out of my hand in retaliation.
Slowly, gently, he wrapped his fingers around it and took it from me. And then he offered me his own. We shook hands. And then I walked back to where I had originally come from, my solo flight done, tears beginning to rise up spontaneously.
The incredible thing was this; I was thinking only of myself at that moment in time: This is something I need to do, this is something that’s between myself and Anthony. I had no idea the ripples it would cause, and the effect it would have on the rest of my tutor group, and the rest of the Year 12 cohort.
A number of my Year 12s said that the moment Anthony took my candle was the moment they began crying, and didn’t stop for the rest of the ceremony. Others said that the fact that I, a staff member, was the second person walking across the chapel in full view gave them courage to do the same. Many more in my tutor group said that they weren’t going to do the “risky handover”, looking for safer options, but my example gave them hope and a sense of responsibility to take the risk.
One of my Year 12, when giving me her candle, said to me: “This one’s for you, Ms Kwok. For the courage it took to give your own candle away, not just to Anthony, but for to all of us on a daily basis.”
I didn’t anticipate crying, but I did, steadily, through that ceremony. And through the silent tears, I remember looking at all these beautiful young men and women, the Year 12 Class of 2019, traversing that chapel like fireflies, carrying messages of hope, courage, forgiveness and light to their rightful destinations.
I have recently come back from directing the Young Composer School at Gondwana Voices National Choral School, a role that I have relished as it combined the paradox of creativity with the responsibility of quality choral education.
Creatives who are choral composers are always asked to straddle the line between imaginative possibility and what choirs are able to do for them. Write a work that is too specialised, and only the very best choirs with well-developed technical ability can perform them. Write a work that is too juvenile and simple, and choirs will find it unsatisfying on both counts. Even more than for instrumental writing, choral composition requires the composer to write as both a creative and an educator.
Write a piece that resonates with choristers of a certain age-bracket and ability, enhances their vocal development, and expands their performance confidence + sound, and you will have a sustainable and well-loved piece of repertoire which has the power to affect choristers long after the final performance of the piece.
And this is where I find complete joy; trying to find that sweet spot. I write like an educator, always looking for words that will stick, and what feels good on the voice, and how to create a choral framework whereby a developing choir will feel and sound good performing my pieces. I also seek to extend and develop quality vocal technique but in the “Mary-Poppins-spoon-full-of-sugar” kind of way, through embedding choral technique in a way that it is unnoticed until you have reaped the rewards of it through rehearsing and performing an engaging piece of music.
And this is what I have spent that last week mentoring and teaching to the young composers at Gondwana NCS.
I had an incredibly nostalgic realisation during the choral school; that when I was 25 years old, someone took a chance on me as a young composer. That someone was the artistic director of Sydney Children’s Choir, Lyn Williams, who saw something worth developing in my writing and in my love of choral education. Now, at age 37, I realise that my time for looking for mentors is being overlapped by actually doing the mentoring myself. Rather than cold-calling for mentorship, I am now cold-calling to mentor. When I see that spark of determination, uniqueness of voice, a love of the voice, dedication to developing as a composer, resiliency, and a talent that resonates with my own creative values, it is my job and privilege to offer to nurture that talent.
And so I did this. There were two stand-out composers in my small group of 7, and I wrote emails acknowledging the manner with which they embraced the composing school, their quality of work, and their ability to collaborate in a healthy and productive way whilst still maintaining their creative voice.
It’s now my responsibility to look for places where I can shine the torch on the brilliant and innovative young talent coming through. And what an honour to look at things so differently, whilst still having the chance to work as a creative myself.
It feels enlightening to be holding the torch and illuminating the journey from the other side!
Payback at its finest. The email I have composed for my darling kiddies who have been flaky with rehearsals this year.
Music teachers are bitter souls who like exacting revenge. 😆
I am chameleon. 😎
Heart: “I want to bawl my eyes out, these guys are killing me today. WOW, WOW, WOW…!”
Head: “Don’t you eff-ing dare. You don’t have time to lose it. You keep it together and fill in those damn assessment rubrics!”
Year 12 Music Class of 2018. I am so proud of you. 🙌
T H A N K Y O U. 😊
Moderation done + dusted! 😎
A chance catch-up with a very special Brighton old scholar who is making waves of the best sort here in New York. Hilarious that Australians can never get their act together to catch up when they live in the same city, but can do it on the other side of the world.
Such a joy to hear of all your successes + adventures, Anthony Zatorski!
Day 14: Charlottetown
“A moment to nestle with the heart”.
Today marks exactly halfway in my travels; I have 28 days on the road. And while I am so incredibly excited to be travelling, today’s post is a tender one. Travel is hard. Travel is not just tiring, it is exhausting in a way that you feel in your bones. While you can rest physically, the soul is always thinking, wondering, and on the go, and you are always trying to stay awake and alert to the places and people around you, because you want to take it all in, and because you want to be safe.
In addition to all of this, I have only been sleeping 5-6 hours a night since I have started travelling. I have been very gentle on myself and tried to rest in the middle of each day, but today, I am feeling the sort of in-the-bones tired that warrants a day of just “nestling with the heart”.
To be able to find that quiet still place inside you, despite the tiredness, despite the noise, despite the excitement, despite the joy; this has been my greatest challenge while I’ve been travelling. I want to enjoy and be present for every moment, but I don’t want to come home exhausted. I wanted to come home expanded, changed, and affected. To do this, you have to have access to that wonderful still place inside of you. Especially when your heart and mind are racing over what you should be doing in your free half an hour, and all the while your heart is yelling, “YOU NEED TO EFFING BE HERE TO ENJOY EVERY MOMENT OF THIS!”
I have also been keeping alert to all my Year 12s, returning emails and answering questions; and I KNOW that a holiday is not supposed to be about this, but it actually soothes me a little to commit to half an hour a day, just to make sense and order out of things. It’s what gives me peace and joy, so I do it. But actually getting into the zone for that half an hour has been the most challenging and gruelling request I have made of myself, and resulted in my feeling worn-out, down, anxious, unsettled, resentful, and a whole mixture of other things I do no normally feel at home when I tackle work. Solving problems whilst on the road is so much harder than when you don’t have “your people” around you. Problems and doubt are magnified, and solutions are harder to reach.
And in the haze of being semi-exhausted, I find that concentrating for any period of time can put me close to tears of stress. It’s such an unusual feeling for me.
I have had to practise working and being gentle upon myself in these last 2 weeks. I have taken one step at a time; reading a brief or an email, jotting down notes in my journal over coffee for a lesson plan, writing down dots points as to which 3 drafts I will edit and whose work I will put notes on in Sibelius, and even where I will go for lunch, to help look after myself. This sort of work + holiday combination takes the utmost of care and determination, but I know that after being on the road for a month, I will figure it out. This is just the very exhausting and emotionally demanding part of it, and I have to be gentle on myself and have faith. I have to also find new ways to energise myself, like taking a walk, or figuring out which places I’d like to explore while I am trying to get this balance right, and what I will eat whilst trying to enjoy all the local specialties.
I was in tears of joy and relief last night when I sent off my first draft-return to one of my students. It seemed in surmountable, but I just took one step at a time. And I guess the human spirit is far stronger than you realise; even when there is doubt and exhaustion, if you keep walking, one foot in front of the other, and gently, quietly, and simply get very clear over what you need to do, you can do it. Even if it drives you to tears.
So here I stand, very tired + tender, walking one step in front of the other. So utterly exhausted today, but so mindful of how very lucky I am to be here, travelling, being a teacher, and figuring out this working balance.
Let me be determined. Let me be gentle, but quietly determined.