The meaning of a mentor

Something few people know about me is that when I first started my undergraduate studies, I desperately wanted to be a music teacher. I spent the first three years of my education as a music major, intent on becoming a choir director. This dream never panned out for me – in fact, my music studies ended traumatically, and since the end of my music studies in the winter of 2010, I have never sung another note. I still hold a great passion for music, however, and my love of the discipline has returned as I’ve begun my post-graduate studies; in fact, I wrote two of my final semester papers about music related to my discipline, and it was a cathartic experience.

The thing I always loved most about being a musician was participating in a choir. Choral music grips me in a way that no other music can – to me, it’s simply captivating. I’ve had the privilege to sing some of the truly great pieces that make up choral canon – Handel’s Messiah, the Fauré Requiem and the Benjamin Britten War Requiem, among other pieces by such notable composers as Poulenc, Rutter, Haydn and Whitacre.

When I think about why I wanted to become a teacher, I think first and foremost of Ms. Tuomi, my middle school choir director who first inspired my love of music, and Mrs. Fristad, the high school director who further cultivated it. In college, though the path as a soloist was tough and often lonely, my desire to teach music never waned; what brought me joy during this time was, again, participating in the choir, under the direction of Dr. Nina Nash-Robertson.

Nina’s reputation always preceded her, and on the first day of Concert Choir I was surprised to see in front of me a tiny – and I mean tiny, I’m only five feet tall and still was taller than Nina – and smiling Irish woman. I don’t remember the first song we sang that day, but I do remember how she was able to command a room of 80 people with a single movement, and how she already seemed to know everyone’s name. For each of the next nine semesters that I sang under Nina’s baton, I never heard her ask someone to repeat his or her name – she just always knew.

And it was amazing, the things that she knew. I worked at the music library during my undergraduate studies and one day, Nina came in to check out some CDs. “The voice professors tell me you have an excellent ear,” she said. It was true – I didn’t have the strongest voice as a soloist, but a good ear and analytical mind allowed me to excel in ear training and musicology. During my end-of-semester jury performances, when the other professors cut me down, Nina was always encouraging: “When you sing in your lowest register, it’s really very beautiful,” she wrote in her comments. “You have a very pleasant voice.”

It was under Nina’s direction that I had the opportunity to sing in China at the Shanghai World Expo. My favorite memory from that trip was not the grand concert we gave in a fancy performance hall, but when we came upon a group of Chinese people singing folk songs in the garden of the Temple of Heaven, and we surprised them with an impromptu performance of Jasmine Flower, in Chinese (heavily accented and imperfect, I’m sure). I will never forget the look of surprise, and then utter joy, on the faces of the singers when they heard this American choir begin to sing such an iconic song. They joined in with us, and we joined in with them afterward, following along with the notes and words as best we could.

At the end of 2009, when I was no longer allowed to continue my music studies, Nina listened to me cry. She listened to my frustration and concerns. She told me I was still welcome in her choir, and so I stayed. Though my journey as a collegiate musician was often stressful, the good memories I have come from my experience as Nina’s student. Years after I left her classroom, we kept in touch via Facebook and anytime something big happened in my life – my first teaching job, my acceptance to graduate school, things that never had anything to do with music – she ALWAYS left an encouraging and uplifting comment.

In May, Nina retired from her position of director of choral activities after 35 years of service to Central Michigan University, with as much pomp and circumstance as such an event deserves. Her daughter had just given birth to her first child – Nina’s first grandchild – and I know Nina was so excited to be a grandma. On Saturday, I got a text from my best friend:

Have you looked at Facebook? Nina passed away.

A brain aneurysm. Sudden, unexpected, awful. The kind of loss that rocks an entire community – all the more evident from the literal hundreds of tributes that came pouring in after news of her death broke. So many people impacted by this one woman from a small university in the middle of nowhere; her impact and legacy have spanned decades and continents, uniting people from all walks of life in a common love of music, art and life.

I remember how Nina always smiled. She was tough and demanding, but never mean. Though she was small in stature, she was truly a giant personality. Before our concerts, she would always give us a wink that no one else could see. I remember how she would rock her fist against her chest when conducting a truly emotional piece. I remember how, during our rehearsals, she would stop us and say, “That was great, really beautiful, BUT…”. I remember her stories about Ireland – she was a proud and fiesty Irish woman – and her parents, her experiences as a renowned Irish dancer, a high school teacher, how she met her husband on the first day of new faculty orientation at CMU and then married him the following summer, the fierce love she had for her only daughter…all of these things she shared with us, even though as our professor, she never had to share them at all. From Nina I learned the true remedy to a head cold – put Vicks on the soles of your feet before bed, and then cover them with socks – the lyrics and meaning of Danny Boy, and what it was like for a young girl from Ireland to board a boat at 9 years old, knowing she’d never see her grandparents again, and then carve an amazing life for herself in America. I remember how she was a fixture in the music building at CMU, beloved by students and her colleagues alike. I remember how she treated all of us as important to her classroom and her choir, and how she truly cared for each and every one of her students.

We as a community are so deeply saddened by this loss, which I know pales in comparison to what her family and close friends must feel. But it reminds me of why I became a teacher in the first place – Nina’s impact on so many people will keep her legacy alive for years and years to come. Even though I don’t teach music, her example is still one I strive for daily when I am in the classroom. If, after 35 years, I have made even a fraction of the same impact, I will consider it a job well done.

“I think that I want everybody to know that it was lovely, that I so appreciate all of the support; that it has been more fun than I ever should have had, that I have enjoyed being in this community of scholars, of students and of musicians, and of just lovely townspeople, far more than I ever dreamed. And so to the community people I want to say thank you; to the students, I want to say: trust the journey. Just because you don’t know where you’re going, doesn’t mean it won’t be the right place when you get there.”Nina Nash-Robertson


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