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Eastern Elementary teacher brings music to students' ears

November 03, 2003|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

In high school, Nicole Swartwood worked behind the scenes: A piano player since the age of 5, she always was asked to take her seat behind the ivories as her school's show choir took the stage.

But now Swartwood's perspective has changed. She still stands behind her piano, but she now is responsible for directing the voices of those singing before her - all 560 of them.

In a given week, Swartwood changes her tune in 45-minute spurts to teach students in kindergarten through fifth grade at Eastern Elementary School the highs and lows of music, a job the eight-year teaching veteran takes very seriously.

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A sign attached to her piano reads, "Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm."

And Swartwood never seems short of it.

Her fingers flashed and her eyes widened as she talked about her latest student lessons: She said some children are learning songs from a musical about early composers Bach and Beethoven. Some students also are learning to perform a musical about Lewis and Clark, which, in a matter of minutes, she said, teaches them many facts about the early American explorers.

"It doesn't have to be music or reading," she said. "It can be both."

Pictures of Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson hanging in her room reinforce what children learn about different time periods and the music attached to them.

"Music really helps students to be joyous. It's a time where they can be children. It's a way for them to express themselves," she said.

She said children love when she asks them to sing with "fervor" because they're not allowed to yell in school.

But working with such young children is a bit of a switch for Swartwood, who started her teaching career at E. Russell Hicks Middle School eight years ago.

The shift from teaching older students to teaching younger ones is not always easy, she said. Swartwood has to break music down into small pieces for her small students. And this being her first year of teaching all-day kindergarten, Swartwood said she's had to work on looking at music through an even smaller spectrum.

But Swartwood loves the challenge. She's been taking voice lessons from her former Shepherd College music teacher so she can tune her voice to theirs.

"I'm still learning a lot," she said. "Just when you think you know something, you'll hear something else."

She uses her voice as an instrument, she said, and believes anyone can do the same.

"I really don't like hearing, 'I can't sing.' Everybody can sing," she said.

She said she'll sit down with students and tell them "you sound like this to me," but just because they don't sound like their favorite singers doesn't mean they can't become a singer just the same.

She asks them, "Can you still hear with your eyes shut the way that you see?"

Swartwood wishes she had more time to spend with her students, who must grasp the fundamentals of musical melodies in a short span of time.

"I want them to do so much more," she said.

The school's show choir, which Swartwood started a couple of years ago, focuses more on sound than flashy moves. There are no auditions, but students must practice outside of school.

She tells her students what her parents told her: "Whatever you do, do it well."

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